25 September 2012

n.d.p. in milan: la vecchia latteria

When I met my friend M for lunch in Milan en route to our friend's wedding in Florence, I became immediately distracted by a wine I'd never previously encountered: an obscure Emilia-Romagnan white called Ortrugo.

I've never lived in Italy and I don't speak the language. But I've managed a high-end Italian restaurant in the US, I've bought Italian wine for several restaurants, I've read numerous books on the nation's wines, and I've toured a fair portion of it firsthand, from Ivrea to Puglia. So most of what I encounter there feels more or less legible. Especially wine lists: to walk into an Italian restaurant in Italy and fondly recognise the names on the wine list is, ordinarily, a great comfort.

M and I were wedged into a table at La Vecchia Latteria, an historic vegetarian spot that had come recommended by a jazz guitarist / wine geek friend in LA. Wines available were neither extensive nor expensive; the waiters didn't seem to know a thing about them. They barked out the usual counsel reserved for moron tourists ("You like red? You like white?"). But I was still on a disembarkment-high from Malpensa,* delighted to see my old friend M, and besides, one great thing about white wine in Italy is that the obscurities are often so inexpensive as to constitute no risk whatsoever. (In case of disaster, there's always Peroni.)

20 September 2012

mmmeh : mmmozza, 75003

It should be fairly clear to most first-worlders by now that an appreciation for proper D.O.P. mozzarella is not, in itself, a sign of any particular gastronomic cultivation. Liking real mozzarella just means a person is alive, has a pulse, etc. The various forms the cheese takes - from bufala to burrata to bocconcini and beyond - are all basically risk-free crowd-pleaser components, beloved by everyone, as long as the product itself is fresh.

This is not to say that the success of restaurants like Roman mozzarella bar chain Obikà, and its spiritual descendent, my old workplace, Los Angeles' more baroque and refined Osteria Mozza, was in any way preordained or obvious. (Obikà was a pioneer; Osteria Mozza is now a certified Michelin-starred masterpiece.) This is to say that Mmmozza, the tiny sandwich-shop-slash-Italian-épicerie that opened last year on rue de Bretagne, ought to have decent commercial potential, despite its cubbyhole size and mmmoronic unoriginal name. After all, the whole quartier is more or less defined by its repertoire of minor indulgences (c.f. the menu at nearby wine bar Glou; all the trinket-rich, middle-market fashion boutiques; the "Panier des Gourmands by Franprix" mini-market...)

Alas ! After a few random visits this past summer I'm unable to avoid the conclusion that the Mmmozza the establishment is just too damn Parisian, by which I mean that its opening hours, service, and inconsistent product evince precisely zero ambition, bordering at times on actual laziness. Which is a shame, because it's one of the few épiceries of its type to have cottoned onto the natural wine thing.

11 September 2012

n.d.p. in london: 40 maltby street

I'm routinely very critical of the London wine scene on this blog, despite not knowing it half as well as I'd like to. In my ignorance, just about every wine establishment I encounter over there makes me cagey in some way, whether through bald commercialism (Terroirs) or preciousness (Duck Soup) or overwhelming fusty pomposity (Berry Bros. & Rudd) or total irrelevance (Oddbins). It perturbs me that hugely accredited wine writers writing for England's best newspapers speak of wine as though it were purchaseable exclusively in supermarkets. And the nation's draconian import taxes seem to ensure that even the more discriminating British consumers are merely choosing between entry-level and mid-range wines, just horribly distorted in price.

All this is why on my last trip to London I was stunned to discover a truly winning wine bar, easily better than anything in Paris, perhaps on earth: 40 Maltby Street. Located at the eponymous address in the Maltby Street sort-of-market, it's open just three days a week, takes no reservations, and alongside a soulful and inventive market menu it serves the boldly natural French, Italian, and Slovenian wines of the import company with which the restaurant shares ownership, Gergovie Wines. (That the import company is named after a mountain in Auvergne tells you something about its laudable priorities vis à vis non-marquee regions.)

05 September 2012

bento stowaway: maori's bento at la conserverie, 75002

When I finished my long overdue first meal at my good friend Maori Murota's bento spot by Grands Boulevards, I descended to the kitchen to thank her, and after doing so, asked what I imagine must be a pretty routine question for her. So, I segued, after learning that she planned to travel to Japan for a month. You going to keep this up when you get back?

It's not that her project, a stowaway restaurant operating inside the cavernous design-hell cocktail bar La Conserverie, isn't successful. She routinely runs out of food to serve, and juggles numerous private cooking gigs on the side. The home-cooked Japanese soul-food she prepares is gem-like and nutritious, a natural hit with her previous milieu, the fashion crowd. (Murota was previously an assistant to Christophe Lemaire.)

It's just that the whole conceptually-unrelated-restaurant-within-a-bar situation seems precarious, barely perched where it is - like a food truck, without the truck, with notably more refined cuisine, if not service. In every major city there are a thousand bloggers with peeled eyes and pricked-up ears searching for good unprofessional authenticity, the outsider art of the kitchen, and when one confirms its existence, as at Maori's Bento at La Conserverie, one usually doesn't wait long for it to disappear. But Murota has always struck me as being more or less chez elle in funny situations. So she's returned from her trip to Japan and has reopened for business this week.