For 10 years the most coveted invitation among American gastronomes was to the annual Four Seasons Barrel Tasting. That New York restaurant extravaganza was the East-Coast introduction of California's not-yet-bottled new wines, paired with older versions by the same winemakers.
Wine aficionados thousands strong dunned the Four Seasons restaurant relentlessly for the 215 seats. The event was worthy of that pressure: Each pair of wines was accompanied by a culinary invention with the trend-setting impact of Paris couture. The dozen-plus courses were served by a cadre of waiters trained to perform with the precision of a ballet. It was a singular dinner.
And last year was its last. Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai, owners of the Four Seasons, called a halt. A scramble ensued around the country to fill the void.
It has taken several events to make up for the loss, and I'm not sure they have done it. Denver and Vancouver, B.C., have planned their own California wine tastings. The Italian Wine and Food Institute is bringing Italian barrel samples to New York for a dinner in June. In California the Stanford Court Hotel has claimed the title with the 11th Annual California Vintners' Barrel Tasting Dinner on April 7. Following the format of previous years at the Four Seasons, it will show the new wines of 14 winemakers (and the champagne and brandy of two more). In the tradition of the old barrel tastings, the invitation specifies, "Sorry, no guests."
It does not, however, accomplish one of the purposes of the Four Seasons dinners: to introduce those California wines to the East Coast. That goal was undertaken this year by the Pierre Hotel in New York. On March 7, it threw a party for 310 winers and diners and called it the California Wine Perspective (followed by a March 9 reception by the Chaine des Rotisseurs showing the wines of over 50 wineries to more than a thousand guests). It trimmed the number of courses -- only nine -- but brought together four chefs to cook them -- Wolfgang Puck, Jeremiah Tower and Bradley Ogden from California and the Pierre's Franz Klampfer. Instead of tasting barrel samples, the diners were presented "currently available" wines to taste against well aged versions of the same type. That made 28 wines, capped by RMS Vineyards brandy. Thus the Pierre's California Wine Perspective may not have given the assembled diners a scoop on the new vintage, but made for better drinking. Those barrel samples can be pretty raw stuff.
The show wasn't just California wines, and California food prepared by California chefs, but it was Californians themselves. About a third of the guests had come from the West Coast.
They seemed to have brought a dose of California sunshine with them, though the evening set record cold temperatures for that date in New York. The speeches by winemakers hardly mentioned pH or the geographical origins of the oak; instead, they bid diners to enjoy. And the diners were less sippers than quaffers, it would seem. At the second intermission, after 18 wines, they were getting so giddy that it was hard to entice everyone back to the tables for the last four courses. "I think this dinner has disintegrated," commented one woman as she joined those being herded back to their tables.
No, this just didn't have the old seriousness. Which is not a complaint, mind you. That California warmth made it quite a wonderful party. The brocade-wrapped ballroom of the Pierre, so different from the severe luxury of the Four Seasons, lent a more bacchanalian air. The women wore enough sequins to light Fifth Avenue. And the centerpiece pyramids of fruits and vegetables -- giant lemons on one table, baby artichokes on another, strawberries the size of artichokes on another -- bespoke more of gaiety than solemnity.
The service lacked the breathtaking precision of the Four Seasons choreography. But it assured that everyone was fed in a timely manner, from the ragout of spring vegetables with black truffles and wild mushroom butter, to the roasted squab breast and foie gras wrapped in cabbage, to the pecan tart with maple ice cream, bourbon caramel sauce and strawberries.
Winemaker Bill Jekel, whose pinot blancs were the first to be served, had been appalled to find his wines iced, chilling the flavor to a shadow of its potential. And some people were later to shake their heads at Jeremiah Tower revamping his sweetbreads with fresh violets and sage butter into sweetbreads with red and yellow pepper pure'es and eggplant -- particularly since Bradley Ogden's following course of roast lamb with wilted greens had an eggplant sauce.
The hits of the evening? The beautiful dowager pinot blancs of Wente from 1953 and 1955; the blue corn cakes by Brad Ogden, which even outshined the poached spiny lobster with chardonnay sauce that went with them; and the ginger-and-pepper spiked salmon prepared by Wolfgang Puck with locally bought fish after the salmon he shipped in had disappeared.
The lesson learned: If you pinch off one wine tasting, five more will grow in its place. Tabletalk
I asked Ella Brennan of Commander's Palace in New Orleans where to get the best pralines, and she said you've got to make them yourself. Not ready to do that, I found some second-best: Evelyn's Pralines. What makes them so good is that Evelyn LeBlanc revised an old family recipe to include whipping cream instead of the usual light cream or canned milk. She roasts her pecans (halves, not pieces) in butter and adds more butter and cane sugar. Made in half of her garage, Evelyn's Pralines are available by mail for $8 a pound (four large pralines), $15 for two pounds, from 209 Chevis St., Abbeville, La. 70510. defrr If you're trying to eat more slowly, don't dine in a restaurant with fast music. Nation's Restaurant News reported on a study that found with fast instrumental music people ate 4.4 bites a minute, up from 3.83 with slow music or 3.23 with no music. Music didn't march people out the door any faster, in case any restaurateur is thinking of using the Top 40 to help turn tables more efficiently. WOLFGANG PUCK'S GRILLED SALMON WITH BLACK PEPPER AND GINGER (4 servings)
FOR THE SAUCE:
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup sherry
4 scallions, chopped
Peelings of the ginger root
1/4 cup whipping cream
6 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
FOR THE GARNISH (optional):
3 cups peanut oil
1 bunch spinach leaves
FOR THE SALMON:
4 slices salmon (6 ounces each)
Melted butter for brushing salmon
3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
3 tablespoons freshly cracked black pepper
Put white wine, sherry, scallions and ginger peelings in a small saucepan and reduce over high heat to about 1/2 cup. Add cream and reduce until mixture coats the spoon. Whisk in butter. Season with salt and pepper. Strain and keep warm.
For the optional garnish, heat 3 cups of peanut oil until very hot and fry well-dried spinach leaves until crisp, about 40 seconds to 1 minute. Drain leaves on paper towel.
Brush salmon with butter and sprinkle with a light layer of ginger and black pepper to taste. Sprinkle with more butter. Grill until medium.
Divide sauce on 4 plates. Place salmon on top and arrange spinach leaves around salmon.