‘My husband totally ignores me if Lidia Bastianich is on the Food Network. She’ll just do these amazing combinations of regional Italian food, you know, she’ll throw dried cod into the Cuisinart, puree it, then throw that into a dish with radicchio and broccoli rabe.”
“The discos in Iceland are outrageous. I went there last year with a friend of mine who was involved in importing salmon. The hotel was crawling with foodies.”
“I once had blowfish at Shen Li in New York.”
All of the above comments were overheard at a wine tasting dinner on Thursday, October 4, hosted by vintner Agustin Huneeus at Christopher’s in the new 248-room Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick, a swanky destination directly across the street from the State Theater and George Street Playhouse. One guest volunteered that the New Brunswick Hyatt is at a consistent 90 percent capacity, so there’s clearly room for more than one luxury hotel in town.
I decided that attending a wine tasting dinner would be a good way to test out the food at this new restaurant. If you are a wine tasting virgin or merely a gourmet wannabe who can count the things she makes really well on one hand, like me, and not a real foodie, like Pat Mack, the food journalist I sat next to — who writes for New Jersey Countryside magazine and covers the New York metro area for Gayot.com, a travel guide and restaurant review site — you might be curious as to what really goes on at one of these soirees. In this case 25 or so strangers are thrown together, primed with champagne and hors d’ouevres, then offered a multi-course meal, each course paired with a wine from the host vintner, whose representative gives you the back story of each wine, while experting swirling his glass and inhaling dramatically. And you’re just thinking, jeez, I feel sorry for the poor sod who has to wash all these beautiful glasses. The cost? $100 per person.
It’s all very civilized — until about the third course. But I’ll get to that later. First you probably want to know what kind of people go to wine tastings. Well, food writers, for sure, but also businesspeople. At the Heldrich I met Jean McDonnell, vice president and commercial lending officer for New Millenium Bank at 57 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, her husband, Daniel, of the brokerage firm Linsco Private Ledger in Piscataway. At another table sat Wes Brustad, executive director of the State Theater; his daughter Jessica, who has just relocated to the east coast after working as a project manager for Active, an Internet fundraising company in San Diego; Marion F. Combs, senior vice president of development at the State Theater; his wife, Diana, who volunteers at the theater; Aaron, whose last name I didn’t catch, a bartender at the Frog & Peach; and an attractive young woman who said she was a waitress from a Japanese restaurant in town. At another table Craig Weigand, director of national accounts for R&R Marketing, a wine distributor in West Caldwell, sat with several of his associates.
A wine tasting dinner will indeed give you an extensive sampling of the kind of food the restaurant serves as well as some insight into the chef’s fortes. Tom Drake, the chef at Christopher’s, is a tall redhead, who came to visit my table several times during the evening. Formerly of the Short Hills Hilton, Drake, 31, graduated with honors from the Culinary School at th Art Institute of Philadelphia in 2000. He cut his culinary teeth in Vienna and has done “stages” (pronounced STAH-ges) — little stints that last anywhere from a day to several weeks — at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia and the venerable Le Bernadin in New York.
So what about the food? And more important what about the wine? Let’s get down to business. The first course featured hamachi “cuit cru,” with a Valencia orange reduction and thyme essence. Hamachi is a yellowtail fish from Japan, flown in daily, Drake tells me, by Samuel & Sons in Philadelphia. “Cuit cru” means “cooked raw,” in other words, one side is seared, one remains raw, giving you two flavors with the same fish. The wine: Huneeus’ Illumination Sauvignon Blanc, Rutherford, Napa Valley, 2006.
George Staikos, eastern region sales manager for Huneeus Vintners, explains to us that Agustin Huneeus began his career in his hometown of Santiago, Chile, and entered the wine business in 1960 as chief executive officer of Concha y Toro. After leaving Chile’s difficult political climate in 1971, Huneeus served as head of Seagram’s worldwide operations. Today, he devotes his time to his own Quintessa vineyard in Rutherford, Napa Valley, and also maintains vineyard holdings in Chile and Alexander Valley.
Staikos points to a tiny one-inch square on the elegantly illustrated four color map of the Quintessa Vineyard, indicating the select block of land on which the Illumination grapes were planted in 2002. The Illumination Sauvignon Blanc we taste is, according to Staikos, all stainless steel fermented and is being presented for the first time at a wine tasting event this night at Christopher’s. I nod enthusiastically: stainless steel fermented, why would you want anything else?
Rule number one at a wine tasting. Don’t drink the whole glass of each wine you’re given. You will become inebriated quickly and begin asking total strangers their porn name, as one of my tablemates did In case you wanted to know, your porn name is the name of your first pet followed by the name of the street you grew up on.
I only weave just ever so slightly, maintaining absolute grace and composure, as I make a much-needed trip to the loo in between the first and second course. All that champagne has coursed rapidly through my system. Not a soul sees that I brush one curved wall with my shoulder (silly architect, curved walls, what’s that all about?).
This little segue gives me a chance to soak in the ultra-modern sweeping decor of Christopher’s, with its large “exhibition kitchen” (about four times the size of anything Rachael Ray or even Lidia Bastianich ever cooks in on the Food Network), past the bar, which is in a separate room from the restaurant — a quick peek reveals lots of inviting clusters of upholstered bar stools around intimate tables for two, other tables along a banquette, and a sign announcing live jazz on Thursday and Friday nights. The hotel boasts over 200 pieces of original artwork, which makes you feel like you’re at an architecturally-forward New York museum that also happens to serve food. Very cosmopolitan.
Like any other normal woman, I tend to judge restaurants more on the ladies’ room than on the food. And Christopher’s doesn’t disappoint. I especially like the stainless steel trough-style sinks with granite surrounds.
I get back just in time to sit down for the second course, roasted monkfish, Redondo 18-Month Reserve Jamon Serrano (a high-quality aged Spanish ham similar to prosciutto), sunchoke puree, and 8 Brix Verjus emulsion (a juice pressed from unripe grapes that tastes like a sweeter vinegar, which chef Drake reduces with fish stock and finishes with butter to make a sauce). The wine: Primus, Casablanca Valley, 2004 — a red wine that Staikos describes as fruit forward, chocolate, and spicy with hints of cherry, adding the Primus means “the chosen one.” I try hard not to finish it, but don’t do so well. Why isn’t anyone else’s glass empty like mine? Bad girl.
On the third course chef Drake hits the mother lode: seared foie gras, with cocoa sable, a not too sweet chocolate cookie similar to shortbread; cocoa nib tuile, a paper thin cookie rolled into a tube; and cherry jam. The wine: Faust Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2004. This is, according to Staikos, Huneeus’ “tribute to Napa” with just 4,000 cases produced, “juicy, ripe, forward, accessible. When you smell this it explodes out of the glass.” I certainly don’t want anything to explode out of my glass so I drink it quickly. Good girl.
Somewhere in between bites of foie gras, Pat Mack, the food journalist, illuminates me about the whole wine tasting thing. I ask her if she goes to a lot, and she says yes, everyone’s always very reserved and professional at the beginning, but by the third course everyone’s laughing and yes, silly. Oh, good, I thought, I can be silly and still lift my pinky finger. I can do that really well.
The fourth course brings roasted Jamison Farm lamb, grain mustard spaetzle, chanterelle mushrooms, braised mustard greens, and spiced lamb jus. The wine: Quintessa, Rutherford, Napa Valley, 2004. Staikos calls this “the mother one,” made from grapes farmed biodynamically by a lunar calendar, “the finest fruit off this estate.” After one sip, everyone oohs and aahs, as if Nicole Kidman has just walked by in a little vintage Dior number. How could you not like something farmed by a lunar calendar? Visions of Peter Rabbit hopping among the grapevines of Mr. MacGregor’s garden and looking up at the moon danced in my head. Note to self: Do not drink the whole glass.
By the fifth course the people at my table are acting as if they have known each other for years, spilling all sorts of secrets that you wouldn’t want to share with the class. I won’t tell you anyone’s porn name, to protect the innocent, but I have notes: Chestnut Carlton, Mandy Cactus; Tiffany Laurel, and Brandy Munn.
This last course features a selection of artisanal cheeses, pain d’epices, and my personal favorite, Cabernet poached dried plums (what your mother used to call prunes). The wine: Quintessa, Rutherford, Napa Valley, 2001. I have no notes on this wine, as I am too distracted by the “mignardise” that comes with the cheese course. Mignardise, according to chocolateandzucchini.com, are “sweet little bites that they serve with coffee in upscale restaurants” and “comes from mignard, an old-fashioned word that as a noun means a small child and as an adjective means delicate, graceful, and pretty.”
Fortunately chef Drake comes out of the kitchen again to visit our table, just in time to explain to me what all those lovely bite-sized desserts prepared by pastry chef Patrick Muller are. Five neat rows of miniature sweets arranged on a white rectangular platter: madelines; pate de fruit; fresh marshmallow (one bite and you’ll never go back to Kraft Jet Puffed); salted peanut and caramel toffee, and truffles with creme fraiche. The piece de resistance is a shot glass of saffron hot chocolate, a frothy elixir that goes down, as my southern husband says, smoother than butter on a baby’s butt.
So, dozens of plates and even more dozens of glasses later, a mere $100 has opened a window into the cuisine of Christopher’s — Drake says that while he made the menu specifically for this dinner, it is representative of his regular menu and the hamachi dish did make it onto the new fall menu; introduced you to five wines you can bring to your next dinner party to impress the host with adjectives like “fruit forward;” and taught you new party games like how to create your porn name. Note to self: Google “8 Brix Verjus Emulsion.”
Editor’s note: The next wine tasting at the Heldrich is a Bombay Sapphire dinner and takes place on Tuesday, November 13. $100/person plus tax and gratuity. For reservations call 732-214-2200.