Monday, September 21, 2009

In Vino Veritas

Oenophile Jojo Madrid dines out in Paris and finds the wines wanting. Here's an honest assessment.

Paris is not a wine destination, a friend once said. This remark will surely spark debate among wine and food enthusiasts. Paris, after all, probably boasts more Michelin-starred and Wine Spectator Grand Award restaurants than any other city in the world. Restaurants from Taillevent to L'Amis Louis pride themselves for their wine lists. Customers who pay €250 and above for a meal demand it.

But why is it that more foodies point to other food capitals, such as San Francisco, as better wine destinations? A recent trip to Paris appears to confirm my friend's observation. My wife and I spent eight days there, our fourth food and wine pilgrimage to this gastronomic capital.

On this excursion, my role was clear from the start: Go through the wine lists, select the wines to pair with the dishes, and challenge the world's top sommeliers should their assistance be required. My friends believe that my memory for wine prices is encyclopedic and trust my ability to match wine and food.

Our first stop was Le Meurice, a three-star establishment headed by Yannick Alleno. Friends have raved over the restaurant's Philippe Starck-designed salon, inspired by the Salon de Pais of the Versailles. But its wine list didn't do justice to the splendid and very tasteful interiors. Never mind that Le Meurice's cellars excluded wines from the New World and even a major region such as Italy (who’d pair haute French cuisine with a Barolo?), but the prices were ghastly.

I was looking for a reasonably priced Burgundy to pair with my delicately flavored poached lamb. I was hoping to find a suitable premier cru, which in the hierarchy of Burgundy, is one rung below grand cru (most expensive, smallest production) but one notch above village. I ended up choosing a Meo Camuzet Vosne Romanee 2001, a village, as all premier crus were priced above €220. The Meo had a faint nose of raspberry and cherry but simply lacked charm. I decided to check the Bordeaux section to see what my other options would've been. The selection was adequate as one may expect but prices ridiculous. One need not look any further after spotting a Les Forts de Latour 1998 for €350 or a Pape Clement 1999 for €250. These two wines can be had for under US$90 in the United States and I certainly wasn't going to pay five to six times that even if Carla Bruni were at my side.

Eight years ago, I ordered a Montrose 1990 in Taillevent for about $200, a Robert Parker 100-pointer. In Le Meurice, this wine goes for a cool €600. Haut Brion 1990 (96pts) is listed for a whopping €2,250. Compare that to the legendary Haut Brion 1989 (100pts) for $400 in L'Esplanade or the La Mission Haut Brion 1982 (100pts) at L'Arpege for $300 back then. Because of the burgeoning demand for fine wine from wealthy Americans and Asians, the days of finding top chateaus from the greatest vintages at reasonable prices are history.

I don't get sticker shock at three-star restaurants because I know what to expect. But I did in L'Ambroisie, where we dined with another couple. Located in Marais, this Bernard Pacaud establishment is touted by critics as one of the top three restaurants in France. Pacaud’s repertoire is anchored on the best and freshest ingredients available daily. The place looked and felt no different than it did years back when my wife and I first visited it. The restaurant itself, divided into three small salons, is housed in a 17th-century townhouse that was once a jewelry shop. The feel is that of an Italian palazzo with its stucco walls draped with giant tapestries. The impeccably attired staff is just as snooty. Reservations are virtually impossible to make. It has no website and it does not entertain reservations via e-mail, only by phone.

Before taking a stab at the wine list, I gestured to my wife sitting across the table to skip the appetizers. Because the ladies’ menu did not indicate prices, she was unaware that her choice went for €120. Already I knew I wasn’t going to find any bargains in the wine menu if the appetizers were going for that much.

I decided on a Bordeaux as I felt it would marry well with my rack of lamb, my wife’s roast pigeon, and our friends’ sweet bread and foie gras. L’Ambroisie’s wine list was quite limited. Majority of the Bordeaux were from relatively young vintages and virtually all, except for a handful of cru bourgeois, were north of €250. I shifted to the section on Rhône, a lesser-known wine-producing region in France. Rhône produces the best Syrahs in the world and because they are less popular, they provide more bang for buck. I chose the Delas Marquise de la Tourette 2003 from Rhône’s Hermitage, which is a region known to be the benchmark for Australia’s greatest Shiraz. For €150, I felt it was a relatively good deal. The deep purple/inky hue and its nose of intense licorice were all indications of how rich and concentrated the wine was. Flavors were still primary and therefore would require several years to hit its apogee. On hindsight, this wine should have been decanted. Before the Delas, I asked the sommelier to recommend a bottle of white. I sometimes do this just to engage the sommelier. He recommended an Olivier Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 2004. Excellent vintage for white burgundy. The wine was pleasant and refreshing. The Leflaive went superbly well with the amuse bouche.

We had heard much about L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon from friends, so we were looking forward to dining there. Diners are seated along two rectangular bars overlooking an open kitchen. What's with the concept? Like in a sushi bar, diners can follow the service and the sequence of dishes as they are prepared and served. Food is served tapas-style so customers can sample as many as they'd like. It was here that we tasted a superb foie gras and the most succulent poulet de Bresse. Unfortunately, the wine paired with them upon the recommendation of the staff tasted insipid—a Cotes de Castillon, a satellite appellation adjacent to the more famous Saint Emilion region. That, to me, was enough to bring down the entire dining experience. And how could a house wine, Seleccion de Joël Robuchon, taste so bad? I did not detect any defects on the wine so I did not return the bottle. For only €70, perhaps I got what I paid for. On hindsight, I should have just gone with a blanc. I have a higher tolerance for mediocre whites than I do reds.

Then, there was La Tour d'Argent. During this trip, we dined here twice. To visit Paris and not eat here is inconceivable to me. In fact, our travel plans to Paris were dependent on getting a reservation to this venerable establishment. La Tour d'Argent—famous for its Canarde a la Presse, or pressed duck—is a wine mecca. Their four-inch-thick wine list, simply referred to as the bible, contains the most extensive fine wine selection in the world. You may not find an Opus One or a Penfolds Grange among the half a million bottles cellared beneath the Seine, but you will certainly find the best offerings of old Burgundies. Never mind that the restaurant had been stripped of one or even two Michelin stars because it is here that you will find impeccably stored Burgundies on the verge of extinction.

Navigating through the wine list is a daunting task. Because I bided my time, the sommelier placed a table by my side to prop up the wine list, which must have weighed seven pounds. Most Michelin restaurants, such as Le Cinq in the Four Seasons, may boast five vintages of Lafite going as far back as 1982. At La Tour, you’ll find as many as 40 vintages dating back to the early 1900s. Even more impressive is its selection of aged whites from Burgundy and Loire. I discovered Coche Durys from the 1980s, such as a fairly priced Meursault 1986, and even Cotats (Sancere) from the 1950s. Its offerings of Chave Hermitage and Chateau Rayas, both highly revered estates from Rhône, extend as far back as the 1970s, though prices were starting to get prohibitive.

For a white, I chose a Domaine Leflavie Clavoillons 1992, a decadently rich blanc that tasted like liquid white chocolate. The 1992 Leflaive is extremely tough to find because it is the best vintage of the 1990s. Our final selection of reds during our two visits was mind-boggling: Domain Ponsot Clos de la Roche 1993, Roumier Bonnes Mares 1991, Rousseau Clos de Beze 1991, Rousseau Le Chambertin 1991, and finally, the Holy Grail, the Rousseau Le Chambertin 1989. All of these wines were perfect. The Rousseaus are from the village of Gevrey-Chambertin, among the most fabled patch of vineyards in the world. These wines have great structure and have earthy aromas of black fruit. I read somewhere that Napoleon was so enamored with wines from Chambertin that his death was hastened by being forced to drink Bordeaux during his exile in St Helena. Price? Definitely north of €250 for each bottle—but that's nothing compared to the four to five times one would pay in the open market and without the guarantee of the wine's provenance. While I've had my fair share of disappointments this trip, our experiences at La Tour more than made up for all of it.


9 Place des Vosges
Tel (33)(1) 4278-5145

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
5 Rue Montalembert
Tel (33)(1) 4222-5656

La Tour d’Argent
15-17 Quai de la Tournelle
Tel (33)(1) 4354-2331

Le Meurice
228 rue de Rivoli
Tel (33)(1) 4458-1010

This appeared in a previous issue of Travelife Magazine.


Friday, September 4, 2009

Nobu in Tokyo

On a recent rainy evening, we met up with some good friends for dinner at Nobu in the business district of Toranomon. Nobu in Tokyo is part of the now famous string of rather posh Nobu restaurants in major cities around the world including New York and London, although Tokyo's Nobu is probably the most relaxed and least expensive of the lot. We were eager to see the supposed improved set-up in Toranomon as the last time we ate in Nobu Tokyo, it was closer to home in our neighborhood of Shibuya and was entirely different. The old Nobu in Shibuya had always served good Japanese fusion food, although the location was inconvenient for many and the rather eclectic decor -- which I personally found charming, with shades of pink and flower motifs as the background for sushi -- didn’t sit well with some people who found it too loud for a restaurant that served Japanese food.

Still, I liked meeting up for lunch here with friends because Nobu offered a wonderful Peruvian-style spicy grilled beef with rice that I always ordered, and parking was ample in a big lot right in front of the entrance -- and it was free for diners. You might find it funny that parking was a factor, but I hate navigating the usually narrow Tokyo parking spaces and at about $7 an hour, parking charges for a three-hour lunch will almost double the lunch bill.

Back to the new Nobu in Toranomon. Perhaps it was just a string of coincidences and mismatched expectations, but we had a far from relaxing time at this new Nobu. The rather hard-to-find location amidst darkened office buildings set the tone, and then we got lost making our way from the basement parking to Nobu’s front door via a cool but cold office building with no signs of where to go.

When we finally reached our table, we realized that decent conversation between four people was practically impossible amidst the background chatter, because there were so many groups of people crowded together in the room that night. I had to resign myself to alternately speaking two or three sentences to my friend Beth on my right, and then to her husband Bertrand on my left; and almost completely ignoring my husband across. Even the servers couldn’t hear us, because they kept getting our requests wrong.

We might as well have been in an izakaya (Japanese pub), which is probably the experience Nobu wants to replicate, albeit on a classier and more expensive level. It’s dimmed the lights, redesigned its sushi counter along more traditional lines, hauled in plain wooden tables, wallpapered the place with industrial materials and interesting textures, and strategically placed Japanese accents like kimono-type fabrics on the ceiling and red bamboo poles along a wall. The result is a sleek, trendy take on modern Japanese; and it’s nice, but rather boring. I’ve seen similar places elsewhere in Tokyo and other places including in Seoul, London and New York.

Thank goodness the food kept us happy enough. The menu has also veered more towards izakaya fare rather than Nobu's usual Japanese fusion. Most non-Japanese like Japanese fusion but many Japanese regard it with disdain as "neither here nor there" in terms of flavor -- meaning it tastes a bit like Japanese food, but something's not quite right. Happily, though, some standard favorites from the fusion menu, like the soft-shell crab roll, black cod with miso (reportedly Roberto de Niro’s favorite, and again a fancy version of an izakaya staple), and bento box dessert, are still around.

The four of us took turns ordering what we fancied, and lots of it was lipsmackingly good. Some of the standouts were the simplest dishes. The fresh watercress salad with black sesame and watercress dressing looked like someone had picked up a bunch of greens from a market basket, doused this with oil and then just dropped it onto a plate. But it was so refreshingly good that we ordered a second helping. The seared scallop salad was sour, garlicky and salty with each bite, and the scallops themselves were grilled just right so that they were seared outside and juicy inside. Another favorite was the wagyu beef mini gyoza, where chunky pieces of premium beef were wrapped and steamed like Shanghai dumplings so that the juices oozed out when the wrapper broke. These came with a lovely herb green sauce and a sour plum sauce that complemented the gyoza wonderfully. We ordered a couple of sushi, too, and the freshness and quality of the ingredients was certainly a notch above most other places.

So the food’s great and the place isn’t bad, especially if you’re looking for a noisy, casual night out. Nobu in other countries is usually hard to book -- our friends in London and New York complain about three-month waiting lists and painfully expensive bills! -- and rather pricey, but here I called up the night before and we paid 12,000 yen per head. It's not cheap, but neither is it major league expense as far as high-end Tokyo restaurants go. Most customers were dressed in office attire with the neckties yanked out, but one of the guys in the next table sat cross-legged with a colorful yellow and blue bandana tied around his head, yapping loudly about a fishing trip to Hawaii. We left at 11 pm and this was the only time we were actually able to appreciate the restaurant – because by then things had quieted down and most people had already gone home.

1F Toranomon Tower Office
4-1-28 Toranomon
Minato-ku, Tokyo
Tel. 03-5733-0070

To read more travel stories like this, get the latest issue of Travelife Magazine at the magazine stand or bookstore today.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Win a Five-Day Thailand Holiday

Bangkok— The Tourism Authority of Thailand is inviting applications from fun-loving and adventurous couples worldwide to participate in a social-networking competition that will see the top prize-winner get a cash reward of US$10,000, a holiday package to Thailand worth US$3,000, a Blackberry and a Handycam video camera.

The winning couple will be selected by a process of online voting, and the voters themselves will be eligible to win a holiday package valued at US$1,500, a Blackberry, a Handycam video camera and a spa voucher.

Known as "The Ultimate Thailand Explorers", the TAT-initiated competition is targetted at digital citizens worldwide and designed to raise Thailand’s global online presence, across all blogs, social-networking sites, chat-rooms and websites. It is intended mainly to publicise Thailand's five top tourist destinations: Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya, Chiang Mai and Koh Samui.

Interested contestants have to apply as couples, regardless of their relationship. Five energetic and enthusiastic couples will be chosen, and dispatched on a fully-paid, five-day itinerary to the five Thai destinations, one couple per destination. All their costs will be taken care of by the TAT, including air travel from their home countries.

During their five-night, six-day tour, they will have to narrate their experiences via the social networking sites and blogosphere, focussing on what they enjoy about Thai culture, Thai cuisine and all the various places they visit. Some attempts to speak a little Thai will add to the adventure.

Digital citizens will be pitched to view the couples’ online postings, and vote for the one they think is best. The voters will have to register, which will make them eligible for their prize to be given at the end of the contest.

The couple with the most votes will win the grand prize.

To be selected for the five-day trip and competition, couples have to submit one-minute video clip in English, indicating why they should be selected, which of the five Thai destinations they would like to visit and how they plan to narrate their stories. Their entries will be analysed by a panel of TAT judges on the basis of creativity and story-telling ability.

The tour will include a combination of the popular tourist spots as well as off-the-beaten track places. The couples will be provided with “The Ultimate Thailand Explorer” T-shirts, and will have to file daily online reports, including sending e-cards to friends, micro-blogging on Twitter, and communicating across other sites such as Facebook, etc.

They will also have to find ways to get digital citizens to view their postings and vote for them.

The official launch of mini-site will take place on 1 September and a press conference on 14 September 2009. Applications will have to be submitted until 15 October. The welcome party for the final contestants will take place on December 9, 2009 and the winners will be announced in January 2010.

For further details, please contact:
International Public Relation Division
Tourism Authority of Thailand
Tel: +66 (0) 2250 5500 ext. 4545-48
Fax: +66 (0) 2253 7419
Web site:

For the latest updates, please visit the Tourism Authority of Thailand online.