Friday, August 26, 2011

Wine Tasting at Vinoteque

A few nights ago, I went to a wine tasting event at Vinoteque wine bar, part of their Sip n' Swirl series (I went as part of the L.A. Foodies meet-up group; Darrell, the group's founder, had coupons for the night).

This was only the second wine tasting I've ever been to, besides the couple of times I tagged along with my parents when they drove out east on Long Island to visit some wineries (that was before I was legal to drink, so I couldn't really participate). I am not a huge wine drinker, and would probably offend a lot of connoisseurs' sensibilities sense I tend to prefer fruity, bubbly wines that taste more like slightly-alcholic juice than wine. But I figured I would give it a try, since it was walking distance from my apartment and there would be food involved.

We (there were three small groups including ours, with eight people in total) sat out in the back patio in a little courtyard behind the restaurant, protected from the street noise.

The line-up, ready for sippin and swirlin.

Ryan, the sommelier (and I think a part owner of the restaurant), was really funny and knowledgeable, and had a cute Irish accent, which just makes everything he says ten times better. Here he is, giving us a quick intro into the proper way to taste wine:

We tasted three wines, all from Northern California - one Chardonnay (pictured above), a red Zinfandel and a Cabernet Sauvignon. I'm partial to white wine myself (fruity and girly, remember?), and true to form I preferred the Chardonnay, but I actually quite liked the Zinfandel, to my surprise. The Cabernet was a much stronger red, so not my favorite, but still drinkable. Maybe my tastes are maturing? Or they could've just been really good wines.

Of course, you don't just guzzle the wines down - there's a method, which Ryan expounded for us. First you swirl the glass to aerate the wine, and also so you can observe its viscosity, or how quickly it drips down the side of the glass after you swirl. This tells you how alcoholic the wine is - I want to say teh faster is drips, the less alcohol? I probably should have taken notes...

Then you smell the wine, which if you know the first thing about wine should tell you some other stuff about the wine's quality and how it was made. If you're me, it tells you that the liquid in your glass is, indeed, wine (yeah, notes definitely would've been a good idea). Finally, you taste the wine, making sure to coat your mouth completely to get all the depths of flavor. We had a list of the wines telling us what flavors to look for - notes of peach and melon, spices, chocolate, etc. I tasted mostly wine of varying degrees of...wineyness...God, I'm unsophisticated!

I'm much better at talking about food, so let's move onto that shall we? Turns out Darrell, our group leader, comes here a lot and kind of knows the chef, K.C. Ma, who came out to talk to our group before the tasting. Before that, though, we received two small plates to start.

Darrell ordered a plate of sweet potato fries with fried parsley (which he noted on the LA Foodies site tasted kind of like seaweed, not necessarily a bad thing) and spicy garlic ketchup. I loooove sweet potato fries, and these were very well fried with nary a sad one in the bunch, enhanced by large flakes of sea salt.

This baby arugula salad with warm caramelized peaches, sunflower seeds, parmesan and candied lemon vinaigrette was a gift from the house. I'm normally not a fan of arugula, but this baby version was hardly bitter at all, and the vinaigrette was awesome. Very sweet, but that worked perfectly with the peppery arugula and salty parmesan.

Then Chef K.C. came out and talked to our table; when we asked what he planned to make for the tasting, he offered to send our table special dishes that were different from the other two tables. All right, VIP treatment! Or so we thought... But more on that later.

Dish #1 (Chardonnay): kampachi and salmon crudo with capelin (flying fish) caviar and shiso vinaigrette. Impeccably fresh fish. I'd never had bright green fish eggs before and can't say they tasted like much, but popping them between my teeth was fun.

Please forgive the terrible photo, it was getting dark. This dish was actually kind of a joke from the chef, and is not on Vinoteque's menu. Dish #2 (Zinfandel): steak tartare. When K.C. was chatting with us before the tasting and asked us what food we wanted, Darrell joking mentioned steak tartare with the red wine. And so K.C. made it for us! This was surprisingly amazing to me, since when I think steak tartare I tend to think "raw hamburger" (this may just be based on my experiences with filet americain in the Netherlands, however). But this was nothing like that, just tender chunks of juicy steak in some sort of vinegary, herby dressing. There was a boatload of it, too; we ended up sharing some with the three ladies next to us, who had begun eyeing our table enviously by this point.

Dish #3 (Cabernet Sauvignon): peppercorn-crusted pork pate, a new dish also not appearing on their menu (I'm assuming it will at some point). Good - melted like butter in the mouth - but couldn't really compete with that tartare. Also, although we were given toasts to eat with the tartare, there were none forthcoming for this pate, so we just ate it with our forks. Am I wring in thinking pate is usually spread on toast or crackers or something? The peppercorns on top were a nice tough though, providing a needed kick among all that buttery, porky softness. Again, we shared the last bit with the other table, cause it's a bit much to just shovel rich pate into your mouth without bread or anything.

That ended the wine tasting; now comes the awkward part of the night that kind of put a bit of a damper on the whole event, for me at least. After inquiring whether we wanted to order more food or buy a bottle of wine (the types being tasted are offered for half price, a great deal if you're in the market for wine, which none of us were). Upon being told we were finished for the night, he brought us the check, which is when we discovered that the restaurant had CHARGED us for the upgrade to our food. And not a meager few dollars, either: they wanted $10 extra dollars per person!

Now, given that were already had a discount on the tasting and the quality of the food we were given, this amount (would've been a bit less than $30 per person total) was far from unfair. What was unfair was that we weren't told beforehand that there would be an extra charge for the upgrade. Hell, we didn't even ask for the upgrade, the chef offered it to us. Even though Darrell mentioned steak tartare, it seemed pretty clear that he was just joking around and not actually placing an order. Darrell himself was quite surprised, and it placed him in an awkward situation. He knew he had to ask that the extra charge be taken off the bill (it wasn't fair to me and the other person in our group, who had zero control over the menu), but he was also friendly with the restaurants' owners and a frequent customer and clearly didn't want to do anything that would damage that relationship.

In the end, he ended up asking the charge to be reduced by half to $5 per person, leading to a bill of $21 per person, about what I expected to pay for the evening but still, in my opinion, $5 too much because I thought the entire upgrade should have been removed. I understood why Darrell wanted to compromise, and he said whomever he talked to (I'm guessing Ryan) was perfectly nice about it, so I want to believe it was just a miscommunication of some sort, but if it had been just me I would have asked that the entire extra charge be rescinded. Again, it's not a question of cheapness and I do believe the food we were given measured up to the price asked for, but we were not given a choice about paying extra for that food. That's the main thing.

So right, I'll end my rant now. I don't want it to seem like I didn't enjoy myself, because I had a great time, the wines were really good and the food was excellent, plus the sommelier and chef seemed like really great guys and the atmosphere was relaxing and cool. Overall I would highly recommend Vinoteque's Sip n' Swirl events for anyone interested in wine, and the restaurant as a whole for very good food. Just don't mention steak tartare unless you're willing to pay for it!

7469 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(310) 860-6060

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