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Have liver, will travel

Friday, March 31, 2006

Rally's-Pride of our Alley; Chambers Street Wines; Melville Vineyards & Winery

There's a little convenience store/deli around the corner from our place. It's got a red awning with large white letters proclaiming its name: Rally's. Upon closer inspection, one gleans that the store used to be called "Sally's," and the thrifty owners who purchased the joint from Sally simply patched over the "S" on the awning for the store's new appelation. So it's that kind of place—hardly what you'd expect to read about on a hooch snob's blog. At first sight, Rally's looks like the kind of place you'd go to get change for the parking meter, or a weak coffee when you've run out of beans.

But appearances, says the cliché, are deceiving.

Fact is, Rally's has a killer beer selection, hand picked by the owner himself. It's not a Bevmo-style lexicon mind you—there's no room for that—it's just a few choice bottles in a little cooler in the back, many of which are so esoteric, you'd never even see them at a wholesaler. We picked up a some Dogfish Head brews the other night—90-minute IPA, 60-minute IPA, and an ApriHop (yes, an apricot-infused IPA). They were even selling World-Wide Stout ($9.99 for a single 12-oz bottle). We decided to save that for another time.

They also have an extensive selection of Belgian Ales, particularly lambics, a couple sixers of Brooklyn Brewing Company's best brews, a few real German and Czech lagers, and some California mainstream micros like Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam. Rally's one little cooler has more to keep a discerning beer lover busy than any ten grocery stores.

In Tribeca, I ran into another find: Chambers Street Wines. On my way home after work, I stumbled into what appeared to be a little mom & pop place, lured by a display in the window that pimped "mixed case specials"—they do a mixed Red case for $200, and $100 mixed cases of Reds, Whites, or both. Inside, I was pleased to see $10 bottles sitting next to $300 bottles on shelves arranged by region. This portends one of two things: taxonomical errata, or insightful curation of stock based on, in the case of inexpensive wines, extraordinary value for money, and in the case of expensive wines, hard-to-find gems from the great and emerging regions. Fortunately for me, the latter applied. I was delighted to see Pinot Noir from Melville Vineyards and Winery, one of our favorite Sideways country producers.

Perhaps this belongs in another post, but when we tasted at Melville, there was a couple there with a baby and a toddler. Darling children, but the toddler must have had a sour tummy, and dropped messy bout of diarrhea all over the tasting room rug. The obvious olfactory challenges proved to be a testament to the quality of Melville's wines—not even a fog of baby shit could quell their exceptional character. Next to the remarkable, inimitable Sea Smoke Cellars, Melville has the most exciting Pinot program in Santa Barbara County.

Sac's cheese pie, courtesy of Slice NY
I found a nice bottle of Monpertuis 2003 Vin de Pays du Gard La Ramière Counoise for $10, and a $20 Sobon 2003 Amador County Zinfandel Fiddletown next to a wine shop placard that comically praised this 15.1% monster's lack of "alcohol heat," and a $14 Ocone 2001 Aglianico del Taburno. The Monpertuis was dense with blackberry fruit and a little herbal sting. The Ocone was the first Aglianico I'd tried, and it was rustic and impressive with top notes of sour cherry and a shaggy texture of dry cocoa and black raspberry compote—we had it with pizza delivered from Sac's Place, which turned out to be an inspired pairing. I'm saving the Zin for a doghouse day when I need the assistance of a proven aphrodesiac. I'll keep you apprised of how that goes, dear readers.

Anyway, don't judge a book by its cover, appearances can be deceiving, the ugly duckling is a swan in disguise, and all that. And maybe that's my lasting impression of New York in general—there's so much going on here in every corner of the city that no one could hope to apprehend it all. As a country mouse, I grew up thinking the city mice had it all bad—murderous cats, Victor traps, and urban blight. But those are outward appearances—penetrate them, and the streets really are paved with cheese.

—The Alcotourist

Monday, March 20, 2006

On the Town

Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in On the Town, MGM, 1949

Friends have asked about our impressions of New York, and it's a difficult question to answer. We're still tourists here in some sense, though we're gradually making friends and discovering our druthers. Last weekend it hit 74 degrees, and we had a glorious amble through Central Park, but other than that one day, winter has put a damper on our usual free-wheeling, follow-your-nose method of exploring. We also continue to be leashed to a dog who can't stand being alone. He's been making it through the days all right, but howls desperately if we go out at night. Still, when cabin fever strikes, we've left him with his kongs and chew toys to howl as he pleases, the neighbors be damned.

On the glorious 74-degree Saturday, we paid a visit to what has become my favorite local wine shop, Union Square Wine and Spirits, which happend to be hosting two free tastings as we walked in. The salon upstairs hosted a tasting of biodynamic wines from all over the world. We even sipped a (very dry) Blanc de Noirs Brut from New Mexico. Downstairs, we were treated to wines from Italy, including an excellent $10 Primitivo, 2003 Cantele Primitivo del Salento, and a knock-out 2003 La Spinetta (Guiseppe Rivetti & Figli) Barbera d' Asti Superiore Bionzo. The Primitivo was especially exciting for me because I confess I'm in a bit of a Zinfandel phase, and Primitivo, as it was recently discovered, is the Italian sister of Zinfandel, which was found to originate in Croatia on the Dalmatian coast.

This Primitivo had nice concentration, with that lively, astringent character I love so well in Zinfandel. The fruit was bodacious with plum, raspberry, and cherry, leaning a little on the sweet side—I usually prefer a little more oak and alcohol in the mix, but for ten bucks, I have no complaints.

The Barbera was a revealation. Dry and dense, with a Havana nose and a rustic oak finish, it stood up to the Alcotouristess's homemade lasagna like a champ. It's listed at $49.99, but we got it on sale for $24.99. Sweet. Look for the rhino on the bottle.

Last night, we visited New York's favorite Pizzeria, Grimaldi's, located just under the Brooklyn Bridge with a view of downtown Manhattan. It was an early Sunday evening, yet the wait outside in 40-degree weather was 25 minutes. Perversely, I noticed from the line that the lights were on in the quaint riverside lighthouse that is the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. The Alcotouristess waited in line while I picked up a hot fudge sundae to go, with a scoop of Chocolate Chocolate Chunk and a scoop of the best Butter Pecan I've ever tasted. I took it back to the line, and we shared in the ecstasy of this frozen treat, despite our red wind-licked noses and blue-with-the-cold fingers.

We were finally shuffled into a tiny table at Grimaldi's, and ordered a large pie with roasted red peppers and onions. We ordered a too-young 2004 "Badia Al Monte Marche Sangiovese," which was fine for pizza but nothing to take home. The pie was outstanding. The dough was thin, yet formidable in texture. The mozzarella (no other cheese is used on Grimaldi's red pies) was fresh and perfect. When we return, we will opt for the simple cheese pie. The toppings were great, but they weighed down the pizza, whose expression is perfect in its thin-crust simplicity.

We returned home on the train to find an agitated dog. We'd been using our video camera to record his progress with our anti-separation anxiety training, and were disappointed to find pictures of him standing on his hind legs, front paws in the window frame, his head cocked back, howling plaintively for over 30 minutes. Wouldn't you, if you'd missed out on Grimaldi's?

—The Alcotourists

Sunday, March 05, 2006

In the Big Apple

Well, we've been on hiatus for a few months, and here's the reason: We liked New York so much on our last visit that we decided to move there, or "here" since I'm writing this from our quaint little rowhouse in Astoria. They say that moving out of state is the second-most stressful thing you can do in your life—divorce being the first. We won't argue with that.

It's been particularly rough on our dog, who was always clingy, and now has a full-blown case of separation anxiety and can hardly tolerate having us out of his sight. It's been no small cramp in our Alcotourist style. Wine from the local shops and a Netflix membership have been de rigeur.

But don't despair, dear readers! We still managed to get out a couple of nights with the help of a dogsitter and a little luck. Here are our most recent finds:
  1. The Hop Devil Grill is still one of my favorite beer joints of all time. When I was here looking for an apartment in January, I literally intuited my way back there one night without any directions whatsoever. I've taken to getting their $15 flight of five 8-oz beers to taste as many of the esoteric brews as I can in one night. The bartenders are ale zealots, and can tell you anything you want to know about the beers in rotation on their 24 taps. I also discovered, during my January trip, that Hop Devil makes the best veggie burger in the world—it tastes like bison, yet is totally meatless. We got a dogsitter and visited a couple of weeks ago, and enjoyed an incredible American Pale Ale called "Dales." Brewed in Colorado, this golden-hued ale has the best hop aroma of any in the style since the "Jack Mormon Pale Ale" I tried in Lander, Wyoming (more on that in a later post). Another favorite on tap, surprisingly, was a porter from Yuengling, America's oldest brewery—inky black and smooth as silk.

    We also got the news that Hop Devil was getting six kegs of Bear Republic (the first Bear Republic Kegs in NYC) the next week. I was there the first night with bells on. Bear Republic makes what I would argue is the best beer in America right now: a Russian Imperial Stout called "Big Bear Black." My favorite Bear Republic beer, however, is called "Hop Rod Rye," essentially a strong IPA with rye malt. This deep copper ale is deliciously bitter and totaly unique. Hop Devil managed to get the following six beers from Bear Republic, which I ordered in a special $20 flight: Racer 5 IPA , Racer X Double IPA, Hop Rod Rye, Red Rocket Ale, Pete's Brown Tribute Ale, Red Wheat. Though I was sad that, through some shipping snafu, Big Bear Black wasn't available, it was still great to see all these beers on tap so far away from Healdsburg, where we'd gone on this pilgrimage. Here's my critical run-down:
    Racer 5 IPAThey bill this as America's best IPA, and it's hard to argue the claim, even when there are so many excellent beers made in this style today. It is very good--certainly top 5.
    Racer X Double IPAI am a big fan of Stone's Ruination IPA, and double IPAs in general, but this one suffers from the excellence of Racer 5, which is perfectly executed. I'd rather just have 2 Racer 5s. Not that Racer X is bad--far from it. It's just not as exceptional as Racer 5.
    Hop Rod RyeMy favorite Bear Republic Ale. Excellent and Unique without being obnoxious or sickeningly sweet, like say, some Dogfish Head or Magic Hat brews.
    Red Rocket AleI'm not a red ale drinker, but this is excellent stuff. As with all Bear Republic ales, this one is robustly hopped and dry—a mix of IPA and red ale styles. This is the only Red Ale I've tasted that isn't completely listless and boring.
    Pete's Brown Tribute AleThe Alcotouristess prizes Lost Coast's "Downtown Brown" above all others, but this is my favorite Brown ale. The brown sugar maltiness is brought to heel by aggressive hopping. Ahhh!
    Red WheatWell, if I'm not a red ale drinker, I'm certainly not a wheat beer drinker. Still, this is an extremely creative take on the two styles, and appropriately dry and hoppy. It's worth a try.
    Big Bear BlackThis wasn't on tap at Hop Devil, but it deserves a mention here anyway. This is, in my estimation, the best beer in America today. Complex, roasty malt flavors; warming alcohol, and perfectly piney hop bitterness and floral aroma. This is the beer with everything. If you can't appreciate it, go nurse your Zima in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
  2. While at the Hop Devil, I heard of a Victory Brewing event at The Gate in Brooklyn the next week. Now, I'm going to throw my hat in the ring and say that Victory is an overrated brewer. Their "Hop Devil IPA" (not to be confused with the excellent Hop Devil Grill, above) is a worty, sludgy mess. Their barleywine is too sweet. Their Imperial Stout was good and dry, but nothing ultimately to write home about. The find in this trip was the Gate itself, especially for those of us with dogs that can't be abandoned. Yes, the Gate allows dogs, and we took our separation anxiety-ridden hound inside and were welcomed. Indeed, our pooch was a hit with the clientele, and got plenty of good-natured pats on the head from passers-by. We'll be back, especially later in the spring when the patio opens.

    We hadn't been to a dog-friendly pub since the Lucky Lab Brewpub in Portland, Oregon. This awesome, rustic brewpub with a huge mural replica of Wyeth's "Christina's World" painted on its back wall has great vegetarian-friendly fare and a covered patio where you can enjoy your pint and dinner with your dog. We were so happy to find something like this in our new city, and we openly wonder why there aren't more dog-friendly pubs out there?

  3. Skeptical as we were about trying a Long Island wine, we decided it was time to brave a bottle and for $12, the Pindar 2001 Cab Franc was worth a try. I let it decant a full hour before venturing to sip--and was pleasantly surprised. Not a complex wine, lacking in some of the fine tobacco I appreciate in some of my favorite Cab Francs, but definitely drinkable and, after two more hours of decanting, a fine accompaniment to some Godiva truffles. A promising introduction to New York wines. Napa it's not, but better than Temecula and for half the price.
So, we sign off, promising another update as circumstances allow. We will endeavor to provide a full review this spring of the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden, mere blocks from our abode, and other places to imbibe as we discover them...
—The Alcotourists