The most compelling wine we drank last week in NYC was a Merlot at LaLou in Brooklyn. Can you guess where it was from?

One of the most exciting stops last week during my time in New York with my client Michele Marsiaj, owner of the Amistà winery in Nizza, was at LaLou in Brooklyn, Joe Campanale and Dave Foss’s French-leaning wine bar.

Those are the anchovies we ordered as an appetizer — minus one. One of the fishes is missing because when you sit down to eat with a bunch of Piedmontese and olive oil-cured anchovies show up, it’s like it vying for latkes with your two brothers at Hanukkah. I was lucky to photograph the last four. And they were excellent.

Crusty bread from the über-hip She Wolf bakery in Brooklyn really took that dish over the top.

Those are the wonderfully ethereal “Parsian” gnocchi, which were hard not to inhale. Another over-the-top winner dish that we all thoroughly enjoyed.

But the real show stopper at last Wednesday night’s dinner was a 21-year-old Merlot. Or should I say a Merlot-heavy blend with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet.

When you see a wine that old on a wine list at a hip Brooklyn spot, you know that there was someone who believed in and loved it enough to put it out there (they also had the 2000) despite its age and possible fitness issues.

The price was more than reasonable and so we ordered it. And man, this wine, from Edi Simčič in Slovenia, delivered freshness, slightly ripe red fruit, very light but perceptible tannin, and awesome drinkability and food-friendliness.

We were floored by how good it was.

We spend so much time paying attention to elegant classic whites and macerated whites from Friuli and Slovenia that we often forget that this transnational region for wine production is arguably the home to the best Merlot in this part of the world.

I’ll never forget drinking 1997 Merlot from Radikon with a group of sommeliers back in 2010 during a trip to Gorizia commune. You’d think that the film Sideways had never even been made! It was that good.

The Duet by Simčič isn’t even the estate’s top red wine. It’s part of their “essential line,” in other words, their entry tier. But man, this wine had it all going on. I can’t wait to get back in May to order the 2000.

I highly recommend the restaurant, the wine list, and, of course, the Merlot!

Joe and Dave, great place, great people, great vibes, and great times. We really enjoyed it.

Some good meals on the road last week…

Man, what a week last week! Four planes in four days!

On Tuesday, I flew up to Dallas to have dinner with the president and communications director of the Abruzzo consortium.

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to love Fachini as much as I did. The whole Eye-Talian concept as presented on their website seemed a little bit misguided at first glance. And the waiters in tuxes, while cute, made it seem like it was going to be more of a show than substance.

But the homemade gardiniera that they served as an aperitivo at the bar was fantastic, as were the ricotta and focaccia.

Those are the cappelletti above. I had never seen green cappelletti before and we were a far cry from the traditional way this filled pasta is served (traditionally in capon broth with generous amounts of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano). But the pasta was delicious, the stuffing perfectly calibrated, and the tomato sauce was more of a coulis than a true sauce. The latter was light and not overly acid-driven. I loved this dish.

And after all, as Tony used to say (and I agree wholeheartedly), Italian food is not authentic unless it’s creative.

The next day, I led three seminars at Eataly — Moscato d’Asti, Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, and Abruzzo — over the course of four hours with 15-minute breaks between each one. Huge shout-out to the event staff at Eataly for another job well done and heartfelt thanks to my friends at IEEM in Miami/Verona who asked me to come up for a morning of tasting and sharing notes on some great wines. It was exhilarating but exhausting. I made a mad dash the airport and flew home… only to get on a plane Thursday morning and fly to NYC.

Friday found me at the swank and beautiful surf and turf Carne Mare at South Street Seaport in Manhattan where I joyfully dug into the chicken cutlet alla milanese. Again, not traditional but utterly delicious. I really enjoyed and highly recommend this place.

South Street Seaport has been totally renovated and is super fun, with high-end shops and restaurants. It was a beautiful day in New York and the view of the Brooklyn Bridge… as my friend Paul says, it just never gets old.

Also have to give a shout-out to the fine staff at Ulivo on West 28th St. They took such great care of our party and I loved the fried burrata (below). It was as decadent and as delicious as it looks. And man, their kitchen really knows how to slice prosciutto correctly.

All in all it was an amazing week of wines and wonderful italophile folks. I feel so blessed to do what I do for a living. But I couldn’t wait to get home to Tracie and the girls and our chihuahuas.

Thanks to everyone who took such good care of us. The wave of Italian cuisine in this country only gets better and more compelling every year. And it’s so wonderful that New York has opened up again. I can’t wait to get back next week (yep, life on the road keeps on keeping on!). Stay tuned…

Some of the best NY pizza I’ve had in years (Manhattan and along the New York Thruway)

Manhattan has changed so much in the decade since I left the city.

Nearly all of the cool downtown rock clubs where my band used to play are gone. Nearly all the great dive bars where we used to hang are shuttered. And many of the wonderful pizza-by-the-slice joints where you could get a classic New York slice are sadly and irrevocably no more.

Does anyone remember Salvatore Bartolomeo from Rosario’s on Orchard St.? On July 14 each year (my birthday btw), our French band used to play on that corner for the Bastille Day celebration. Between sets, I would hang with Sal and he would make me an off-the-menu Neapolitan-style espresso after I washed down my slice with a can of seltzer.

During my recent trip to the city, I was determined to find a great slice since all of my favorite places are now closed.

After much painstaking research, I decided to try the “city hall” Little Italy Pizza on Park Place. Those are the slices above.

As Eater New York notes, “all Little Italy franchises are not the same. In fact, some are superb while others awful, with doughy crusts and lifeless tomato sauces. The City Hall branch is one of the great ones, and you can tell the minute you step inside and see the elated diners.”

It’s so true about being able to gauge the caliber of a by-the-slice spot by the clientele.

Little Italy (Park Place) does have a website for ordering. But check out its Facebook to get a better sense of the fare.

The slices were a little bit on the greasy side (the way you like it). This place really delivered (excuse the pun) the flavor and texture I remembered from my years in the city.

I was working all day on Friday but then Saturday I had to head up to Plattsburgh in upstate New York to see an ailing relative (long, sad story but at least he’s not in pain; we had a nice visit).

On the way back I was determined not to eat shitty New York Thruway food. And so, on a whim, I stopped at Saugerties, New York (not far from Woodstock) where I happened upon the wonderful Village Pizza (above).

They don’t have a website but they do have a Facebook (worth checking out).

Man, this place just nailed it. From the stone-faced pizzaiolo to the sullen (however polite) young lady working the counter, it had the old-school feel of the New York pizzerias of yore.

It took me about 10 minutes from the Thruway tollbooth to get there.

As I headed out, I took a puff and tuned into Woodstock Radio where I heard the most amazing country track by Steely Dan, “Brooklyn Owes the Charmer Under Me.”

It was just one of those seamless moments, a respite from the melancholy residual of my visit. The trip back to Newark airport was rainy, cold, dark, and lonely. And that pizza and the song were on my mind.

Microaggression and my Houston apologia

houston hermann park conservatoryAbove: my family at the Hermann Park Conservancy in Houston last year, not long after we moved here from Austin.

12,000+ views, 2,000+ Facebook shares, and 28 comments later, it’s still going strong… When I published it a week ago Sunday, I never imagined that my post “You’re from Houston? I’m so sorry” would have generated such a response.

When she shared it on her Facebook on Thursday, Houstonia magazine managing editor Katharine Shilcutt (and one of my editors there) wrote: “it’s always heartwarming to see non-natives become Houston apologists.”

Katharine, a Houston native, is a friend and one of the writers and editors I admire most on the food scene here. It was a thrill to discover that she enjoyed the post enough to share it with her legions of followers.

And today, the post was featured on the Houston Chronicle “Opportunity Urbanist” blog.

Honestly, I never intended the post as a panegyric.
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A story about the old The Ten Bells and the best thing I ate in NYC

best organic prosecco“The problem [at The Ten Bells] is not the list,” wrote one natural wine advocate on my Facebook yesterday. While my bartender was not very helpful when I visited this week, I did drink this groovy, crunchy, organic, and undisgorged Prosecco. I liked it a lot.

Over on my Facebook, a lot of people commented on my post about a disappointing experience that I had this week at The Ten Bells.

Most agreed that The Ten Bells isn’t what it used to be. And many natural wine advocates encouraged me to revisit it. One guy told me to kill myself (for real; I blocked him).

In the wake of all the comments and the many wine professionals who bemoaned the service but praised the list there, I wanted to share a story from my own experiences there over the years.

The Ten Bells opened the last year I lived in New York, 2007. And I immediately became a fan. And even after I left New York (after living there for ten years), The Ten Bells became my number-one go-to when visiting. I loved the place. I loved the ex-owner Fifi. I loved the anti-Beaujolais nouveau festival. I loved the pâté (which was superb with the Beaujolais). I went there for business, I went there for pleasure.

One time when I visited, I sat down at the bar and asked the bartender if he had any Maule Garganega, which I had drunk there before.

He said that no, he didn’t have any at the moment.

“I’m so bummed!” I told him. “I was so looking forward to pairing some oysters with that wine. I love it so much.”

He looked me in the eye.

“Anyone who loves Maule and oysters so much needs to have some,” he said smiling broadly.

“I actually have one bottle of Maule. Let me get it for you.”

And he didn’t charge me for the oysters or the wine.

Not long after that, back in California (where I was trying to figure out what the next chapter of my life would be; this was before I met Tracie P), a good friend and natural wine lover asked me for New York City recommendations.

I told him to go to The Ten Bells and order Maule and oysters.

When he returned to California, he told me that not only had he sat down at the bar and ordered Maule and oysters, but the bartender had refused to charge him.

My friend recounted that “the guy at the bar said, ‘Anyone who loves Maule and oysters so much needs to have some. It’s on me.'”

It’s unbelievable. But it’s 100 percent true. I swear.

I don’t know that bartender’s name but I can see him in my mind’s eye.

And I will revisit The Ten Bells when I come back to the city this fall.

In other news…

clams black bean sauce recipeThose are cherrystone clams with black beans at Fuleen Seafood in Chinatown, where I had dinner with some of my best friends in the wine trade last night.

What a great dinner! That’s the duck below.

As much as I loved the pasta at I Trulli and the burger at the bar at Keens Steakhouse, last night’s was the best meal of the trip.

Now it’s time to get my butt back to Texas where there are three ladies that I need to squeeze tightly, tightly, tightly…

peking duck recipe

Song of mine on Guillermo del Toro’s new show “The Strain” this Sunday

les sans culottesWord from my agent in LA arrived yesterday afternoon: a song I co-wrote and co-produced, “Sa Sabine,” will appear this Sunday on the pilot for a new show, “The Strain,” written and directed by Guillermo del Toro for FX.

I wrote the music for the song (one of my favorites) back when I was living in Brooklyn and gigging with my then-band, Les Sans Culottes (above). It came out on our album, “Faux Realism,” in 2002 (Aeronaut).

At the time, our breakthrough song hadn’t happened yet. In 2003, we sold a song from an earlier recording to a major ad campaign by Hewlett Packard. The spot — played in primetime during the World Series that year and beyond — gave us the bandwidth and exposure that made us a nationally known act.

We were a Brooklyn favorite and we headlined regularly at venues like the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan.

It was a crazy and crazy-fun time in my life: I had been working in New York as a freelance writer and copywriter for a few years by then and I was writing, playing, and recording music by night (and not just with the French band).

I can’t share the song here because of copyright issues. But if you want to check out the original recording (which was made on two-inch tape — yes! — in a studio in pre-gentrification Bushwick), you’ll find it on all the usual platforms (iTunes, Amazon, etc.).

When we mixed it, we used a technique developed by engineer Eddie Kramer on Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold as Love.”

After we made an initial mix of the track, we played part of it back slightly out of sync with the original, thus creating a “phaser” effect that gives that section of the song an otherworldly sound (otherwise known as the “spaceship” or “doobie” effect).

I make a decent living by writing about Italian gastronomy and culture and have nothing to complain about. Life’s been good to me so far (je suis j’étais un rock star).

But selling one of my songs and knowing that my music is still out there is one of the greatest rewards of my professional life.

Thanks for listening.

The pilot for “The Strain” airs Sunday night at 10 p.m. EST on FX.

Del Posto a night at the opera

del posto octopus new yorkAbove: Charred Octopus with Umbrian garbanzo, celery hearts, and 25-year Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale.

Paolo, Adam, Zachary, and I had an epic night Tuesday at Del Posto in Manhattan.

From Jewish boy stomach to A.J. Liebling, to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the conversation was as wild as the food and wine.

I posted images and notes (including our celebrity sighting) today over at the Boulder Wine Merchant blog

Thanks again, Paolo!

It doesn’t get more orange than this #Georgia @AnforaNYC

georgian orange winePosting in a hurry this morning as I head out from the Upper West Side to yet another meeting and another tasting.

But wanted to share this glass of Our Wine 2010 Rkatsiteli (Georgia) that I had as an aperitif yesterday early evening at one of my favorite wine bars in the city, Anfora (conceived by one of the coolest dudes in our business, Joe Campanale).

There’s probably no better place to drink amphora-vinified wines than Joe’s place.

Although intense (and maybe not for everyone), the wine was delicious and its oxidative note made it reminiscent of a Sherry, a perfect aperitif.

So much to tell and so many wines to share…

Nobody does it better #NYC #bagels

best bagel new yorkIt doesn’t even have a Google place page but there’s a Korean-Mexican bagel place on Broadway just north of 107th street on the Upper West Side…

It’s right up the street from the place where I stay (the apartment of the drummer in my band, Nous Non Plus).

It’s where I go for breakfast when in the city…

Back to natural Vinos Ambiz gets me back in the groove

vinos ambiz

Just in case you were concerned that I had lost my way among the rich folk back in the big New York City, I’m happy to report that I found my way from James Suckling’s Wednesday night tasting in midtown to Alice’s place downtown where I recharged my sanity drinking some crunchy wine from Vinos Ambiz in Spain.

The folks there are an “organic vineyard, winery and natural wine company. We practice sustainable viticulture, and make natural, authentic, good quality wines that express the terroir. We improve the fertility of the soil, don’t use chemicals or additives and we recycle our bottles.”

The Suckling tasting was impressive but the carbonic maceration Airén, unfiltered, unclarified, and with no added sulfites by Vinos Ambiz — let’s just say — was a little more my speed.

pickled herring salad blau gans

And just to remind myself what I love about the borough of Man-atan, I met Brooklyn Guy the next day for lunch at the Blaue Gans in Tribeca where I thoroughly enjoyed the pickled herring salad.

The service there may not be what it once was at this Teutonic casual, but the food is always great, the wine list tidy and solid, the beers appropriately bitter, and I love the Zabriskie Point poster in the toilet (worth a visit to the head by any means).

My short visit to New York is about to come to an end but not before I go taste a buttload of old Nebbiolo (you are not going to believe the sick flight of wines that await me at lunch). Stay tuned…