2001

Looking for what's hot? So were we. Join W&S as we take a look at five of the most provocative trends in the restaurant world today. We scoped the scene, tasted the food, talked to sommeliers and chefs around the country - and then profiled four restaurants on the leading edge of each trend.
      Start your culinary quest at a RAW BAR, then follow up the oysters with a little BISTRO bonhomie. Next, take in some tapas at a few of the country's top SPANISH restaurants. Still hungry? Good. It's sirloin time on the STEAKHOUSE circuit. And finally, after a modest meal like this one, how can you pass up the handiwork of the nation's top DESSERT CHEFS?
      And did we mention wine? Of course we did. In these profiles you'll find a wine list's worth of information and suggestions from some of the top voices in the field.
Raw Bars

> Oyster Bar I New York
In case you're thinking America isn't in love with raw bars, consider this: On one day in December, 1999, Manhattan's Oyster Bar served over six thousand oysters. Admittedly it was their best day ever - but when other hot nights clock in at four or five thousand, not counting clams, mussels and so on, well, you're talking no doubt, no question, forget about cooking, give me the darn thing raw.

But send over a glass of wine while you're at it, would you?

Michael Garvey runs the Oyster Bar, and he knows oysters. He also knows wine - the Oyster Bar's list runs to 270 selections, largely weighted toward whites - and if you press him, he'll admit yes, "It's true. Oysters have terroir. Just like wine."

We're talking depth, composition of bed, water temperature, food source, west coast, east coast, why Belons have that intensely briny, slightly metallic taste - "sometimes it's like putting a penny on your tongue" - while the ever-popular Blue Points lure with cucumbery, melon freshness, why those dainty little Kumamotos pack such a rich creaminess. "With oysters there are microclimates all over the place, just like grapes," Garvey says. And so different wines work with different oysters. For instance: with Chincoteagues, gentle, softly briny, Garvey suggests a white Bordeaux, "to play off of that lightness." With a Box, from Long Island, "which has a real seawater taste, maybe a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, with all that fruitiness." Or, for the ever-popular Blue Points, Garvey suggests a Sancerre, like the Sautereau Côtes de Reigny 1999 he's lately been pouring by the glass.

It seems natural that wines for raw fish should suggest clarity, a sort of directness of purpose. At Flying Fish in Portland, for instance, Chef Christine Keff says, "When you're pairing wine with raw fish, stay away from heavily-oaked or wines that have undergone malolactic fermentation." At Water Grill, in Los Angeles, sommelier Paul Einbund breaks out wines like Savennières and grüner veltliner, and his philosophy is similar: let the clean, pure character of the wine play off the simplicity of the raw bar offerings. And at Sushi-Ko in Washington, D.C., Daisuke Uitagawa simply breaks the rules: red Burgundy with sushi is his focus. Has the man lost his mind?

No. In the end what you like is what you like. Back at the Oyster Bar, Michael Garvey remembers: "One day I'm walking by the bar, and there's this guy at the end, a French guy, with this huge platter of Belons and a bottle of red wine. So I'm curious. I look, and it's a Château Margaux 1982. With oysters! So I ask him, casually, 'Are you enjoying your meal?' And the guy looks up and says, 'This is great! Now all I need is a cigarette!'"

- Ray Isle

 

> Flying Fish I Seattle
 Eating seafood that hasn't been cooked can be like seeing rock musicians play unplugged: Star power sometimes shines more brightly without a big production. And the oysters, ahi and scallops at Seattle's premiere contemporary seafood restaurant, Flying Fish, definitely have star power.

Chef Christine Keff's menu changes daily, but among the seared and smoked entrees you will always find a few raw jewels. Start off with the oyster sampler paired with a crisp Neudorf Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. If you're in luck, Sunset Beach oysters from nearby Hood Canal will be one of the three local varieties on ice. Slurp them right down with a dollop of mignonette ice and discover vibrant Pacific Northwest on the half-shell - these oysters taste just like their corner of the world, where whitewater rivers meet the sea.

Prefer some distance between you and a raw meal? Keff's scallop sashimi is briefly blanched for firmness. The plump buttery scallops are little disks of heaven, arriving atop an uni vinaigrette that complements but doesn't overpower. Choosing a wine that will do the same is easier than you might think, given the stellar 175-bottle wine list and smart staff - maybe a Lucien Albrecht Pinot Blanc from Alsace, which has body without overwhelming oak.

Chef Keff has a direct approach to the wine/raw fish question. "Pairing wine with raw fish is not any more difficult than with any other kind of food," she says. "Put the food in your mouth and pick something to match."

So when that ahi tuna tartar on its plate drizzled with pomegranate molasses appears, toast Keff's yin-yang magic with a glass of Flynn Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley. The spicy black cherry fruit of the pinot proves a natural complement to the richly flavored tuna and the pomegranate's tart sweetness. Intuitive and simple: a perfect choice.

- Jenny Cunningham

 

> Water Grill I Los Angeles
When people talk seafood in Los Angeles, the decade-old Water Grill always comes up. It's arguably the finest place in town for fish and crustaceans - and the wines that go with them. Sommelier Paul Einbund's wine list now numbers over 700 selections, and offers the best possible pairings both for the seafood and for what he calls "alternative protein," the lamb, oxtail and even venison and elk that sometimes appear on the menu.

Chef Michael Cimmarusti creates a daily menu based on whatever first-rate seafood is available. "Michael has sourced the best scallops any of us have ever tried," Einbund says of the diver scallops FedExed daily from Maine. "And we get live sea urchins - even at sushi bars, they're not live. Chef Michael uses them for sauces."

Water Grill's raw bar is legendary. Located near the entrance to the restaurant, the wood, copper and zinc bar supplies an endless array of oysters, cold lobster, prawns, various types of crab, clams, mussels, sea urchins and more. "It's the best in all of California," Einbund claims. "We always get daily shipments of oysters, eight or more varieties."

The wine list at Water Grill leans to whites, with four pages of chardonnay. But Einbund focuses on hard-to-get wines from around the world, such as Panther Creek Melon, one of the few domestic muscadets. "They only produce 525 cases," Einbund says. "We get enough to pour it by the glass. It's my favorite oyster wine ever."

With lobster and crab, on the other hand, Einbund prefers a good Savennières, from the Loire Valley. "There's something in the finish of all Savennières, a lemon-custard finish, that matches the texture of lobster perfectly."

But if your companions are slurping oysters and you're hankering after that "alternative protein" elk? Split the difference with an Austrian grŸner veltliner: Einbund offers several by the glass. "It's a chameleon grape, friendly with all kinds of foods. I call it my trump card. Any time I'm having difficulty pairing, I use it. It even works with artichokes and spinach, two of the seven foods the French say don't pair well with any wines."

- Chris Rubin

 

> Sushi-Ko I Washington D.C.
Daisuke Uitagawa is mad - about raw fish and Burgundy. As the owner of Sushi-Ko, Washington, D.C.'s oldest and most successful sushi restaurant, he has assembled a hundred-bottle wine list composed exclusively of red and white Burgundies. Some customers may think he's crazy, but when they try the fish and wine together, they usually become converts.

When Uitagawa, a Tokyo native, purchased Sushi-Ko in 1988, he had not yet discovered a passion for wine. Then he experienced what he calls a "revelation," his first taste of raw fish with red Burgundy. The unusual combination worked wonderfully. As he struggled to figure out why, his culinary philosophy began to change, as did his restaurant.

The secret, he discovered, comes in the sushi-chef and vigneron's shared attempt to express the essence of their ingredients. Like the chef, the winegrower aims to reveal the complexity of nature in a refined form. And like the winegrower, the chef is keenly aware of terroir. In the art of sushi preparation, knowing where the fish comes from is crucial. At Sushi-Ko, tuna is not just tuna any more than grapes are just grapes in the Côte d'Or.

Uitagawa calls his philosophy the "cuisine of subtraction," contrasting it with traditions of culinary "addition" in which chefs labor to transform raw nature into new and fanciful creations. He finds the same distinction in the world of wine, and searches for Burgundies that express the nature of the grapes as well as the distinctive character of the place where the grapes are grown.

Back in 1988, wine was an afterthought at Sushi-Ko. Today, it is center stage, and the vast majority of Uitagawa's Burgundies are red. He is happy to pair these with the restaurant's cooked dishes, but especially recommends them with sushi. The tannins, he insists, enhance the flavor and texture of the fish, while the "umami," or "savory taste," enlivens the fruit in the wine. His customers must agree, as more and more of them are replacing sake and beer with Burgundy. To some, ordering a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin and a plate of Jo Sushi, the restaurant's deluxe assortment, may seem strange, but diners at Sushi-Ko know that this sort of food and wine pairing is a most delicious form of madness.

- Paul Lukacs

Bistros

> Bistro Jeanty I Napa
In France, there's a bistro in every neighborhood, a place to arrive unannounced, hear your name spoken, eat some paté de maison or a hard-boiled egg, enjoy a glass of wine. It's the original fast food, delicious and simple, full of the casual gratifications of the informal.

Charmed by this idea, Americans are in the midst of a bistro craze. Some places can seem like movie sets, full of props and replicas, but the best serve delicious and simple dishes such as cassoulet, or boudin noir, or crpes suzette alongside appropriately inexpensive French country wines. Yet even the best "bistros" on this side of the Atlantic can't help but have a wistful air.

"In France, a bistro is a bar for everyday people," says Bernard Eloy of NYC's Chez Bernard. "It's a friendly place. Back in Picasso's time in Vallauris there were just four bistros in town. And Picasso ate in one of them every day. Nobody cared. It was just, 'hey petit, have a pastis.'"

Out on the West Coast, the best bistros remain casual, drop-in spots for neighborhood dining, like Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, CA, a transporting place full of the personality of its Champenois chef/owner Phillipe Jeanty. He's created a warm, unpretentious space, full of homey French antiques and vintage Lillet posters. The place is a hit with locals and visitors alike, who love Jeanty's steak tartare and pieds de cochon. Originally, the wine program reflected Jeanty's dual citizenship, with French and Californian bottles side by side on the list. As his restaurant's popularity has grown, however, Jeanty has shifted the balance to California, simply to meet demand. "At the beginning, because the place is so small, I wanted to keep a small wine list with half Napa Valley and half French wines, small and simple and well priced. But more and more people were asking for higher-priced Californian wines."

Jonathan Waters, sommelier at Chez Panisse Café, has seen his place shift away from bistro ideals as well. "In 1980 the idea was just oysters and pizza and that's it. Problem is, we got too famous, in a way," he says. "That tends to overwhelm the bistro thing." Still, the café at Chez Panisse, for all its popularity, is without attitude. Narrow with scuffed wood floors, the space is crowded with Berkeley locals waiting for tables, laughing and loud. You can get squid baked in their wood oven and pair it with a glass of Basa, from Rueda in Spain for under $20. Simple, unadorned cooking; bright, vibrant wine; the comforting clamor of the neighborhood: true bistro authenticity.

- Taylor Antrim

 

> Les Zygomates I Boston
Les Zygomates: black and white tiled floors, zinc bar and sparse decor. The translation? France and comfort - but in fact it's Boston. "When we were students in Paris, we hung out in the bistros eating simple food," explains general manager/owner Lorenzo Savona. "We wanted the same thing, where you go to a neighborhood bistro for cassoulet and a half carafe of wine."

Savona's partner and chef, Ian Just, graduated from Ecole Supérieure de Cuisine Franaise and then cooked at the original Les Zygomates in Paris. Savona had managed several Boston restaurants and sold wine for a Boston wholesaler. In 1994, both quit their jobs to focus on recreating the same straightforward, unpretentious bistro cuisine they'd loved in Paris. "The American parallel of French bistro is a diner, where working people stop in for a bite of food," comments Savona.

At Les Zygomates, stop in for straight-ahead French classics such as cassoulet, noisette of venison in bacon and caramelized pears, and pan-seared scallops with scallion truffle butter. Entrees average $21, along with a three-course prix fixe menu for $19. Planning the list, "I'm inside the menu thinking how the wines will meld with Ian's cooking, how they'd work with his lobster bisque or other dishes," says Savona, stressing that his goal is balance of terroir, acidity and weight. In the bistro tradition, he offers many affordable wines, such as 1998 Ch. de Paraza Minervois, 1998 Casa Castillo Monastrell, 1999 Verget du Sud C™tes de Ventoux blanc; each $20. About half the 175 selections are French, with the rest from Italy, America and other regions. Roughly 50 are available by the glass, offering diners the opportunity to try different wines, without a bottle-sized commitment.

Savona has organized the list by varietal, from light to heavy-bodied, hoping to build wine comfort, too. "There's so much pretense about wine, people are often afraid to ask questions. If it isn't fun, then it's work," Savona says. "And I hate work."

- Ken Sternberg

 

> Chez Bernard I New York
Ten years ago Bernard Eloy opened this eponymous little place, after stints in Paris, Fontainbleu, 56th Street in Manhattan and Fairfax County outside of DC, to name a few. He's been around quite a bit in his 40-year career but, as the name suggests, he's found a home here. "You know, my future is behind me," he says, lifting the hatch in the floor to the wine cellar. "Now, all I want is nice people around me. The check is not as important."

We hunch down the stairs to the cellar, which bears him out. While his passion for Pauillac is well illustrated (bottles of Pichon Lalande back to 1978, the Baron to '82) and a connection to St-Emilion's Gruaud-Larose evident ('51, '53, '55, '59, '61 and '78 and an '81 in methulsalem in clear view), there is something for every palate and pocketbook on these shelves. Tucked in among the extensive collection of Bordeaux and Burgundy are wines from southwest France, uncommon Rhones, a few Swiss wines, and finally a clutch of bottles from the Jura. "Now that is a special taste," Eloy remarks. "Not for everyone, but with the right dish...."

Heading back upstairs, Eloy says, "My first priority is to have a place to rest, with simple food, country wine; a place for everyone." He lights a cigarette as I peruse the Carte Viticole maps lining the walls and the by-the-glass selections scrawled on a chalkboard above the bar. "Twenty years ago in New York, two-thirds of the sales used to be booze. Now, there is a taste for wine - mostly heavy wine, the California style - but people are asking for wine.

"I sell what I know, and that's French wine. And it's part of our job to guide customers. To know wine, you have to drink it," he says. Judging from the orders of coq au vin, salade lyonnaise and fish soup au rouille flying out of the kitchen on a Friday night, and the glasses of wine going down with it, at Chez Bernard, people are quite happily learning.

- Tara Q. Thomas

 

> Petit Louis I Baltimore
Baltimore's Roland Park may appear an unlikely place to find a French bistro. This leafy upper-crust neighborhood, home to four prep schools and countless Volvo station wagons, seems straight out of a novel by John Updike or, even better, Anne Tyler, who in fact lives there. But Roland Park is also home to Petit Louis, which features classic French fare along with an intriguing list of exclusively French wines.

Petit Louis' owners, Tony Foreman and chef Cindy Wolf, also run Charleston, Baltimore's premier special-occasion restaurant. When they started thinking about a new venture, they decided on something more casual, a place modeled on the bistros and brasseries they enjoy in Paris. "Petit Louis," explains Foreman, "is the sort of restaurant we like to go to no matter where we are. And this is our neighborhood."

Petit Louis' zinc bar, red velvet banquettes and marble-top tables evoke a fin-de-sicle ambiance. The menu is traditional too, offering such favorites as mussels provenale, cassoulet and steak frites. "Cindy and I are committed to evoking a true French experience," Foreman says. "We want people to feel like they've been transported there - but they don't need to brush up on the language or break the bank."

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Petit Louis is its wine program. The list features familiar names from Bordeaux and Champagne, but its strength lies in a wide assortment of lesser-known wines, especially those from the Languedoc and the Rh™ne. Foreman chooses these with an eye to both quality and value: Three-quarters of the bottles on the list cost less than $35, and twenty wines are available by the glass.

Before Petit Louis opened its doors, the denizens of Roland Park weren't used to drinking Bandol, Corbires or Pic St. Loup, let alone eating boudin blanc or duck confit. To meet this challenge, Foreman has the young, enthusiastic wait staff constantly tasting the wines so that they can make informed recommendations. It's clearly working. On a recent visit, virtually every adult customer was drinking wine, and staid old Roland Park looked for all the world like gay Paree.

- Paul Lukacs

Spanish Cuisine

> Meigas I New York
We ordered octopus two ways, Galician-style and in croquettes, cod fish fritters and bocquerones (fresh anchovies) - pretty predictable Spanish offerings. But what arrived appeared to be five charcoal bricquettes, a Miro-esque display of multiple components presented on an isoceles triangle of a plate, a small tower of golden balls and a slender plate paved with rafts of silver and gold. We were just blocks from the West Village in Manhattan, where a hub of Spanish restaurants have proffered parsley-sauced fish fillets and hearty fried cod balls since time immemorial, but obviously we had wandered into unknown territory.

And right out of sangria territory. Our waiter poured us a treixadura, godello and doña blanca blend. "It's Terra do Gargato from Monterrei in eastern Galicia," he said, "Godello is a little like albariño but leaner, and this gets a little extra something from the treixadura." It wasn't like anything we'd tasted before out of Spain. And as we probed the dishes, it all came together. The wine was slim and streamlined, its delicate floral notes enhancing what turned out to be a tender terrine of tentacles; and its spicy acidity zapping through the croquettes of octopus dyed in their own ink, as well as the lightest, creamiest cod fritters in captivity. Traditional Spanish cuisine, yes: but we were at Meigas, where tradition has never been more innovative or exciting.

That excitement is becoming the norm at Spanish restaurants across the US, not just here in Manhattan. Spanish food has become hip, trendy, propelled by chefs like Luis Bollo here at Meigas, who has carried the influence of cutting-edge restaurants like Il Bulli on the Catalan coast and Jean-Luc Figueras in Barcelona back to the States. And that influence has carried over onto wine lists, too, as Spanish restaurateurs expand their selections in step with the exploratory paths taken by their menus.

A sense of adventure can be thrilling, but in wine it's all too often intimidating. That's where these Spanish restaurants have the edge: Traditionally, they're all about socializing, hanging out for hours over plates of tapas in a dark and smoky room. That's the appeal that has allowed places like Dali in Boston to thrive for eleven years straight. And that's what's inspiring the new rash of Spanish restaurant openings (and internationally-inspired tapas bars) across the US, where the characteristic warmth has joined forces with a contemporary cool. So at B44 in San Francisco, young, savvy diners gather over tapas in a chic industrial setting, exploring the far corners of Spain in glasses of Jumilla and Vadepenas. And at Triana, Boulderites catch the pleasures of cavas and Sherries in one of the city's hippest environments, Spanish or not. So gather a group of friends, take a seat at the bar, order a parade of little dishes and start your exploration.

- Tara Q. Thomas

 

> Dali Restaurant & Tapas Bar I Somerville
Dali is a haven for everything delicious and Spanish. It is a world awash in red ochre, earth brown, sunflower yellow, aubergine purple and tarnished silver. Iberian bric-a-brac is pinned to the walls, perched on the sills. Overhead fans hanging from the copper ceiling blend festive chatter and Spanish guitar music.

At the ceramic-tiled bar, a phalanx of 20-somethings share wine from a porron, a traditional pitcher more likely to send wine down your shirt than into your mouth or glass. In the back dining rooms tuxedoed waiters glide from table to table, distributing steaming dishes and pitchers of sangria. The couple at the table next to me is celebrating a birthday with a bottle of Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva '91 and a '94 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza. "We've been coming here since it opened in 1989," they tell me. "It's more Spanish than Spain."

In a world where new and flashy is more valued than tried-and-true, Dali stands out. From modest beginnings a decade ago as a tapas bar with just four or five wines, co-owners Mario Iriarte and wife Tamara Bourso have won over the hearts, and appetites, of local students, young professionals and professors with fresh, honest renditions of traditional Spanish cuisine at very reasonable prices. Customers come back time and again for homey dishes like the rabbit served escabechado (braised in a sweet-sour sauce), and anguillas, spaghetti-like baby eels flown in fresh from Spain and served in boiling garlic-laced olive oil. The list of wines, now pushing a hundred, but with none topping $100, helps complete the illusion that you've been transported to Spain.

Try a copita of cool Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla with the seaweedy meatiness of the fresh anchovies and you'll be able to see the waves lap against the beach in Puerto di Santa Maria. Taste the pulpo a la vinagretta with a fresh, bright Martin Codax Albariño and envision Galicia. Linger over the sweet, nutty Alvear Montilla....because outside Dali, it's definitely still winter in New England.

- William Nesto, MW

 

> Triana I Boulder
Stand at the front of Triana with your back to the soaring windows that face the busy sidewalk. Admire the graceful curves of the brushed-steel bar and absorb the pulsing Spanish nightclub music for a moment. Then stride past the sheer curtains hung from wrought iron rods to the oxblood and ochre dining room. Seated at a polished concrete table, it's easier to believe you're in the Gracia neighborhood of Barcelona than in Boulder, Colorado, where the Rocky Mountains confront the midwestern plains.

Old guard restaurants serving pitchers of sangria are to Triana what Miguel de Cervantes is to Pedro Almodovar. In this chic dining room, Chef James Mazzio's baccalà is smoked before being frittered; the fried clams are a play on Belgian frites, wrapped in a paper cone with a side of lemon aioli; the papas fritas themselves are paired with a nut-rich romesco. Spanish food is in, and so are the wines that go with them. "Even the late-night bar crowd is drinking cavas," reports Doug Clayton, general manager here.

Clayton is also keeper of the wine list, though he admits, "I'm not a master sommelier and I don't want to be one." Instead, he follows his passions, which is why he has more seafood-loving albariños on his list than seems reasonable for a restaurant only a few miles from the Continental Divide. "I buy nearly all the albariños I can taste," he says. "They're more versatile than white Riojas, which I find dry and furniture-esque."

The red list, arranged by region, lingers particularily long in Ribera del Duero, "the hottest region in Spanish wine," Clayton finds. But he doesn't rely on fashion to sell his wines. "We get a lot of young diners who are learning just like we're learning. We don't want the name to sell the wine, we want people selling the wines."

Case in point is the round of Sherries that come after the table is cleared. "We let the servers buy Sherry for their guests in lieu of dessert," Clayton says. "Few people buy it because few know it, and we want to turn them on to something new. Especially something - anything - Spanish."

- Robert Pincus

 

> B44 I San Francisco
Spanish cuisine suits San Francisco's casual, cosmopolitan set. The traditional late hours and the social contract of sharing tapas appeals to crowds, those who flock to places such as Charanga and Timo's. At these tapas joints, the sangria and beer flows, while wine rarely sees the side of manchego cheese and fish cheeks. That's where B44 comes in.

B44 is one of the recent entries in the Spanish dining scene, and it bears the imprint of its young, high-tech-employed clientele. There's skeletal lighting, exposed cinderblock walls and recessed video screens showing an endless loop of a Barcelona fiesta. There's also wine, a vinous tour of Spain's growing areas, the labor of love of local Spanish wine guru Steve Kerr. Kerr owns Caruso's, a Noe Valley wine shop with the city's best Spanish wine selection, and he's also a wine consultant, a resource for a number of Spanish restaurants in the city. "I believe in extremely well chosen, compact wine lists," he says, an attitude borne out by his work at Destino, Ramblas and Thirsty Bear. Though he's never been to Spain, he's made Spanish wines his study, and his list at B44 proves it, showcasing regions you may have never heard of.

"Often [at Spanish restaurants] you only get Rioja, Navarra, Ribera del Duero, maybe something from the Penedes. To find great Jumilla, Valdepeñas or Somontano wines is the real challenge," he says. Kerr's selections, such as the aromatic, bright 1999 Marques de Alella Classico from Alella in Catalonia or the spicy, ripe '98 moristel from Bodegas Pirineos in Somontano keep B44's food in mind, the gambas al ajillo, the paellas and bacallà a la llauna served up by Catalan chef Daniel Olivella. "I believe in almost forcing people to try the appropriate wine with the food," Kerr says. While there are some Californian bottles on the list, the staff at B44, many of them Spanish nationals with strong, seductive accents, do the duty to their homeland by steering diners towards España. "And it's working," Kerr says proudly. "People order Spanish wine now."

- Taylor Antrim

Steakhouses

> Sparks I New York
Out on the street the wimps have got it going. They're protesting Big Red, an annual celebration of red meat and red wine held by the American Institute of Wine and Food, holding placards, waving signs, telling you lettuce is a way of life. No luck, wimps: The meat eaters walk on by.

Inside, some of the best steakhouses in Manhattan are serving up portions of prime, and the old-vines zin and reserve cab is flowing. No question steak is back; in fact, the only question may be whether it ever left. "Sure, the press always promoted how red meat was dead," Mike Cetta of Manhattan's Sparks says. "But from '66 till today our business has been straight up, and the steak business as a whole has been straight up. It's always been a hot item."

And what do you drink with your sirloin? A crisp little sauvignon blanc? As they say out in the boroughs, fuhgeddaboudit. Red, red, and more red: cabernets, zinfandels, Barolos and Barbarescos, Hermitage and Aussie shiraz. "A great steakhouse wine list has to have tremendous variety," Cetta says, "decent vintages - both great and good - and it has to have a selection of moderately priced wines." Sparks' list fits the bill, with over eleven hundred selections, everything from imperials of '82 Lafite for $8,500 to a lot of top-notch selections at under $40 - say a '96 Ridge York Creek Petite Sirah or a '97 Miner Family Napa Zinfandel - to the top cult-cabs, like Bryant Family, Bacio Divino and Melka.

The other thing Sparks has, of course, is steak. "Two cuts, period. New York sirloin strip and filet mignon," Cetta says. "But to me, there's only one steak. The sirloin. The filet...it's for the gentler folks." The man is New York incarnate: it's in the accent, and in the rasp of the voice, and in the sense of humor, and that's how Sparks feels, too, which is why it's such a great place to land.

But the steakhouse ethos isn't owned by New York. In Chicago you've got the Chicago Chop House, as classic as they come. And for a twist on the familiar, check out Celestino Drago's Piedmontese beef, at Celestino in Los Angeles, or the intensely-flavored churrasco tenderloin at Churrascos in Houston. But the word is still steak, no matter where you go.

"I'll tell you an interesting story," Mike Cetta says. "Today I had a steak. I'm not kidding - I was in Arizona, I got back, I had this feeling, you know, I gotta have a steak. And sometimes you really forget how good they are. So I had this steak, and it was amazing. Thirty-four years in this business, when it can surprise me, that's a good steak."

Out in the street the wimps have packed it in. Too rainy, too windy, too much. But inside, the meat is rare, the wine is good and the floor is crowded. Big Red is still going strong.

- Ray Isle

 

> Chicago Chop House I Chicago
Team Chicago Chop House wins the Bowl-a-Thon every year. Winemaker Jed Steele's best retail and restaurant accounts in Chicago bowl for top bragging rights every spring in a 24-hour alley, fueling themselves with pizza and zinfandel. "They take it very seriously," says general manager Susan Gayford. At the Chop House, bowling, service and meat are taken very seriously; nothing else is safe from the staff's sense of humor. An illuminated Christmas tree hangs over the front door year round. "Ten months a year it's an Irish Welcome Tree," Gayford says with a wink.

Here the kelly-green walls are adorned with black and white images of Chicago's history. The bar is devoted to politicians and mobsters - with many gentlemen falling into both categories. The upstairs dining room celebrates meat packers, retailers and builders as a shrine to the Mayor Daley, Sr. era of big steaks, cigars and free-flowing booze, an era that lingers here. "Our customers drink martinis before dinner, but not because someone told them it was hip," says Gayford. The Chop House's salty bartenders can mix an old-school Manhattan, and the servers know their way around a list filled with older Bordeaux and verticals of blue-chip California cabernet sauvignon. And while the traditional menu never changes, the beef-friendly wine list gains more hot artisan wines from Spain, Australia and France every year. Choose from multiple vintages of Dalla Valle, Spottswoode or Mondavi Reserve, or taste elusive Henschke and Leonetti wines with your 64-ounce- yes, you heard right -porterhouse instead. The more petite cuts of prime, wet-aged beef are also butchered in-house to ensure perfect tenderness; or, for a different take on tenderness, finish the evening with a good Cognac and the musical stylings of Hotz Michaels in the smoky piano bar.

- Chris Blumer

 

> Celestino I Hollywood
Beef without guilt? Why not. At Celestino: An Italian Steakhouse, you'll find substantial steaks on virtually every table, but it isn't your typical meat. Piedmontese beef, a breed that originated in Italy and was brought here more than a decade ago, is raised naturally, with no hormones or antibiotics, and is very lean. Tender and flavorful, the meat somehow has a quarter of the fat of normal beef.

Celestino Drago, the chef-owner here (as well as at several other fine Italian restaurants around Los Angeles), offers five cuts of Piedmontese beef: a 32-ounce porterhouse for two, boned and served tableside; a 20-ounce porterhouse; a filet; a New York cut; and a boneless ribeye, generally regarded as the most flavorful. Have them grilled with Drago's mix of seasonings, and with a choice of five sauces, from a rich Bordelaise to a deeply earthy porcini mushroom - but note that Drago's own favorite way is to sprinkle just a little good olive oil or lemon on top.

The 150-entry wine list leans heavily to Italy, with more than a few of the big names, and includes Barolos reaching back to 1964. These Barolos are special to Drago, but only partly because they're made in the same region from which his Piedmontese beef originated. "There's the elegance," he says, "and it's a fantastic wine that marries well with all kinds of meat. The way we season and grill with sea salt, pepper and herbs is perfect with a sip of Barolo. It brings out the fruit in the wine." The big gun is the Borgogno - "the Rolls Royce of Barolos," Drago calls it - but he also recommends Monprivato, "a great buy [at $58], one of the best deals on our entire list right now."

Drago also favors wines from his native Sicily and has scattered more than two dozen throughout his list. One of his favorites is Ceuso's rustic, powerful Vigna Custera, a blend of nero d'avola and catarrato, two native Sicilian grapes. "It's got an earthy, leathery kind of taste that combines well with the flavor of beef. But it also goes with venison, or other types of game."

Finally, Drago has just begun to import certified organic wines from Italy - a perfect philosophical match, he believes, with his Piedmontese beef.

- Chris Rubin

 

> Churrascos I Texas
Take a tenderloin. Butterfly it, baste it with chimichurri, a traditional South American sauce made of olive oil, garlic, parsley and other spices, then charcoal-grill that piece of meat to perfectly-seared without and luscious rosy-rare within. Now have a bite. Now understand why Churrascos is so popular.

Chef Michael Cordúa's menu may offer other South American temptations - sea scallops smoked over corn husks and served with a Peruvian huancaina sauce, medallions of pork tenderloin with puchica, a Brazilian melange of fresh lime juice, roasted peppers and scallions, and more - but that churrasco steak is his mainstay, by far the most popular item on the menu. No surprise he named the restaurant after it.

Manuel Neave has been buying wines for Churrascos (which has grown to three locations) for almost eleven years now. "The chimmichurri sauce does pose some problems for wine," he says, "because it's a very strongly flavored sauce, with a lot of garlic; but you know, there's a lot of garlic in Italian cooking as well, and with a good Barolo...?" Mostly, though, Neave steers people towards the big wines, cabernets, often South American ones.

The Churrascos list is weighted toward reds, with a strong selection of South American bottlings (the restaurant offers monthly wine dinners as well). "Ten years ago I wouldn't have expected anyone to pay $50 for a Chilean wine," Neave recalls. "Now $150 isn't that odd. Wines like Seña, for instance - today people will come in and ask, has Seña come in yet? Ten years ago they were asking when is the Silver Oak coming in, the Cakebread, the Opus One."

Neave is always on the hunt for new releases from South America, too, wines that no one knows about yet, "so when someone comes in and wants a merlot, then we can give them a merlot that's a little bit different." But at Churrascos, make sure it's a wine that works with beef. "Some newspapers say, you know, that people are eating less beef, but I don't know where," Neave says with a laugh. "We're selling tons of beef here."

- Ray Isle

Dessert & Wine

> Citizen Cake I San Francisco
Recently San Francisco Pastry Chef Elizabeth Falkner and Bonny Doon Vineyard's Randall Grahm got together to fashion a dessert to pair with Framboise, Grahm's raspberry-infused fortified wine. It seems like fate that these two iconoclasts should pair up. Like Grahm, Falkner tends to think outside the box - she's been known to serve foie gras in the dessert course, while at her new restaurant, Citizen Cake, she playfully names her chocolates after modernist painters.

The Grahm-Falkner dessert tête-à-tête quickly took on a naughty tone, chef and winemaker alike summoning images of Venus nipples, zippers and other far-flung and messy indulgences. "It went right into the gutter," says Grahm. It also went right to the heart of what it means to pair a sweet dessert with its counterpart in sweetness.

Dessert wines are arguably the most painstakingly cultivated, precariously crafted, peculiar wines in the world. The privations, manipulations and transformations a grape undergoes achieve a level of sweetness and complexity that few other wines can match: perhaps the closest that winemakers come to attaining the sublime in a glass.

But their peculiarity makes pairing them with food tricky at times. Levels of sweetness and intensity must be properly calibrated. "The big issue is counterpoint and texture," says Grahm. "The one trades off with the other. You can't have two soloists onstage at the same time." Falkner agrees. "You don't want to just mirror the dessert," she says, and adds, betraying an understandable bias: "[Dessert wines] are so complicated, there are so many tones - sometimes, they act just like chocolate."

There's something exhilarating about a chef who talks about chocolate the way a connoisseur does wine. It suggests you're in for a unique experience, such as that offered by Peter Vasquez at Marisol, who composes savory/sweet plates tailor-made for sweet wine. Or by Mindy Segal at mk, whose sense of play is only heightened by Grant Hough's playful wine and spirits selections. Or by Jackie Riley at Elisabeth Daniel, whose creations seem almost spotlit by sommelier Peter Birmingham's distinctive wine pairings.

"The goal is to have both sensations," Falkner says, who hit upon a warm white-chocolate cake with a Mayan-spiced chocolate center, and raspberries, to pair with Grahm's Framboise. "Drinking the wine and having the dessert should take you somewhere else, beyond the wine and beyond the food, to something magical...that's the perfect pairing, when it takes you where you can't see where you're going. Somehow you arrive somewhere else, you know?"

- Patrick Comiskey

 

> MK I Chicago
"I don't believe that people want things that are unfamiliar when it comes to dessert," says Mindy Segal, pastry creator for chef Michael Kornick at Chicago's mk. Kornick's River North restaurant, now open two years, takes simple ideas and elevates them with a distinct sense of play. In the same way, Segal works from the familiar to tweak your expectations. "I take ingredients that are in people's comfort zone and make something different," she says. "We're not some kind of experimental restaurant. We don't shove pretense down your throat."

It's hard to get more comfortable than the One Banana Two Banana, composed of warm banana brioche bread pudding, banana sherbet and caramelized bananas, topped with butterscotch and hot fudge. "I love bananas - anything that has bananas in it becomes our signature dessert," says Segal. Sommelier Grant Hough says that this dessert "screams for Port. Try the Graham's '85. It's going to pick up on the caramel notes and the butterscotch."

Vintage Port would also work nicely with the Cake and Coffee, a mocha pot de crme and a chocolate torte composed of sweet, bittersweet, dark, fudgy and buttercream chocolate layers, but Hough suggests another approach. "This dessert is so rich," he says, "you could even finish off your bottle of red wine with it. An older cabernet or Bordeaux is going to match the dark chocolate and clean your palate, too."

You can even have dessert and drinks in the same bowl with Segal's Piña Colada, a melange of braised pineapple, Myers's rum cheesecake, coconut and pineapple sorbet. It's the kind of dessert that appeals to the kid inside, while the hint of booze makes the rest of you feel decidedly adult, especially if you wash it down with Paolo Saracco's '99 Moscato d'Asti, a wine that, according to Hough, "captures the light fruit tones in the dessert, and is heightened by that great effervescence."

- Chris Blumer

 

> Marisol I New Orleans
"I'm extremely introverted," declares Peter Vasquez, chef/proprietor of Marisol, on the edge of New Orleans' French Quarter. This is a little hard to swallow, coming from a chef whose two-year-old restaurant is spattered with sunflower murals. Plus, Vasquez is a madman in the kitchen, one hand flipping Navajo fry bread, the other cracking eggs for madeleines, and his nose in the drunken wafts of sweet Wild Turkey sauce that will later drench his warm chocolate croissant bread pudding. Vasquez says he learned about food and wine from his Puerto Rican father and Pennsylvania Dutch mother, through hard work, and finally through voraciously reading everything about cooking he could find.

The payoff is an innovative menu that strays wildly from the New Orleans norm of Creole-inspired preparations. Even on the dessert menu, Vasquez and sous chef Gina Melita write their own story. For example, he's broken down the traditional cheese course, instead offering as many singular cheese selections as there are sweets, which in turn gives more and more focused opportunities for wine and spirit pairings.

And focus he does, on the mellow mineral quality of Laura Chenel goat cheese, the high notes in candied grapefruit and the intensity of lavender honey against a glass of Brut Rosé Champagne from Comte Audoin de Dampierre. Meanwhile, sips of citrus-laced Sainte Croix du Mont Reserve, Ch‰teau La Rame balance the layers of smoke and fruitiness in crumbly Irish raw-milk cheddar and its accompanying confetti of orange zest and granny smith apples - all taken in on housemade water crackers.

A glass of smooth and syrupy Domaine du Mas Blanc 1985 Banyuls Vieilles Vignes offers a deep maroon backdrop for an arrangement of blue-striped Morbier, Boston brown bread, herb-crusted duck prosciutto and green apple freezer jam. For sweet pairings, the chunky cinnamon churros leaning alongside a tawny coconut flan pair well with Bonny Doon's Muscat Vin de Glacire. But finally, for that perfect dome of vanilla ice cream dripping down the sides of his molten chocolate cake, Vasquez pauses a moment in characteristic reserve, and suggests water.

- Sara Roahen

 

> Elisabeth Daniel I San Francisco
Walk through the door at Restaurant Elisabeth Daniel in downtown San Francisco, and an air of serenity greets you; it is a soft, quiet room, with a gentle geometry and cool, sourceless light. Immediately, you calm down. You want to fold your hands and sigh.

When it comes to dessert, delights register in small increments. Details are unearthed rather than declared: an unanticipated texture, a surprise sensation. "For me," says pastry chef Jackie Riley, "what makes an extraordinary dessert experience is the element of surprise. I think about what's going to linger; you might order sorbet, but the lingering flavor will probably come from the sesame wafer. That is a great joy to me, to develop and offer something that layers and combines like that."

Riley and sommelier Peter Birmingham agree that the experience of dessert is almost incomplete without wine to complement it. To this end the restaurant offers a separate wine-tasting menu, where accompanying wines are suggested beneath each menu item. "We take a lot of time to research these items," says Birmingham. "What we shoot for in these wine pairings is the laser beam/spot-on/right-through-the-heart combination."

So when the coconut, kaffir lime and satsuma sorbet with warm pineapple-lemongrass soup arrives with its 1999 Forteto della Luja Moscato d'Asti, notice how the drier-than-most moscato hits the middle of the palate with a clean intensity, brightening the fruit flavors in the dish. Or consider how the truffle-infused kulfi (an Indian ice cream confection) plays off a 1993 6-puttonyos Tokaji Aszú from Orosz-Gabor. "The deep, citrusy, caramel elements harmonize perfectly with the earthiness in the kulfi," Birmingham says. "The hazelnuts pick up and enliven the Tokaji as well." And when the orange and cardamom custard with Armagnac and prune compote appears at your table, paired with a New Zealand 1996 Dry River Vendange Tardive Pinot Gris, consider how the wine gives a lemony, mineral edge to the creamy, rich custard.

Riley believes that's how dessert wines work best. "The wine should extend and heighten the flavors, bring out a flavor that you didn't know was so obvious. You say 'oh, I didn't realize that the cardamom and the orange worked so beautifully together.' The wine enhances that. Pairing a dessert with wine has its own sense of harmonics; it's what we strive for."

- Patrick Comiskey