Stuart George

Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

Open up that Golden Gate: Travels in California

In Travel on October 28, 2009 at 5:29 pm

“Joni Mitchell’s voice and guitar wafted through the speakers as the plane landed in San Francisco…”

The young Joni Mitchell

The young Joni Mitchell

How’s that for the opening sentence to a pulp thriller? At any rate, it was a nice way to arrive in California.

The mood turned Hitchcockian when I was unable to find the driver who had been sent to collect me by my host Dr SuHua Newton. Eventually we found each other—he had even walked right past me while I was sat outside in the sun reading David Frith’s Bodyline Autopsy, one of the best cricket books ever.

Golden Gate in Fog (image courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica)Of course, the drive into (or rather past) the city was for me thrilling, especially over the Golden Gate Bridge. I had been told that I would be staying at Dr Newton’s “hotel” in Mill Valley, a prosperous suburb just north of SF. I thought I was staying in her house, so I was bemused to learn that I would be parked in a hotel and one that wasn’t even in the city. When I arrived, all was revealed. The “hotel” turned out to be a splendid house that Dr Newton uses as her office. It was Friday so I would have it all to myself for the weekend.

We went for dinner that evening at a the Tong Kiang restaurant and drank a half-bottle of 2001 Newton Vineyards Merlot, which was mature, balanced and supple though rather short.

Mill Valley, looking towards San Francisco

Mill Valley, looking towards San Francisco

On Saturday morning I woke up and gazed from the patio across Richardson Bay to the city, which was shrouded in thick fog. It was cool too, “a nipping and an eager air.” The climate of San Francisco and the Bay Area is extraordinarily capricious.

I caught a ferry from Sausolito to the city. Taking a punt on the sunshine that had emerged earlier that morning, I was in shorts and sandals. I froze as the ferry alternately bobbed across the water through thick fog or bright sunshine.

Haight-AshburyDr Newton told me off for leaning out of her car window while she was showing me round the city. (She is a very impatient driver). Apparently some kid had his arms or legs sheared off by a passing car when leaning out of the window so a law banning such things was passed hastily. San Francisco’s weather is capricious but so is its legislation. In the city of Haight-Ashbury, the Beat Generation, hippies and the Summer of Love you cannot even lean out of a car window without breaking the law. This famously liberal city is bound up by legislation tighter than the bark on a Giant Sequoia.

It has a dark and disturbing underbelly, too. There is a magnificent and sombre film made in 2004 by Eric Steel that explores why so many people end their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge. The images captured by Steel of people leaping from the bridge into the icy water are shocking and linger in the viewer’s memory like a bad dream.

Pacific Heights, San Francisco

Pacific Heights, San Francisco

On a more cheerful note, Dr Newton lives in a Pacific Heights house with magnificent views across the city and harbour. We sat in her lounge eating, drinking, talking and watching the occasional container ship go past Alcatraz as it headed out to sea. The ships were rarely fully-loaded, their plimsoll lines usually visible. The shipping industry has been hit hard by the “crisis”. I visited some friends in Hamburg recently and they told me that for a couple of days last autumn the usually thriving shipyards there were eerily still. If local residents were spooked just imagine what it would be like if you worked in that industry.

On Saturday evening we went to a Thai restaurant called Yukol and drank 1982 Newton Vineyards Merlot. The nose was cedary and good but the palate was drying out and left acidity rather than fruit on the finish. Nonetheless, it was a rare treat.

A taxi was ordered at closing time to get me back to Mill Valley. Dr Newton was due on a nightshift in her role as a paediatrician. She is an extraordinary lady—a winemaker and doctor of medicine, with qualifications in every subject imaginable. She also paints well, speaks several languages and used to be a model. What a woman she is! I hope that somebody captures her remarkable life in words before it is too late.

In London, taxi drivers always know where they’re going. If they don’t, they consult a map or SatNav. I assumed my man would know where to go. He didn’t. Nor did I. It was late, it was dark, I had barely seen any of Mill Valley and I was tired. So we drove for at least an hour around Mill Valley to find the “hotel.” He had the courtesy to switch off the fare machine but I had been advised $40 would cover the trip from SF to Mill Valley. So that is what I offered him.

“You’re kidding?”

No, I wasn’t. This led to an earful of abuse. I pointed out to him that UK cabbies usually have a map handy. Why didn’t he?

He wanted to know why I didn’t know the way.

“Are you slow or somethin’?’”

Something, since you ask. And I’m too tired to argue and want to go to bed. More abuse. He sped off before I could note his registration plate. But, like Jerry Garcia, I believe in Karma.

Jerry Garcia

"Captain Trips"—Jerry Garcia

Sunday was spent in a very warm Napa, the temperature hitting nearly 90 degrees that day. Dr Newton showed me her Carneros Vineyard, which supplies grapes for the Unfiltered Chardonnay. Lara Abbott, Domaine Chandon’s and Newton’s Australian-born but US-raised PR, joined us here. She took my digs over The Ashes in good humour. I had been reading about Bodyline, after all.

The Razi vineyard was also visited. The owner had a charming ticking-off (sic) from Dr Newton over various things, irrigation and burned grapes and so on. She explained to me afterwards how she turns on the charm to get the best out of people. A good lesson for life!

I joined a tour group at Newton Vineyards to have a look around the estate. It’s a long way up—the pine tree that is shown on the bottle labels is at 1,700 feet above sea level. Some of the vineyards surrounding Newton’s winery are at a 60-degree slope—nowadays, new plantings are only permitted at up to 30.

Lunch was at the Auberge du Soleil restaurant up in the hills at Rutherford. SuHua and Lara cooed at Colin, the boyish-looking and charming sommelier. It was very good, especially the cookies made to order for Dr Newton. Being a generous soul, she let me and Lara try them.

The afternoon was spent with John Caldwell at his estate in Coombsville. I had arranged to meet John after having had to request images from him for a brilliant Jonathan Swinchatt article that I edited in my previous dayjob.

John and Joy Caldwell

John and Joy Caldwell

John used to sell his grapes to Pahlmeyer Winery and others but began bottling his own wines with the 1998 vintage, though production has remained tiny at less than 1,000 cases per year.

The red wines are big and fleshy, especially the Proprietary Red. Caldwell Vineyards’ winemaker is Marbue Marke—from Sierra Leone! But he hasn’t yet made a blend called “Palm-wine music.”

The Caldwell bottles with the “C” logo mould cost $3.50 each, John told me. Money is tight but “I love it too much to sell.” He and his wife Joy have a young family. He’s one of the good guys and deserves his successes.

Three days is hardly enough to see California but I was due back in New York on Monday night.

At JFK airport I was refreshing myself with a beer when a car ad appeared on the bar’s TV screen. It was subtitled “Do not attempt yourself. Professional driver on an enclosed track.” Only in America…

No sleep till Brooklyn: Travels in New York

In Travel on October 22, 2009 at 6:00 pm

This was my first visit to the USA. Ashes series meant that I always went east out of Heathrow. But an increasing number of friends Stateside made it more attractive to visit than ever. Accommodation and guided tours would be free. All I had to do was turn up.

No Sleep Till BrooklynThe flight was entertaining. Departure was late because of a Spanish-speaking prima donna. The entire plane could overhear her complaints. She was booked into first class but had turned up late and her seat had been given to somebody else. So she had to sit next to me in cattle class. “This is so unfair,” she moaned. Life is unfair, isn’t it? Especially when you don’t get that extra six inches of legroom you paid for. She decided that being sat next to me for six hours was intolerable, so off she went.

“Close the door behind you, please.”

She cut me a filthy look.

There was also a group of Hasidic Jews, who made such a fuss of finding their seats. It must have taken them 20 minutes to be happy with their seating arrangements. They made a bit of a mess with their nibbles and biscuits. A (white American, presumably well-off) lady seated close to me said, “My, they’re a bunch of slobs.” It would not be the last time I heard such casual racism on this trip.

I was met at Newark by the delightful Bernardette Lyon, a friend of a friend who I’d met only twice before. For my first night in NYC she had very generously invited me to stay at her mother’s house in Brooklyn. We drove into Manhattan, me grinning like Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy as he looks around NYC for the first time.

SDG and Bernardette in Brooklyn

SDG and Bernardette in Brooklyn

Bernardette took me on a tour of Brooklyn, including Saturday Night Fever territory in Bay Ridge. I think we went through Bensonhurst, too, where that brilliant car chase was filmed for The French Connection. The obligatory pizza was followed by dinner at Tatiana in Brighton Beach, or “Little Odessa.” There are lots of Russians in London (in Belgravia, anyway) but I’m sure Bernardette and me were the only non-reds in the hood.

We walked along the boardwalk towards Coney Island, sat underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (Saturday Night Fever again), walked down Cranberry Street where Moonstruck was filmed, and then refuelled at Junior’s, a Brooklyn joint famous for its cheesecakes. A slice about the size of the Isle of Wight (or Staten Island) was put in front of me. Bernardette and the waiter were amused by my horror at the amount of calories on my plate.

*Oct 21 - 00:05*The final pit-stop was at Farrell’s, just up the road from Bernardette’s place and where a scene in As Good As It Gets was made (so many films today!).  Bernardette had never been in there, which seemed surprising at the time but once inside I could see why… It is a very macho, Irish/cops place, though the regulars turned out to be friendly enough and we stayed there until 2am. Bernardette has vowed not to go again unless it’s with me, bless her.

An American Football match was on the TV in the bar. I have not yet grasped how this sport works but today (22 October) I was at The Oval cricket ground to see a friend. The pitch was being prepared for a “top secret” training session by the New England Patriots (or Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I can’t remember which) ahead of Sunday’s NFL match at Wembley. They are completely paranoid about their practices being filmed, my friend told me. She won’t be allowed in the The Oval tomorrow (she works there!) and the Americans had expressed great concern about the flats that overlook the ground. They were politely told that nothing could be done about that. My friend also said that the team’s cheerleaders have a full-time (male) manager. The best job in the world or the worst? We couldn’t decide.

After one night chez Bernardette, I spent the next three nights on the other side of Prospect Park with Lisa Granik MW and her partner Sandy at their splendid house.

Lisa is smart, funny and very candid—which is to say she speaks with great honesty and integrity. Her brilliant mind (and palate) and links to Russia mean that she does not fit easily into the mainstream.

Lisa invited me to a dinner in Chinatown with several of her friends and colleagues. Before coming to the restaurant I met Lisa and her friend Gaetano and we tried the esoteric Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé Le Clos Tête de Cru 2004—as puzzling as The Times crossword—and a quite lovely Huet Le Mont Sec 2005, with not a discordant note anywhere. I brought with me to the restaurant two vintages of Dr von Bassermann-Jordan’s Deidesheimer Kalkofen Riesling Spätlese Trocken. The 2001 was very tightly coiled, with acidity like the lash of a bullwhip. By comparison, the 2002 was a big softie. It was hard to believe that two such different wines came from the same vineyard and cellar.

We also tried some Champagnes—a simple Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Montguex Blanc de Blancs NV; a good Piper Heidsieck Rare 1999 and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 1999 (though not at all flattered by the restaurant’s glassware); and a woody and fat Vilmart Grand Cellier NV.

Lisa, being a responsible adult, went back home after dinner but the rest of went for cocktails in the West Village. I was asked by one of our dinner companions, “Don’t you ever laugh?” It’s true that my natural expression is a curmudgeonly frown. But I do laugh at things that I find amusing (as this picture taken at Santiago airport proves).

SDG vaguely amused by somethingBy midnight only Gaetano and myself were left standing. We went to a bar where he knew (and fancied) the manageress. A youngish bloke and four younger ladies parked themselves on the table next to us. I struck up a conversation with one of them, “Kath, from Michigan.” She was blonde, had lips that implied the assistance of collagen, and wore a skirt slightly narrower than my belt. At first glance she was attractive She told me she had studied Victorian Literature in Glasgow. I was excited—perhaps finally I had found an intellectual soul mate wearing a two-inch skirt.

“And who is your favourite Victorian poet?”

“Oh, I think that would be Edmund Spenser.”

SDG and Kath from Michigan

SDG and Kath from Michigan

Kath then made me an offer that normally I simply could not refuse. But, having put Spenser in the nineteenth century, I declined. Perhaps they do teach Spenser as part of the Victorian Literature course in Glasgow. But more likely Kath was a dumb blonde who was drunk or stoned or both. She looked thoroughly discombobulated by my refusal. As Spenser wrote: “But the trew fayre, that is the gentle wit,/And vertuous mind, is much more praysed of me.”

Gaetano did not believe that I had received such an offer. I told him to ask Kath. Then he was downright disgusted at me for refusing it.

The chaperone, who spoke fluent Italian, claimed to be an “erm, historian” and blinked nervously like the villain in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, was a very odd fellow. Think of Ed Balls’ (the UK Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families) twitching eyes, too—would you trust him? I suspect that accepting Kath’s offer might have meant an exchange of cash before anything else.

I got back to Brooklyn at 5am. Fortunately I did not have any appointments that day and was able to sleep off my evening of over-indulgence. But in-between the cocktails, interesting offers and hangovers, I did actually do some work. I went to the “California Wine Rush” tasting at Grand Central station, Terry Theise’s “Tasting Grower Champagne: Your how-to Guide” and a Sauternes tasting at Vermilion Restaurant.

I interviewed Jamie Ritchie, Sotheby’s head of wine, and have written-up this for Harpers. Rik Pike of Christie’s was met on an informal basis. I also caught the train from Grand Central to Scarsdale to speak with Jeff Zacharia at his enormous and copiously stocked Zachys store.

After four nights in New York, I went to California for the weekend before returning to NYC  for one night. I had planned to stay in the airport but all the best sleeping spots had already been taken and I needed to wash and rest. So I paid $170 for the privilege of staying in a very basic Best Western hotel next to the airport. Ouch.

Led Zeppelin Physical GraffitiThat left me with a full day to kill before flying to Brazil in the evening. I raced around the city, doing all the cheesy things that English tourists are supposed to do— walking through Central Park, going to the top of the Empire State Building, eating hotdogs, seeing the Yankee and Citi Field stadiums, the Chelsea Hotel, walking over Brooklyn Bridge, the Staten Island Ferry… I also did a few things that would only occur to me, like going to the building at St. Mark’s Place in the East Village that was used for the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. (My dad was at school with John Bonham!).

Other things that amused me during this first trip to NYC included the umbrella salesman on the subway and his rhyming sales rap—“It’s going to rain, it’s such a pain, buy an umbrella, it’ll last forever” or something similar. At the Chinatown restaurant there was a reassuring sign in the loo: “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work.”

I will write about my travels in California, Brazil and Chile soon…

Sex & Pintxos & Rock and Roll: Food and wine at PINCHITOtapas

In Restaurants/wine and food on October 2, 2009 at 4:16 pm

On 1 October, the newly-opened West End restaurant PINCHITOtapas launched the “Viva el Vino” campaign of matching food with Campo Viejo wines.

Customers choose the wines rather than the food, with various “surprise” tapas dishes matched to the appropriate wine. PINCHITOtapas will start serving “Viva el Vino” on 14 October until January 2010, with the concept due to be rolled out across the UK from February.

The PINCHITOtapas group is the brainchild of South African-born Jason Fendick and Bruce Batholomew and the Spaniards Tobias Blazquez-Garcia and Valeria Fossatti Noguera. Their first restaurant in Brighton attracted much praise, winning the Cocktail Bar of the Year award, but was increasingly unlucrative so they headed back to London.

The Bayley Street venue is apparently a bit “smarter” than the sister restaurant at Featherstone Street, with its décor described as “contemporary chic” (read loud music, neon lighting and bright posters). The site was formerly a YO! Sushi restaurant, hence what is now an “island bar.”

The wine measures for “Viva el Vino” are what I would call tasting sample size but if you are having eight wines and dishes, it soon adds up. As Campo Viejo’s UK Marketing Controller Mathew Bird said, “We take our responsibilities seriously.” It is commendable that Pernod Ricard is doing its bit to mend the pernicious drink culture of Broken Britain.

Certainly none of the pairings was anything but tasty but a couple were real successes. And the wines weren’t bad, either. It is very easy to be sniffy about such an ubiquitous brand but when paired with good food they can sometimes come to life and reveal a whole new side to their character—like the disco wallflower that has his first drink and suddenly becomes the life and soul of the party. The full wine list is entirely Spanish and has plenty of reliable names—Tio Pepe, Torres, CVNE and others.

“Viva el Vino” is very good value at £30 for eight wines/dishes or £20 for four.

Cava NV

Clean, fresh, simple. A good, very drinkable Cava, with none of the rootiness that mars some wines. Paired well with Manchego cheese and quince, but not such a success with the salted almonds. The flavours were fine but not the texture—the almonds were too crunchy and sticky for the Cava.

Viura 2008

Interesting nose—smokey and grapey. There is some oak influence on the palate that was hinted at by the nose. I guessed at barrel fermentation but 25 percent of the wine spent two months in new oak—skilfully done. The oak is even more apparent on the finish. A soft, quite fat wine. With boquerones (marinated anchovies over potato crisps), the wine was rich enough to withstand the marinade but perhaps it needed a bit more acidity to be even better with this dish.

Rosé 2008

Bled from Tempranillo grapes. Rather confected at first, with bubblegum flavours and some acetate. The pepper and onion salad was a bit spicy but fine with this rosé. The tortilla de patatas was utterly delicious but the wine’s acetone jarred with it. And the French fries and chorizo was very yummy but a bit too spicy for the wine. However, the rosé was much better with aeration and began to show soft red fruit aromas.

Crianza and pork belly

Crianza 2006

A very typical, simple, oaky young Rioja, with a fruity, supple texture and sweet oak on the finish. With the mango and pork belly dish, the sweet finish was ideal with the mango but the dark fruit flavours were not suitable with the pork. I prefer a lighter red with white meats—but that is purely my own taste.

Reserva 2005

A lighter colour than the Crianza, worryingly! Closed and not revealing much but, like the Crianza, made in a fruity style. A real success with the “mushroom bikini,” a toasted sandwich of mushrooms and Parmesan. The wine was smooth enough to match the cheese and rich enough to cope with the mushrooms. Also good with the hanger steak with paprika alioli, the spicy sauce bringing out the cedary flavours of the Reserva.

Reserva and hangar steak

Gran Reserva 2002

Spicy, slightly dusty nose, the palate more chocolaty, and finishing sweet. With aeration, there were some liquorice flavours. An ideal pairing to the Morcilla (Spanish black pudding) with apple reduction, the dark fruit and sweet oak of the wine just about perfect with the dark pud and sweet sauce. The sweet oak and finish of the Gran Reserva also just about coped with caramelised onions on bread.

Dominio de Campo Viejo Reserva 2004

A single vineyard Tempranillo from the Cañada Valhondo plot overlooked by the winery. A more extracted style than the previous wines, with a darker nose, lots of acidity and some tannin at last! Very good with the lamb and cheese tapas and also paired with a very rich roasted pepper, the wine’s richness, sweetness and juiciness really good with that dish.

Cava Rosado NV

Made from Trepat. A sherbetty, “fizzy” nose, with some strawberry fruit flavours. A bit rough around the edges and quite rustic. Finishes dry. Tasted with Tarta de Santiago, which are almond-based. The pairing was about as enjoyable as wedding cake with Champagne…