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.
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?
Maybe not. My companion was staring at her plate of carpaccio ($9). "It's freaky red," she said, threading the meat sheets through a pile of arugula splashed with olive oil and lemon juice. And red it was. Not spanked-raw red, but the kind of red the members of Hole might smear on their lips if they could wash off that punch-bruise shade of lip-gloss. The beef, cured in pepper, kosher salt, and thyme before it's rolled on a "rockin' hot," un-oiled skillet and frozen slightly for better slicing, was thicker than the typical paper-thin versions. But it was tender, silky, and richly flavored nonetheless.
Espresso-cured venison ($24), deer meat from the Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, Texas, is pickled for about an hour in a mixture of brown sugar, ground espresso, coriander, and salt. The result is meat with tender juiciness threaded with a sweet, smooth raciness. A side of glazed sweet potatoes and pear chutney gave the thing a kind of home-cooking heartiness.
Other than the blurts from the sound system, the most pronounced peaks and valleys at Il Solé were found on the chef's tasting menu ($50 per person, $75 with wine). Not that the food was uninspiring by any means, though some courses were noticeably weak -- it's just that the wine pairings seemed, at best, uncertain.
This menu opened with roasted tomato-basil bisque floating fried basil leaves and a goat cheese crostini. Also floating on the soup surface were scraps of oven-dried prosciutto, odd little edibles with a waxy, crumbly disposition earned through their drying process. Surprisingly, this preparation didn't seem to intensify the meat flavors in a jerky sense. It was more like nibbling flakes from a pig's hoof. The soup was a bit too understated, with no tomato richness or acidic liveliness. Though smooth, it was just a bit too flaccid.
Which is maybe why the 1998 Beringer Founders Estate sauvignon blanc was a near perfect match. This wine, thin and watery with scant range or depth, offered little in the way of racy intensity.
Tamarind-glazed yellowfin tuna with spicy fried rice, shrimp won ton, and lemongrass butter was a little off as well. Though filled with intense, well-balanced flavors, the rare fish flesh was obnoxiously spongy. Yet the collection of flavors -- the tamarind and other spices -- made this dish engagingly assertive, especially in the spice department, which all but knocked the legs out from under the 1997 Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay with which it was paired. The wine was ripe in texture, with ample citrus and pear flavors and nutty oak shadings, but it didn't have the complexity or the acidic firmness to stand up to the food.
Like virtually every centerpiece entrée at Il Solé, the rosemary-grilled lamb tenderloin was superb: juicy, sweet, and tender, with a conspicuous insinuation of gaminess. Under the pieces of meat was a gratin of sliced purple Peruvian and Yukon gold potatoes indulged with an ooze of rich cream and Taleggio cheese surrounded by a crisp carpet of sautéed Swiss chard. A splash of bing cherry demi-glace deftly played off the lamb sweetness.
But the chosen wine, a 1997 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, didn't have the complexity or agile girth to do justice to the deft flavor composition of the dish. Its range of black fruit and smoky flavors was simply too shallow, falling off quickly on the finish. It's odd that with Il Solé's broad list of meticulously selected wines, the tasting menu pairings didn't come off with more verve and daring.
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Yet if these wines didn't have the generosity or the soul to stand up to the mostly fine cuisine, the Mayacamas Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc proved the exception: rich, racy, unctuous. Far more interesting than the dessert of lemon polenta cake covered with thin nectarine slices with which the wine was paired. The cake was dry, crumbly, and bland.
A better dessert is the cheesecake ($6) pocked with fat, juicy blackberries. It's fluffy and silky with a smooth, rich caramel sauce dribbled on the outside. The coffee here is delicious too -- even late at night, when pots are often left to simmer the brew into sewage.
The service here is gracious and attentive, although it's difficult to hear the server yap over the grunge.
The fundamentals at Il Solé are sound -- more than sound. It's the edges that need the work before it's ripe for a perfect moment. I'll be holding my breath.