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Is Screwing Hip?

Is fusion dead? It will outlast the wine cork if Stephan Pyles has anything to do with it.
Steve Satterwhite

Back in the day, after restaurants were ravaged by bursting equity market bubbles and brutal terrorists kicking in New York City's architectural teeth, wine drinkers went downscale. Go-go '90s expense accounts were pinched. Travel slowed to the speed of Web conferencing. Wine lists sloughed off the perpetually allocated cult cabs and Burgundies and Bordeauxs that tasted so good while Global Crossing and Enron became the new General Motors. But after the pop, cult cabs were allowed to age. Pricey Chardonnays languished. Wine inventories tightened.

Now that the economy has largely recovered and General Motors is the new Global Crossing, what are wine lists doing? After stabilizing in 2004, it seems this year inventories are growing again. Price resistance is wearing down.

And it's turning weird.

First there's the Merlot/Pinot Noir flip-flop, with the once-hot Bordeaux grape that made Petrus famous ceding ground to the temperamental and subtle (in theory) grape that made Domaine de la Romanée-Conti famous. Blame the movie Sideways and the utterances of Miles Raymond: "No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!" The trick is to ride such precious dialogue to riches.

"Pinots are really rocking out there," says Guy Stout, director of wine education for Glazer's Distributors and Texas' only master sommelier. Stout says dry rosés are also kicking into gear, if you can believe that. Drinkers appear ready to open their minds to this great food wine that looks suspiciously like Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill.

Gene Street, chairman of the 145-restaurant (plus 40 franchised units), $265 million Consolidated Restaurant Operations (Cantina Laredo, Spaghetti Warehouse, III Forks, El Chico, Cool River Café), says wine sales at the company's III Forks and Silver Fox steak houses have shattered records over the past few months, though he says the Pinot hype has leveled off.

Then there's Riesling. "The Riesling renaissance is hitting us now here," says Drew Hendricks, sommelier at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. Riesling? In a steak house? Hendricks points to the Sideways-like effect Riesling hype has had on consumer awareness in recent months. Riesling was the cover girl on the December 15 issue of Wine Spectator. This was after The Dallas Morning News ran a feature on the noble wine in late August.

But perhaps the weirdest quirk in wine-list demographics is the gradual but unmistakable dislodgement of the cork. "People are really embracing screw-top closures," insists Stout. "[Bars are] showing it off...They're using it as a selling point." Showing off screw-tops? You mean like demonstrating how Pabst caps can be lifted with gold crowns?

No, no--by emphasizing the screw-top's selling points: fuller, fresher wines free of cork fragments. Screw-tops provide more secure wine containment, preventing oxygen seepage as well as eliminating cork taint caused by a chemical triggered by a fungus that sometimes infects the cork. Cork taint robs wine of its fruit characteristics and imparts a wet cardboard essence. Wine Spectator reported that as many as 15 percent of the wines their reviewers open for tasting are corked, though that number seems high.

Until recently, resistance to screw-tops was entrenched and immovable. Corked wines denote cachet and cork removal confers a bit of romance to the otherwise mundane task of opening a bottle of wine. Twisting a screw-top, on the other hand, was viewed as little more than a street exercise most often associated with cheap fortified wines such as Night Train and MD 20/20. Unscrewing on a first date or on an anniversary simply bleeds off the romance.

But perceptions appear to be shifting. Thank/blame New Zealand and Australia. These countries were among the first to cap a substantial amount of their wine production with aluminum screw-tops. Wineries such as California's Bonny Doon Vineyard, Oregon's Chehalem Winery and Washington State's Hogue Cellars are also twisting in the fray. Adopters are even popping up in Chablis, Alsace, Germany and Spain. The reason is simple: As a recently released study conducted by the University of Auckland points out, screw-tops outperform cork closures, preserving the freshness and varietal character of wines, especially Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand's fermented cash cow.

Screw-tops have other advantages in this post-September 11 world. "If you travel and you have a corkscrew taken from you at the airport like I have so many times, it's convenient," Stout says.

But this isn't the only gauche wine accessory that will go mainstream in restaurants in the foreseeable future. Look for bladder-in-the-box wines equipped with a spigot dispenser to squeeze their way into by-the-glass programs. Again, the reason is simple: Like screw-tops, boxed wines protect against spoilage by preventing oxygen exposure and microbial infection, especially after opening. Opened wine in boxed bladders will last for weeks, potentially slashing waste in restaurant by-the-glass programs. Plus, these bladders are beginning to slosh with panache: Jean-Marc Brocard is filling 3-liter boxes with genuine Chablis, like the 2004 "Jurassique" Bourgogne Blanc. Bladders are even bloating with quality Rhône-style reds, so the potential for high-value by-the-glass wine programs is startling.

 

Logistically, incorporating bag-in-the-box in by-the-glass is dicey. "Realistically, I don't know how you pretty-up the package," says Whit Meyers, chief executive officer of the Entertainment Collaborative (Green Room, Jeroboam). "But it's not something you want to put on your back bar."

Yet this barrier, like others that have kept wine in the clutches of snoots for centuries, will fall. Again, the reason is simple: This year, for the first time since 1992 when Gallup began tracking America's drinking habits, wine surpassed beer as the alcoholic beverage Americans say they drink most often by a margin of 39 to 36 percent. In 1992, beer was preferred over wine by a whopping 47 to 27 percent. That's a shift a seismograph can relate to. Wine is being conquered by the proles. The operators who succeed in making the box spigot cool will reap riches. Or get laughed at trying.

Trickle Down
So what does this wine business have to do with the overall restaurant picture in Dallas over the last 12 months? It serves as a metaphor. Leer over Dallas' culinary landscape, and you'll discover it's tough to tease out any significant culinary trends. The great Latin sweep that appeared on the horizon last year turned out to be a little more of a soft graze. That is, before Stephan Pyles hit the Arts District in November with his New Millennium Southwestern cuisine woven with Latin and Mediterranean influences.

But Pyles aside, fusion, collision and amalgam cuisines appear to be dead or at least hung over. Perhaps the dining public has grown dazed and bleary-eyed with endless crossbreeding of steak, quail and sea bass with Peruvian potatoes, sriracha sauce and United Nations rubs and World Bank marinades. Just as it is playing out in on-premise wine rituals, the notion that complexity equals quality appears to be in retreat. Simplicity appears to be the new factor in the dining equation.

This does not mean that diners are trading down or sniffing exclusively for value. It means they're interested in exploring the enticing characteristics of unencumbered high-quality ingredients. Hibiscus opened this year featuring ranch-style chicken soup, macaroni and cheese and overnight baked beans, of all things. OK, so the restaurant also features halibut with lemongrass piccata sauce.

But what is there to make of Craft, the New York City transplant that is set to go into the W Victory Hotel & Residences next May? Craft Chef Tom Colicchio has burnished his accolades on family-style noshing of "dishes that celebrate 'single' ingredients, expertly and simply prepared." Meats are roasted and braised. Sides include heirloom hominy. If heirloom hominy doesn't represent a tectonic shimmy, nothing does.

Shawn Horne's Kitchen 1924, set to open in the former La Dolce Vita space in Lakewood near the launch of the New Year, is bred in the same philosophy. Butter, garlic, salt and pepper constitute the bulk of the seasoning arsenal in this restaurant furnished with long rustic tables for community-style dining.

Upheaval Heave
More than clearly identifiable culinary trends, 2005 was marked by structural shifts that are either on paper blueprints or in full swing. After state laws eased hurdles in placing local option measures on the ballot, a spate of successful elections lifting private club requirements for alcohol sales in restaurants swept Garland, Plano, Richardson, Carrollton and Lewisville (a similar measure failed in Mesquite). So maybe it's no surprise that restaurant development is vigorous in the planned retail-residential conglomerate known as Firewheel Town Center at the nub of Highways 190 and 78 in Garland (Fish City Grill, San Francisco Oven, Tacone, D'Vine Wine). There is also an urban mixed-use development slipping into the southeast corner of North Central Expressway and Campbell Road in Richardson near the DART station with more than 400 apartments and 90,000 square feet of retail space, half of which will be devoted to restaurants. In Grapevine, investor Steve Hartnett's $15 million "wagon wheel" restaurant project hubbed by a public space has already inked deals with Bob's Steak & Chop House, Fireside Pies and an as-yet unnamed wine bar. This is in addition to the continuously burgeoning residential and retail development at the Shops at Legacy and Legacy Town Center in Plano.

This vigorous development is channeled in two directions: Away from the city's core, as well as directly into the thick of it. "I think the urbanization of downtown and Uptown is a viable long-term trend because sprawl has reached its outermost limits," says Consilient Restaurant's Tristan Simon. "I mean, there's only so far from the urban core that you can get." This from a developer who is hedging his Henderson Street bets by branching out into Plano, Grapevine and beyond with Fireside Pies.

 

There are numerous loft and retail building refurbishments pecking away at downtown Dallas' aging architecture. But what impact will the 1,700 luxury condo units in 15 high-rise developments--including Azure, Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, W Dallas Victory Hotel & Residences, Renaissance Turtle Creek, One Arts Plaza and the Palomar Hotel Condos--have on restaurants? It could portend an explosion of small, chef-driven venues (if the talent pool holds out) along with vigorous restaurant development in new places or places skirting under the radar, such as the Bishop Arts District (Hattie's, Cosmo Rouge Bistro & Lounge, the upcoming Starfish) in Oak Cliff.

"People now see the vision that between Victory and Knox Street, in five, 10 or 15 years, there is going to be a vibrant urban neighborhood that Dallas has been waiting for forever," says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender, a Dallas management and hospitality firm, and author of the upcoming book Beyond Business. "What you get in any urban neighborhood is...a lot of choices. You get a high-end restaurant with a famous chef, you get a dependable mainstream restaurant or you get a place to get a burger or a sandwich."

Residential and urban development has sure spawned some gradual shifts. Mabel points out that McKinney Avenue used to be a spot for edgy, upscale dining in the days of Alberto Lombardi's Le Rendez Vous (now Breadwinners), Sfuzzi (Alberto Lombardi's Bizu before the building went vacant) and Clive & Stuarts Island Cuisine (now Idle Rich Pub). Now, because of the rich residential influx along McKinney, the forces governing cuisine along the strip are convenience and mainstream selection: burgers, salads and sandwiches. One example: the transition of Jean-Michel Sakouhi's Severine's Bar and Le Paris Bistro (later Figaro Café) to Uptown Bar & Grill and Urbano Paninoteca (Sakouhi moved Severine's to Southlake).

"Dallas is a big parochial city in the throes of transition to becoming a national city," says Simon, ticking off transplants like Nobu from New York and the upcoming opening of Bice, a restaurant-lounge out of Milan, in the former Gumbo's/We Oui space. "Obviously part of that process is a cultural shift." And that shift is fueled by the constant and unrelenting sophisticating of tastes until it reaches the point where all you really want is a piece of fried chicken--free-range, organic fried chicken with heirloom French fries, that is.

And that was 2005: a year of painstakingly trying to unravel and simplify our mounting sophistication, even as high-rise luxury condos blossom under your feet. And who wouldn't want to unscrew to that?


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