Tag Archives: Chenin blanc

Zen

‘Zen’ is one of those words we’ve all heard but nobody seems to know what it means. A bit like ‘zeitgeist’ or ‘drisheen’. We usually find it coupled with Buddhism. Zen, that is, not drisheen. What the difference is between zen Buddhism and plain, unvarnished, bog standard Buddhism I have simply no idea.

Wikipedia (slogan: ‘Never Wrong for Long’) is not much help, telling you that zen “emphasises experiential wisdom – particularly as realised in the form of meditation known as ‘zazen’ – in the attainment of awakening, often simply called the path of enlightenment”. (Any the wiser? Me neither.)

Next, I turned to a book called ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by one Robert Pirsig. It’s been on my shelf for years, unread. Published in 1974, it sold over 4 million copies in twenty-seven languages, most widely read philosophy book ever. ‘Zen and…’ was initially rejected by 121 publishers and, after ploughing through the first forty pages, I came to the conclusion that the 122nd must have been a real soft touch.

The book describes a 17-day motorcycle journey across the USA by the author and his son, joined for the first nine days by two friends. The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions, which the author calls ‘chatauquas’, on riveting topics like epistemology and ethical emotivism. (Still with me? Oh, do keep up!)

By now you are entitled to ask “Where is all this leading?” At this point I should reveal that, last Monday night, I ate in a restaurant called ‘Zen’; a Chinese located in a bijou redundant church in Rathmines. Via the above pseudo-philosophical rambling I was simply trying to establish whether the pithy three-letter word had any possible connection with some of the worst food I have eaten in the past five years.

To give Zen the Restaurant its due, the welcome is warm and the room, lovely although the ‘world’s longest railway carriage seat’ that splits the dining area into two takes a bit of getting used to. Throughout the meal I kept peering beyond the great divide, trying to ascertain whether diners on the far side were eating from a different, nicer menu.

Zen, like many, has created a recession-ready USP – “Eat-in food at take-away prices”. The deal holds good Monday-through-Thursday. It was only afterwards, perusing the menu out front, I realised that what the proposition actually offers is “Eat-in from the take-away menu at take-away prices”. There is a difference.

Certain dishes were excluded from the menu we were presented with at table. There was some overlap, however, enabling me to make a true value-for-money appraisal. If I had paid the full €18.50 for the ‘crispy king prawns’ I’d have been mightily pissed off. The (mere) seven crispy prawns were not crispy. They had shrunk, too. ‘Flaccid queen prawns’ would have been a more accurate description. They tasted of absolute zilch, merely emphasising the revolting gloop they came bathed in.

For starters Bangles and I had spare ribs, barbecued as if to an order of ‘well-done to cremated’, accompanied by a small dish of an unspecified icky-sweet commercial jar-sauce; also, what we dubbed ‘the creatures from the black lagoon’, four gristle-filled dumplings, ponderous as elphants’ testicles, swimming in a swamp of soy sauce. The pastry skin, coagulated and adhesive, could have been pressed into service as an emergency tyre. Mains were no better. I am a bit of a duck tifoso and get quite misty eyed at the thought of a brawny Chinese chef in London, Manchester, Hong Kong or indeed, in the Imperial in Exchequer Street, taking a cleaver to a moist, springy, succulent honey-basted roasted Silver Hill’s finest and whopping it on a plate. The Zen version was but a cartoon of the real thing, vapid, warmed-over. The sauce surrounding the ‘beef in hot bean sauce’ was not hot in either sense of the word. As Bangles observed, taste-wise it was the identical twin of the viscous gum that enveloped the prawns. The beef, cut into shreds, had been tenderised to the texture of liver; only with less flavour or, more accurately, none.

The wine list was as dull as by now you’d imagine. Our modest Anjou Chenin Blanc at €23 (a 2004, they mustn’t sell much of it) had, in the words of wicked old Churchill, “much to be modest about”. The final tally came to €70.50. Had we paid the full menu price I’d suspect it would be up somewhere near €110 and very poor value indeed.

The sheer bloody-minded laziness of the average Chinese restaurant never ceases to amaze me. Let’s fling it back at the cooks. Canton, Sichuan, Fukien, Hunan, whatever province, these are all simple cuisines. As the French and Italians know, peasant cooking only works if the ingredients are pristine and the cooking precise. At the same time, why aren’t the younger generation of Chinese chefs more inventive? Why aren’t they, like their Indian counterparts, rolling back the frontiers, trying novel combinations that bring a touch of pizazz to table? Why, for sweet Jesus’ sake, aren’t they even making their own sauces? Or is it not arrogance or laziness but contempt? Do they despise the Irish diner because we want every bloody thing ‘crispy’ or ‘barbecued’ or ‘sweet-and-sour’ with prawn crackers and egg fried rice? Do we just get the Chinese food we deserve?

The damage: €70.50, ex-service, for 2 starters, 3 mains plus rice, bottle of house wine.

Verdict: Nice people, nice place, awful food. Robert Persig deemed the concept of quality to be undefinable. But then he never ate here.

Rating: **

 

Zen, 89 Upper Rathmines Road, Rathmines, Dublin 6, Tel: 01 497 9428

Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love

Found this song I wrote in 2004 on my South African trip – with the help of Cole Porter – in the back pages I was gonna dump. Thought it should be preserved for, well, if not quite posterity, a bit longer. Had to put it somewhere, so it’s here.

LET’S DO IT, LET’S FALL IN LOVE
(South African Version)

Chardonnay, cask or tank, does it
Forrester claims even Chenin Blanc does it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.
And Pinotage, which I hate, does it
Riesling, though it leaves in very late, does it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.
Cabernet and its friends do it
In combinations of three
All those anodyne blends do it
(But never with me)
Viognier,sounds quite gay, does it
Colombard, though boring and passé, does it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

Chasseurs in full hue-and-cry do it
‘Bok and kudu roasting on a braai do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.
Rednecks with long smoking guns do it
Germans eating ostriches on buns do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.
Americans filthy rich, do it,
They’ve read Hemingway
Some real sons of a bitch do it
Best keep out of their way
All men mild, meak or mean do it
Ancient Brits who sing “God Save The Queen” do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

Jeanette who wrings Life from Stone does it
Even Robert Parker all alone does it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.
Ferreira, Pete, with his fizz does it
Chrissie Keet, who we think is a wiz, does it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.
Kevin A, in some style, does it
By the fountain at dawn
Charlie B, with a smile does it,
(Grazing goats get the horn)
Celtic blonde rag trade queens do it
Editors of gourmet magazines do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

with acknowledgement to Cole Porter who wrote the original
 ernie whalley 2004

Dedicated to Jeanette Bruwer of Springfield Estate

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1999 and all that

From time to time you hear a wine scribe making cheerful noises about some example of 1999 vintage Bordeaux. Not often, but you do hear it. If you are in any way perceptive you’ll recognise the sound as the whistling noise you used to make when, as a child, you had to go down a dark lane on your own (nowadays, kids call for mum to get out the MPV). The noise you made had a multiple purpose – to frighten off any evil spirits that might be lurking in the mirk and to convince yourself that you weren’t afraid and that that the world was really an okay place.
The noise these cheerful Pollyannas make can be construed another way. It’s the same optimistic brouhaha that supporters of crap Premiership teams – and I know plenty about that phenomenon – make to build morale towards the end of an even- worse-than-usual season. What’s the phrase? Ah yes, ‘Too good to go down’.
Let me say it one last time and and say it loud “THERE IS NO BOTTLE OF 1999 RED BORDEAUX I COULD POSSIBLY AFFORD THAT HAS GIVEN ME SO MUCH AS A TINCTURE OF PLEASURE!!!” There, I’ve said it. By and large the 1999s are mean, joyless, sparsely fruited , overly tannic and odds-on to remain so.
It’s a curious place, Bordeaux. A society held together by an uneasy alliance between the local aristos who made the wine but could never be bothered to sell it and the gimlet-eyed negotiants, English, Irish, Dutch or German blow-ins, the kind of people who used to be stigmatised as being ‘in trade’. The two needed each other like Stan needed Ollie and still do. I’ve previously remarked on how the neophyte wine lover who makes a first trip to the region often returns enchanted by the pristine chateaux but perturbed by the lack of picnic tables and cellar door outlets. Try Margaret River, mate.
Today of course the aristocracy, the chateau owning class is not what it was. The titular head of a cru classe is as likely to be an insurance company executive as a milord. As a matter of fact this thought was coursing through my head when I received an invitation to meet Baroness Nadine de Rothschild who had just breezed into town, accompanied by samples of her wines, Chateaux Clarke and Malmaison. I scanned her CV, actress, model, socialite, wine maker and thought “Great!”
Alas the interview did not live up to expectations. Herself was all Pat Kenny’d out and was not in a mood to answer what Lyndon Johnson used to call ‘horse piss questions’. Sample: Q. “Did the baron arrive at the stage door after a performance with two dozen red roses, a magnum of Krug and sweep you off your feet?” A. “No, we met at a dinner party.” Her books turned out to be celebrations of the lives of her friends but she declined to dish any dirt on mesdames Callas, Bouvier-Kennedy-Onassis and Schneider. I ended up commiserating with their unhappiness. She had a suit in tow to answer questions on the wine; he gave me the bland corporate overview. Of the wines themselves I found the harsh astringency I’d come to expect in Clarke and a big ‘So what?’ in the Malmaison. Ennui overtook me and my probings, trite enough to begin with became even triter, if that’s a word. Overall, it was the worst interview I’d done since the uninvited arrival of an armed burglar interrupted my grilling of a Manchester furniture tycoon back in ’79.
But I can’t leave things on this doomy-gloomy note. Forget Bordeaux for the minute. For the same money as will buy a 1999 of a moderate minor chateau you could get a bottle of Chianti Classico riserva from a good producer and let a little light into your life. In recent weeks I’ve been fortunate to taste Antinori’s wonderful 2000 Badia a Passignano on three occasions – on the premises; in a fine Florentine restaurant; and at home in Dublin – boy does it travel well! The plums and violets that are the very essence of Sangiovese with a judicious dollop of unspecified foreigners adding backbone, this is joyous, vibrant yet refined wine that sings like 33 tenors not 3.
Also let me add my voice to that of Mary Dowey who elsewhere in this issue is carolling about Clos du Papillon. Honeyed, heathery, smoky-nosed, lovely golden coloured, splendidly fragrant Chenin Blanc, Domaine du Closel Clos du Papillon 2002 from Savennieres, a small appellation on the Loire is one of the nicest white wines I’ve had this year. A great weighty mouthfeel, slightly wax’n’honey flavours – everything balanced and controlled and expressive, truly a wonderful bit of winemaking. Normally young Savennieres is crude and unpleasant – drunk fresh you have to apologise to your guests and say “Of course this should really be put away for a year or three”. Not this Clos du Papillon, opened the minute you get it home it’s only brilliant. Such a refreshing change from the Sauv B/Chard overload so prevalent today. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Mine came from James Nicholson of Crossgar. Redmonds of Ranelagh might stock it and maybe a few other serious wine merchants. Around e20 and well worth it.

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South African Wines

STOP PRESS: 23 WINES TASTED AND TESTED AND NOT EVEN THROUGH THE “B”s!!!

Stopped quite a few wines from going bad on our trip, and sniffed, slurped, spat many more. Here are a few random musings on a country where the quality’s getting better year by year.

Agusta Chardonnay 2001. Franschhoek.
Smart, quite classy Chard with lime and grapefruit notes and sensitive use of oak; still developing. Rated: VERY GOOD

Backsberg Estate Chardonnay 2002 Paarl
Sensitively-oaked example, with marzipan and toast flavours contrasting with lemony notes. Rated: GOOD

Bartho Eksteen Sauvignon Blanc 2003 Hermanus
Rich, dessert gooseberry on the palate, almost NZ-ish in its intensity. One of SA’s best. Would have liked to have tasted the Premier Choix but alas couldn’t find it. Rated: VERY GOOD

Beaumont Chardonnay 2001
Fat grassy Chard of some class from unfashionable Bot River. Though it carries a punch at 14% there are no heavy vulgar tropical fruit flavours. Good winemaking. Rated: VERY GOOD to EXCELLENT

Beaumont Chenin Blanc 2001
Nicely ageing example of what’s rated as one of SA’s classier “Steens”. Herby, lemony flavours with a slight hint of marzipan. Not Savennieres but very nice. Rated; GOOD, WELL MADE

Bellingham Chardonnay Spitz series 2002 Wellington
Smart stuff from this modern winery; oaked, natural ferment, keen attention to acid balance so while its opulent with marzipan and oriiental spices it’s in no way fatiguing to drink Rated: EXCELLENT

Bloemendal Estate Semillon 2002
Durbanville.
Quite liked this, especially as a change from SB and Chard. Rich and refined, pointed up by zippy acid that I’m sure will soften over time Rated: INTERESTING

Bon Courage Chardonnay Prestige Cuvee 2002 Robertson
Worthy attempt at a Euro-styled chard with great attention paid to acid balance and a certain mineral elan.Rated: EXTREMELY LIKEABLE, SOME CLASS

Ambeloui Miranda MCC 2001/2/3 Hout Bay
MCC stands for “Method Cape Classique” the approved term for what was called “Method Champenoise” until those stern lads from France came in with their big boots. This absolute pearl, from a tiny property just outside Cape Town gets my vote for one of SA’s top three fizzers – lovely full bouquet, bubbles to burn and that lovely toasted fresh bread taste you get from sparklers where the fruit (pinot and chard) has been generously bestowed. Increasing the percentage of new oak each year means it should get even better. Yum! Rated: BRILLIANT

Avondale Les Pleurs Merlot 2000 Paarl
Class act with a good deal of subtlety, tannins relaxing nicely, well endowed with full, soft fruit but enough acid to prevent it from getting lush and OTT. Rated: EXCELLENT

Bartho Ekstein Shiraz 2001 Hermanus
Liked this a good deal – perfumed, spicy, whopping wine, amazed to find it was only 13.5 ABV – a huge mouthful, still developing. Rated: GREAT POTENTIAL

Beamont Shiraz 2001
Hefty, muscular Shiraz with smoky bacon overtones coupled with the paprika-based spiciness of authentic goulash. Interesting stuff. Rated: EXCELLENT

Beyerskloof Synergy 2001 & 2002
Amazing Pinotage/CS/Merlot blend and even a bit of Shiraz sneaks into the 02. Straightforward, honest wine of some complexity from Beyers Truter, king of Pinotage. )I felt the 02 was already much more approachable than its elder brother. Rated: INTERESTING

Beyerskloof Pinotage 2002 If you have to drink Pinotage this is the one. Not for me, though, I can get the same buzz from licking newly tarmacked roads on a hot summer’s day. Rated: OF ITS KIND, GREAT

Bloemendal Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 Durbanville. Hinted at qual but still very hard and green. Will it soften? Dunno but apparently Bloemendal have a reputation for slow-burners. Rated: MAYBE

Boekenhoutskloof Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2001 Franschhoek.
Like the name, a big mouthful at 14.2%, packed with dark plummy fruit and the sweaty saddle thing – my god how I hate that description. Rated: HUGE BUT LACKS CLASS

Bon Courage Syrah Inkara 2001 Robertson
Going to be great I think, but heavy going as of now. Cold steel feel, like young Cote Rotie. But did enough to hint at potential. Rated: VERY PROMISING, INTERESTING

Bon Courage Shiraz 2002
Curiously the one that’s matured only in French oak is called “Shiraz”. Lighter style, more approachable now. Smart stuff. Rated: GOOD, WELL MADE

Bon Courage Cabernet Sauvignon Inkara 2000 Limited release.
Middle of the road Cab Sauv of no particular distinction. Rated: FAIRLY ORDINARY

Bonnievale Shiraz 2002 Bonnievale, Robertson
Easy drinker of no particular distinction. Muted nose. Rated: AVERAGE

Avontuur Above Royalty Noble Late Harvest Riesling 2001 Stellenbosch/Helderburg
The excellence of the stickies came as a major surprise on this trip and this was one of the best. Rated: EXCELLENT

Bon Courage Noble Late Harvest 2002. Lightweight (10%) classy Riesling sticky already showing luscious dried fruits, apricots and figs, great balance. Rated: EXCELLENT

Bon Courage White Muscadel 2002 Really interesting and weighty sticky with floral aromatics. Liked this a lot. Really good winemaking with added pizzazz from fruit acids. Rated: EXCELLENT, ORIGINAL

MORE FOLLOWS

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