from the Melting Pot of the Pacific
Dining Out With the Gods
My best meal by far? At a deli in Midtown called Pastrami Queen; where the pastrami is indeed of queenly, lo exquisite, quality, the turkey breast of melting tenderness, and where the chopped liver is much, much more than, well, chopped liver. I tried all three in a triple decker, pulled together by a mildly sweet layer of cole slaw. Would this be heaven? No, I believe Lexington at 84th, where even a whipping rain and wind chill can't dampen the exhilaration.
Just two blocks north of Pastrami Queen on Lexington is Best Cellars, the first of four wine retail stores conceived and guided by Joshua Wesson, co-author of the ground breaking Red Wine with Fish book. Best Cellars is all about the best; that is, 100 wines, all priced below $15. The great thing about Best Cellars is that each of these wines have been pre-selected by Mr. Wesson and his staff, who happen to have some of the sharpest noses, and palates, for truly fine wine in the business. This means 100 wines which are guaranteed to make your next food-and-wine experience as mind blowing as the Pastrami Queen's triple deckers, for perhaps far, far less than what you would have spent in your typical retail store which focuses on quantity rather than quality.
Think of it: a wine store in which you can go eeenie-meenie-miney-moe, and still come out with a winner. How many times have you gone into a wine store and said, instead, "help!"? Or to a fine restaurant where you can't even see the bottles, and are faced with telephone book-like pages of one listing after another. When you don't even know if it's white wine or a red wine, a sweet wine or a dry wine, or even a wine at all.
I have a few confessions: I've been in the business of tasting, buying and selling wine with some degree of authority for over 25 years, yet even I have ordered a pink wine thinking it's a red. Only last week I ordered an Alsatian wine thinking it was a German. In fact, I've been to many restaurants and wine stores where I haven't been able to cleanly identify a good dozen or so selections. I don't know an "expert" who hasn't.
And so the beauty of Best Cellars is that they take that fear of not knowing what wine is what right out of your hands. You don't have to worry about choosing one wine out of thousands, and in mind numbing price ranges. In Best Cellars there are only 100, and they're all under $15. So I ask you: why don't more wine stores and restaurants do the same thing? I ask retailers and restaurateurs: what's up with the compulsion to offer 5000 wines when even you know that less than 100 of them are of genuinely good value, and the rest is for window dressing - an exasperatingly impenetrable forest of labels which make the vast majority of your customers feel more like chopped liver than, well, a valued customers?
So what about New York? That restaurant where I ordered an Alsatian wine thinking it was a German was Gramercy Tavern, where the foods, wines, and especially the cheeses are extraordinary. It's a must-do. I also ate in a new wave, South American inspired hangout called Chicama; where if the seviche selection doesn't set you on fire, the bevy of terminally young, sleek, immaculate New Yorkers will. It's a must-scene.
Then there were the two French style restaurants with reputations for being among the two finest in the country, but where the wines are priced a good four to five times more than their wholesale costs (way beyond the industry norm of three times). The food was fine, but I bet that even expense account guests have to pretend that they were entertaining parties of 10 rather than 2 on their reports. I could ask why, but the more pertinent question is why anyone bothers in the first place.
While chilling out in my New York City hotel room, I also sifted through a new book called Guide to Choosing, Serving & Enjoying Wine, put out by Lightbulb Press (http://www.lightbulbpress.com) for a Best Cellars-like price of $14.95. In it you will find 22 pages, complete with pictures and diagrams, just on ordering wine in restaurants; including rarely covered subjects like planning wine for large business parties and what sommeliers think about tipping. It's a terrific read for anyone looking for real answers on integrating wine into one's life. As they say, why waste it with bad wine?
So why can't wine be friendly? That's a silly question because it isn't wine that is unfriendly. Even the most obscure wines are, in reality, something quite normal and easily understood in one place or another, most certainly to their winemakers and in their places of origin. What makes wine unfriendly are people who subsequently do not put out enough effort to scale it down and make it crystal clear. Who seem to resist the notion of fostering familiarity, sometimes even with contempt.
Which is a shame since wine is, after all, the drink of the gods; and the last I checked, all it takes to dine with them is good thoughts and deeds, not ability to pay or navigate through forests. Otherwise, why bother?
Feb. 19, 2001