2004

Since we are what we eat - and drink - it's always revealing to consider where we eat. Whether the economy is strong or struggling, people are constantly opening new restaurants, or changing the theme of their current kitchens. This year, when we set out to research how diners are spending their tax cuts, we found some intriguing trends.
  One is that the authentic can be less expensive than the fancy (or fanciful). If Le Cirque 2000 was the Italian concept restaurant of the last century, family cooking from the small towns of Italy is the comfort food of this one. Similarly, Panamerican fusion extravaganzas like Douglas Rodriguez's original Patria, which flew high in the nineties, have led to Peruvian çeviche joints with no tablecloths at all - and often, no wine lists. Just bring your own sauvignon blanc.
  Or bring your own Burgundy to Montrachet, or any number of big name restaurants of the last decade that have recently established BYOB nights. Even so, one night a week is not enough for some wine collectors, who've chosen not only to bring their own, but to start their own - restaurants, that is. Melissa Clark investigates this trend in her Chefs & Collectors story, on page 74.
  And if you're headed out to buy your own, direct from the wineries, you'll be pleased to find great new restaurants opening up in wine country far beyond the well-traveled roads of Napa and Sonoma. We didn't set out to build a destination section for budget-minded diners. But we did find a lot to keep us well fed for less.
Wine Country Dining

> Bistro Laurent I Paso Robles
The earthquake that struck Paso Robles, CA in late 2003 shut down Bistro Laurent just as it was entering the busiest week of the year. It was one of nearly 100 businesses, most clustered near the picturesque town square, that were forced to close. Several buildings were destroyed; still more had to be demolished later because of structural damage. And area wineries lost thousands of gallons of wine from barrels that had crashed to cellar floors from their stacks.
  Still, owner Laurent Grangien considers himself among the lucky - minor damage at the roofline, a few broken bottles, a kitchen still intact and functioning. In fact, the disaster allowed him to do a thing he'd always wanted to do. On New Year's Eve he converted his restored Victorian home into a bistro. "I had fifty people in my house," he says. "It was a dream come true for one night."
  Bistro Chez Laurent was just a one night stand, and Bistro Laurent is still closed as of this writing. But like a true galloping gourmet, Grangien has schlepped his tables and chairs (and menu and staff) over to J. Lohr Winery, a few miles northeast of town, where he's been serving his fare since the first of the year.
  It's not really a surprise that winemaker Jerry Lohr would pitch in for his friend. Grangien's thoughtful, playful southern French cooking has been held like a public trust by the community ever since he moved to the area in 1992 (many winery owners, in fact, are investors in the restaurant). Such is the symbiotic nature of vineyards and restaurants: Where good wine is made, good meals are sure to follow.
  Even so, Paso Robles still doesn't have the 'wine country' feel that you find in the fancier enclaves of Napa and Sonoma. It has its share of vineyards, and people have been making wine here for the better part of a century, but the transformation from wine country (a place where grapes are grown and wine is made) to 'wine country' (a conceptual leisure world of spas, B&Bs and wedding parks) isn't likely to happen soon. You can still unwind without a pastel sweater tied around your neck or a hot tub within easy reach.
  Grangien came to the states on the coattails of famed French chef Michel Rostang, for whom he worked first in Paris (at Michel Rostang), and later in Los Angeles (at Fennel). When he came to Paso Robles twelve years ago, it was still a sleepy little cowtown, with vineyards slowly encroaching on grazing land. Paso Robles is still a cowtown - the city's signature wine event, Hospice du Rhône, is held at the county fairgrounds, amid cow bleats and rodeo callers - but it's also a town that has come to appreciate the virtues of good food to go with its impressive wines.
  Bistro Laurent can take a good measure of the credit for this. Grangien's menu is built on the cooking of southern France, an area with a climate similar to that of Paso Robles, and the wine list focuses on both places, well stocked with Rhône Valley bottles as well as those of Paso pioneers like Eberle, Justin and Lohr (not to mention Central Coast wines from Hospice founders Matt Garretson and John Alban).
  Of course, another great virtue of eating in wine country is that it's not all about grapes. Witness the mycological madness Jack Czarnecki brings to the food at Joel Palmer House in Oregon's Willamette Valley, a mania that obliged him to move from his native Pennsylvania simply because Oregon was such a good place to forage for mushrooms. And Chef Jamie Guerin of Whitehouse Crawford has an amazing array of local food sources to draw from in the fertile Walla Walla Valley. Then there's the freshest of fresh seafood at Southold's Seafood Barge on Long Island's wine-stocked North Shore. The earth may move from time to time, but it still has a way of providing.
- Patrick J. Comiskey

Bistro Laurent, 1202 Pine St., Paso Robles, CA; 805-226-8191

 

> Joel Palmer House I Oregon
It's all about mushrooms at Joel Palmer House in Dayton, Oregon. There's scarcely a dish without them. Not only will chef/owner Jack Czarnecki cook them for you, but he and his wife Heidi hunt their edible treasures throughout the Willamette Valley and surrounding foothills, in both the Coast and Cascade Ranges.
  Joel Palmer House sits squarely in Oregon's Willamette Valley wine country, a 45-minute drive southwest of Portland. Built by Dayton's founder Joel Palmer in the 1850s, the building is now on the National Register of Historic Places, but when Czarnecki found the place in 1996, it had not been lived in for several years. Czarnecki added a kitchen, but other than this he's made few changes, and the dining room still has the air of a private home.
  Czarnecki grew up picking mushrooms with his family in Pennsylvania and working side-by-side with his parents in the family restaurant, Joe's, renowned for its mushroom cookery. In 1996, the Czarneckis sold the restaurant and moved to Oregon, fulfilling a lifelong desire to combine "great mushroom hunting with fine wine." Oregon's unique climate fosters both: It's warm and moist enough to support hardwood and conifer forests where fungi sprout amid the fallen leaves and needles. The Willamette Valley is also northerly enough to provide the long daylight hours needed to ripen pinot noir. Like many foodstuffs of the same soil, the two make fine companions at the table.
  As such, it's not surprising to find an extensive list of pinot noirs accompanying the menu. Czarnecki has intense loyalty to Oregon producers, offering 125 pinot noirs from four dozen wineries, from both the old guard (Adelsheim, The Eyrie Vineyards, Beaux Freres) to the young guns (J.K. Carriere, Bergstrom, Brooks, and Frances Tannahill). Whites are here, too, with three dozen choices from the likes of Domaine Serene, Lemelson and Bethel Heights, and even post-dinner sipping stays local with exceptional brandies from Portland's Clear Creek Distillery and grappa from Ransom Spirits in Corvallis.
  Then there's the menu. Among the starters is Joe's Wild Mushroom Soup, from a fifty-year old family recipe. Made from dried suillus mushrooms, which Czarnecki describes as being "like a porcini, but humbler," the soup is almost mahogany in color, deep, rich and redolent of the earth. The "faux gras" terrine served with fresh grape sauce is made from wild porcinis, but tastes like pâté de foie gras. Entrée choices feature simple country dishes traditionally prepared with mushrooms, from coq au vin and beef stroganoff to more sophisticated fare like filet mignon with a pinot noir porcini sauce, or loin of Oregon elk with black chanterelles, bacon and cabbage. And for the adventurous, Czarnecki will prepare "Jack's Mushroom Madness," a five-course extravaganza that finishes with a dessert prepared using simple syrup infused with candy cap mushrooms, which lend a concentrated maple flavor.
  As with all foraged products, mushroom availability varies from season to season. Winter and spring menus typically feature morels, black trumpets, hedgehogs and cauliflower mushrooms. Late summer and fall menus rely on chanterelles, matsutakes and oyster mushrooms. The heat of July and August precludes fresh product, so the restaurant dries a supply to use in the hot months. Oregon truffles, both black and white, are available almost year round. According to Czarnecki, the Willamette Valley is the heart of the truffle industry in the United States. A California mycologist first discovered them in Oregon, and they thrive here in the detritus of fallen Douglas firs. When asked if he uses pigs to hunt his truffles, Czarnecki laughs and says, "No, but my Subaru is well-trained."
- Anne Nisbet

Joel Palmer House, 600 Ferry St., Dayton, OR; 503-864-2995

 

> Whitehouse-Crawford I Walla Walla
Back in 1999, the food scene was grim in Walla Walla. There was good wine from the valley, and it was getting better with each passing vintage, but the town desperately needed a restaurant equal to its wines. Seattle residents in particular were more than eager to drink the local product, but loath to travel 277 miles to wine country if they couldn't get a decent meal. So when Whitehouse-Crawford opened in the spring of 2000, many desires were realized.
  Walla Walla sits in the far southeastern corner of Washington State, in a valley surrounded by some of the most fertile soils in North America. Long before wine grapes brought this pioneer town to prominence, it was a prosperous farming settlement, and some of the state's oldest farms are here. This abundance offers Whitehouse-Crawford's chef Jamie Guerin exceptional resources for his menu.
  First, there are those famed sweet onions. Then there's beef from Thundering Hooves in neighboring Touchet, shiitakes fresh from a local grower, and chanterelles and morels in season from the nearby Blue Mountains. In Dayton, Fromagerie Monteillet provides goats' milk cheeses, and the dairy at Washington State University in Pullman produces a white cheddar called Cougar Gold that makes one heck of cheeseburger. And just two miles away is Robison Ranch, which ships shallots to the country's finest restaurants. Guerin, who was sous chef at Seattle's Campagne before arriving at Whitehouse-Crawford, says, "In Seattle, you bought from farmers, but here you can actually go to the farm. I try to buy locally whenever I can, and if I can't get it locally, I use regional products."
  Guerin changes the menu "as often as I tend to think of things." This winter he featured offerings such as grilled squab breast with Bartlett pear, housemade pâté rich with pork liver, and a crunchy salad of local apples, fennel and cabbage tossed with maple pecans and a tangy blue cheese vinaigrette. The neighboring Palouse farmlands produce virtually all of the commercially grown lentils in the United States, their earthy flavor providing the bed for a succulent, caraway-roasted Muscovy duck.
  The wine list takes a similar cue from local producers. Diners will find current and older vintages from Leonetti Cellars, plus bottlings from other founding producers - Woodward Canyon, L'Ecole No. 41, Waterbrook and Seven Hills. The dessert list maintains this focus; four of the five sweet wines offered are from Washington. Winemakers themselves often bring bottles in for tasting and manager Tom Olander has over 150 Walla Walla wines available.
  "Our list is about what's happening here," he says, "and many of the wines aren't often seen outside of the Valley." Believe it. Most people haven't yet heard of wineries like Abeja, Bunchgrass, Yellow Hawk or Isenhower. But they will.
- Anne Nisbet

Whitehouse-Crawford, 55 West Cherry, Walla Walla, WA; 509-525-2222

 

> The Seafood Barge I Long Island
When The Seafood Barge opened ten years ago, Long Island wines were standing on the verge of their first substantial local recognition; ten years down the line, local is becoming national. Seafood Barge owner Dick Ehrlich says, "I'd mark the beginning of Long Island wines with the vintage of 1988, but since 1994 or so the region has really begun to be understood."
  The Seafood Barge has ridden that rising tide. With over 80 Long Island wines on its wine list, and eight by the glass - and a bottle from a local producer standing on every table when you walk in the door - it's been a staunch supporter of the region's vinous output since day one. Of course, location helps. Though the restaurant is in the Port of Egypt marina in Southold, right on the water, with views of the fishing boats and sailboats through its plate glass windows, that puts it about ten minutes or so from the heart of the North Fork vineyards. And Ehrlich feels that contributes to the sales of Long Island wines in the restaurant. Before people arrive, they may prefer a California or French wine, he says, but the drive in to the restaurant changes that. "People find it more organic, in a sense," he says. "You drive by the vineyards on your way to the restaurant, where you have a glass of wine from those vines. It contributes to the whole experience." Ehrlich also urges the servers and kitchen staff to work a couple of days each harvest at some of the local wineries, so that they'll have first-hand knowledge about the region's wines.
  Chef Michael Meehan also keeps things local for his menu. "The North Fork has a lot of small farms," Ehrlich says, "and there's maritime fishing economy. We're very close to the long-line fishermen in Montauk, and the Bay men." Diners see that on dishes like Meehan's pesto-roast local oysters, or his grilled Montauk "rod and reel" tuna, served with hominy, winter squash and fresh soy beans, ideal with the Gristina Point House Merlot the restaurant serves by the glass.
  "We offer tastes on a lot of wines to a lot of customers in this restaurant. Many people come in with a lingering prejudice against Long Island wines, and I'll take them through two or three wines, and they'll see that we're not only in the ballpark, we're at the top of the league."
The Seafood Barge, Main Road, Port of Egypt Marina, Southold, NY; 631-765-3010

Italian Regional Cuisine

> Manducatis I New York
The word "manducatis" is Latin for "those who eat," and owners Vincenzo and Ida Cerbone chose this moniker because they consider breaking bread together sacred. "When you sit down to eat," explains Vincenzo, a dashing septuagenarian who often sports a silk foulard, "it's the best moment of the day - after love, of course." The Cerbones have been in the marriage and restaurant business for 43 years. They opened Manducatis together in 1977, on a nondescript street in Long Island City that today looks like, well, 1977. Within the unassuming storefront, however, is Italy: swirling marble floors, hand-stuccoed walls, tuxedoed waiters and a wood-burning fireplace.
  In the kitchen Ida makes the food of her childhood in Cassino, in the southern Lazio province that borders on Campania. "I think that the heart of Italian cooking is in the south, from Rome on down," she says as she describes the smoky, crisp pizzas her Neapolitan father used to make. Her mother was an excellent cook, too, but Ida says she taught herself most of what she knows. "I get these tastes in my mouth - I remember my mother, and I cook what she made from my memory," she says modestly. "I don't know how I do it, but Vincenzo always says that it tastes just like he remembers it, too."
  How exactly does her food taste? Wonderfully flavorful and utterly uncomplicated; it couldn't be farther from the red-sauce-drowned drivel most "Southern Italian" restaurants in this country serve. "You cook a dish of spaghetti," Ida explains, "add a drop of my olive oil (she uses an olive oil made exclusively for Manducatis by an artisan producer in the Gaeta region), a pinch of basil and a clove of garlic chopped - not even cooked - and you've got a meal." Or at least a primo. But first there's baked eggplant oreganato, roasted with chopped tomatoes, capers, tiny green olives and a dash of oregano. Then there's grilled polpo, tender octopus chunks tossed with balsamic vinegar, garlic and fresh parsley. Next is her signature, "Gamberoni alla Ida." "I just sauté garlic in butter and olive oil, and then sauté shrimp, a pinch of pepper, and then put it over homemade pasta," she explains. Meats, which she butchers herself, include a quail stuffed with spinach and pine nuts, and scallopine of pork topped with vinegar-splashed red peppers and scallions. On the side is broccoli di rape with garlic and olive oil, and cauliflower with Italian olives, parsley and chili pepper flakes. Each and every dish is sublime, and each and every dish is distinctive, a miniature lesson in the culinary traditions of Cassino.
  You'll find very different menus but a very similar way of thinking at play when you head to Prezza in Boston for their take on the classics of Abruzzi; or when you sip your first spoonful of Sardinian sa fregola at Arcodoro in Dallas or Houston; or when the waiter at Tre Venezie in Pasadena brings you a plate of Friulian gnocchi di zucca - pumpkin gnocchi rich with butter and strewn with toasted almonds. The freshest of fresh ingredients, translated into the language of a specific place: That's what these restaurants are all about - though, of course, they're also all about the wine.
  At Manducatis, Anthony Cerbone, Vincenzo and Ida's son, presides over a list of more than 400 Italian wines, though there are many, many more down in the cellar, as yet uncatalogued. Flip through the pages - it will take you a while - and you'll see practically every well-known Italian producer, from Gaja to Ricasoli. What you'll be more surprised to see are vintages dating back to the 1970s. Asked if they were bought at auction, Anthony says, "Oh, no, they're bought upon release. We've been collecting for quite some time now."
- Anthony Giglio

Manducatis, 13-27 Jackson Ave. (at 47th Ave.), Long Island City, Queens, NY; 718-729-4602

 

> Trattoria Tre Venezie I Pasadena
This jewel-box restaurant in Pasadena is named after the Northeastern region of Italy long ago ruled by the Venetian empire, including the Veneto, Friuli and Alto Adige. Though the area is complex, the philosophy of the restaurant is simple: Offer the traditional dishes of this ancient and eclectic region, prepared with exacting standards of authenticity and freshness. The results will certainly dash any preconceived notions you may have clung to about "Northern" Italian food. With an unerring sense of balance, chef Gianfranco Minuz offsets the sweetness of a giant gnocchi filled with dried prunes by serving it atop a pile of mildly bitter sautéed greens; likewise, tart, sauerkraut-like turnips balance the richness of a homemade Friulana sopressa (minced sausage) of Muscovy duck and pork. The precise equilibrium of these dishes saves such hearty fare from being heavy, highlighting the sophistication of this substantial cuisine. Meanwhile, the large wine list offers many selections native to the region, like a juicy, rich Volpe Pasini Refosco or Livio Felluga's crisp, elegant 2002 Tocai. Don't overlook the extensive grappa selection, which includes an exceptionally smooth, 15-year-old, oak-aged beauty from the venerable Castello di Spessa, in Friuli Venezia Giulia. Also worth sampling after a meal are the chef's own "Conversation Liqueurs," macerations of fruits, flowers and/or herbs, in flavors ranging from blueberries to juniper. The restaurant's small space is at once cozy and elegant, refined and relaxed, with a sense of quiet confidence that may recall Venice itself. After dining at Tre Venezie, the next time you sit down to a dinner of red sauce and Chianti, no matter how well prepared, the remembrance of your meal here will steal across your mind like the ghost of some exotic lost love.
- Maria Vitulli Di Paola

Trattoria Tre Venezie, 119 W. Green St., Pasadena, CA; 626-795-4455

 

> Prezza I Boston
If ours is indeed the age of specialization, then Prezza - named for the Abruzzi region where chef/owner Anthony Caturano's grandmother was born - might just be the restaurant of our age. Caturano's snug, low-key restaurant, tucked into a corner of Boston's Italian North End, features traditional Abruzzi peasant cuisine - which is to say, heavy on the geographically isolated region's limited food selection, but updated for modern diners. That means plenty of the area's indigenous mainstays: pork, polenta and lots of vegetables. Big portions of brined, wood-grilled pork chops arrive with white beans, garlicky spinach and a purée of red peppers and walnuts. "Abruzzi cooking is all about straightforward dishes," says Caturano. "And very high-quality, fresh ingredients. That's exactly what we do here, but with a few refinements." One of the kitchen's most popular dishes is, like much of the menu, directly inspired by Caturano's nonna. "I remember when I was little and we'd go to her house for Sunday dinner, she'd make a huge dish of polenta smothered with tomato sauce, pork ribs and sausage. We do something similar at the restaurant: a polenta with tomato, but with pancetta and fried zucchini blossoms for a little more flavor." Above all, Caturano keeps things simple and fresh, like the hand-rolled tagliatelle with parmigiano, butter and shaved black truffles. "We change the menu a lot according to what's fresh," he says. Of course, an ever-evolving menu demands a flexible wine list. On that front, Prezza's cave more than delivers. With upwards of 800 selections - mostly from Italy, some from California - Prezza covers all of its bases, and many bottles are priced under $40. Little wonder, then, that the laid-back dining room is packed nearly every night of the week.
- Alexandra Hall

Prezza, 24 Fleet St., Boston, MA; 617-227-1577

 

> Arcodoro I Houston/Dallas
"We have said 'no' many times to the customer," says Francesco Farris, the Sardinian executive chef at Arcodoro & Pomodoro Ristoranti Italiani in Dallas. "Like fettuccine Alfredo or spaghetti and meatballs - I don't make those things." What is a customer with an Italian craving to do? Well, you could begin with sa fregula, a traditional clam soup made with Sardinia's semolina-based answer to couscous. Or whole branzino (striped sea bass) flown in from the Mediterranean, salt-crusted and boned tableside. The menu at Arcodoro is long, and authentically Sardinian. "We're trying to create traditions," says Francesco's brother, Efisio, who owns the restaurant. (Efisio now splits his time between Dallas and a sister Arcodoro in Houston.) While Sardinia is an island, its prevailing food customs arise as much from the rugged mountainous regions inland as they do from the sea, like gnocchetti sardi al cinghiale, teardrop-shaped pasta with wild boar; or suckling pig, which has become a weekly tradition in both cities. Cooks dress a small pig in mirto (myrtle) leaves and then roast it whole for about six hours, until "the animal's wild taste melts away," Francesco explains. The Farris brothers recently added their family's own Sardinian label to their restaurants' all-Italian wine selection. Their Vermentino di Gallura Lughente has DOCG status; and their Terra Saliosa is a blend of merlot, bovale sardo and carignano. "You don't find cigars or canella or vanilla in our wines," says Francesco. "We focus on the grapes." The brothers do on occasion bend to long-established Texan appetites: Their 'Grapparita' is a sweetened mixture of grappa and lime juice, served in a sugar-rimmed glass.
- Sara Roahen

Arcodoro & Pomodoro, 2708 Routh St., Dallas, TX, 214-871-1924; Arcodoro, 5000 Westheimer St., Houston, TX, 713-621-6888

BYOB Nights

> Montrachet I New York

  Monday night, and the waiter had almost lost his hand trying to retrieve a glass from our table: the dregs of a '47 DRC Richebourg. We were ready to defend it to the very end - even though it had come from the bottom of a bottle decanted for someone else. A group of 22 people a few tables over had popped open 36 extraordinary bottles on one of Montrachet's BYOB Mondays, among them a '66 Leroy Grands Echezeaux, a '66 Château Latour, a '53 Haut Brion and a '55 Chateau Margaux that would leave even the most jaded wine fanatic weak in the knees. Thanks to the generous spirit of the night, we'd benefited from this remarkable assembly.
  Traditionally, the option to bring your own wine has been limited to small restaurants without a license, or, in some states, to dining rooms with high corkage fees. "It was almost taboo to do a no corkage-fee night, but we thought it might be fun," says head sommelier Bernie Sun. Montrachet had its first BYOB night this past June, and the restaurant added a spin, the "What's my wine?" feature, a couple of weeks later. You, the diner, tell the sommelier if you want red or white and how much you would like to spend. The wine shows up at your table in a decanter, and the game is to guess aspects of its identity, including country, region, appellation, grape variety, vintage and producer. The more accurate your answers, the bigger the discount off the wine-list price. "If you get all the answers right, the bottle's on us," says Sun. "You automatically get ten percent off just by playing."
  But "what's my wine" is a sideshow, just part of the fun. What's more compelling are the wines that customers bring from their own cellars. As the night progresses, empties appear in ranks on the bar close to the restaurant's entrance, a spectacular array of sought-after labels. Perusing them, it's easy to see why a sommelier might choose to go through such a hectic night without the prospect of selling a single bottle of wine. Most people don't get to taste such diversity of great wines in a lifetime.
  Not that you have to arrive with a thousand-dollar bottle to enjoy these BYOB Mondays; we didn't, after all. Chef Chris Gesualdi's modern French menu complements the good as well as the great. And the energy in the room, that palpable passion for wine is something you'll find at Montrachet as well as all the other great restaurants listed in the next few pages. It's a new trend in wine-dining, and it's likely to keep you coming back for more - maybe even on nights when you can't bring your own.
- DILEK CANER

Montrachet, 239 West Broadway, NYC; 212-219-2777

 

> one sixtyblue I Chicago
When Chicago's one sixtyblue launched its Wednesday bring-your-own-bottle night, it was primarily a gesture of customer appreciation. "We wanted to provide value for our guests and also give them an incentive to come out on a cold winter night," says general manager Myron Markewycz. He's seen some smart bottles come through the door since: Chave Hermitage, Domaine Roumier Le Musigny, various top producers' Côte Rôties. But the program extends beyond Wednesdays. In cooperation with neighboring Randolph Street Wine Cellars, Mondays through Thursdays are also BYOB nights if the wine is purchased from the shop. Even store owner Perry Fotopolous is starting to think about pairings: "I've sold some older German rieslings that go perfectly with Chef Noguier's duck confit ł l'orange, and white Burgundies that complement his pan-seared arctic char."
- LAURA LEVY SHATKIN

one sixtyblue, 260 N. Loomis, Chicago, IL; 312-850-0303

 

> Poste Modern Brasserie I Washington, DC
Last November, Poste, an American brasserie in DC's historic downtown, held its second "Open That Bottle Night." Though the city was drenched in record rains, a crowd gathered, including one woman who'd dragged her girlfriends through the storm with a pair of decade-old Italian reds, a Barolo and Barbaresco, gifts from an old boyfriend. "They certainly were enjoying them," recalls Poste's executive chef Jay Comfort.
  For these once-a-season nights, Comfort waives Poste's corkage fee, creates two $40 three-course menus (one for red wine, one for white), and distributes surveys throughout the room asking diners to tell the story of the wine they've brought. This gets people talking - and sharing, which Comfort says is the whole point. "There is no better way to increase your knowledge than to compare things side by side," he says. In November he escaped the kitchen to open his own bottle, a 1997 Huet Vouvray Cuvée Constance. "I was chastised by one of our regulars for drinking it too young," he recalls. Never mind - Comfort's already looking forward to round three this April. "I've got a couple of nifty Rhônes I've been sitting on," he says.
- TAYLOR ANTRIM

Poste Modern Brasserie, 555 8th St., NW, Washington, DC; 202-783-6060

 

> Carlos'Restaurant I Highland Park
"It's a spontaneity we don't have on any other night," says Wine Steward Marcello Cancelli of Carlos' Restaurant. Most evenings, Carlos' intimate dining room might be a date scene for Chicago and Northshore diners. But on Monday BYOB nights, it's the passion for wine that is infectious. "Everyone in the dining room starts talking to each other - 'Oh, look at that! What did you bring tonight? Come taste this!' People are sending glasses to other tables. We use all the decanters in the house that night," says Cancelli. While most diners bring older vintage Bordeaux and Burgundy, Colgin or Harlan Estate can be spotted on younger guests' tables. "All wines are treated to Riedel Vinum stemware, but should you choose to celebrate with a '45 Mouton, we'll definitely bring out the hand-blown Sommelier glasses," Cancelli adds. Diners can select from the standard menu or indulge in a degustation, which Chef de Cuisine Ramiro Velasquez will tailor to your cherished bottle.
- CHRISTINE BLUMER

Carlos' Restaurant, 429 Temple Ave., Highland Park, IL; 847-432-0770

 

> Beacon I New York
When you arrive at New York's Beacon, head to the back room and take a seat at table number 48. That's where you'll have the best view of the kitchen, a live cooking show starring chef Waldy Malouf. And what better way to enjoy the show than sipping a favorite wine from your cellar, one you've been waiting to open for the right dinner - just the sort, for instance, that Malouf is currently preparing for you? BYOB Sundays started at Beacon in April, 2003, and general manager John Verderame has seen all manner of bottles pass through the dining room. "Sundays now have a family feel," he says. "Most guests even like to pour their own wines at the table and we don't interfere. It enhances the family atmosphere." Bring a well-aged white Burgundy for Malouf's wood-roasted oysters, or a bottle of Santa Lucia pinot noir for his grilled Millbrook venison chops.
- D.C.

Beacon, 25 W. 56th Street, NYC; 212-332-0500

 

> Chateaubriand Steakhouse I New Orleans
At Chateaubriand Steakhouse, where the specialty is indeed char-crusted, butter-soft beef cut from the tenderloin, French proprietors Gérard and Eveline Crozier instituted a Monday night pardon on corkage fees to encourage both casual and serious wine collectors to use their approachable Mid-City dining room as a symposium grounds. Eveline, for whom grateful oenophiles leave thank-you notes, decants many fine, beef-friendly Bordeaux on Mondays, like one customer's 1970 Château Lynch-Bages. "It held up very well," she reports. But Bordeaux isn't the only contender here - Chef Gerard has cooked to New Orleanian tastes for three decades, and his substantial French-Creole-steakhouse menu includes dishes that can flatter almost any region or vintage. One Monday regular brings esoteric wines purchased directly from boutique California vineyards; others simply capitalize on the opportunity to dine less expensively, stopping by nearby wine stores for a '99 Lyeth Red Meritage or a '01 La Spinona Barbaresco from Pietro Berutti. The evening often turns into a tutorial for Eveline, for whom the most intriguing corkage-free sighting to date wasn't French at all. It was a red pinot meunier from Domaine Chandon - not a rare wine, but certainly an unusual one. "I didn't even know they made it," she muses.
- SARA ROAHEN

Chateaubriand Steakhouse, 310 N. Carrollton Ave., New Orleans, LA; 504-207-0016

 

> Davio's I Philadelphia
Davio's, the upscale Northern Italian steakhouse in Philadelphia, is luxurious, a sunny oasis of blonde wood in the city's financial district. They're taking the BYOB trend a bit further, offering their free-corkage night every Friday, which is unique among the city's top tier of restaurants.
  The idea came from the local chapter of the Food & Wine Society, during the planning of an Italian wine dinner last March, according to Davio's general manager Ettore Ceraso. Some senior members were avid collectors, and promised to dine more frequently if they could drink bottles from their own cellars guilt-free. Without advertising, the program has been a great success. Both regular customers and wandering oenophiles have embraced the idea, boosting Friday night business. "We're seeing fantastic wines, like mature Barolos and rare Super-Tuscans," says Ceraso. "And we often get offered a taste, so everyone's happy, including the sommelier."
- MARNIE OLD

Davio's, 111 S. 17 St., Philadelphia, PA; 215-563-4810

 

> Morrell's I New York
Until now, the Monday BYOB night at Morrell's - the restaurant spin-off of the wine-bar spin-off of the well-known Manhattan wine shop - has been a somewhat undercover event. Initially it was only advertised in the Morrell's retail catalog and to their email list. Word-of-mouth is powerful advertising, though, and in recent months Monday nights at Morrell's have been crowded with an eclectic range of wine fans, and wines. Morrell's wine director Vanessa Treviľo-Boyd says, "I love seeing people come in with wines from smaller projects, not just the '82 Bordeaux, the Comte Lafonds - though we get plenty of those - but the things people are passionate about." A case in point? One customer brought in a range of wines from Patricia Greene, former winemaker at Oregon's Torii Mor winery. "I knew her work from Torii Mor," Treviľo-Boyd says, "but I had no idea she'd started her own label. And I loved them." While the river of wine advice usually flows from sommelier to customer, in this case the current ran upstream: Within a week, Treviľo-Boyd had added the Patricia Greene wines to her regular list.
- RAY ISLE

Morrell's, 900 Broadway, New York; 212-253-0900


Peruvian Cuisine

> Limón I San Francisco
We like to call America a melting pot, but when it comes to cooking, most of the melting occurs in different pots. Cuisines may brush up against one another, but they rarely fuse as easily as they do in Lima. Peru's tables are a culinary crossroads on every imaginable level, informed by both ancient and modern cultures and drawing influences from nearly every continent on the globe. Fusion on this scale makes Peru's cuisine among the most worldly in the world.
  There are good reasons for this. Peru has 1,200 miles of coastline, alongside some of the most diversely populated waters of the Pacific. It has, as its spine, some of the world's highest mountains, which source the world's longest river system. Its indigenous people, the Incas, were among the first to cultivate potatoes and corn. Then there are the immigrants: In addition to the Spanish conquistadors, you can count Italians, Africans, Chinese and Japanese; four cultures in four centuries. Each has contributed to the national culinary identity in surprising ways.
  Here is one example: Peru's national dish is çeviche, slices of fish and shellfish that are 'cooked' in high-acid citrus baths. Traditionally, fish was left to stew in this way for a day or more. Then the Japanese arrived at the very end of the 19th century; as raw fish lovers (sushi had morphed into its modern form a century before) the immigrants were able to convince their hosts to reduce the cooking time for çeviche and retain the fish's natural flavor. This method quickly became the national style.
  You may not get all this at first when you sit down at Limón, a new restaurant in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District, but you will get a sense of the uncommon breadth of the cuisine's flavors, the contrast between the bright lime-tinged çeviche (theirs is served with a yam wedge to cut the bite of the native rocoto chilis) and the deep brown, earthy, rich flavors of the lomo saltado.
  Limón is owned and operated by the Castillo brothers - Martin, Antonio and Eduardo - Lima natives who spent years in Bay Area restaurants honing the skills they'd need to open one of their own. They work together with Fernando Quinonez, a native Guatemalan who trained with Larry Stone at Rubicon and who maintains a delightfully diverse selection of bebidas: French, Spanish and South American wines, native and Belgian beers, and some of the most exotic chicha fruit drinks you'll ever dip a straw into.
  Martin Castillo is the brother behind the food at Limón. While his talent is undeniable (last year he was named one of the city's rising-star chefs by the San Francisco Chronicle), Limón probably would never have happened if his mother, Luz Trigoso de Castillo, hadn't moved to San Francisco a few years back from her home in Ciudad Trujillo. Castillo, who still consults with her frequently, says, "She taught me all these things - all my sauces, they are hers." To prove the point he lays out four sauces on a white plate, three made with rocoto and huacatay chiles, and one with aji amarillo, a vivid, turmeric yellow. In fact all are so brightly colored they could be pigments on a Latin canvas. Castillo points to three of the four: "Those are from my mother's recipes."
  The effect of Castillo's dishes is at once exotic and familiar: chicha made with purple corn juice tastes, of course, like corn, but somehow manages to taste like fruit as well. And while that rich brown sauce in the lomo saltado tastes familiar, you may not be able to place it at first - unless your server reveals that the mystery flavor is soy sauce, lent to the dish by the Chinese. It's also worth noting that because Peruvian cuisine is influenced by so many intersecting traditions, it pairs well with a wide range of wines. Fernando Quinonez's list is a case in point. For whites, it leans towards the European and the aromatic - Quinonez serves a Nigl grčner veltliner by the glass, and a lot of it. But when it comes to reds, the perfect match for that lomo saltado is undoubtedly a bottle of Finca La Anita's robust Mendoza syrah.
  That sense of the exotic brushing up against the familiar that defines Peruvian cooking is something you'll find at all of the restaurants in this section, from Limón to Mario's Peruvian in Los Angeles, and then across the country to Atlanta's Sweet Devil Moon and, in Coral Gables, Francesco's. Eat at all of them, and you may even find yourself buying a ticket to Lima someday.
- Patrick J. Comiskey

Limón, 3316 17th Street, San Francisco; 415-252-0918; www.limón-sf.com

 

> Mario's Peruvian I Los Angeles
Los Angeles is a funny eating dining town. Either you have glamorous restaurants that beg for attention, or hidden mom-and-pop spots that survive through word of mouth. Mario's Peruvian is among the latter. Though it's squeezed between a Popeye's Fried Chicken and a Radio Shack in a nondescript mini-mall in Hollywood, you'll find çeviche here so divine that it may make you weep.
  Fourteen years ago Mario Tamashiro raised the brightly colored neon sign in front of his restaurant. A man of Japanese descent born in Lima, Peru, he blends both of his backgrounds in his hearty, tasty fare. But unless you have hyper-sensitive taste buds, you won't notice the use of soy sauce or sesame oil, which give a subtle depth and complexity to his Peruvian recipes.
  Though Tamashiro himself no longer lords over the kitchen, his staff prepares his versions of such classics as lomo saltado (tender strips of beef sautéed with red onions, tomatoes and salty fried potatoes), pescado sudado (steamed red snapper smothered in a finely minced sauce of tomatoes, onions and peppers), and parihuela (a spicy, tomato-based, seafood soup filled with octopus, squid, shrimp, mussels and white fish).
  Don't expect white tablecloths here. There's nothing elegant or cozy about Mario's neon-lit interior, with its metal school chairs and paper tablecloths. You wouldn't even know it was a Peruvian restaurant except that the walls are covered in posters of sunny street scenes of Lima and Incan ruins. But no one seems to care about the décor. It's the food they come for, and they come in droves. Expect a twenty to thirty-five minute wait for these extravagantly sized portions of inexpensive Peruvian food (the entrees top out at $11.75). And while the waitstaff is highly efficient, delivering soft hot rolls with butter as soon as you sit down, they're not exactly full of advice. "Everything is good," one of the waitresses said briskly, when asked for an opinion about one of the dishes on the menu - not an attitude that helps if you like to be guided through a menu, but one that stops very few people.
  At least one loyal customer has been coming to Mario's two to three times every week for the last ten years for the famed lomo saltado. "And that's not unusual," says Dennis Tamashiro, Mario's son and the manager of the restaurant. "Regulars get hooked on one item and they keep coming back again and again and again." Don't look for a wine list at Mario's, though. The beverage options are narrow - Inka cola, horchata and tamarindo. But for wine drinkers, that's a key appeal to this place: They encourage people to bring their own wine, beer or spirits, and don't even charge a corkage fee.
  In fact, in a town famous for being superficial, Mario's is about as unpretentious as you can get. Who cares about warm waitresses and white tablecloths when you can sip a Chilean sauvignon blanc from the Casablanca valley at no charge while savoring a divine forkful of lemony, jalapeno-laced çeviche?
- Jessica Strand

Mario's Peruvian, 5786 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; 323-466-4181

 

> Sweet Devil Moon I Atlanta
"No, there's no tapas tradition in Peru," says Paul Vinces, with a chuckle. "It was just trendy when we opened the restaurant three years ago." Vinces and his sister, Mayte, surmised that their native cuisine would adapt well to Atlanta's continuing small-plate craze. It turns out they were spot-on.
  At Sweet Devil Moon, located in Atlanta's freethinking suburb, Decatur, the vibe is casual and likeably funky. Sponged walls vibrate with primary colors; they're filled with art by native Peruvian artists. Tables share space with curvy couches on stained concrete floors. It's a convivial space for the neighborhood to gather for lomo saltado, çeviche made with mahi-mahi and arroz con pollo. Most of the recipes are adapted from traditional dishes made by the Vinces family.
  With a table full of Peruvian-inspired tapas, it's easy to see and taste the electric confluence of cultures that conspired to create the cuisine of Peru. Chicken and beef stir-fries demonstrate the culinary impact of the country's longstanding Chinese population. African flavors and techniques appear in yuca rellena (fried mashed yucca filled with a piquant mixture of chicken, raisins and onion). The flavors of Spain, brought by the conquistadors, can be discerned in the Vinces's Macchu Picchu rice, a paella-like concoction with shrimp, squid and mussels. And from Italy, aji de gallina is a sumptuous chicken stew enlivened with white wine and Parmesan cheese.
  Paul Vinces creates his wine list democratically at Sweet Devil Moon. The restaurant holds frequent wine tastings and the favorites show up on the list soon after. Vincent offers feisty, affordable choices (with a focus on Chile and Argentina) that don't overwhelm the food. Servers might recommend a Morandé Terrarum CarmenĆre with the lomo saltado, or a Don Miguel Gascon Malbec with the asado (Peruvian-style pot roast). Not in the mood for wine? Try a tart but smooth pisco sour, served here in a special glass with dry ice that surrounds the drink in swirling vapors. It's just the kind of quirky twist on Peru's national drink that locals have come to expect from this inexpensive, idiosyncratic speakeasy.
- Bill Addison

Sweet Devil Moon, 350 Mead Rd., Decatur, GA; 404-371-3999; www.sweetdevilmoon.com.
> Francesco's I Coral Gables
Ethnic restaurants from practically every nationality and culture abound in Miami. Witness Francesco's, a transplant from the restaurant of the same name in Miraflores, a suburb of Lima, the capital of Peru. But while many transplants allow tradition to slowly slip away, in its Miami incarnation Francesco's has reinvented itself without losing any of its true Peruvian character.
  Downtown Coral Gables is considered by many locals to have the best restaurants in Miami, but despite the many choices, you can't avoid noticing Francesco's. The menu, displayed on a stand on the sidewalk, invites you to peek through the windows. The furnishings and décor are charming - wood panels mesh with mirrors to create a touch of rustic elegance. The subdued lighting adds to the ambiance. In fact, what the décor recalls most is a fine restaurant in Lima; and there's a welcome absence of the native souvenirs that adorn so many ethnic restaurants in the US.
  The menu at Francesco's is primarily Peruvian, though sprinkled with international dishes. Start with the bisque de cangrejo, a crab bisque with a velvety consistency achieved without any added thickeners. The intense flavor of blue crabs makes it distinctive, earthier and more pleasantly austere than sweeter bisques made from ocean crabs native to northern waters. A good next choice is papas huancaina, five quenelles made from mashed potatoes flavored with paprika and yellow peppers, sprinkled with a touch of hot pepper and laid on a béchamel-type sauce. Lomo with tacu tacu consists of slices of beef, perfectly seared, pink inside and sitting on a bed of sautéed red and green peppers in their own juices, and goes perfectly with a hearty South American red off Francesco's straightforward list. (Tacu tacu is made from a mixture of ground white beans and rice formed into an elongated shell with a mushroom filling. Traditionally, the dish can also be served with other fillings such as beef, chicken or vegetables.) Finally, for dessert, try the mousse de lťcuma, made from a fruit that grows only in Peru and Chile - it could have been one of the royal dishes in the court of the Inca emperors.
- José R. Garrigó

Francesco's, 325 Alcazar Ave., Coral Gables, FL; 305-446-1600.