By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
Every now and then life hands you a perfect moment, one of those spaces of time when everything stops, turns beautifully epiphanic, and suddenly you find yourself babbling the goofy prose found in that Shirley MacLaine tree-climbing book. I have had a few perfect moments: watching the sun set in the Canadian wilderness while a loon crooned; rattling the windowpanes with Beethoven's 9th; unfolding that first Penthouse centerfold.
My perfect wine moment occurred a week or so before Christmas 1998. I was with my wife and a few friends. We were in the bar at Mi Piaci. It happened after I ordered a glass of Val di Suga Brunello di Montalcino at 14 bucks and plunged my nose into the bowl. That was it. I didn't speak. I just swirled, sloshed, and sniffed like a hunting dog.
Before long, my companions wondered what was wrong with me. Why wasn't I talking? Why did I keep shoving my face into that wineglass and snorting? Why was there a drop of red wine dangling from the tip of my nose? So I ordered another glass and let them revel in this profound slosh. They understood -- at least I think they did. It was a very merry Christmas.
Friday & Saturday
Wine moments like this are few, and once you have had one or two, the drive to re-experience them becomes obsessive -- hence the purple stains on the nostrils.
But what I also learned from my perfect wine moment is that the fermented fluid is not the only fuel driving the epiphany. The setting, the people, the smells, and the sounds also figure prominently. I discovered this after I ordered the identical glass of wine for the same price at Il Solé Restaurant and Wine Bar on Travis Walk and my quest to recapture this perfect moment faltered miserably. Achieving this profound state should have been easy. After all, Il Solé is the new country Mediterranean restaurant founded by twentysomething whiz kid Brian Black, son of Mi Piaci founder Janet Cobb. The wine was good, but it didn't have the same charm. It's not that the Il Solé isn't graceful, with its timeless, rustic elegance constructed from Italian furniture, yellowed walls, iron chandeliers and wall sconces from Italy, snug wine room, and a muted amber radiance driven by a bar illuminated by a fleet of 300 votive candles. Black says his aim is to create a dining space that's inviting -- romantic yet vivacious.
But I don't know. There's just too much incongruity in the whole thing for my taste. The place is too much a scene. Too much posturing. Too much noise. It's hard for me to swirl a Brunello with conviction while Kurt Cobain's raspy throat snarls "Pennyroyal Tea" over the sound system. Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with the smug whining and self-important asexual posturing of Nirvana. I just don't want it mucking up my Brunello.
Or my pan-roasted bobwhite quail ($12) with truffled Taleggio (an aged Italian cheese), risotto cake, and arugula gently swamped in a port-pear glaze. Rich in fresh, delicate flavors, this plump, juicy bird was perfect-moment delicious. There was nothing foul with this fowl, no dryness, no hints of pan-fried liver and onions. Plus, the moist risotto cake's rich, cheesy sharpness damn near melted on the tongue. It was a quail to remember.
But there were dramatically imperfect moments as well, things better left forgotten. Spicy penne pasta ($15) with cumin-seared gulf shrimp was dry and zestless. Compared with most of the food at Il Solé, this dish seemed an afterthought. The sauce, though billed as spicy, was bland. The vodka, purportedly added to gin up the sauce, seemed a mere gimmick. It was difficult to pull out any distinguishing flavors. Plus, the shrimp were a bit soapy.
But this imperfect moment was swiftly forgotten with the arrival of the pan-roasted red fish ($23), which is strange, because this dish resembled a pile of carpet remnants heaped next to a Wal-Mart dumpster. Pieces of fish dotted with purple scraps of radicchio di Treviso haphazardly blanketed a flattened mound of mushroom risotto and warm apple slaw. It's hard to imagine a 2-year-old let loose amongst an assortment of Tupperware bowls stuffed with leftovers coming up with a more haphazard contrivance. Yet the flavors merged seamlessly. The fish was moist and flaky with fresh, briny sweet flavors. The risotto was moist, creamy, and rich with mushroom flavors.
But then that pesky incongruity struck again. During a quick trip to the restroom, I witnessed a young man in a black leather jacket bursting out of the stall. He propped himself in front of the mirror, fiddled with his hair, and giggled. A puff of sweet smoke flooded my nostrils, just below the brunello-stained flanges. Was this some sort of burnt Tuscan oregano, or another herb?
I returned to our table just before the appetizers and just after an Alice in Chains tune broke from the sound system, the kind that sounds like a Mack Truck whir miked through a kazoo. Hasn't Black ever heard of Vivaldi or Puccini? And if not, there has to be a Courtney Love/Hole tribute to Beverly Sills in a cutout bin somewhere. Grunge and sweet leaf go better with Jack in the Box and Chee-tos than they do with Italian-French country cuisine, don't they?