Tag Archives: wine

Restaurant Review – McHUGH’S WINE & DINE

On Christmas Eve a US food critic who remained anonymous for 16 years has had her cover blown by a Los Angeles restaurant. Irene Virbila, who works for the Los Angeles Times, had her picture taken at the Red Medicine restaurant in Beverly Hills and was asked to leave. The restaurant then posted the picture on the internet.

Noah Ellis, managing partner at the restaurant, said some of Ms Virbila’s reviews had been “cruel and irrational” and had “caused hard-working people in this industry to lose their jobs”. The aggrieved restaurateur said “I asked her and her party to leave, as we don’t care for her or her reviews.” Ms Verbila riposted “I never expected that a restaurateur would stick a camera in my face.”

A few days later, I got a call from a radio station in LA, asking for my views. For what it’s worth, I said there are more important issues than anonymity – like honesty and integrity; like the ability to entertain one’s readers; most of all, like the experience and cop-on to see things for what they are – a good critic should be able to tell the difference between a crap restaurant and a good restaurant that’s having one hell of a catastrophic night.

The subject was also aired on my website forum, where I invited contributors to air their views on what makes a restaurant critic. One of them (presumably another miffed restaurateur) wrote “the ability to travel more than 15 minutes from their home”. I don’t know if it was aimed at me – during the recent spell of inclement weather I certainly didn’t stray from Dublin 2/4. Shamed, if not named, I used all my powers of persuasion to get Sibella to spirit me to one of the “here be dragons” enclaves of Dublin for the purpose of this week’s review.

I’ve nothing against Raheny. Well, yes, I have actually – because 66.33% of the people who have done me a bad turn in my 24 years in Dublin hailed from there. Still, all in the past, I mused, as we queued to cross the river. The journey from Sandymount took us the guts of an hour. We found out later that we could actually have got there in half the time on the Dart as our destination was only 800 yards from the station.

Situated in an improbable location, in a small parade of shops in a quiet residential street, McHugh’s Wine & Dine was buzzing. The room is warm and inviting, with slightly larger than average tables and very comfortable chairs. We arrived on the cusp of the early bird and the regular dinner menu and it therefore seemed appropriate to try one of each. It was a night for comfort food and I immediately plumped for the bowl of spicy free range chicken wings. There were a full dozen of them, enough for me to trade with Sibs for some of her inviting looking slow-roasted butternut squash salad, a mélange of squash, crispy pancetta, sage and crunch hazelnuts over crisp green leaves. The wings themselves were delightful, piquantly spiced, with enough flavour in the meat to stand up and be counted, with a clean-textured glaze, light years from the habitual ketchup-and-sump oil treatment this dish usually receives. These were among the best I’ve ever eaten. Apparently they are popular with young people in the locality of who order an even bigger bowl as a main course. I can see why. We took two glasses of Zenato’s admirable Lugana, likewise crisp and spicy and a perfect match for the food. The wine list as befits a restaurant related to the local wine merchant was concise, sensible with a few intriguing items and a couple of stunning bargains. The Oriel ‘Lo Zoccolaio’ Barolo, for example, at €40, is a steal.

Continuing the winter warming theme, I took the ‘special’, the daube de boeuf. This comprised a mound of slow cooked beef cheek, meltingly tasty, accompanied by what appeared at first to be a sausage roll, some excellent truffle mash and rivulets of a pale purée, maybe parsnip. The ‘sausage roll’ turned out to be filled with succulent oxtail, a super idea. Herself, after a flirtation with haddock and chips, settled on the burger and we were both glad she did. It was generously topped with melted cheddar and supplied with a crisp salad and some good relish; neither of us could think when we last had a burger as good. It came garnished with those big square chips seen everywhere these days, of which I’m not a huge fan. These, though, were well fettled, perfectly cooked and didn’t have me yearning for the thin crispy variety. I was so stuffed I couldn’t manage dessert. Well, except for a smidge of Sibs’ choice, a sort of pear and ginger sponge served with vanilla ice cream. Coffee, espresso, was on the decent side of acceptable.

Oops, nearly forgot. Commendably, Mc Hugh’s sports a small range of interesting beers including Budjevicky, Leffe, Chimay, Sam Adams, Fuller’s London Pride and the rich, coriander and apricot-flavoured Bishop’s Finger (the name refers to the signposts which pointed the pilgrims towards Canterbury) that proved the perfect accompaniment for the lavish flavours of the daube and oxtail. Overall, we spent just over €74 to which we were happy to add a tenner tip for the efficient and friendly service from two local girls.

Good neighbourhood restaurants are one of the oft overlooked blessings of Dublin dining, frequently unconsidered as, lemming-like, we rush uptown. Browne’s in Sandymount, Alexis in Dun Laoghaire, Bistro One in Foxrock and many others are doing a smashing job in allowing locals to dine out well but without formality for reasonable cost. They are also well worth travelling to get to. On this evidence, McHugh’s Wine & Dine is up there with the best of them and I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

Rating

Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience ****

Overall ****

Mc Hugh’s Wine & Dine, 59 St.Assams Park, Dublin 5 Tel: 832 7435

NEW ZEALAND WINE FAIR, DUBLIN – Jan 2011

But first… the AW, WTF THESE THINGS HAPPEN AWARD

Anyone looking at the site earlier may have seen a list of the Noffla (National Off-Licence Association) Awards. Thanks to Evelyn Jones at the admirable Vintry in Rathgar I am now advised that the press release they sent me at my request (I couldn’t make the award ceremony) contained the previous year’s winners which, in all good faith, I published. Apologies to this year’s winners, last year’s winners, forkncork readers and the public at large. Here are  the correct winners:

WINNERS

Specialist Off-Licence Group of the Year 2011 O’Donovans, Cork

Best First Time Entrant 2011 Next Door Swiss Cottage

Food Retailer Off-Licence of the Year 2011 Shiel’s Londis

Customer Service Award of the Year 2011 The Wine Centre, Kilkenny

Spirit Specialist of the Year 2011 Deveney’s Off-Licence, Dundrum

Beer Specialist of the Year 2011 McHugh’s Off-Licence, Malahide Road

Wine Specialist of the Year 2011 Jus de Vine, Portmarnock

Munster Off-Licence of the Year 2011 Matson’s Wine Store

Connaught/Ulster Off-Licence of the Year 2011 Dicey’s Off-Licence

Leinster Off-Licence of the Year 2011 Holland’s Fine Wines

Dublin Off-Licence of the Year 2011 Gibneys

National Off-Licence of the Year 2011 Sweeney’s Wine Merchants

On foot of the Noffla awards  came the New Zealand Wine Fair at The Radisson Golden Lane. Strange accents abounded and one winemaker was heard declaring he had “spent the summer ixtending my dick”, sounds painful. As you might expect, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir were the major exhibits. I can still remember the shockwave that occurred when Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc hit the Irish market back in the late eighties. Racy, instantly invigorating, I remember likening the sensation to “standing up close to the Powerscourt waterfall in full spate”. Since then, Cloudy Bay became a cult, later a fashion icon and up went the price. Luckily, other fine and lower priced Sauvignons followed hard on its heels. My particular favourites are Astrolabe, Siefried, Seresin and the ever-reliable Hunter’s, all widely available here.

I thought I detected a sea change in Pinot Noir winemaking – a trend towards lower oaking, more developed fruit and blacker tannins – maybe a concerted attempt to escape from the (unjustified) charge that Kiwi Pinot Noir is a one-trick pony. At a dinner at Ely – special mention for the wonderful lamb – Matt Thompson of Tinpot Hut disagreed. What I might have been tasting, he reckoned, were the flavours common to the 2008 vintage. 2010, he opined, will be a fantastic year for New Zealand Pinot.

There was an interesting table of ‘oddities’ – wines from grape varieties outside and beyond ‘the usual suspects’. I wish the Trinity Hill Arneis, a real charmer, were available here. Another beguiling beauty was the Pyramid Valley Vineyard Pinot Blanc. Felton Road Vin Gris – not a Pinot Grigio but a free run Pinot Noir, vinified as a white wine, was interesting. A couple of producers, why I’m not sure, were flirting with Montepulciano. Even in Italy this grape ranks among the ‘also rans’.

Must make a mention of Lawson’s Dry Hills whose dry Riesling, in particular, continues to amaze and delight. Sad that the engaging Ross Lawson is no longer with us, he was one of wine’s nicest people.

And so to what was billed as ‘The One to Watch’. Syrah, they tell us, will be the next sensation from The Land of the Long White Cloud. A tasting of a dozen or so convinced me this could be true. The wines will be more European, more Rhone-like than their Aussie counterparts. The Trinity Hill offering impressed but this wine is listed at around €70 in the UK and at that price, sorry, it’s a non-starter. Two wines stood out: one, of course, was Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels 2008. I’d stand over any wine made by the uber-talented Steve Smith. The other was, for me, ‘wine of the day’. Man O’War Dreadnought Syrah 2008 (O’Brien’s, €29.99) hails from Waiheke Island, a mere 11 miles by ferry from the city of Auckland. The Dreadnought is a ‘big’ wine, in the nicest sense. Enveloping without overpowering; with none of that ‘prickly heat’ you sometimes get from wines of 14 degrees ABV and above. The bouquet was of intense, blueberries with a trace of spice, aniseed maybe. On the palate the blueberries were subsumed by ripe, dark plums offset by gamey flavours with, at the back end, a whiff of fragrant pepper, so often a trademark of wines like Cote Rotie. I’d be pretty sure this is 100% Syrah, too; no hint of Viognier. Good Northern Rhone wines years ago, cost buttons compared to their Bordeaux and Burgundy counterparts. Now they’ve got expensive. I’m going to play a hunch and lay a few Dreadnoughts down.

Went off afterwards to a dinner at Ely with Matt Thompson of Tinpot Hut and the celebrated Kevin Judd, the wine maker who put Cloudy Bay on the map, who is also a superb photographer. Kevin now has his own label, Greywackie whose wines were showcased on the night. People were split on the merits of the Pinot Noir 2009. I loved it, whilst other preferred Matt’s darker, more brooding Delta Bay Hatters Hill 2008. Tinpot Hut’s Hawkes Bay Syrah 2007 was developing nicely. Winemaker Fiona Turner made the wine and most of the fruit comes from her estate at Blind River.

I told a story of an unscrupulous Dublin wine merchant who (back in the days when Cloudy Bay SB was on quota) was asked by an American gent “Got any Cloudy Bay”. “Last two cases” he replied. “Okay I’ll take them”. I stood open-mouthed as the merchant loaded them into the Yank’s car. He had the grace to wink at me. Kevin Judd said “I’d have preferred to have the Chardonnay, anyway.” Funny, he might have told us at the time!

WINE IN PUBS – some thoughts

Drinking is never a random activity. In all cultures where alcohol is consumed, drinking is hedged about with unwritten rules, social norms and stigmas regarding who may drink how much of what, when, where, with whom and in what manner. The rules are different in different countries and different social circles, but there are always rules.

Some will deny this. A man might protest that he drinks pints of lager only because it slakes his thirst and because he happens to like the taste. You don’t have to believe him. Choice of beverage is rarely as simple as a matter of personal taste.

A few of years ago I was doing a spot of consultancy which involved, during the course of my research, asking people “Do you drink wine in pubs?” “You’re jokin’ me,” said D4 Male, 37. “If I’m going to get caught in a pub with a glass of wine I might as well go the whole hog and buy a man bag”. His buddy summed it up. “Look,” he said. “I love wine. I’ll go home tonight and down a bottle of red with dinner. When I dine in a restaurant, first thing I ask for is the wine list. But not here, no way, wine in pubs is for women.”

Back in the 1980s few of us, male or female, drank wine at all. The invention of cheap package holidays increased familiarity with the product and kick-started demand. The next boost came from a new and obsessive preoccupation with wellbeing in which wine began to be seen as ‘the healthy option’. When it came to ‘shaping up’, wine v beer was an unequal contest. Who ever heard of a ‘wine belly’?

Women, fed up with an invidious choice between Babycham, soft drinks and expensive cocktails and intimidated by pints, took to wine with gusto, happy to drink it down the local despite the limitations of wine sold in ‘quarter bottles’, with inefficient closures (there is no comparison between the screw top on an 18.75cl bottle and the well-engineered equivalent on the 70cl one) and a short shelf life. Recently, many pubs have opted to sell by the glass, employing keeping systems ranging from the cheap domestic VacuVin pump to a machine that keeps the wine under a blanket of inert gas. Margins are good, certainly fatter than on beer. In a pub in the suburbs, I found a respectable but unexciting Rioja (€10.99 in the off-licence or supermarket) being sold for €7 a 170cl glass. Choice, though, is still restricted and very few pubs take the trouble to promote wine, either to the well-defined and captive female market or to the untapped male one. We are as far off as ever from a situation where a glass of Australian shiraz would be as bar credible to your average Irish male as a pint of plain. Seems like an opportunity missed.

Finally, I’d love to hear of any pubs with a decent wine list.

RESTAURANT REVIEW – Camden Kitchen

My favourite proverb – and, sorry you won’t find it in the bible – goes “blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed”. When, years ago, a friend took me to Lindsay House in Soho, I hadn’t the least idea who the chef was. An amiable porky geezer with an Irish Country boy accent, he emerged from the kitchen at the end of the evening to greet some regulars. The name, Richard Corrigan, meant nothing to me then, though I subsequently got to know him well. On the night, though, his cooking blew me away.

When Richard announced his return to Ireland to open Bentley’s I got quite excited. Surely here would be a restaurant worthy of gracing that fine town house on Stephen’s Green? Alas no. The menu was, by and large, a yawn fest; the cooking, unless our hero was in the back tweaking and kicking butt was woefully imprecise. I was, too, less than whelmed by the Dublin debut of Marco Pierre White a man whose cooking once had me surreptitiously running my finger around the empty plate but who now lends his name to a diner for the chattering classes.

Gallagher? McGrath? Both their recent enterprises disappointed me. Were these guys better when we didn’t know who the hell they were? Having become ‘a celebrity’, does a chef take his foot off the pedal? Or is it simply that the volume of hype heightens our expectations to the point where it would be nigh on impossible for the gastronomic effort to deliver?

I had heard nothing, sweet nothing, about Camden Kitchen. I couldn’t recall any opening junket or any press release trumpeting its merits. I had visited the premises before, they used to house a tapas bar that was a byword for mediocrity. The dining is on two levels. The ground floor, seating approximately twenty, had been simply but tastefully got up. At one end was an open kitchen where three people were preparing food in an atmosphere so serene you’d have thought they had taken Trappist vows. You couldn’t tell by their demeanour who was in charge, we somehow sort of guessed it was the guy in the middle, he looked vaguely familiar. I immediately started turning the pages of the Filofax in my head but we were having dessert by the time I came up with the name.

Padraic Hayden used to cook at Still at the Dylan Hotel in Dublin 4. At the time this restaurant was one of Dublin’s undiscovered gems for the quality and inventiveness of the cooking, the civility of the staff and the style and comfort of the room. If there was a distaff side it was that prices could escalate skywards if you lost the run of yourself and started ordering dishes fettled from glamorous ingredients.

The food at Camden Kitchen is less exotic than Padraic’s previous billet, for sure, but it has plenty going for it. From the off, Sibella plumped for goat cheese croquettes, with dressed baby leaves, apple purée & beets, omigawd, I thought, 1995 revisited. But no, the aesthetic shape of the croquettes, their featherlight crisp crust, the tartness of the purée and the freshness of the salad ingredients made you realise why this dish, so often murdered, was such a good idea in the first place. Meanwhile, I was oohing-and-aahing over the foie gras and girolles a majestic combination so easily ruined if the foie is cooked beyond evanescent. Not so here, it oozed luxuriously down.

The bright young waiter/sommelier busied himself sorting a medley of white wines for Sibs. With rabbit and black pudding to follow I wanted a red of some delicacy. The Alsace pinot noir, mellow, uncomplicated, coped perfectly. My rabbit dish was a triumph. Sensibly, Padraic had elected to use a soft textured black pudding, not the chewy Clonakility. Coco beans, sprouting broccoli and pancetta added further variety to the composition. Lots of people were eating this dish. Are we at last losing our fascination with fillet and hen tit? I do hope so. Sibella had picked another winner, the organic cured salmon, with fresher-than-fresh crab meat, fennel and apple, a brilliant combination spanning a range of textures and flavours.

We crossed swords over dessert, forks flashing across the table as each reluctantly yielded to the other a morsel of the Bourbon vanilla panna cotta, with fresh raspberry and shortbread or the citrus creme brulée, with shortbread biscuits, coconut and an intriguing lychee sorbet. What we really wanted was the whole bloody lot on one plate – I am not, generally, a dessert person so was amazed that I found it so hard to share. I topped the feast off with an espresso better than Dublin restaurant norm and called for the bill. We’d spent €120 on three courses apiece plus a bottle and three glasses of wine and a coffee and didn’t begrudge a sou. Mulling it over, I reckon Camden Kitchen and its ilk are the converse of the ‘oh so safe’ eateries exemplified by MPW. If there’s to be a battle for the diner’s buck in these tight times I hope the good guys win out. Fingers are xx’d Padraic doesn’t become famous.

CAMDEN KITCHEN, 3A CAMDEN MARKET, GRANTHAM STREET, DUBLIN 8 TEL: 01 4760125

RATING

Food ****

Wine ***

Service ****

Ambience ***

Overall ****

WHAT THIS PLACE REALLY NEEDS IS A NICE COALMINE

One of my normal occupations at this time of year is to draw up a list of wine heroes – The ‘Grape Expectations’ Awards for those individuals or companies who’ve gone the extra mile to bring us decent drinking. It’s very much a virtual award, no plaques or tacky glassware, no framed certificates, just a nod in the direction of the good guys. This year, however, it’s the bad guys who are occupying my thoughts. Like the villains of this piece.

An Aussie friend, Ian Parmenter, public face of Tasting Australia, Adelaide’s prestigious biennial food and wine festival, lives in Margaret River, Western Australia. It’s a significant wine area, making its mark in particular with top notch Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay majoring on subtlety and charm, without the full-throttle intensity of those from hotter regions. Margaret River is home to esteemed producers like Cullen, Mosswood, Vasse Felix, Xanadu, Leeuwin Estate, Cape Mentelle, Howard Park and more. Many of the wineries boast highly-rated restaurants.

A coastal area, it enjoys a warm, maritime climate. The core of the region is the attractive town of Margaret River itself. Throughout the area, scenic delights are manifold – beaches for walking or surfing, rivers for the fisherman, rolling hills, Karri Forest, everywhere abundant wildlife. The locals have encouraged tourism and developed it while maintaining the region’s beauty – there are no theme parks here. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? And it is, I’ve visited four times and Margaret River has never lost its attraction. Alas, Ian tells me there are signs that the idyll could be about to end.

King Coal is the reason. The black dictator that scarred the face of a once rural England, Scotland and Wales has raised his ugly head again. A company called Vasse Coal has submitted proposals for a coal mine at Osmington, a mere 15k away from the town of Margaret River, with seams under the region. Two further proposals are on file. As old Bob Dylan wrote “Money doesn’t talk, it swears” – Ian informs me there’s every likelihood that the Western Australian authorities might give this nebulous scheme the go-ahead.

Barmy, criminal, suicidal or what? We complain daily and with justification about our own politicians but I don’t think even Cowen, Lenihan and Co would sanction mining for coal under the Ring of Kerry.

WINE – Brands. What do they do for us?

What’s the world’s oldest brand still around today? Hoover? Ford? Oxo? Coca-Cola? These were the names that sprang to mind when I asked the question of some colleagues. Sorry, but these household names are mere striplings when it comes to marketing history.

Unless you see ‘Christianity’ as a brand it’s hard to look farther than the Premier Cru red wine from Bordeaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, a wine continuously marketed and promoted under its own name since the mid-seventeenth century. Haut-Brion appears in the diaries of Samuel Pepys as a highly desirable tipple. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to a friend, also commended Haut Brion (though he failed to spell it correctly).

What do brands do for us? Initially they provide an introduction to wine’s delights. Very few people come to wine by picking up a bottle bearing an obscure label from the Costieres de Nimes, saying “Must try this, I’ll take it home tonight.”  What brands do is give us confidence. The wine market is the most fragmented in the world, with the possible exception of womens’ clothing. Even in a small wine merchant’s the choice is daunting; you’ll be faced with at least 400 bottles. Brand psychology is an open book; the sub-text reads “choose a branded wine and you are far less likely to make a cock-up.”  Brands also provide a step ladder. If you could afford to work your way through, say, Penfold’s range of red wines from Koonunga Hill (around €14) to Grange (around €200) you’d have a pretty good palate by the time you reached the end of the line. You’d also have a handle on the quantum leap in enjoyment you can get by paying a tad more each step of the way. The existence of a ‘reserve’, ‘riserva’ or ‘reserva’ on the stepladder is no accident. It is there to prevent newbie drinkers from jumping ship when their palates crave a more sophisticated offering.

At the same time there are things that branded wines can’t do for you. They can’t give you that singular high that goes with linking a wine to an individual character or a small plot. Even when they highlight the connection between one of their wines and its ‘terroir’ it’s difficult to see the revelation as anything other than a marketing ploy. Worse, brand drinkers are denied the unbounded joy of boring the arse off their friends with the one about the little Chateau that they “discovered” whilst driving through France where they had “the most divine wine that ever existed”.

This time of year is ‘catwalk time’ for wine writers, when the supermarkets roll out their winter collections. Dunnes Stores were the first to switch on the spotlights and it was evident that their wine buying team are doing a decent job, particularly in bringing budget drinking to the ‘church mouse generation’. Hitherto, my normal advice would be to shun anything under €10 unless you want something to pep up a casserole but here, amazingly, was a very drinkable 2008 chardonnay/viognier, Tilia from Argentina, a gift at €6.99. A savvy blend, this; the viognier (around 25%) gave the wine a lovely floral lift. Also from the same stable came a clean, modern Malbec, Alamos, very nicely made red, well worth the €8 ask. California is not a region that springs to mind when you are looking for low cost decent drinking but I liked the Marmesa Brook Ranch syrah (€9.99), very balanced with good chunky fruit – ‘steak wine’. The wines of Laurent Miquel have been one one of the stars in Dunne’s firmament for some years. They had another highly quaffable chardonnay/viognier, Nord Sud 2009 at €8 and the 100% viognier, 30% of which was matured in French barriques, at €8.95 was better still. Wine of the show, for me, was the striking, dark-toned Sancerre, Domaine des Grosses Pierres, bang on the money at €12.99.

PUGLIA – AN UP-AND-COMING WINE REGION

A short trip to Puglia, in Italy’s extreme south-east, provided one of the most interesting experiences in this wine writer’s crowded year. The Mediterranean climate, coupled with a predominance of soil types suited to grape growing, has made the region a significant producer of wine. Close on half a million acres is dedicated to viticulture, split between wine and table grapes. Back in the 1980s, wine production reached nearly 350 million gallons. To put this in perspective, that’s over three times the current production of Chile.

In those days you wouldn’t have found a bottle of Puglian wine in your local wine merchants. Indeed very little was bottled at all. Some was sold at the cellar door. Some got distilled, or turned into grape concentrate to use for soil enrichment. Most was sent North for blending, chiefly into vermouth.

Our trip was based around the Torrevento winery, housed in a former monastery in the Castel del Monte area, north of Bari. There has been a good deal of investment in Torrevento, in shiny stainless steel tanks, expensive oak barrels and in technology. Torrevento has vineyards in other parts of Pugia and this is reflected in wines like Sine Nomine and Faneros, representing Salice Salentino in the far south of the province, made principally from a luxuriantly aromatic black grape called negroamaro. Another Puglian grape variety is bombino, a mispronunciation of which caused great hilarity over dinner when one of our number declared “I love pompino” – Italian for ‘blow job’! At lunch on the final day I enjoyed an invigorating easy-drinking young white wine, Pezzapiana, made from a blend of bombino bianco and pampanuto, another local hero.

We spent an afternoon picking grapes. It’s a backbreaking task, making you appreciate the efforts of the regulars. Even picking carefully, there still seemed an inordinate amount of leaf and stalk in my basket. To make an exceptional wine this has to be removed, calling for investment in either sorting by hand or expensive complex machinery. Another small reminder why good wine costs more.

On the final night we were subjected to a blending exercise. Blending wines is enormous fun, probably the most you can have with your clothes on; it certainly beats Scrabble, Trivvy and charades hands down. Over the years I’ve taken part in quite a few such exercises. I recall one where Phillip Laffer, at the time head winemaker of Orlando who make Jacob’s Creek, gave assorted wine scribes bottles of the Reserve Shiraz of the four consitutent parts – wines from MacLaren Vale, The Barossa, Padthaway and Langhorne Creek if I recall correctly, with instructions to replicate the finished article. I actually got it right first off but Phil snidely convinced me I was “nearly there” and so I starting fiddling with my blend and finished up further and further away. I remind him of this every time we meet, mainly because the prize for the winner was a case of top dollar shiraz and I was well miffed!

At Torrevento our task was to blend something potable from our choice of the four local wines they gave us. Steering a team of opinionated international wine writers in what you think is the right direction is no easy task. I had to summon up all my years of experience as a trade union official in a former life. Several times we reached a state of anarchy, chaos and instability comparable to the government of a bankrupt banana republic but eventually we pulled together and at the end of the night our wine was declared the gold medal winner.

I’d urge you, especially if you’ve never done it, to give blending a go. You’ll learn a lot about what makes wine tick and have bags of fun doing it. All you need is a few inexpensive bottles of single varietals – a cabernet sauvignon, a shiraz, a merlot will do nicely and a few pals to share the experience. A laboratory jar and a pipette would be handy – maybe ask the kids – but a kitchen measuring jug, marked in millilitres will do nicely, plus a plastic funnel and a few empty bottles to store your efforts . The smart thing is to make a ‘control wine’ first; one that everyone agrees is “almost there”. Keep this and test subsequent efforts against it.

The winery’s glory is the red Castel del Monte Riserva, Vigna Pedale, made 100% from Nero di Troia, a patrician grape that seemed destined for oblivion until rescued by Torrevento in the mid-nineties.  We were given a vertical tasting (same wine, successive vintages) of Vigna Pedale and the gulf in class between 1996, the first and 2006, the latest, were very evident. In quality terms, Vigna Pedale is at least the equivalent of, say, a top notch Chianti Classico. With this rate of progress and (I’m going out on a limb here) it might soon be able to compete with some of the trendy much-trumpeted ‘Super Tuscans’, more affordable too. Certainly the soft tannins and the abundant fragrance of the nero di troia make Vigna Pedale easy to drink when still relatively young.

Alas, it’s not available here in Ireland as yet, though Torrevento are established in the UK.  I’d love to see more Puglian wines in Ireland as the wines have real character, grapes employed are, for the most part, local and regional and make a refreshing change  from ‘the usual suspects’. The region is currently undergoing a huge quality hike in pursuit of which which the Torrevento winery is in the van.

Punta Aquila primitivo 2007, a lovely Puglian red (recently ‘on special’ for €12.99, O’Brien’s) comes loaded with dark, opulent plums, with a hint of black pepper and spice on the back palate. With enough balancing acidity to prevent it being flabby and boring.

Restaurant Review – The Lock Brasserie

As one who once put his money where his foodie mouth was, I have an enduring admiration for restaurateurs, most of whom work heroic hours for the sort of reward that could probably be exceeded if they’d stayed in bed and put their savings in prize bonds.

Very few of the restaurants now considered members of the Dublin dining establishment have had it easy. I can’t think of one that was an overnight success and most have had wobbles along the way. Ask Ross Lewis, Kevin Thornton, Derry Clarke, I’m sure they’ll give you chapter and verse.

What always amazes me is when a restaurateur who has climbed inch-by-inch up the greasy pole of profitability by dint of a combination of talent, hard work and that rare commodity cop-on decides to open another outlet. Take, for instance, Sebastian Masi and Kirsten Batt who, within weeks of begetting a first child, have begat a second restaurant. Having nurtured Pearl Brasserie to the age where, in Sebastian’s words “it rattles along nicely” and, obiter, picks up awards along the way (Food & Wine Magazine Restaurant of The Year 2009) they decide to acquire and re-open Locks. Mad or what?

Making a go of Locks is undeniably the most challenging yet intriguing restaurant project in Dublin. Picked up and dropped into any other city in Europe the canal bank at Portobello would be awash with restaurants, cafés, bars, etc. As it is, Locks and the estimable Nonna Valentina stand alone and the adjacent waterside remains the province of swans, joggers and snoggers.

Back in the 1980s Locks, along with the Coq Hardi and the Mirabeau was a place that caused you to exclaim “Hey, someone in this benighted country must have money!” I was taken there once; you could hardly see across the room for Havana cigar smoke and a tramp could have got a year’s pleasure from a night’s discarded butts. Paradoxically, Locks descent started around the time the rest of us acquired enough sponds to dine out under our own steam. In decline, it changed hands and became an all-things-to-all-people eaterie and that didn’t work either. Despite good chefs, a semi-scenic location, parking outside the door and a room other restaurateurs would kill for, Locks Mks 1 and 2 eventually didn’t hack it.

So what of Mk.3? Sibella and I arrived and were delighted to find  Thomas Pinoncely, formerly of Pearl Brasserie, installed as maitre d’. Thomas is one of those suave-but-not sticky, friendly-but-not effusive meeters’n’greeters and it was early evident that his version of hospitality is rubbing off on the front-of-house staff. Chef is Rory Carville who has done stints at The Four Seasons and L’Ecrivain in a peripatetic career, a man with a reputation for revering the fresh, wild and real.

From the a la carte Sibs selected the goat cheese beignets, a tastefully appropriate presentation of this eternal crowd pleaser. I homed in on the (bottom to top) daube of beef, monkfish cheek and foie gras. For ages I just stared, marveling at the serendipitous combo of three of the things I like most; the glistening fish, the crisp-yet-deliquescent foie, the juicy beef – seduction on a plate. Or thankfully in a dish, as there remained a heavenly sauce to mop up with the good bread provided and enjoy like the encore at the end of a great gig. A short odds candidate for ‘starter of the year’, I decided.

“The rare breed pork belly or the lamb?” I enquired of Thomas. “The pork, undoubtedly. It is the chef’s signature.” I needn’t really have asked. The words ‘rare breed’ always suck me in. There’s a universe of difference between the flesh of a cosseted Gloucester Old Spot or a Tamworth and that of a flabby cartoon porker that’s been fed on God knows what. This piggy king came crowned with two tortellini, both stuffed with pork shreds and soused with a sherry vinegar reduction. The presentation was modern – dots and zig-zags of a pea puree and good tart apple sauce. In contrast the vegetables we’d ordered were delivered in traddy-looking copper pots – crisp small chips (I’m getting a tad fed up of the ubiquitous fat feckers) and a harmonious mélange of small peas, garlic, pearl onions and celery, styled ‘a la francaise’. Sibs had a wonderful piece of hake, a much under-rated fish, again pristinely arranged. Locks’ new chef has created a see-saw where ‘food you’ve just got to eat’ and ‘food so pretty you shouldn’t spoil the picture’ swing back and forth before coming to rest at the ‘eat me’ end. Sebastian Masi has this talent in spades so I’d guess he was pleased to find someone cast in his own image.

I wimped out of dessert, taking only a selection of (excellent) ice creams and sorbets. Then I was mildly miffed to find I could indeed have eaten Sibella’s ethereal strawberry fool, with ice cream on the side too. Afterwards, I couldn’t resist espresso and was, of course, disappointed. Why is it the last thing you have before you leave a restaurant is so often a let-down? (Memo to all restaurateurs: get over to Third Floor Espresso on Middle Abbey Street and watch Colin Harmon in action). On the other hand wines, some available by glass or 375ml carafe, were excellent. We took an Alsace Pinot Blanc (Meyer-Fonne, fine producer) and a Cote du Rhone smugly secure in the arcane knowledge that they bore the hallmark of Le Caveau and Simon Tyrell, two of Ireland’s best specialist importers. Service throughout was first rate.

We parted with €121, ex-service, including coffee and two carafes of wine. I already love Mk 3 or The Lock Brasserie to bestow its proper title. I intend going back, next time for lunch and soon, picking a day in which sunlight floods that gorgeous room, lingering for as long as they’ll let me.

Rating

Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience ****

Overall ****

The Lock Brasserie, 1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello, Dublin 8 Tel: 01 420 0555

TASTING AUSTRALIA 2010 – ADELAIDE DIARY

Day 8

Kicks off very quietly, like one of those old blacky-white colonial-themed movies. “I can’t stand it, Carruthers. The drums have stopped; it’s too demmed quiet out there.” The media room is deserted as I saunter down for my crossants and multiple espressi. Oh, Jesus, it’s only 5.30.

The inner insomniac strikes again! Hard to sleep when it’s so hot. For a person who is pretty conversant with emerging technology how come I can never figure how to work an hotel air-conditioning system? Why is it I always end up with the heating stuck on the ‘American Tourist GTi’ setting? Why do I never seem able to summon up the temerity to seek help from hotel staff? I draft a curt note and leave it meekly on the reception counter. It reads “Please set room air conditioning to minimum. Thank you. 912.”

I go walkabout in a deserted Adelaide, which would be a very pretty town if they knocked down all the utilitarian modern architecture and just left the huge and sympatico parks and fab churches, returning an hour or two later to find my colleagues have eaten all the croissants and taken up all the space at the computer stations. Clearly they have been as tardy about sending copy home as I have and are now breaking their fingers to recover lost time and meet once far-away but now imminent deadlines.

Outside, along the Torrens, the public are flocking to the fair. The ‘boating lake’ is busy once more and the local sailing club has organized racing for Cadet dinghies. The young crews seem much more sporting than the precocious little bastards at Bolton SC. No, well, not much, illegal pumping of sails; no NSPs (non-sailing parents) on the bank doing their F1 Team Manager thing – binoculars draped around neck and screaming “Nigel! For godsakes bloody tack now!” Here, it’s all very civilized.

I mosey back to the hotel and do an interview with a local radio man and another with Evan Kleiman whose weekly ‘Good Food’ programme, produced by Harriet Ells is a great reason for tuning into Los Angeles radio station KCRW. The interview is here http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/gf/# It’s the third one on the programme called ‘Compostable/disposable’, no sniggers please

For lunch I go to Mongkok on Gouger Street, a northern Chinese restaurant recommended by the nice student serving in the coffee shop I breakfasted in on day one. Despite her recommendation it’s not that cheap – doubtless there’s a special tariff for attractive Chinese students – but it is very good. I had a searing hot beef dish. I also came across – in Pitt Street, I think – a Korean butcher with sit down barbecue tables in the adjacent room. How good is that for saving on shoe leather, if not air miles. Truly Adelaide is full of sendipitious culinary surprises. After lunch I track down the Chinese herbalist and buy shedloads of ginseng; also a patent catarrh cure I’d recommend to anyone, consisting of little black balls, like large beads of caviar – you take 8 at a go, three times a day. Farewell, Dublin’s winter at last.

In the afternoon the Barossa boys turn out in force. Big Bob Mclean, legend in anyone’s lunchtime tells me he enjoys a bottle of ‘stickie’ for breakfast. “Surely you mean with breakfast, Bob?” “No, for” he emphasizes, with a guffaw of a laugh. Louisa Rose from Yalumba struggles in with an Imperial (that’s six bottles in one) sized monster of the impressive Signature Shiraz. She doesn’t trust any of us to pour.

At some point I have to go up and put on what Rankin calls “your dining t-shirt” for the Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards Dinner. I decide to confound him by wearing a jacket and tie. After some deliberation I ditch the tie. It is Australia, dammit. At the do I am pleasant and polite to all but of course inwardly seething because the purple prose of my restaurant reviewing didn’t make the podium. Still, one of my NZ chums, Margaret Brooker picked up a Silver Ladle for her children’s cookbook so I was slightly mollified. Rankin makes a fine speech, name-checking me as the man who led him astray in 2005. Fame of a sort, I suppose.

Good to rendezvous with WA’s noted wine writer and old buddy Peter Forrestal again. Forrie was in good form. The après nosh seemed a much lower key event than last time. Didn’t get to cavort in my customary energetic dance sequence with the delightful Maggie Beer, shame that.

Not too late a night. We are leaving for the amazing Kangaroo Island at first light. And the air conditioning has been turned down to 18. Bliss.

So it goes… This week's decent drinking

From what started out as a fairly uncomplicated pastime – you plant grapes, you harvest them, you cause them to ferment, then you run off the juice –winemaking has been historically hedged around with rules and regulations as in “You can’t add sugar to boost the quality in a poor year” or “You can’t grow this grape here” or “Unless you age in oak for two years you can’t call your wine a reserve”. Some of these dictums are adopted by consensus; others imposed by some organisation set up to govern the wine production of a land or a region. In either case, the reasons for regulation are the same – to improve quality; to enhance recognition; to ensure prices hold up. The undesirability of a ‘free for all’ is widely recognized.

Now and again, free-thinking individualists fail to conform. In the 1970s Piero Antinori, whose family had been making wine in Tuscany for more than 600 years, decided that replacing the white grapes from the Chianti formula with Bordeaux varietals cabernet sauvignon and merlot would make a richer more complex wine. “Fine”, said the rule makers, “but you can’t call it Chianti”. The result was a wine, originally labeled as a humble Vino da Tavola (table wine), which Antignori named Tignanello after the vineyard where the grapes were grown. Now feted as a ‘Super Tuscan’, Tignanello 2005 sells here for around €70 a bottle.

Judging in Portugal last year, I was privileged to meet Luis Pato, a hero of mine, as much for his nonconformity and sheer obduracy in the face of bureaucratic pressure as for the vibrant quality of his wines. In 1999, Luis Pato quit the Bairrada DOC to market his wines under the much less prestigious Vinho Regional Beiras appellation. Unlike Antinori, the decision was not made so he could introduce foreign varieties. Portugal has innumerable indigenous grapes, of one of which, baga, Luis is a huge fan. The winemaker is extremely respectful of regional tradition, homing in on bical, another local grape, for his whites at a time when it would undoubtedly have been easier to sell ‘internationals’ like chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.

There’s no doubt that, in the wrong hands, baga is capable of making joyless astringent wines. At the time the appointed authorities were conducting something of a vendetta against this grape – ‘ethnic cleansing’ is not too harsh a word. Luis believed that, given sensitive treatment, baga could make sublime wines and set out to prove it.

Luis Pato Casta Baga 2007 €10.99 (The Corkscrew, Chatham Street; Redmonds, Ranelagh; Karwig’s, Cork) makes an interesting change from ‘the usual suspects’. The elements brought by the baga grape are hard to describe but it reminds me of an amalgam of nebbiolo, syrah and pinot noir, probably my three favourite red grapes. The nose is all morello cherries, with a whiff of cedar wood and fragrant spice. On the palate brambles and blueberries kick in, also some lighter red cherry pinot-like notes. At around €23, Pato’s Vinhas Velhas Tinto 2005 is definitely in the ‘treat’ category, but I’d say it’s the most interesting red I drank in 2009.

For me there’s no doubt that Portugal is ‘where it’s at’ in the Really Interesting Drinking stakes. The reds have always appealed. Quality among the whites has been hiked by miles in the last few years as modern winemaking techniques; a swing against over-oaking and the dearth of that nation’s passion for near-oxidised  wines kicked in.