2003

The marriage question. We heard it this year from sommeliers we interviewed for our 14th Annual Restaurant Poll, we heard it from chefs doffing their tocques to sign up for wine classes, we heard it from friends at the tables next to us: wine pairing, the question of what to drink with what you eat, is hot.
And it's a question that dovetails with some of the year's top restaurant trends. If your stomach is growling for HOUSE-MADE CHARCUTERIE, for instance, be it foie gras and saucisson or lardo and testa, the sommeliers inside these pages will know what to suggest. If you'd rather experiment on your own, go BY THE GLASS through some of the country's most ambitious lists. But when you're puzzling over what to drink with that plate of blue corn enchiladas or crawfish etoufée, consider what the folks working in AMERICAN REGIONAL CUISINE have to say. Or maybe we've got you all wrong, and a cloudberry martini is your kind of drink: if so, check out the latest in LOUNGE CUISINE.
The twelve restaurants profiled within are tops in their neighborhoods, but don't worry if their reservation line doesn't happen to be in your area code. The 428 restaurants who responded to our annual poll are listed starting on page 94, every last one of them wine-savvy and vino-adventurous. Drop in, and find out what's new on the culinary horizon.
House-Made Charcuterie

> L'Auberge Chez François I Great Falls
Few places conjure Old World France better than the inside of a village charcuterie. The salty, gamey smell, the sausages hanging from the ceiling, the pâtés, terrines and rillettes arrayed on plates and in earthenware bowls, each hiding under a thick layer of fat, represent some of the most traditional flavors of France. While Americans once demanded French cuisine be haute — refined, complex sauces, on the best fish and cuts of meat — we're now packing into bistros in cities like New York, San Francisco and L.A., ordering simpler fare — steak frites, salade Niçoise, and, most basic of all, l'assiette de charcuterie.
Of course, the best saucissons, pâtés and rillettes (not to mention the best Italian cured salami, soppressatas and prosciutto) come from those tradition-minded restaurants that go to the trouble of making their own, instead of buying them, ready-made from purveyors. L'Auberge Chez François is one such place, a country inn on the outskirts of Washington, DC, with a homey, antique atmosphere and a decades-long reputation for fine Alsatian cuisine. In 1975, Alsace-born restaurateur François Haeringer moved here from Chez François, his downtown DC location, bringing his three sons and a room full of family heirlooms (grandfather clocks, hand-painted crockery, copper bed warmers). Now, François' oldest son Jacques runs the kitchen, reproducing and reinterpreting his father's recipes, none more traditional than his assiette de cochonailles et crudité, a selection of three or four pâtés and rillettes made from pork, venison, duck and goose liver.
"Alsace is famous for pâté," says Jacques. "It's said the region has forty indigenous varieties. And pâté de foie gras was invented by an Alsatian." That's the most refined version of the dish, a fancy cousin to the humbler, more common pâté campagnard, generally made from pork. Pâté means "dough" in French and was traditionally made with a crust, while terrine translates to a crust-less pâté preserved in an earthenware dish. Rillette refers to a potted, fork-shredded meat. All three arise out of the same process, blending and slow-cooking spiced meats, then preserving them under a layer of fat. François, whose relatives owned and ran a charcuterie in Alsace, once made all the pâtés himself, and he still tastes and corrects each one, pinching and dashing a spice rack's worth of seasoning into the mix.
The wine list at L'Auberge Chez François leans heavily on Alsatian whites, from grand cru riesling to simpler sylvaners and pinot blancs. Paul Haeringer, François's youngest son and the restaurant's sommelier, favors the latter with pâté. "You don't want to get complicated," he says. "Something fresh and light, not too sweet." Uncomplicated food demands uncomplicated wine: a useful rule of thumb for anyone sitting down to a good plate of charcuterie.
- Taylor Antrim

 

> BABBO, LUPA, OTTO I New York
Three heads are better than one: If you order the testa — or head cheese — at one of the three Greenwich Village restaurants run by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, you'll find that each one is different. But all are variations on Batali's basic recipe for cooking the head of a pig: "You take your head. You boil it. Everything falls out, the eyelids, the teeth, everything. You remove the jaw and bone and chop up everything else. You season the liquid, put the meat in a mold, then pour the liquid over it. Put it in the fridge and let it set. Then put it on the slicer. It's an easy recipe." And it takes easily to variations.
At Babbo, just west of Washington Square Park, Batali creates a meaty testa by dry-rubbing the heads with salt and pepper. He poaches them, pulls them apart and packs them into molds. Once set, he slices the testa thick to serve with potato, mustard seeds, thyme vinaigrette and shallot pickles. Batali's testa is rustic, meaty, fatty and rich, like a pork brisket.
At Otto, just to the north of the Park, chef Zach Allen creates the most spice-driven testa of the three — Batali calls him "The Manipulator." Allen brines the pigs' heads for four days in salt, brown sugar, cloves, black peppercorns, chili flakes and bay leaves (and a little Instacure to keep the color in the pork), then poaches them slowly for eight hours with whole oranges, three per head. Then he pulls off the meat, breaks up the oranges, adds gelatin and forms them into a cylinder. The result is richly textured with a slight crunch from the orange, the oiliness of the pork cut by the citrus and spice.
At Lupa, just a few blocks to the south, chef Mark Ladner uses the same spices for the brine, but poaches the heads with carrot, celery and onion. That testa is served slightly warmed, with fennel pollen; it tastes soft and plump, with a gentle spice.
Batali has found that the less you remove, the better the testa. "Our first mistake when we started was to pull the fat out. That's part of it. And we learned that chopping bigger is better for the texture." He's also learned a thing or two from his father, Armandino, a retired Boeing engineer who's established a second career as a salumist in Seattle. Batali senior helped develop the recipes that his son and Dan Latham now use for their cured meats at Italian Wine Merchants, supplying the three Village restaurants.
Latham cures lonza (pork loin with fat), coppa (the shoulder muscle, called butt), guanciale (the jowl), lardo (fatback) and salumino picante (from blade meat, the trimming off the top of a butt). Tasting the different meats, Bastianich suggests a Scarbolo Tocai from Friuli, and Batali explains how to do it: "Taste them from the least to the most salty. When you put it in your mouth, before you chew it and mix the salty outside with the unsalty inside, put it on your tongue like a communion host. The top of your mouth starts to get whatever the animal ate, then the fat melts and becomes washy, then the salt kicks in. Then chew." Try it at the bar at Lupa or Otto, where you can order a selection of the meats, all made from specially selected free-range pigs.
"The problem with pigs in America," Batali explains, "is that they started breeding them thin. If you go to a store, you get fatback that's three-quarters to an inch thick. We keep the pigs longer, fatten them up outside in the cold, and the fatback gets to be four inches thick. It cures down to about two and a half." The pigs come in to Latham, who butchers them, using the various parts for the various cures, then hangs them to age at the back of the Italian Wine Merchants. Then he'll wrap the head in newspaper, drop it in a shopping bag, hail a taxi and run it over to Lupa or Babbo. There, if you order a plate of testa, lonza or guanciale, Bastianich would suggest a rustic regional wine.
"Anywhere you've got a cured meat culture, you can go region by region with the classically styled indigenous wine," he says. "The vegetal styles of refosco and merlot from Friuli that people won't drink here, if you taste them with the raw style of salami that's soft as ground meat, cut by hand, smeared on bread, there's nothing better together. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo with salumino picante...Vermentino with lardo...Lambrusco with prosciutto di Parma...." And what Bastianich drinks: his and his friends' tocai friulano.
- Joshua Greene

 

> Oliveto I Oakland
"The reactions that turn raw meat into edible salami are complex," says Paul Bertolli of Oakland's Oliveto. "And it's the entirety of this process from whole animal to sausage over several months that captivates me." It's appropriate then that Mondays at Oliveto, where Bertolli is executive chef, begin with a whole (slaughtered) 250-pound pig, which Bertolli carves up, surgically separating muscle from bone, removing cartilage and tendon. Ultimately that one pig can become as many as 45 different varieties of cured meats, salamis, sausages, terrines and pâtés. Once finished, they might as well be works of art. In the dull light of a winter afternoon, translucent slices of various meats glisten grey, pink and white: spicy soppressata, venison salami, rabbit pâté, and obscure items such as cresponi, a light and subtly flavored pork salami, and ciccioli, a rich, formed rendering of lard with bits of meat sprinkled throughout.
Bertolli travels to Italy a couple of times a year, usually to Parma and Modena, the capitals of curing, to learn subtleties that you might not consider when contemplating salumi. For instance: tying. "I thought I was a pretty good at tying," he says, "until I saw these guys in Italy. Then I knew I had to get better. Every sausage has its own protocol. Last time I was in Italy I had a whole practicum on twine."
Such attention to detail seems natural for this modest, measured chef, which is also why he oversees the wine list, featuring 21 wines by the glass, many chosen with salumi in mind. With the ciccioli, for instance, Bertolli favors a spritzy lambrusco to freshen the mouth after the dense richness of the lard. For meatier and spicier sausages, he prefers fuller wines such as barbera or dolcetto. With rich pâtés and terrines, he suggests the focused acidity of good German riesling.
Bertolli points out the many similarities between wine and salumi. Both are fermented and uncooked. Hang time is a key component for each. And like a wine, sausage magically develops complexity over time. Which brings us back to one of the reasons why Bertolli loves making salumi — process. "I lose myself in it. It's pleasing to be part of a process that you only partially understand."
- Jordan Mackay

by-the-glass programs

> EOS I San Francisco
Let's face it: Wine lists are lists. That makes them, on first glance, about as interesting as spreadsheets. There's a personality somewhere in those pages, but it usually takes some time and effort to find it. How, then, does a wine list introduce itself? One of the more direct routes is through its by-the-glass selection. It's like a short course in the personality of the restaurant, the tastes of the clientele, and what inspires the sommelier. Indeed, if a wine list has a pulse at all, you should find it in the glass offerings.
Take Eos. For years, this small neighborhood restaurant and wine bar in San Francisco's Cole Valley has had one of the largest and most whimsical by-the-glass lists in the city. This was a selection where the fancies of sommeliers (first Debbie Zacharias, then Eugenio Jardim) were enthusiastically met by the neighbors, whom you'd call well-heeled if this hadn't been the apex of the internet age, and those heels were more likely Tevas. Eos was where cru Beaujolais was poured alongside, say, the latest deep-dish cab from the cult-winemaker du jour. In boom times, customers could, and often did, order a bottle of Bryant Family Cabernet to go with their hamburger. The check would read: food, $16; beverage, $650.
Those days are well past us. The dot-com millionaires have sold their hillside homes and moved back in with their mothers in Chico, leaving Eos to evolve yet again, into the neighborhood restaurant it never quite got the chance to be.
Eos's wine program is currently in the hands of Darin Snow, who is busily making more from less. The list itself is a little leaner, down to 250 wines from 400, but the number of wines on offer in two- and five-ounce pours still hovers around fifty. And it's plenty eclectic. There's still a cru Beaujolais (Metrat's, from Fleurie), but now it's poured alongside carmenŹres, pinotages, txakolinas and Rhônes. Most of the wines here can be grouped into broad flights which are, according to Snow, flying out the door. The best thing about Eos's new look is that it's not really a new look at all: you can still expect to be surprised.
Surprises await you in other parts of the country as well, at The Stained Glass in Evanston, Illinois, which gives a nod to Austrian heurigen while Michael Weyna's tasting flights meld perfectly with chef Victor Hernandez's ambitious cuisine; or in the program at A.O.C. in Los Angeles, a rotating selection of fifty different wines by the glass or carafe, lovingly compiled by Master Sommelier-in-training Carolyne Styne to match chef Suzanne Goin's fresh, market-driven menu. And those are just a glimpse of the adventurous by-the-glass lists appearing around the country.
- Patrick J. Comiskey

 

> The Stained Glass I Evanston
In 1990, Michael Weyna's concept for The Stained Glass Wine Bar, Bistro and Cellar kicked in while touring the heurigen of Vienna, the local equivalent of our wine bars. "We were at a communal table enjoying great food and fabulous wine and you could tell the owner really cared," says Weyna. "It was all about the joy of the table and I thought, why can't we have that feeling in the States?" Eight years later, he opened his hundred-seat bistro in Evanston, where he offers 32 wines by the glass, as well as more than 100 bottles, also for retail sale.
The list changes monthly; grouped into ten three-ounce flights, it features many little-known producers. "I promote the underdogs," says the 37-year old Evanston native, "the farmers, not the stuff you see on a conventional restaurant list."
Weyna designs the flights to match chef Victor Hernandez's food. His ‘Gone Fishing' sampler, for instance, includes a 2001 Langenlois Grüner Veltliner from Jurtschitsch, a more acidic 1999 Domaine Klipfel "Freiberg" Gewürztraminer from Alsace, and a fuller 2001 Santa Barbara Roussanne from Garretson Wine Company. Each is a seafood wine in its own way, but all work especially well with a dish carrying a little weight, like Hernandez's pan-roasted scallops with chanterelle mushrooms.
Weyna is equally obsessed with the sequence of the samplers. The three-wine flights are arranged from left to right, in the direction of higher acidity and complexity. "The tasting order is crucial and there's lots of ebb and flow," Weyna says, "but I don't put wines together that combat each other." The ‘Frog vs. Grape,' for example, works from a light and flowery 2001 Domaine de Montmarino Viognier to a crisp 2001 Plaimont Cuvée Retrouvées from Gascony to a rich and structured 1999 Chateau Haut LaGrange Pessac-Leognan. Though each wine is quite different from the others, the flight gives a nice sense of the range of French whites and works masterfully with the terrine of smoked salmon. "The key for us is to celebrate the diversity of wine," says Weyna. "I can only try to understand the wine, but I can provide a theatre for the tasting experience."
- Laura Levy Shatkin

 

> A.O.C. I Los Angeles
For months, Los Angeles wine and food lovers have been anticipating the opening of Suzanne Goin and Carolyn Styne's A.O.C. (Appellation d'Origine Controlée). Devotees of their first restaurant Lucques wondered what Goin would put on her new, more casual menu. As it turns out, Goin's approach rings familiar: fresh ingredients, locally produced, responsibly farmed, fished or cultivated, simply prepared — only the plates are smaller. "The idea for A.O.C. was born out of both Suzanne's and my passion for going out and trying a variety of appetizers and sipping on various intriguing wines by the glass," says Carolyn Styne.
The space recalls of one those spare, downtown New York City restaurants of the late 1980's: art-free monochromatic walls set at severe angles, not exactly cozy but definitely elegant. And anywhere you sit — the bar, the charcuterie bar, a table or a banquette — you'll likely find yourself facing the centerpiece of the room, the Cruvinet, a specially designed system for keeping bottles fresh, which fills the wall behind the bar like a giant altar to wine.
The 50 wines from the Cruvinet are available by glass or carafe. "We visited a lot of wine bars that had up to hundred wines by the glass," says Styne, "and it just became too overwhelming. We didn't want choosing a wine to drink to take away from the experience of being with friends." Among those 50, you'll find selections with a heavy emphasis on France, Italy and California, ranging from the small and secretive (Le Secret Ivre, a southern French white) to the grand and plus belle (Peter Michael Belle Côte Chardonnay). Another option is a flight, like a recent chenin blanc tasting Styne offered: a 2001 California chenin from Vinum Cellars, and two Vouvrays, a 2000 Domaine de la Fontainerie and a Domaine le Peu de la Moriette from 1989 — $12 for the flight.
The menu and wine list were developed to complement each other. "There are many herbs, oils and cheeses in the food here," says Styne. "So I choose lots of high acid wines. I've never been a fan of heavy oak. I'm drawn to earthy flavors." Think of meaty, soft dates filled with a sliver of Parmesan, wrapped in bacon, and roasted in the wood-burning oven until they're crisp on the outside and gooey on the inside, paired with a floral, fruity 2000 Paolo Baya Santa Chiara from Umbria. Or consider a rich foie gras terrine with plump sweet-and-sour prunes enjoyed with a glass of the 2001 Château de Rozay Condrieu.
Plunge in and allow your instincts to guide you. In A.O.C.'s understated environment there are no distractions from the wine list and menu, so sit back and let the flavors go to work.
- Jessica Strand

American Regional Cuisine

> Café Pasqual's I Santa Fe
When you want a hard-core taste of Santa Fe, head to The Shed, where locals have gone for their ‘bowl of red' since 1953. The thick, red, saucy soup has the bitter bite characteristic of the local Chimayo chiles, a taste that seems to sum up life here at 8,000 feet: cold, wind-whipped, sun-burnt and hard, yet beautiful, too.
Try to drink wine with a "bowl," though, and you'll suffer weird looks. (I know; I tried.) Anyway, there's no wine on earth that can ride that bitterness, let alone harmonize with it. And that sums up the challenge: Traditional regional American cuisines didn't grow up around wine. They grew out of local ingredients and cultures; most likely, their originators had a glass of milk, cider or beer in hand. We're not talking delicate flavors made to meld with merlot. We're talking bold, gutsy notes descending from iron pots and open fires in a rough, young land.
Still, who says wine drinkers can't have their soul food and drink wine too? Whatever your hometown cuisine, there's someone out there who has found a way to keep the essential flavors and the vibe, while adding wine. In Santa Fe, finding a place that says "New Mexico" all over it yet serves fine wine requires passing up The Shed, but it also means skipping all the slick joints serving Chimayo-chile rubbed tuna. Where you end up is at the rickety blue screen door of Café Pasqual's. Chef/owner Katharine Kagel may be a Jewish Berkeleyite with culinary leanings towards Mexico, but her restaurant feels like Santa Fe.
"I have great respect for the traditional cuisine," Kagel says. "It's very simple, based on dried foods — chile, corn, beans. Even vegetables were sliced and dried in the sun." Those ingredients inform her menu, but don't limit it. "I don't use Chimayo chile," Kagel confesses. "It's too sour, bitter; it's limiting." What? Heresy! But borrowing Mexico's guajillo, ancho and pasilla chiles makes for a red sauce with so much fruity, spicy depth under the roasted chile bitterness that it can echo the fruity spice of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Vieux Telegraphe — the bottle I ordered on the dare of my bowl-of-red fearing dinner guest. "Remember," Kagel says, "New Mexico was once the northern border of Mexico." What about the lemongrass in the ceviche? "Latitude is attitude. There's what I call Equatorial food: All around the twenty-first parallel, people are using the same basic ingredients." In her view, New Mexico is just one stop on a ring of garlic, onion, chile and citrus that belts the world.
That enlarged view is what makes room for the wine, from California chardonnays to go with griddled masa cakes to an array of spicy reds from California, Italy, Rioja and the Rhône to pair with the plato supremo and other chile-laced foods. What sets Café Pasqual's food apart from Santa Fe fancy — besides the downmarket prices — is that Kagel uses New Mexico as home base, rather than simply applying its spicing to classical European cuisine. She hunts about for local ingredients and often goes no further than her kitchen to source new recipes from the largely Mexican staff who populate it. The result isn't a showcase for New Mexican cuisine, per se, but a celebration of all the things that go into it: the history, the food, the rich array of people, the influences. Sit at the communal table in the center of the room, surrounded by locals, tourists and transplants swapping tales and sometimes glasses of wine, and you'll know what I mean.
- Tara Q. Thomas

 

> Chef Mavro I Honolulu
Hawaii may be remote, but its regional cuisine is anything but isolationist. For instance: George Mavrothalassitis, of Honolulu's Chef Mavro, is a Frenchman of Greek ancestry who worked with a range of French culinary icons, then owned restaurants in Marseilles and Cassis before he settled in Honolulu over 14 years ago. Call him a one-man melting pot leaning toward France — his feet dug firmly into Oahu beach sand.
His love affair with local produce — from Sumida watercress to Big Island greens to Keahole lobster — helps define his dishes. A roster of local fish is highlighted, too, and this merging of the local with the out-there results in creations like filet mignon topped by a Pacific oyster and accompanied by braised Swiss chard, lemongrass sauce and a hint of pinot noir. But Mavrothalassitis may be better known for slightly less esoteric dishes, like roasted Kahuku prawns with a quinoa salad of upcountry vegetables, basil and a spicy curry vinaigrette.
Mavrothalassitis pulls in wines from all over the world and works hard to design matches that complement them. His menu header reads "The Art of Pairing Food & Wine," and the listings demonstrate this commitment to artful combinations. Each ą la carte item is paired with a glass of wine selected by committee — about a dozen talented foodies and/or wine geeks — and the three-, four-, and six-course prix fixe menus are given the same treatment. With these wine pairings, the blissful domesticity of Chef Mavro's Hawaiian-French food becomes ménage ą trois excitement, with wines like a Sauvignon St. Bris from Chablis accompanying a ceviche of six local fish, or a Willamette Valley pinot blanc side-by-side Mavrothalassitis's signature onaga, a sunset-red longtail snapper, baked in an Hawaiian salt crust.
Mavrothalassitis doesn't encourage people to order from his regular wine list, unless the party will consider splitting a different bottle, one glass per person, with every course and has tasted each course from a previous visit. Rigid? Not really. Just embrace the advice all new arrivals in Hawaii are given: "kick back and go with the flow." You'll be safe letting Chef Mavro and his tasting committee do the work for you.
- Chris Goodhart

 

> Upperline I New Orleans
What JoAnn Clevenger dreams, New Orleans eats — particularly when her dreams involve tangy, rust-colored shrimp remoulade spooned over fried green tomatoes pebbled with cornmeal. This citified Creole twist on an archetypal Southern country dish didn't exist prior to a nighttime vision Clevenger had in 1992; today it's a fixture on menus throughout New Orleans, including Upperline, Clevenger's sunshine-colored restaurant.
Upperline has been home to four chefs over 20 years, all of whom embraced the city's tastes and ran with them — though not too far. Current chef Kenneth Smith stepped into the kitchen as an apprentice 13 years ago. "We want the food to reflect the spirit of the region without being a clone of the past," says Clevenger. "I call it ‘classic New Orleans with adventure.'"
That's how watercress found its way into Upperline's oyster stew; how corn cakes replaced the customary white rice beneath duck-andouille etouffée; and how shrimp bisque, an appetizer, became an ingredient in Cane River Country Shrimp, the most recent dish to amass accolades.
Clevenger's romance with the city extends to Upperline's walls, which are splashed with local art, and to her employees, many of whom wandered in from the immediate Uptown neighborhood. Among these casual staff additions was a former winemaker, Steven Roberto, hired even as he paid for a take-out order; his legacy is Upperline's wine program, which is as solid and adventuresome as its food (and he still consults for them, albeit from his current home in Singapore).
"I grew up Southern Baptist: I knew good food but nothing about wine," Clevenger confesses about the restaurant's early days. Now reformed, so to speak, she loves how crisp, sweetish rieslings parry with the region's cayenne-powered foods; a 1999 Trimbach Gewürztraminer from Alsace alongside dark, country-style gumbo is "joyous." The equal success of understated French wines, she says, may reflect the longstanding culinary connection between France and New Orleans.
Reformed in wine knowledge, Clevenger is nevertheless notorious for her whimsies and admits to ordering a case of Grant Burge's "The Holy Trinity" from Australia's Barossa Valley for its name alone. Upperline's roasted duck with ginger-peach sauce may never meet a worthier match.
- Sara Roahen


lounge cuisine

> Good World & Merge I New York
We wanted food, and we wanted drinks, but there was that restless thing, too, the sense of the city as a checkerboard of choices, the sense of the night as an adventure and an exploration. Sure, we could have gone to one of the places we knew well, hunkered down for the evening behind three courses and a couple of bottles of wine, but sometimes — and maybe now more than ever — life seems too potentially short to get locked in to one restaurant.
Call it a lounge crawl. A bite here, a nosh there, a martini down on Bleecker Street and then maybe another over on Delancey. Of course, it involves risks, too: the first place we stopped was, well, uneven. A decent caparinha defeated by a skewer of rubber shrimp. Not so good. The next place was, well, not our scene — so few of us were ex-convicts, and while we had a couple of tattoos amongst us, none of them said "Whore Life" or featured a machete dripping blood. We left. Then we hit the Japanese place with the million-bottle scotch list — and six seats. Two hour wait? Arigato gozaimas, but it's sayonara for you, ace.
And then we found Good World. Normally we wouldn't expect an old barber shop on the back end of New York's Chinatown to house a lounge, but the world is full of surprises and some of them are actually good. We walked into Good World and found it sublime: the low-key vibe, the slightly haphazard but friendly service, the wintry glimpse of the garden out back, the scenesters noshing on — Swedish meatballs? As they say, don't knock it until you've tried it. Good World offers a small-plates menu of what might be called pan-Scandinavian dishes: potato pancakes with lumpfish caviar; four kinds of herring; smoked Norwegian shrimp; and, of course, those addictive meatballs, served with homemade pickles and lingonberry sauce. The next step is simple: Order a cloudberry martini (after all, the Finns, Swedes and Norwegians once fought wars over cloudberry harvesting rights, so you owe it to them) or a berzerker (aquavit, Absolut citron, ginger ale & dry vermouth, garnished with a cucumber slice) or the alarmingly tar-like but tasty lakrits shot, relax — and then leave.
We had to! Good God — what if people are having even more fun somewhere else? So: our next stop, a converted Chinese basement bathhouse, DJs spinning tunes for lounge lizards and lizardettes swilling vodka in what used to be multi-person shower stalls (don't ask) — OK, fun, sort of. Good for a drink. For food? Well, who knows what used to go on here. What if they cook the stuff in what used to be the notorious back room? Onward!
And so it's on through the night, until, weary but firm in our resolve to make it until the sun rises and the half-alive sad-sacks of the everyday world crawl out of bed and set to work making the world dull; until we're tipsy but still steady on our pins and we wind it up at Merge. This is the other side of the lounge trend: Merge used to be a full-on restaurant, but then it took a swerve, or right turn, or something. Sam DeMarco, chef, owner and impresario, says, "You know, the biggest point is it's noncommital. Have a drink, have some bites, but it's not like going out to dinner. And people are aware of finance right now. A menu with a lot of three, four, five dollar options is really popular." All too true, we agree. Tough times indeed. We'd better have some crisp Asian oysters and lollipop buffalo wings and the mysteriously named "Chicken Thang" to help cheer us up. DeMarco, who needs nine arms to work his magic at the bar but gets away with the usual two, adds, "People ask me why I'd want to cook back here, and I tell them, ‘Hey, I like being behind the bar because it's close to the alcohol!'" Whoa. Very true. We'd better have the house-special Champagne cocktail and a Manhattan or two to help us assimilate this vital info. And a couple of Mr. DeMarco's sublime salmon tartare cones, too.
OK. The sun wasn't up yet, but some of us were melting off our bar stools. Half-alive sad-sack, fine, whatever, just get me to a bed. Meanwhile the tough ones, the brave few, downed their drinks and stood. New neighborhoods beckoned, the siren call of another cocktail sang in the three a.m. streets. It may just be lounging, but someone's got to do it.
- Ray Isle

 

> Saint I Boston
Saint has been the talk of Boston since it opened last November because it's the hippest spot in town and because it's so unusual. "Our biggest challenge is to describe it," says Saint creator Brian Lesser, a former partner in Back Bay's voguish Barcode and Vox. "People just don't get it — there are so many different components: We're sort of like a nightclub, but we're not. We're sort of like a club, but we're not. We're sort of like a restaurant, but we're not."
So what the heck is Saint? A "boutique nightery," says Lesser, explaining the concept of an eatery that offers food more satisfying than a bar or lounge but less formal than a restaurant. Lesser's partner Richie Balsbaugh likens Saint to an avant-garde boite in Prague, with three distinctly different lounges, three bars, a 30-foot communal table, and enough VIP pods to accommodate a post-Oscar party. The Threshold Room, for instance, features a vodka infusion bar showcasing hand-blown infusion jars filled with fruits and spices, such as vanilla/pear, mandarin orange/raspberry and apple/cinnamon. The Bordello Room, on the other hand, is a riot of red fabric, including beds designed for "power lounging" — whatever that is. But no matter where you sit, the tables measure 22 inches high, rather than the usual 28, so that you never sit formally. "It's all about lounging," insists Lesser.
Chef and third partner Rene Michelena's "mini-cuisine" menu is what sets Saint apart from any other lounge that serves food. Michelena grew up in Manila, where he learned to merge Mediterranean and Asian culinary influences, a talent that landed him gigs at Patina in Los Angeles and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. Of Michelena, former mentor Charlie Trotter says, "In all my years of experience, only eight or ten chefs have demonstrated Rene's extraordinary palate. He's capable of making flavors sing." And he's making diners happy, too, with a menu ranging in price between $8 and $22. What dishes does a boutique nightery feature? How about Thai beef carpaccio with mint and coriander, or tuna tartare and Osetra caviar with chanterelles and miso? Or, if you need more heft, try the Ditalini fonduta "mac 'n cheese" with white truffles, or Balinese melting shortribs with black sesame seeds and haricot verts. Oh, and there's no need for a knife. Everything arrives pre-sliced for easy eating.
- Anthony Giglio

 

> The Chi-Cha Lounge I Washington, DC
Washington, DC's U Street corridor offers funky vintage clothing stores, designer bakeries, velvet rope nightclubs and quiet row houses. A five year U Street veteran, the Chi-Cha Lounge, lays out a similarly exotic mix: martinis, hookah pipes, black clad euro-hipsters, and traditional Andean cuisine. Somehow, this is all less bewildering than it sounds. In DC's sometimes stuffy scene, the U Street corridor is an appealingly eclectic option, and the Chi-Cha a comfy place to pass an hour or three. Just settle deep into one of the many couches and chairs, peer through the dim, red-lit light at the menu, and ponder your choices. Hungry? There are a dozen hot and cold cosas, from empanada ChileĖa (flaky pastry filled with beef, olives and raisins) to arepa la espanola (a grilled corn pancake stuffed with chorizo) to tortilla de Los Andes (a kind of Andean meat pie). A full bar offers all the cocktail standards, but take a look around and you'll mostly see bottles of the house specialty glowing in the candle light. It's called Chi-Cha Morada, a traditional Latin American drink made from corn, pineapple, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, a little wine and Tequila. Traceable to ancient Incan culture, Chi-Cha Morada can be found throughout Latin and South America in dozens of forms and variations. Chi-Cha's version goes down sweet and a bit spicy, like an unusual take on sangria.
The lounge's Ecuador-born owner Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld touts the drink's mystical properties, branding the stuff "a sure-fire love potion." Mauricio experimented with a number of recipes, until he found one that really hit. "Traditionally you're supposed to chew the corn in your mouth and spit it back into the pot," he says. "But we boil our ingredients together. Also, the longer you leave it to ferment, the stronger it gets. I'd like to ferment the Chi-Cha longer, but we go through gallons every week," he declares.
The sweet-spicy mix of the Chi-Cha Morada (and the other traditional drinks on the menu, like the warm, chai-like El Canelazo or the Andean sangria with orange juice, Tequila, red wine and Champagne) matches the savory lentils or spicy chorizo in the tapas-sized dishes. The combination is warm, comfy, exotic — like the vibe in the room. An hour of this can be pretty transporting, especially when the live bossanova band strikes up "The Girl from Ipanema", at 9:30 or so, right on cue.
- Taylor Antrim