Live It Up
Now three months into the New Year I can happily say that I have kept my resolutions. Of course, my resolutions are hardly of the deprivation kind. In fact just the opposite since they are mainly about stepping up the indulgence. My daddy used to say, “Live it up when you can.” He was always one to advise to take that exotic trip and see the world rather than putting off those big formative experiences. I followed that advice religiously and never put off travel or any of life’s pleasures. In fact in order to get my fill, I built the pleasures into my profession and became first a travel writer, then a sex columnist and now a wine and spirits scribe.
But before I fly off to faraway lands, I start my indulgence program right here in Manhattan with culinary journeys. My first trip was to the land of caviar indulgence to the renowned Petrossian restaurant (182 West 58th Street). Six months ago Petrossian took on a new chef, the Parisian born Richard Farnabe, who worked as sous chef at Daniel, chef de cuisine at Mercer Kitchen and executive chef at the Soho Grand. With this new toque the dining experience there has gone from superb to sublime.
Unlike most city restaurants, Petrossian is an oasis of calm in Manhattan. The noise level is a quiet buzz. Diners seem to be in reverence of the luxury experience and their elegant surroundings, an Art Deco, jewel-box of a dining room with carved mirrors and sculptures, upholstered furniture and subdued lighting.
My dining partner and I were greeted with tall flutes of Paul Goerg Blanc de Blancs, the crisp, chilled house Champagne, and commenced our caviar immersion with a side-by-side tasting of 20 grams each of Royal Ossetra and Royal Transmontanus presented in an ornate, silver raised platter over ice and served with squares of toast and crème fraiche. We first tasted the the two caviars unadorned with our tiny mother of pearl spoons and later atop toast with a dab of crème fraiche.
The feast went on with more flutes of Champagne and more delicacies. The Foie Gras Brulée was a brilliant mélange combining foie, smoked sturgeon, pomegranate and Guinness beer drop. Spaghetti and Parmesan Cheese sauced in truffle crème and caviar was so good that I would award it my Golden Dish Award. Lobster Tagliatelle with uni and a shower of caviar had a notable trio of textures, moist soft lobster claws, rich smooth uni and popping caviar beads. The final sweet note: a small milk chocolate ball infused with apple wood with a scope of apple wood smoked ice cream. I looked around at the crowd, which was younger than expected and seemingly international, and felt that blissful sensation that I was living the high life.
Omakese, Anyone? O-Ya!
For my second culinary journey I traveled to Japan via the outstanding O-Ya restaurant (120 East 28th Street). This was my very first experience of an Omakase, an 18-course tasting menu of sushi and sashimi creations. I’ve had many multi-course tasting menus at top restaurants over the years but Omakase is different because everything is the chef’s choice.
You sit at the counter where a team of chefs prepare your fish, creating little artistic sculptures before your very eyes, which is a big part of the Omakase theatrical experience. The chef ceremonially hands you each bite size portion beautifully plated and briefly explains the dish. The gesture of being handed each course, prepared expressly for you, is endearing. And for the full-blown pampering experience, it’s essential to have the sake and wine pairing and the sommelier presents the right sake or wine to accompany each course or each several courses.
Pierre Gimonnet Rosé de Blanc Brut was poured to accompany the first three sushi courses: a single Kumamoto Oyster with cucumber mignonette, the Hamachi and the Ocean Trout Tataki with onion aioli. Each bite brought on a riot of clear focused flavor. Then the sake sommelier poured something called Divine Droplets for the next three sushi courses. During the course of two hours we would experience several levels of sake from Junmai, Ginjo to Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo as well as Japanese whiskey.
The ecstasy kept coming: Warm Eel, Wild Spot Prawn, Fried Kumamoto Oyster, Kanpachi, Bluefin Otoro. Each bite had a complexity of ingredients whether fresh wasabi, sweet dashi, smoky pickled onions, and Thai basil. A very dry Riesling, Domaine Zind Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl, was a marvelous match with the sashimi. The bites became progressively more creative with surprises like an omelet sushi with shaved Kobe beef fat and a potato chip sushi with shaved black truffles. The final courses were cooked: Lobster in beurre fondu and seared Wagyu Petit Strip Loin. My initiation to Omakase was a brilliant new experience and followed my daddy’s advice, “Live it up while you can.”
Dinner With Nobility: A Night With Marchese Frescobaldi
When the Marchese comes to town, it’s a celebration. Marchese Lamberto Frescobaldi threw a spectacular dinner at the new Black Barn restaurant in Manhattan to showcase his crus, i.e. the top wines from his family’s five Tuscan estates located in regions from Montalcino to Maremma.
Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi is an Italian wine dynasty which dates back 700 years and as Florentine nobility, the family has been influencing political and economic life since the Middle Ages. Lamberto, 30th generation of the Frescobaldi’s, was appointed President in 2013. I had met him several years earlier while on a whirlwind tour of his family’s Tuscan wine properties.
As I tasted the 2011 vintages of the crus, nostalgically, I envisioned the magnificent wine estates with their historic castles. Frescobaldi’s only white cru, Benefizio Pomino Bianco Riserva, was served as the guests arrived and it accompanied the first course, sautéed lobster tails in a Thai salad. The wine has a unique story. Not only was it the first Chardonnay to come out of Italy, Benefizio also raised eyebrows because it was the first white to be aged in French oak barrels when in Italy whites were never oak-aged. The vineyards are situated at 2100 feet in elevation (the cool temperature giving the grapes remarkable freshness and balance). Pomino feels more like an alpine region than Tuscany and the joke always told is that you need a passport to enter the wine region. And it’s confusing because Pomino is the name of the DOC wine region, the village, and the winery. And what’s more, Pomino is the DOC’s only winery, a property of 200 acres and a castle owned by the Frescobaldi’s, i.e. a fiefdom.
Next we moved on to compare two reds from Chianti Rufina side by side: Montesodi Riserva and Mormoreto Riserva. Made in only top years from old-vine Sangiovese, Montesodi is one of the most known single vineyard wines of Italy. Mormoreto, a Super Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, also made only in good years, was opulent, perfectly structured and equally impressive.
While sipping these two wines, I remembered touring the Castello di Nipozzano, the family’s most historical property, once a fortified castle in the year 1000, where the two were made. Delicious butternut squash ravioli with Swiss chard and bacon lardons was paired with these crus. At the table Lamberto and the group analyzed which one matched better with the ravioli. The Montesodi, with its bright acidity worked best with the pasta. The richer Mormoreto later paired well with the rack of lamb.
Another member of the nobility—Napa nobility—Michael Mondavi was present at the dinner. The Mondavi family and the Frescobaldi’s collaborated on a wine called Luce—its first vintage made in 1993. Lamberto and Michael spoke of their families’ great working relationship and of a recent Christie’s charity auction where a 12 bottle lot of Luce set a record price (benefiting Baryshnikov Arts Center).
My sentimental tour of the Frescobaldi estates now took us to Castel Giocondo set on a hilltop with a dense line of Cyprus trees leading up to the ancient castle. Built in 1100 as a fortification to defend Siena, Castelgiocondo turns out heavenly Brunello. We tasted the Ripe al Convento, a single vineyard Brunello, and the Brunello di Montalcino Riserva DOCG 2009, an inspiring expression, made under strict regional regulations and aged 6 years.
The final wine and castle reminiscence was Giramonte Riserva 2011, made from a blend of Merlot and Sangiovese, at Tenuta di Castiglioni in the rolling hills southwest of Florence. Castiglioni, an 11th century property, has a storied history as the Via di Castiglioni, a route built by the Romans from Tuscany to Rome.
After all these high-powered personality reds, Lamberto suggested that we re-taste the white Pomino with the cheese course. He said it’s become a tradition in his family to sip the white at the end of the meal since it is lower in alcohol and a harmonious fresher way to end. As I walked out of the dinner back to the post-blizzard snowy street of New York, I knew I would be speaking about this historic five cru dinner with the Marchese for years to come.