On August 26, 2009 Frank Bruni inked his last New York Times Dining column answering a group of questions that follow around restaurant critics with pulpits as authoritative as his. Finding great value is on everyone’s minds these days, and his “top value spot” answer to New York foodies neatly covered two of my favorite Manhattan food temples; David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar and Danny Meyer’s and Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park. Due Northeast in Boston, somewhat muted by the Big Apple’s shadows, an analog exists in the form of Joanne Chang’s Myers + Chang and Chris Campbell’s Troquet.
Here is what Bruni had to say in his final column:
WHERE CAN I FIND GREAT VALUE?
At some of the more expensive, extravagant restaurants in New York, that’s where. Value doesn’t mean a low price: it means you’re getting a lot for what you’re paying.
At Eleven Madison Park, for example, the $88 prix fixe includes five one-bite amuse-bouches per person, terrific gougères, unlimited bread with both goat’s milk and cow’s milk butter, an appetizer, an entree, a dessert amuse-bouche, dessert and petit fours. Plus you’re sitting in comfort in one of the city’s most beautiful dining rooms, with many polished servers attending to you.
At Momofuku Ssam Bar, where you’re encouraged to build a meal from a sequence of small, medium and large plates, you’d probably need five selections, including dessert, to match that amount of food, and you could easily spend $68 in the process. And what you’ve given up, for a $20 savings, is the ability to make a reservation, a real chair (the restaurant is all backless stools), comparably pampering service, etc.
The Beantown versions offer uncanny resemblances, reign supreme on savvy New England diners’ recommended lists, yet fall a hair short of the world class ranking earned by their New York brethren. You grow comfortable with this “almost-as-good” nuance living in Boston. Still, dining at both Troquet and Myers + Chang this past week, I was reminded of Bruni’s parting value references as I reveled in M+C’s playfully inventive and spice laced Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes and Troquet’s more classically French approach to clean flavors and true textures supported by Chris’ most intelligent, value driven, and comprehensive wine list that keeps Boston’s wine underground coming back for more. Both are must visits, deserving thorough recaps here at WineZag, but for now let’s walk through the wines that Chris recommended and opened for our party of eight last Saturday night.
I often visited Chris’ earlier Brighton outpost, Uva, where off-duty sommeliers and wino freaks gathered to eat pizza paired with 1982 Mouton or a simple pasta alongside 1991 Guigal La Landonne. Wines were priced below retail in many cases and Chris was focused on excellence in all aspects of wine service. Troquet is a totally grown up version with serious food, an even more comprehensive list, and a killer view of Boston Common across the street that adds a maturity to an ambiance that always reminds you that the restaurant is not much more than a stage to accommodate Chris’ passion for wine and deserving culinary accompaniments.
We started the night with the 2005 Domain des Baumard Savenierres, Chenin Blanc from the Loire. It was a fantastic start and another great look at how well Chenin Blanc performs in its ancestral geography. It showed a familiar minerality that combined with bright lemon. There were grassy wheat dough components to the aroma, and the wine had a voluptuous mouthfeel with a richness that did not belie its long finish. This remains one of the great wine list values that I find myself consistently defaulting to. We nibbled on warm crusty rolls lathered with my favorite butter Chris brings in from Normandy, scooped table side from its straw bucket well.
Chris recommended the roughly $80 2008 Babcock Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir as our red wine kick off, which I drank with my Short Rib stuffed Canneloni. Personally not expecting much, our entire group was knocked out by the depth and expressive varietal power of this wine. Rich with black cherry, cherry cola, and a mild hint of minty aromas and flavors, the wine lived in the middle of a Burgundian and central California coast style, fully coating tongue and mouth and accompanied by appropriate amounts of acidity. The finish was mind blowingly long and the rich Pinot flavors just lingered. Of all the wines we drank tonight, this was the wine I committed to finding and stocking in the cellar. Tasted alongside the Babcock, and not nearly as good or rewarding, was a similarly priced basic red Burgundy cuvee from Faiveley, the 2005 Faiveley Bourgogne. Earthy and stinky tobacco aromas dominated and the fruit was medium to light. The wine’s flavors were clean, but reminded you of a wine that has laid around for a while and lost its useful fruit. It had no chance, in any case, next to the Babcock.
To accompany my Line Caught Cod in potato crust that sat on top of of a creamy swiss chard celery root puree surrounded by trumpet mushrooms and a sauce of black truffle, Armagnac, and Madeira, Chris rolled out some 1990 Leoville Barton at roughly $150. The wine shows classic cedar, pencil shaving aromas with hints of spice and wet cardboard. The edges are starting to show some amber hues. A silky mouthfeel, fabric of dark fruit and currant flavors, and medium-long finish rewarded our Bordeaux hankering. It’s an elegant and sexy wine that can be drunk now without fear or hesitation and at under $200 on a restaurant wine list it is an outright value.
We finished with a group of treats from accomplished pastry chef Sarah Woodfine alongside the 2006 Royal Tokaji ATS Cuvee in 500ml bottle size. The late harvest wine was pure honey and flowers, with a brightness and acidity that never allowed the wine to become too cloying. The rich flavors finished elegantly without overpowering in any way. It is a highly recommended wine for apertif, alongside Asian foods, or as a pudding wine to close out a meal. I am not sure what it was on the Troquet list, but this wine in this format can be bought for around $25 at retail.
I have to get back to Troquet soon, my visits are just too infrequent with this wine and food emporium sitting under my nose as more than just a quality local alternative to some favorite NY spots.