Nothing to write home about but a good Bordeaux white

New York is one of the great restaurant cities of the world. So many restaurants and wine bars open and close so quickly in this town, that it’s often hard to keep track. And while there is a lot of great food here, there’s plenty of bad to go around as well. I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands lately and no kitchen to cook in, so I’ve taken the opportunity to try some new — well, new for me — places.

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Above: the only thing I liked about Quality Meats was a few interesting wines on the list, including this Caillou Blanc 2004 Château Talbot.

A few nights ago, Greg and I — we’re both steak lovers — dined at Quality Meats, a recent addition to the Smith & Wollensky mediocrity group. The decor was kinda cool: the restaurant is dressed as a old-school meat locker, with hooks on the ceiling etc.

Our gracious waiter — who later abandoned us when the restaurant got busy — recommended that we not order the rib steak for two (“it can be too fatty,” she said) and so we both ordered the sirloin, bone in, black and blue. Greg’s came so charred that he said it tasted like charcoal. Mine was medium rare and not charred at all on the outside. We also both ordered Caesar salads: the dressing was insipid (“no anchovy,” our waiter said) and the croutons store-bought.

While the wine list was laden with the classic, over-priced, over-oaked, and overblown “Napa Cabs,” there were a few interesting wines like Sinskey, Olga Raffault (we drank the 2002 Les Picasses at a really great price), and a wine I’d never had, Caillou Blanc 2004 Château Talbot, a white made from Sauvignon and Sémillon. You rarely see white Bordeaux in NYC and Greg and I immensely enjoyed this dry, structured wine.

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Above: the chef at Centro Vinoteca needs some Italian lessons.

Another recent outing took me to the very new Centro Vinoteca in the Village to meet a good friend of a friend, Ariel, who has just joined the ranks of us wine professionals. I really wanted to like Centro Vinoteca: the list is all Italian and has some great stuff, including a Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore Vigna delle Oche 2002 San Lorenzo that was fantastic. I got there early (about 5:50 p.m.) and the place was empty and I sat at the bar. My waiter was knowledgeable and skilled and was happy to open a new bottle for me when I told him the wine he had poured — open from the night before — was dead. They serve wines by the quartino there and the prices are very reasonable for the quality (“wine by the quartino,” equivalent to roughly 2.5 glasses depending on how you pour, is a Batali-Bastianich affectation, but more on that below).

But by the time Ariel arrived, about 20 minutes later, the place was packed, we lost our good waiter, and our new waiter simply didn’t know how to open a bottle of wine. Ariel wanted to try the Verdicchio and so our new waiter opened it by swirling the bottle around to rip the capsule off; she inserted the worm incorrectly and broke the cork as she pulled it out; and then — to my disbelief — she inserted the worm again, put the bottle between her knees (!!!), and ripped the cork out. After Ariel tasted the wine and opted instead for a Falanghina, the waiter poured the Falanghina into the Verdicchio glass. Oy…

Trying to move past this mishap, we did order a few things from the menu. The arancine (above) turned out not to be arancine but just simple fried rice balls dusted with some grated pecorino. Throughout Italy, arancini (masc.) are fried rice balls stuffed with meat, cheese, and/or peas. A classic Sicilian dish, the are called arancine (fem.) in Palermo and Western Sicily, arancini (masc.) in eastern Sicily and the rest of Italy.

We also ordered — partly because it seemed so preposterous — the mortadella pate [sic]. I guess the person who types up their menus doesn’t know how to use diacritics. This dish consisted of ground mortadella. I know that mortadella is “in” these days but why ruin it by destroying its texture?

My first waiter, whom I liked, mentioned that the chef at Centro Vinoteca had been Mario Batali’s sous chef on the Iron Chef TV show. Evidently she learned a lot from Molto “make-it-up-as-you-go-along-and-then-claim-it’s-authentic-Italian-food” Mario. The so-called quartino is another Batali-Bastianich affectation that you never see in Italy. It’s really too bad… I really wanted to like Centro Vinoteca. The wine list there is interesting but the service and the affectation just ruined it for me.

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