Crisp Summer Deals From Down Under

I've been without my Canon Rebel for the past week or so, so you're going to have to settle for a few grainy, low-light iPhone shots every now and again. We snuck in a little New Zealand staff tasting this morning to sample the new vintages from our most-beloved direct import producers. Our man Ryan Woodhouse (who as you know from this blog is absolutely killing it at the moment) was on hand to take us through some of the selections. I finally gave up trying to rank my favorites about halfway down the list. "What's the point?" I whispered to my co-worker Joe, "They're all so ridiculous for the money."

If you're in need of some patio pounders, these wines are begging to be refridgerated and consumed immediately:

2014 Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $16.99 - This is made by the guy who founded Cloudy Bay. It's basically a better version of Cloudy Bay for $10 less a bottle. Nuff said, right? Super crisp, lots of citrus, and all bio-organically farmed.

2014 Alkoomi Estate "Old Vine - Black Label" Riesling Frankland River Western Australia $16.99 - Unbelievably racy with tons of flinty, petrol notes. You would think this is classic German-style trocken, but it's not. It's a crazy deal from Western Australia, a region that lately has been making more good white wine than just about anywhere on the planet. Bone dry. So dry your teeth will hurt.

2014 TWR (Te Whare Ra) "Toru" White Blend Marlborough $18.99- Made from aromatic varietals (predominately Gewurztraminer) this little blend refreshing white will wash away all your troubles. Sauvignon Blanc and Gris round out the backend. We've been waiting for years to build up TWR enough before bringing this in. A staff favorite.

2014 TWR (Te Whare Ra) Chardonnay Marlborough $24.99 - The TWR Sauvignon Blanc has been the best SB we've carried for the last year. Now the 2014 Chardonnay has arrived, and I think it might be the best Chard we now carry. Crisp, with minerality and a bit of richness from oak, it drinks like a fine white Burgundy. Absolutely stunning.

Those are just my four favorites! Then you've got all the reds, too! If I had to choose one it would be the Te Mata "Awatea". It's like a $50 bottle of Bordeaux for $25.

2013 Te Mata "Awatea" Bordeaux Blend Hawkes Bay $24.99 - Lush and soft, like it's already been matured for a few years, with dark-fruited goodness and textures of earth and spice on the mid-palate. If you're going out for steak and you need a well-priced bottle that drinks perfectly right off the bat (no decanting) then this is the guy for you.

You have to try these wines to believe them. It's getting difficult for me to drink anything else than what Ryan Woodhouse tells me to drink. Click on the links and read the press. It's not just us.

-David Driscoll


West Side

In a lot of ways, going to an art museum is like going to a fine wine store. There are lots of people looking stoically at the wall; some who understand what they're looking at, and others who do not. There are quiet students with backgrounds in art history, taking in the subtle nuance of each piece, while loud tourists with no patience say things like, "I don't get what the big deal is" and grumble to one another. There are professorial pedants working the room, announcing their interpretation to anyone who will listen, while others check self-consciously to see what the "experts" are looking at, in constant fear of missing out on something better. It was quite a scene at the new Whitney Museum this morning (now located in the super hip Meatpacking District). I saw a guy looking at this black square in the modernist section and he was just baffled. "This is art?" he asked his wife incredulously. It sounded a lot like an email I received from a customer earlier in the day about one of K&L's many delicious (or not so delicious, in this customer's opinion) spirits. Everyone has different tastes!

There's a great bar and cafe on the top floor that looks out over the Hudson, all the way down to the Freedom Tower and the Statue of Liberty. It's a great place to get a drink on a warm summer day.

While wandering our way back down Bleeker Street, we sat down on a bench (mainly due to exhaustion) while we tried to figure out a place to eat nearby. Right across the street was a cute-looking patio where a pair of women seemed to be greatly enjoying a meal. They were oohing and ahhing away. "Let's just go there," I said to my wife, not wanting to spend much more time on the search. How bad could it be?

Baker & Co. advertises itself as a "wine and beer house", but to me that's a gross understatement of what's really going on there. Sure, there's a pretty good wine and beer list, but this place is all about the food. Our lunch was like a fucking fireworks show of hit after hit; a veritable explosion of flavor in each bite as we moved through the courses.

The croquettes on the appetizer menu are to fucking die for (that's two F-bombs already). Fried rice balls with mozzarella inside, topped with black truffle purée, and a bit of watercress for a garnish. We about fell over ourselves. It's not like we've never had arancini before, it's just that these were on another level. I'm seriously considering going back in a few hours just to order another plate with a glass of prosecco.

We did salads and pasta courses as well—all fucking fantastic (that's three! My new rating system: three F-bombs = can't miss). That's why you've just gotta let life come to you every once and awhile. I never would have looked this place up on Yelp or a list of West Village hits. Now I can't wait to go back. Next time you're in New York, make the effort to come here. You're talking $10-$12 plates of sheer heaven and a view of Bleeker Street that will entertain you for hours, plus plenty of great booze.

-David Driscoll


Uptown, Downtown

Sundays were meant for shopping, so the wife and I jumped in a cab and went uptown to get swanky on Madison Avenue. Just because you're in the midst of high-end hobnobbery doesn't mean you have to spend a fortune. If there's anything we've learned on this blog it's that quality and cost are not always linked. There's always a high-end value option if you know what's worth spending for. We walked by an upscale Italian spot charging $47 for a primi course of pasta. No thanks. Not when Bistro Chat Noir is around the corner on 66th. Rosé awaits!

You hardly ever see cheese soufflé on French menus these days. Maybe because it takes a half hour to make and it's a bit outdated, but that's what makes Le Chat Noir such a joy. Old world charm, Madison Avenue decor, some coloquial classics from the Julia Child era, but with reasonable prices. They say Andy Warhol ate cheese soufflé every day, so this is about as New York as it gets. Someone has to keep that tradition alive.

It's not all comfort food at the Black Cat, however. I ordered the prix-fixe brunch and got the beet salad as a starter. Best beet salad ever! Mixed with crispy green apples, roasted pistachios, and topped with an avocado mousse. Absolutely fucking genius.

Proper Sunday attire. Flowers, Rosé. I could do this all day, and I plan on coming back here to do it again.

Of course, you've gotta see a show when you visit New York. America's current television darling—the Michael J. Fox of this generation—Jim Parsons was doing a one man show at the former home of divine debauchery: Studio 54. He could read the phone book and I'd have a great time watching him do it. What a treat that was.

After watching the Big Bang live in person, we caught a cab back downtown for dinner reservations at my all-time favorite Mexican restaurant in New York: La Esquina. I hate to say it, but the speakeasy-esque downstairs lounge is getting a bit pretentious. I might just stick to the walk-up window from now on. Either way, you can't beat those tacos. There aren't many places in the U.S. that serve cochinita pibil with such pin-point Playa del Carmen accuracy.

-David Driscoll


Brand Names, Nombres Nuevos

There are a few big brand names out there that in my opinion don't really deliver big quality. In fact, in the brave new world of boutique booze, many consumers automatically consider large-production labels far less interesting than some of the more hands-on micro-distilleries just because of their sheer size and volume. That being said, there are still plenty of fancy brand names out there that set the gold standard for their particular genre and Ladurée is one of them. The maison of macarons is still a must-visit destination for any tourist in Paris, and lucky for us Americans, they have an outlet in New York. I remember visiting the Madison Avenue location years ago, waiting in line with a bunch of eager eaters, and watching a lady on the street pester all the patrons for a single bite of those coveted cookies. While shopping in SoHo this time around, we were shocked to see a new, full-scale Ladurée restaurant on West Broadway just south of Spring Street. "Let's go!" I screamed, as the clock had just hit lunchtime. A cold cocktail with a pink macaron in it? Sign me up!

There's a beautiful patio located behind the main patisserie up front, and it opens into a gorgeous space with plenty of natural light. The weather was absolutely perfect today, in the mid-70s, so we were thrilled to sit outside.

I can safely say that I had the salad of my life at the original Ladurée location in Paris. For that reason, I was excited to see what the New York location could come up with. Thinly-sliced carpaccio of filet mignon, arugula, parmesan cheese, with sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts. Pretty damn good. Not life-changing, but my last experience left a lot to live up to.

But—let's be honest here—no one goes to Ladurée to eat salad. We all know why we're here: dessert. One of each please! I've had plenty of shitty macarons over the years (usually right after people have told me "Try this! It's better than Ladurée!"), but I've never had a disappointing experience at Ladurée. It's a big brand name that always delivers quality and beauty. High fashion, high flavor.

After shopping for a few hours along Prince Street we got thirsty. We were further south at this point, on Grand, when we noticed the Copa America final starting on the television of Mexican-themed bar near Thompson. We pulled up a chair and began watching an epic battle between Chile and Argentina. I ordered a Paloma with mezcal instead of tequila and I was shocked by how good it was. There were no measured pours with jiggers and teaspoons in this place. Just good old counting—one, two—and dumping. As the years go forward, I'm noticing a serious increase in quality with even the most basic bar programs around major American metropolitan areas. Less goop, more gusto.

There was a lively Cuban guy standing behind us the entire time, ordering everyone shots of tequila, and flirting with all the beer models who were there to promote their brand. He ordered a plate of tacos as well, sat them down in front of us, and said, "Come! Come!" as in "Eat! Eat!" He was so excited to be there, speaking Spanish, sharing food and drink with all the other latinos in the bar (I was a defacto latino for that part of afternoon).

All that latino action got us in the mood for Mexican food, and we had noticed a cool-looking place a few blocks East on Elizabeth Street near Houston. Tacombi at Fonda Nolita is a super-hip, open warehouse space that functions as a high-end taco bar with alcohol. The decor is vintage Mexico, so much so that you feel instantly transported south of the border upon entering.

Right smack in the middle of the place is an old VW bus (driven up from Playa del Carmen, where the original taco stand was), that has been transformed into a centrally-located grill. The tacos are picked up there by the wait staff and brought to your table. They are delicioso!

One question that I have been asking my wife for years is: "Why don't Mexican restaurants make cocktails out of aguas frescas?" The Mexican fruit drinks, available at most taquerias, are so light, refreshing, and tasty that they seem like they'd be the perfect partner for a little rum or tequila. 

FINALLY! SOMEONE IS DOING THIS! Watermelon juice with tequila, jamaica with mezcal, and horchata with rum! Take your pick! It's about damned time!

-David Driscoll


Big City, Big Names

It was in Paris during the mid-1800s that a bold, young fashion designer named Charles Frederick Worth began signing his clothing creations like an artist would his painting; scribbling his name on a tag of fabric and sewing that signature onto each garment like a placard. Voila!—the first designer name brand was born. It wasn’t long before other ambitious designers—known then couturiers—began following suit. That signed seal of authenticity was instantly seen as exclusive and desirable. It allowed for hasty public recognition, like a nametag helped to portray an identity, and over the next one hundred and fifty years those words would become more important (and more valuable) than the actual look of the fashion itself (creating an entirely new version of the term). Today ambitious people want to wear the hottest name brands, eat at the most famous restaurants, and drink the fanciest wines from the most iconic chateaux, and no city has more big name action than New York.

So in heading to Manhattan this weekend, looking to do a little boozing around the Big Apple, I thought about what my itinerary should be. Should I visit the most-recognized bars in the city? Should I hit up Meehan at the PDT, or maybe order one of the crazy concoctions at Death & Co? Should I pull up a stool at the Gramercy Tavern, or maybe head downtown to Cipriani’s for a Negroni? I wasn’t sure. I’ve been to most of these places already, but I’ve never really done a series of posts about drinking in Manhattan, so I figured maybe it was time to go back and take a few notes. But then I thought about it some more. Do I really need to be the 5,187th person online to post their opinion about a bar so insanely-popular that most people can’t even get a reservation? There are a million great places to eat in New York that are easy-to-access and under-the-radar. Maybe I should focus on those instead? Decisions, decisions.

One place that I've never read an online review about is Bianca on Bleeker St. where it meets the Bowery. No one's ever told me anything about it, and I didn't discover it from a friend's recommendation. My wife and I simply walked by it one night five years ago, stopped in for a bite, and we've been going back ever since. It's the best place to go straight off the plane because you don't need a reservation, and you can't make one anyway. It's all first-come, first-served—cash only. They have four wines: a white, a red, a rose, and a prosecco. Nothing on the menu costs more than $20, and the food is classic Italian trattoria style—hearty, wholesome, and simple.

I just about never eat sausage, but for some reason I was in the mood tonight. Fennel links with cannellini beans in a thick tomato sauce. We did the caprese salad to start, as well as the soup. I was famished after a five hour flight.

Bring the booze, please. Cold prosecco to wash down that grub. We shared a salad, a big bowl of soup, ordered two entrées, downed a bottle of wine, and spent less than $100—in downtown Manhattan on a Friday night! Come on! That's crazy. Especially with the quality of the cuisine and the evening street atmosphere from the open storefront. Because Bianca is so cost-effective it's easy to get carried away quickly. We got so drunk here one time that we had to hit Popeye's up on the walk back to the hotel and stuff our face with biscuits just to soak up the excess hooch.

The Marlton Hotel is a new spot for me, but I'm already a big fan. Located on West 8th St. just north of Washington Square, the downstairs bar has a clever list of interesting cocktails. I did the Lobby Boy (meaning I drank the cocktail called "The Lobby Boy") which was a Laphroaig 10-based sour with Italian amari. I never would have thought to mix bitter liqueur, citrus, and Islay Scotch, but it was both refreshing and robust.

-David Driscoll