By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Bouncing and reverberating through an empty room with marble floors and high ceilings featuring frescos of cherubs prancing through billowing clouds, the violins chafe the ears. Conversation is stunted. Ordering wine is a pickle.
We ask our server if he wouldn't mind turning it down--strange for a musical genre that doesn't employ a drum kit or sampled hard consonants from a female larynx. "My pleasure to serve you," is the favored reply. Someone at our table orders a glass of white Zinfandel, a very un-French Room thing to do, apparently. The French Room doesn't have that wine. The point is made gently but firmly. Hmmm. Is this where the pleasure stops?
To many in the culinary trades, white Zinfandel is a wine list pollutant. Humbug. I say it's a godsend. How many former white Zinfandel sippers stumbled out of the pink into a glass of slightly sweet Chardonnay before being smitten by Merlot before Sideways infected them with a Pinot fetish? Can Côtes de Nuits be far out of headlight range? How many of those now locked in Pinot's grip once only sipped beverages made from amber waves of grain?
To his credit, our server steered our guest to a German Riesling, which our guest eagerly sipped and unraveled accolades for when asked for an opinion, but who knows? When wine is intimidating and you discover your favorite pink drink is a black sheep, you'd swear a tightly bound Bordeaux clutched in the throes of dumbness tasted like nectar (pass the Splenda, would ya honey?).
Today, Zinfandel is the fourth leading wine grape variety planted in California--more than 50,000 acres of the stuff. A majority of it is used for white Zinfandel. Red Zinfandel accounts for a measly 2 percent share of the total 160 million cases of California table wine shipped in the United States while white Zinfandel gulps a 14 percent share. It's the third best selling wine in grocery stores after Chardonnay and that Sideways stepchild, Merlot. So why not keep a wine list slot open for it? It's cheap, unobtrusive and your audience would be much more receptive to a bait-and-switch if they knew they have the option to revert to form than they would if they were oh-so-politely made to feel like a wine boob. The French Room, after all, is in a downtown hotel built in 1912 by beer baron Adolphus Busch, whose name today is best known for branding a minor-league NASCAR racing series.
Funny how the only other hiccup in The French Room experience was wine-centered as well. It was the bottle of Alsatian Pinot Gris, a crisp, slightly nutty sip. The wine was poured. The bottle was deployed to a service table and wasn't seen again for centuries until a row of empty and near-empty glasses finally triggered the service instinct, and the wine was quickly retrieved and re-poured.
From there, service catapulted to the highest reaches of professionalism. A sommelier was dispensed, steering us toward a 2002 Joseph Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny and away from a California Pinot Noir that was roughly half the price. The selection was good, though. The delicate cherry and spice flavors were more adapted to French Room cuisine than the rich fruit forward notes of the Pinot.
The notes on the menu are forward, too. Try this: Study of veal and wild mushrooms--roast tenderloin, butter shank and crisp sweetbread alongside truffle whipped potatoes with natural jus and date jam. Actually it's lamb jus, and it's dribbled across the three medallions of veal substance arranged on a rectangular plate like a dessert sampler. "On the veal, you have a study of veal," emphasizes our server. "It's going to be the veal tenderloin, veal shanks and veal sweetbreads. Do you like sweetbreads?"
We'd never had them like this, coated and fried. They're buttery, rich and smooth. Shank is deliciously rustic. Tenderloin drools juice and flashes hints of pink when cut. It's so precious, this study.
Duck is just flagrant decadence. "It's going to be medium rare," says our server with meticulous articulation. "Crispy outside, and the center is going to be medium rare." But this isn't even the half of it. Off to the side of the thick ribbon of sliced duck breast is a dab of duck confit tangled around tobacco-brown shards of caramelized pearl onion. This cluster is capped with a lobe of foie gras-- an exquisite sliver of liver with a thin but sturdy veneer shielding creamy depths profusely sweating rich nutty flavors. A tiny, bright orange dab of butternut squash purée tacks down the other end of the plate. It's as rich as custard. The sauce? "Dried sherry port wine sauce," says our server. "If I may?" He pours. He deposits the silver pitcher in front of the plate. Duck breast is tender, juicy and rich.