2002

Wondering where restaurants are headed next? So were we. W&S talked to sommeliers and chefs around the country - and then profiled twelve restaurants on the leading edge of three provocative trends.
      Defy your expectations about what foods will work with the world's greatest wines at some of the country's most vinously adventurous ASIAN RESTAURANTS, then jump back to a European tradition for a look at the boom in ambitious CHEESE LISTS. And if all this racing around is too much work, hop a plane or a train to some of the country's most luxurious WINE GETAWAYS - you'll be glad you did.
      And speaking of wine, in these profiles you'll find a wine list's worth of information and suggestions from some of the top voices in the field. So start making reservations.
Cheese Lists

> Artisanal I New York
Concerned about aging? You're not alone. There's a whole industry built around creams, oils, waters from the Alps. But these are for amateurs. The professional, the affineur, is concerned more with inner development than with the external signs of aging. He creates an environment more complete than any spa, surrounded in wood, separated into climate-controlled rooms to care for the needs of each individual.

Peter Kindel is a French-trained affineur working at Artisanal in New York, and he's sensitive to the challenges of aging. "If you're not taking care of it, then it's falling apart," he says, pointing to the blues. They live in the coldest room of his cave, kept at 39ū to 41ū F.; too warm and they'll acidify too fast. "There's living cheese and dying cheese, and a lot of people are served dead cheese. The challenge is similar to understanding when to open a bottle of Burgundy. It's learning to guestimate, recognizing when something is correct or not correct."

A few years ago Kindel was making beer in Colorado when his partner and soon-to-be-wife Caroline Smialek surprised him with a pair of tickets to Paris. Once there, they found themselves eating cheese at every meal. "We got back to Colorado and started buying cheese on a regular basis," Kindel recalls, and soon they decided to make their own.

As it often does, avocation soon became vocation. After a couple of cheesemaking courses, an award from the Geoffrey Roberts Trust (see F&F, p. 6) allowed them a year in France, going from affineur to affineur. "We'd go into the shop to ask, 'What are the three best cheeses you serve?' Then we'd taste them at home and return to the shop the next day to ask whom we should visit." They traveled from Bordeaux to the Pyrenees to Languedoc, Auvergne, Dordogne, Provence and Haut-Savoie. And they learned how subtle, seasonal and terroir-based the practices of cheesemaking and the flavor of great cheese can be.

Back in the States, Kindel went to visit Max McCalman at Picholine, who gave him the word that chef/owner Terrance Brennan was planning to open a cheese-focused bistro on 32nd Street. Two days later Kindel had a job - though his first duty was to head back to France to study affinage. That's where he got the ideas for his current cave, modeled after the Alleosse fromagerie in Paris. "We just hung out in Alleosse's caves for about a month and watched the guy do it. He had five separate rooms, and you learned how to separate out the cheeses and what to do when they were too young." Artisanal's cave has the same five "rooms," the same wooden shelves and the same range of temperatures: one for blues, one for fleury or mold-ripened cheeses (brie, camembert, at 90-95 percent humidity), one for goat cheeses (sensitive to airflow), one for pungent or washed-rind cheeses (munster, epoisses), and one for tomes or big, hard cheeses (cheddar, parmigiano, gruyere), which need the highest temperature, about 53ū F., to help them evolve).

Kindel has three basic criteria for selecting cheeses to feature on the 250-plus cheese list at Artisanal. "First, raw milk. Second, small production - it's the name of the restaurant. And I enjoy the connection between the farm, the farmer, the cheesemaker and the cheese on your plate. Then third, a requested cheese." Kindel's patrons often select their wine to go with their cheese, rather than the other way around. Perhaps it's because Artisanal gives them 160 by-the glass choices. He believes that the play between wine and cheese is more about contrasts in taste than similarities: "With wine, it's acid and fruit against fat and salt in the cheese. It can't help but contrast."

He likes to pair cheeses with riesling, a grape he considers "the most underrated on the planet." And he loves zinfandel: "It's got fantastic fruit and acidity, the American bistro wine." Instead of a sommelier going to the Artisanal guests to talk wine, Kindel is at the table talking cheese. "With a sommelier, it's hard for a lot of people to get over the 'not-knowing.' But cheese is at an infant stage here. There's not a lot of pretense. And you don't need to worry about getting a $600 bottle of cheddar."

- Joshua Greene

 

> No. 9 Park I Boston
From the moment chef Barbara Lynch opened No. 9 Park in Bean Town's posh Beacon Hill neighborhood, critics hailed it as one of the best in the city. But the reputation here goes beyond stellar food, as No. 9 is also considered a wine destination and a cheese haven. While great wine is downright expected with fine dining these days (and wine directrix Cat Silirie delivers), cheese programs - if they even exist - are often about as solid as a slab of Swiss. Enter Vinny Sapochetti, a C.I.A. grad who studied wine and hoped to land a sommelier gig at No. 9 but was too late. To convince Lynch he could master her cheese service, he sought out the expertise of cheese whiz Ihsan Gurdal, co-owner of Cambridge's landmark Formaggio Kitchen, and worked there one day a week for a full year to train under Gurdal.

The result is No. 9's rotation of no less than 15 cheeses a week, served by tray at tableside. "They're never served cold, always room temperature," says Sapochetti, "and I'm stringent about how they're wrapped [covered with dry towels, then a moist towel, folllowed by more dry towels]; I have it down to a science." But Sapotchetti's real focus is seasonality. Right now, for example, he'll steer you toward the Provenal Roves des Garrigues. "I love this cheese, because the goats are eating the first herbs of the season - literally the herbs de Provence. In a sense, it's all about the terroir. And another great springtime cheese I'll buy is Tarentaise from the Hautes Savoie, again because you can taste the fresh spring grass in the milk."

As spring gives way to summer, so too does Sapochetti's list. "In summertime," he says, "the cow's milk cheeses come into peak flavor, especially from the Alps. The cows graze further and further up into the hills, hunting for the freshest grass, which makes for richer flavor." And perhaps it's this attention to season and its consequences that have resulted in Sapochetti being able to say with pride, "Now many people come in to No. 9 just for the cheese."

- Anthony Giglio

 

> Bin 36 I Washington D.C.
"Any good restaurant today should offer cheese as part of the menu," says chef John Caputo at Chicago's Bin 36. Make that American cheese. No, not Kraft singles soldered to a burger, but the real, artisan-crafted goods, like the cheeses ma”tre fromagre Colleen Pidruzny has sought out for this restaurant-bar-wine store complex on the Chicago River.

With a "drink wine, live longer, have fun" mantra and no-snobs-allowed admissions policy, the contemporary, 13,000-square foot Bin 36 is not the sort of place you'd expect to find a great cheese course. There are no cheese gueridons gliding through the room. ("On the weekends when the bar was packed, people were helping themselves from the cart," Pidruzny says.) But then again, you might not expect bottles like an '86 Jayer-Gilles Echezeaux or an '85 de VogŸe Musigny (both $300) circulating in this laid-back crowd, either. (And both are perfect with Sally Jackson's grapeleaf-wrapped goat cheese.) Those are only two stand-outs on a list deep in aged, cheese-friendly wines, from Dauvissat Chablis to go with the goats to old Ridge Zins that will complement Ig Vella's Sonoma Dry Jack.

But it's the on-the-road, American focus of the cheese list here that makes Bin 36 a standout. Like American wines, American cheeses have long labored in the shadow of their Old World ancestors. So it's a revelation, when you're sitting at the long zinc bar in the Tavern, or lounging after dinner in The Cellar, to be handed a lengthy cheese list that runs from Sebastopol, California (Redwood Hill Farm's Camembert-like Camelia) straight through to Marion, Massachusetts (Great Hill Blue), with detours to Idaho, Michigan, Indiana and other states along the way. The stops change regularly, according to what's available, what's ripe and what strikes Pidruzny's particular fancy - for instance, a Manchego-style cheese from Michigan, her home state, was a recent discovery - but the quality doesn't. The cheese course is available all day long, and at three, five or seven choices for $6, $10 or $14, it's impressively reasonable.

After you've made your selections, call on wine director Brian Duncan or his assistant, Michael Baker. Name your cheese choices and the amount you'd like to spend; they'll set you up with a wine or wines that will make your night. If you don't want to ask, the list suggests multiple wines for each cheese, too. But whatever you do, make sure you try that pungent, sweet, raw milk Berkshire Blue with a glass of the Royal Tokaji Company's Tokaji Aszu (the wine list, in counterpoint, ranges the globe). That's the kind of combination that will have you back the next afternoon, or even earlier.

- Chris Blumer

 

> Restaurant Gary Danko I Los Angeles
Here is a modestly astounding statistic: Fully half of the diners at Restaurant Gary Danko order a cheese course. On a busy night (and it's a rare night that's not) that means 60 plates of cheese, served tableside - enough to put even the most competent cheese cart driver in the weeds. The demand was enough to oblige the restaurant to custom design not one but two state-of-the-art cheese carts, and as carts go, these are magnificent: On a display of black granite, 18 cheeses ooze, rest and ripen before you; slots and compartments for flatware, plates, bread and fruit lie beneath, out of sight. And if you are lucky, behind the cart will stand the Cheese Princess, Lynn Andrews. While any of the floor staff can hold forth on the fromages du soir, Gary Danko's cheese program is clearly Andrews' domain. Only she can rattle off the seven essential vitamins common to all cheese, as well as several of the beneficial enzymes found nowhere else. She is given to quoting Clifton Fadiman - "cheese is milk's leap to immortality" - and you're right there with her, believing, fervent. Her knowledge and her passion and mesmerizing skills with the cloven cheese knife will render you powerless. Just hold out a plate, and give in.

Raised on the coast of Maine, Andrews came to her passion in Woodstock, Vermont, a tiny mountain town that nonetheless supported four fine restaurants - Andrews worked in two and her future employer, Gary Danko, got experience in the other two. It was at Jackson House that Andrews met her culinary mentor, chef Andrew Turner. Turner trained in Corsica (among other places), an island whose flora - scrub-brush thyme and rosemary, along with marjoram and lavender - makes an indelible stamp on the milk of the fauna, resulting in products like Brin d'Amour, a cheese as terroir-driven as a Gevrey-Chambertin. Natural practices, determined by landscape, by traditions of farming and husbandry, are, for Lynn Andrews, embodied in a wheel of cheese.

On a given night, there will be 16 to 20 cheeses on the Gary Danko cart: among them, two blues, a triple cream, a hard cow cheese, a hard sheep's cheese, a hard goat cheese, a soft sheep, a soft goat, an ashed cheese, a blooming rind. "Some are classical, but we've branched into new producers," she says. "I like to have a full retinue of the world, to take countries that haven't been as cheese-represented, and introduce them."

"Of course people are full, at the end of three courses. And then to have that cheese cart appear, and to smell that earthiness, that almost barnyard pungency, and to see all these different colors and shapes and sizes - the sheer overwhelmingness!" She knows exactly what they're going through: "It's like when you're a kid, and you've got five dollars and you can buy as much as you want at that candy counter, but you know you're going to get sick if you do." She smiles. "I leave the cart for a few minutes. I really want to just let them enjoy the full visual aspect." No one said the Cheese Princess played fair. "I just know they're not going to be able to do just two or three selections."

- Patrick Comiskey

Asian Cuisine and Wine

> Slanted Door I San Francisco
Prior to coming on as wine buyer at Slanted Door in San Francisco's Mission District, Mark Ellenbogen remembers eating Vietnamese cuisine only once. That was at Tan Dinh, in Paris, one of the world's most famous Vietnamese restaurants, and one noted especially for its superb wine list. Ellenbogen was captivated by the subtlety and delicacy of the food, but the wine list he found a little bizarre. "It consisted of 450 Pomerols - big, fat powerhouses that ran roughshod over the food." Consider it his first lesson in how not to pair wine with an Asian meal.

Charles Phan's cuisine is traditional Vietnamese, brought up to date by French technique, some of which his mother learned in a French hospital in Dalat, Vietnam. Like other Asian traditions, his invokes synergies of heat, sweet and salt. How these three elements work together changes with each dish, and it's what makes them so tricky to pair with the usual suspects on your average wine list. Dry wines tend to taste hollow, or shrill; oak dries the palate and leaves a none-too-pleasant bitterness in the mouth; and alcohol magnifies the heat on spicier dishes, concealing all the subtler flavors, like turning up the volume on a hearing aid.

Addressing the various styles and levels of heat for each dish became Ellenbogen's main pairing challenge. Fortunately, heat is a language Charles Phan knows well; he talks about heat as if it were a kind of tool, propelling sensations, flavors and textures to the mouth with varying degrees of intensity and precision. "For each dish," he says, "you ask, do you want it to strike the front of the tongue or the back of the tongue? Is the heat blunt or sharp? What's the heat source? Lemon grass? Peppered ginger? Sometimes we use a particular type of chile, a Thai chile, that has really piercing heat; literally like someone poking you with a needle. It's not like a punch to the face, like your jalapeño, it's more like a jab."

To manage this spectrum of heat sensations, Ellenbogen gathers a range of wine choices, none more versatile than riesling. It's the one grape that can parry with each ginger jab, Sichuan hook, or Thai dragon knockdown. German rieslings in particular - an underutilized species in this country - work well with Vietnamese dishes. With Phan's spicy jicama salad, for example, the heat creeps into your mouth and precisely erupts in a corner, like a surgical strike. It takes riesling to root it out. Ellenbogen pairs this with a 2000 Kabinett from Jacoby-Mathy, and the dish seems almost to focus the wine, making a run from pillowy to racy, turning peachy in the process. It's fascinating, and oh-so-mouthwatering.

Others have different approaches, such as Shibucho in LA, Wild Ginger in Seattle, or Henry's Evergreen in New York. A hint of French sensibility in a Japanese context may allow vintage Burgundy to shine just as readily as a Ginjo sake. Or a savvy sommelier may accentuate the presence of a unfamiliar spice like star anise with the specific licoricey finish of a certain '96 C™te R™tie. But no matter the specifics of the approach, the overall statement is a clear one. Forget any preconceptions you had about Asian cuisines not working with wine.

- Patrick Comiskey

 

> Shibucho I Los Angeles
Twenty years ago a doctor told Shige Kudo, chef/owner of LA's Shibucho, that he was drinking too much, and gave him a strict limit of one glass of wine per night. Kudo decided that if one glass was all he got, then that glass was going to be the best he could find - a decision that has benefited visitors to this hidden secret as well.

Shibucho occupies an unprepossessing building on a street with almost no foot traffic, in an area some might find a little dicey. That doesn't deter fans of this minimalist spot, which offers ambitious Japanese food and what many feel is the best wine list in the city. Chef/owner Shige Kudo has been cooking for thirty-seven years. "I always wanted to be a chef," he says with his broad, infectious grin. His philosophy is simple and straightforward. "Sushi has a great history and wine has a great history, so of course they go together. They are both pure."

There is no menu at Shibucho. The regulars know what they like, and the rest are left in Kudo's hands. Along the sushi bar that dominates the room, foie gras and caviar jostle with more traditional sushi ingredients, and bottles of rare Barolo, Chianti, Rioja and Bordeaux are common sights. To keep his cellar stocked, Kudo scours the auction market, resulting in surprises like a '76 Grivot Vosne-RomanŽe for $120 (or, for those in a big-ticket mood, a '61 Château Lafite-Rothschild for $1,600).

Or one can opt for a realm somewhere in between. One recent meal begins with Kudo decanting a Chambertin 1970, which he pairs with seared tuna albacore on a bed of chopped arugula finished with a dollop of caviar. "Good wine makes me happy," the chef observes with a quiet smile, as those plates are quickly whisked away. Another sip of wine, and then a delicate, aromatic dish - whitefish with fresh sautŽed foie gras from France and shitake mushrooms (plump and glorious and unlike the wizened stand-ins one so often finds). The surprises continue: first, a piece of toro with freshly grated wasabi, then a slice of tender halibut with French sea salt and a drop of lemon, followed by a luscious spoonful of uni. Kudo trained in traditional Japanese cuisine, but his love of wine has led him to borrow ingredients from Italian and French cuisine, too. The result, sui generis, entirely Shige Kudo, is deeply un-L.A. in that it's never about mere surface: as when Shige hands over a roll made with minced toro, Japanese pickles and shiso leaves. The crisp, encircling seaweed he sources himself from Japan, and while it enhances the flavor and adds to the texture, it somehow adds no flavor of its own. "Yes," Shige says, pleased to hear this, "very special."

Another bottle of wine is finished, plates are whisked away, but there's more: a 1934 Henriques & Henriques madeira that Kudo pours into cut-crystal glasses. And behind the sushi bar his hands are still moving, slicing paper-thin pieces of fig cake and spreading them with creamy Saint Agur cheese. In another restaurant, diners might check their watches, might feel the pressure of the outside world bearing in on them. Not here, it seems: even time defies expectations at Shibucho.

- Jessica Strand

 

> Wild Ginger I Seattle
"When I started this job ten years ago," Bruce Sturgeon says, "everyone knew that what went with our food was gewŸrztraminer, end of story. Now I have people from all over the world bringing me every kind of wine and saying 'this will go wonderfully with your cuisine.'" Sturgeon has spent the last decade searching out wines to complement the traditional Chinese and south-east Asian food at Seattle's perennially popular Wild Ginger, and his list offers a crash-course in happy, if unusual, pairings.

This list is too personal for verticals or trophy wines; there are more syrahs than cabernets, and aromatic whites outnumber chardonnays. The choices are clearly attuned to the food, which is focused, detailed and spicy all at once. There is a Trimbach '98 pinot gris for the miniscule clams pulled from the live tank and served in a pungent broth; or, for the duck with star anise and cinnamon, the spiciness of a '96 Cote Rotie from Jamet. The half-bottle list (including Rex Hill Pinot Gris and, yes, gewŸrztraminer, from Navarro and Hugel) is perfect for a late night snack of satay at the bar.

The restaurant shows outward signs of its successful thirteen-year tenure - the space they're in now, which they moved into a few years back, is sleek, beautiful, enormous and obviously expensive. What's more subtle is the degree of investment in the wine program. Few choices on the list are from current releases; instead, most of the 21,000-bottle inventory is in a temperature-controlled storage space waiting for its moment. "We serve the wine when it's ready," says Sturgeon, "and we can wait." Oh, and about that gewŸrztraminer? He's currently pouring the 1998 Zind-Humbrecht. But don't worry: Whenever you get there, it's liable to be something special.

- Robert Pincus

 

> Henry's Evergreen I New York
So these two guys, they're at the bar, nothing special, right? Usual sort of Thursday night, a little dim sum (some of the best north of Canal Street), a little Knicks on the overhead TV (they're losing, but hey), and a little Opus One.

Not your usual Chinese restaurant scene, but that's Henry's - which is to say that Henry's is all about the unexpected hiding within the familiar. And for that you can thank owner Henry Leung. Well-known dishes like steamed prawns with garlic or mu-shu pork bump shoulders with more esoteric offerings like braised chicken with dates and Chinese sausage, or Chilean seabass with sake sauce, and no kidding, the food is great; but what makes Henry's Evergreen the destination spot it's become are the wines.

Henry Leung got started on wine in 1976. When he was at Chiam in the mid-nineties his list featured close to 700 selections; now at Henry's he's trimmed that down to a more manageable (he says) 400 or so. "It's bent toward the California side," he says, "but I'm exploring more French and Italian possibilities." Markups at Henry's are minimal. "My key is to offer hard-to-find wines at reasonable prices. What I'm interested in doing is building my reputation," he says, and he's doing it by means of wines like a '98 Metisse for $75, or QupŽ's '98 Bien Nacido Hillside Select Syrah for a modest $59. And though he's a self-described cab man, who likes "big, tannic wines," - the list is dense with Montelenas and Silver Oaks, Dunns and Dalla Valles - there are white treasures lurking here, too. A '93 J.J. PrŸm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese for $48? Perfect for steamed fish with ginger sauce.

Leung's philosophy regarding the ins and outs of matching wines to Chinese cuisine is refreshingly straightforward. "Look, if you get Peking duck in a Hunan restaurant or roast duck in a Cantonese place, either one is going to go well with a pinot. The problem isn't the food itself; the problem is that people grow up eating Chinese food with all these condiments. My idea is take the salt and pepper, the soy sauce, the duck sauce, the hot chili sauce off the table; when these sauces hit your mouth, your palate is shot." Don't smother the flavor of the dish, in other words, and it will be clear what wine will serve it best. "With something like orange beef or General Tso's chicken, as long as the chef doesn't go overboard, then choose a shiraz or a zin. The sweetness and spiciness of the dish matches perfectly with the fruit and spice of either of those wines." Then there's dim sum: "A lot of dim sum is light and delicate, and perfect with a riesling, or a good pinot gris."

Of course, another aspect of Henry's philosophy might phrased "order what you like, and drink what you like" - and if the Knicks are losing by ten in the fourth quarter, you may need something a lot stronger than a floral white to fortify you, dim sum or not.

- Ray Isle

Wine Getaways

> Sooke Harbour House I Sooke, British Columbia
The few times I've met Sinclair Philip have been at extremely crowded and noisy wine "events" in New York City. Despite the clamor (Sinclair is extremely soft-spoken and unassuming), I was able to divine that he was the proprietor of a small inn and restaurant on Vancouver Island, located approximately 30 miles west of the city of Victoria. He claimed very modestly that Sooke Harbour was an attractive place to visit and that his restaurant possessed a rather special wine list. I dutifully promised to visit him some day, but you know how the time just simply slips away.

I looked at pictures of a number of the guest rooms at Sooke Harbour House. They were cute, maybe even verging on too cute. (One must remember that most of Canada is essentially our Midwest writ North.) When I did finally make it there, my room, "The Bird Watcher," had a hot tub on a private deck that seemed to ethereally float above the Sooke Harbour, and it was sweet.

The restaurant interior is not overly fancy. It is comfortable, as if one is visiting a family home, as indeed one is. The food is sophisticated and remarkably adventurous for rural Vancouver Island. But the wine list is the master-work of an extremely fanatical and dedicated individual.

The list is compendious. You will find great degrees of verticality in all of the first growth Bordeaux, 24 vintages of Mouton dating back to '53, 18 vintages of Haut-Brion back to '34. There are 18 vintages of Leoville back to '28 (great wine) and 14 vintages of Pichon-Lalande, dating back to 1922. Very heady stuff indeed for the unreconstructed claretophile. Sinclair has four vintages of Le Pin, for Godsake! He is definitely a man on a Mission. Actually 8 vintages of La Mission, to be precise. (I've waited a long time to use that one.)

Sinclair's fanaticism is in great evidence for those looking for some contact with the greatest of the greats: 32 selections of Gaja wines dating back to 1961, 12 vintages of Sassicaia, dating back to 1970, 11 vintages of Henschke's Hill of Grace and 16 vintages of Grange Hermitage. There are 17 vintages of Beaucastel dating back to 1980 and a virtual library of Guigal's Greatest Hits.

But the real genius of Sinclair's list is his extraordinary list of Canadian wines. He claims to possess the largest collection of wines from British Columbia in the world and a mystical number (99) of Canadian ice-wines. There is an almost Borgesian degree of encyclopedic British Columbiana. You want obscure; there are 19 selections of Venturi-Schulze wines from the Cowichan Valley, including such obscure varieties as Kerner, Sylvaner, Ortega and Schonburger. Not only are the superstars represented on this list; there is also a safe place for the Ugly Ducklings. I love this man.

We Americans don't know from the wines of the Okanagan Valley but their whites are sensational. Sumac Ridge Sauvignon is superb, and the Blue Mountain Pinot Gris is the best North American rendition I've encountered.

Lastly, the price of the wines on the list are amazingly fair, as there is a certain lire-ical quality these days to Canadian currency. The wine prices are indicated in both Canadian and American dollars, and, just like crossing the street in London, you are advised to keep your eyes right, as to do otherwise will lead to a bit of a shock.

- Randall Grahm

 

> Allred's I Telluride
First, of course, you have to get to Telluride. You can drive the six hours from Denver, through the high parks, along the Gunnison River, and around the north end of the San Juans; or you can fly a puddle jumper into the tiny mountainside airport that takes up the biggest flat piece of ground for fifty miles. But from Telluride itself there's only one way to get to Allred's, and that's almost straight up. What else would you expect from a restaurant whose address is "Gondola Station, St. Sophia's"?

In this airy room, all timber and stone and enormous glass windows, the crowd may look casual, but the menu and wine list are urbane and sophisticated. Chef Bob Scherner and sommelier George Bigley have retained the relentless attention to detail cultivated during their time at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. But out here they're freer to take risks - and they love it best when guests play along.

Scherner's spotlight is the six-person Chef's Table in the kitchen, where he serves whatever strikes his fancy, every dish expressing his passion for intensity of flavor. Bigley's challenge is finding a bottle to match the moment's improvisation, so he's gathered a bevy of fragrant viogniers, muscats and grŸner veltliners to round out the verticals of hard-to-find California cabernet. If Scherner comes up with smoked Colorado pheasant with butternut squash ravioli, Bigley can plumb his 8,000-bottle cellar for a funky 1990 Salomon Riesling SpŠtlese from Austria, a toasty, rich Littorai Chardonnay, or opt for the spicy earthiness of an Alban Reva syrah. The prices are so reasonable you might be tempted to try all three, and that's how Bigley wants it. "We're not like the John Hancock tower, where the martinis are twelve bucks," he says. "Up here the view is free."

At the end of the evening, just remember that the gondolas going left head back to town, with its hotels and bed and breakfasts, while the ones going right drop down to Mountain Village and its ski condos. I advise facing forward: The views are out of this world.

- Robert Pincus

 

> Inn at Little Washington I Washington, V.A.
The Inn at Little Washington may be America's most well-known destination eatery. Though co-owners Patrick O'Connell and Reinhardt Lynch host a small number of overnight guests, visitors find there is little to do in this sleepy postage stamp hamlet except rest and wait for the dinner bell to ring. But then the promise of a sumptuous meal is the reason people have been coming to the Inn for nearly twenty-five years. Whether they drive from Washington, D.C. (some seventy miles away) or fly from points farther afield, they come for the food - and the wine.

Executive chef O'Connell designs his menus with inventive wit. His most interesting dishes are sumptuous, fairy-tale renditions of well-known American foods. Examples include fishcakes (three on the plate, one each from crab, salmon and tuna, with a garden sorrel sauce), macaroni and cheese (ziti baked with aged gouda, local Virginia ham and white truffles), and foie gras sautŽed with country ham and black-eyed peas. Befitting the Inn's plush, romantic ambience, desserts are lavish, none more so than the "Seven Deadly Sins," a seductive sampler of tortes, tarts and chocolates.

When the Inn opened in 1978, there was no wine service. That's because Little Washington was legally dry. O'Connell and Lynch battled the local bureaucracy to change the law, and today they offer guests a 950-selection list. It includes the expected first-growth Bordeaux and grand cru Burgundies but also the off-beat, including cult California cabernets, a full page of wines from Virginia and an impressive number of half bottles.

Other rural resorts draw guests with sports and games, spas and pools. Though the real draw at the Inn at Little Washington is the dinner table, one shouldn't underestimate the seductive appeal of the place itself - behind the inn's somewhat stiff Colonial faade is a luxurious cocoon of plush decor and rich food, and while purists might object to a faint note of historical inaccuracy, the rest of us will happily sink into the lush surroundings, as we wait for that first sip of Champagne.

- Paul Lukacs

 

> The Ryland Inn I Whitehouse, NJ
One of the disheartening aspects of many restaurant reviews is that they overlook the wine list, or at best drop in an offhand comment noting its general depth and range of price. A chef's culinary legerdemain is crucial, true - but what is great food without great wine to go with it? So all the more alarming are endorsements of dining "destinations" that suggest you drive a hundred miles without promise of decent refreshment. No oenophilic diner-errant wants to arrive at the perfect inn-restaurant, only to discover that, while the menu is filled with marvels, the number of intriguing wines could be inscribed on a souvenir matchbook, with room to spare. The problem is simple: merely good wine can be found anywhere for sure, but great wine and great food together under one roof is a rare treat, indeed.

That's where destinations like The Ryland Inn come into play. If you happen to search for directions on The Ryland Inn's website (www.rylandinn.com), for example, the first words you'll encounter are: "Heliport Information and Coordinates" - undoubtedly a relief for well-heeled Manhattanites, who can simply leap the Hudson and land their choppers in the restaurant's stately paddock (the rest of us will enjoy the leisurely hour or so drive into New Jersey horse country). Chef-owner Craig Shelton's oasis is housed in a former country house and stagecoach stop that was built in 1796 on ten acres of rolling hills and velvet pastures.

Shelton, who holds a degree in biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University, offers guests a selection of tasting menus that include the option to have wine expertly paired with each course, a choice that adds $70 and $140, respectively, to the $90/eight-course and $120/ten-course per person prix fixe tasting menus. Those who prefer to choose wine themselves will find plenty within the three wine cellars: one for everyday kept at 55” F; one just for whites kept at 48” F; and the other just for reds kept at 65” F. It's easy to get lost in assistant general manager Francois Rousseau's 45-page wine list, oriented towards French wines, with a smattering of American, Spanish, Italian and German selections. Craving Latour? They've got 1945, '55, '59, '70, '82 (in 750ml and magnum) and '90. If Cheval Blanc is more your speed, they have 1961, '70, '82, '89, '90.

But back to Jersey - which, believe it or not, really does deserve its nickname as the Garden State - and back to Ryland. Though the Inn really isn't an inn, Shelton does hope to convert the upstairs rooms into a true B&B in the near future. Until then, he and his staff recommend guests stay at the cozy-luxe Summerfield Suites in nearby Bridgewater, about five minutes down the road. Captains of industry and movie stars should be advised, however, that the Summerfield has no helipad.

- Anthony Giglio