Friday, November 30, 2007

ANATOMY OF A WINE DINNER, SET TO MUSIC

At Black Trumpet, we have put on three wine dinners and one beer and game dinner. In the olden days, Scott O’Connor and I collaborated on countless Lindbergh’s Crossing wine dinners. On November 7th at Black Trumpet, Scott returned (with some great organic and biodynamic wines) to a full house of old friends and wine dinner regulars of yore. The event, a departure from the structure of many past wine dinners, served primarily as a festive reunion for old friends who love fun food and hard-to-find wines. Scott and Tom’s return was clearly the focus of the event. As a bonus, the food and wines were quite well received also. So many guests at the most recent wine dinner asked me about the process I go through in pairing wine with food, I thought I’d use the blog to post some thoughts on the way our preparations work.

First, the concept. We pick a theme. Or a theme picks us. In other words, some impulse appears on the radar pointing me in the direction of a region, a varietal, a concept or a specific winemaker. Then, I find out if the wines are available in the state. If they are not—which is far too often the case (a later, more controversial blog will address the complications and frustrations of selling wine in the state of NH)—it’s back to the drawing board. If they are available, Julian—our daffy, dutiful and diligent wine guy—talks to distributors and arranges for individual bottles to be dropped off for tasting. I taste, usually with Julian and sometimes with a wine rep, and then the real thought process begins.

This is the scary part, because it offers some insight into the very greyest part of my grey matter. For example, here’s a non-sequitur digression coming at you for no reason:

I used to write songs. Not very good songs, but songs nonetheless. It was a form of creative expression, an outlet for the part of my brain that now gives itself entirely to menu making. Being a writer, I am prone to analogize, so it should come as no surprise that I have found a connection between songwriting and wine pairing.

For me, there are two ways to write a song. In the first scenario, music comes first. It could come from an instrument I am playing. It could come from another song I hear. It can even come out of the air itself. I wrote a bunch of songs when I was commuting on foot in Washington, DC back in my early twenties. The rhythm of my footfalls were the only structure I needed. I had a Walkman, as I recall, but I never really liked the way it cut me off from the world around me. So I would literally write songs as I walked, forming verse and then chorus, or vice versa, revising as I went on my merry way. You can picture the looks on the faces of those people I passed on the sidewalk. Eccentricity, I still contend, will one day be the new normalcy. Until then, I can only hope for the pity of strangers.

The second songwriting scenario is the lyrical approach. Words come from a separate muse (the Greeks had Erato in charge of lyrics and Euterpe in charge of music, as I recall), one that doesn’t heed meter sometimes. When words are more important, they can squeeze their own music from affricatives, plosives and glottals that make our language so complex (and sometimes vulgar). The rest is easy; just ask Bob Dylan.

Obviously, this analogy can parlay into a number of artforms and disciplines. Some poets are slaves to structure, obsessed with fitting ideas into sestinas and sonnets, while others let the words make the meter and the music. A single poet can, in fact, successfully embrace both approaches—those of Erato and Euterpe--in his career. Wallace Stevens might be a good example.

To make a long analogy short, wine is the music and food the lyric in this pairing process. Composing a menu can either begin with the words (ingredients) or the music (wine), and the results will vary depending on which comes first.

Back to the narrative.

So I’ve now got wine in my mouth, and I’m writing notes furiously, describing with words the indescribable complexities of aroma, flavor and finish. I am putting words to the music, body and soul of the wines. There is no question that this process is subjective. My palate, far from perfect, has its own leanings and longings. I have to keep these in check when tasting wine (and food, for that matter) because, at the wine dinner, our dining room will not be filled with clones of me. I end up with a page—no matter how many wines I’m tasting, it’s almost always one page—of tasting notes. The wines are then left open for an hour, and then a day, to let them open up. At these intervals, I go back to taste again, in hopes of detecting any other nuances, hidden notes, flourishes, etc. I write more words. At this juncture, I have a half-decent idea at least of the order in which I want the wines to be presented. This, too, can be rearranged as late as the day of the event. I also have a jumble of cuneiform runes and scratches in as many as four different inks on a crumpled page that has traveled with me in pockets, on clipboards, in notebooks. The proteins usually come first. For example, the young petit verdot has the kind of acidity and weight that call for a bird, probably a little bird, maybe partridge. Must find partridge! (This is only a simulation.) I edit as inspiration strikes. I think—always, always—about what ingredients are seasonal and appropriate with each wine, and soon a dish comes together.

Recently, Julian headed to Portland with our friend Mark to scope out some high profile wines from France that were being introduced to New Hampshire. His assignment was to come back with some big little wines that could be featured at our next wine dinner in January. He tasted twelve and selected six or seven with Mark’s help. Next step, I will taste these contenders and formulate a theme for the event.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Some Changes at Black Trumpet

UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT, sort of

My talented, wise and beautiful wife, Denise, has made a big step in her career by opting to phase out a job that has meant a lot to her over the last five-plus years. IW Financial, a values-based investing research firm in Portland, has offered Denise a challenging work environment on the cutting edge of both technology and investment worlds since our return from Mexico in 2003. She will be phasing out that chapter in her career so she can focus on the restaurant more closely, in turn giving our beloved staff more centralized leadership. This change arrives as one of our most valuable players departs: Sarah is ending her tenure as Operations Manager after getting us on our feet these last few months. We will miss her dearly and wish her well in her endeavors. Casey, too, who has been a hard-working smiling face on the floor and behind the bar, will be stepping down from his role as General Manager. He will continue to work behind the bar while he seeks alternate routes during the day. As sad as these departures are for us and our team, we are all looking forward to having Denise around more.

Friday, October 5, 2007

October

Time for an update on our Black Trumpet goings-on:

MUSHROOMS

Mushrooms have been plentiful despite the lack of rain. Carrie, a line cook and assistant pastry chef, has expressed interest in seeking out mushrooms with me for a while. Last weekend, Carrie and I hiked into the woods around my house and came up with some beautiful boletes, a few hedgehogs and a big surprise--matsutakes!! Matsutakes are a hard-to-find wild mushroom that grows under certain conifers in damp, mossy woods. The New Yorker (or was it the Sunday Times mag?) recently published an article about the intense competition for matsutake harvesting in the Pacific Northwest. A great, must-read article that was more about immigration than mushrooms, it discussed a group of Korean migrant workers who were trumping the embittered local mushroom hunters by finding caches of matsutakes at nighttime.

If the rainlessness continues, of course, our supplies of local wild mushrooms will end prematurely, forcing me to buy all the mushrooms for our menu from nationwide distributors. There's no sport in that, but at least I won't have to wear my blaze bandanna and whistle loudly to notify hunters of my presence in the woods.


COOKBOOK

The wheels beneath the cookbook project are finally moving, now that the first phase of our opening is complete, systems are in place and running smoothly, and staff roles have jelled. I spent a few hours last week with James Haller, founding chef of the famous Blue Strawbery and co-author of the forthcoming cookbook. I brought some smoked pork to his house, which we heated up on his beautiful cookstove, and he made his favorite chocolate flan for dessert. We discussed the cookbook project, and he read a personal introduction he had written. It seems as though the scope of the book is still unknown. We are waiting for a publisher to take interest in the project, which would then give us a concrete deadline and motivate us to give the book a structure. Until then, we are still in the ideation phase of the project. So, if you or someone you know would like to publish a really great cookbook that spans thirty-seven years of cooking in three successful restaurants at the same address, please let us know so we can get more motivated.

More updates soon....

Evan

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Greetings Friends

Here we are at the six-month mark at Black Trumpet, and our excitement continues unabated. Summer wears on all of us in this seasonal seaside hamlet of Portsmouth. We have to share our beaches, shops and restaurants with the rest of the world, and articles in nationwide publications continue to herald Portsmouth as an "undiscovered gem." Pedestrians pack the streets, slowing the already-congested car traffic. This summer, one out-of-town visitor cursed loudly at Denise for driving down Ceres Street, yelling, "Hey lady! It's a one-way!" Even newcomers to town realize that our little alleyway of a street is two-way, and that--because no single individual can own a public thoroughfare--a modicum of manners is required to negotiate the narrows.

Just when you think the July/August heat and humidity have moved in to stay, the first cool breeze of September refreshes our hard-working bodies and minds, promising a return to the village we know and love. We fall into a slower paced routine and recuperate before the holiday season sets in. Familiar faces unseen since June emerge, seemingly from the woodwork in our winebar. These are the locals who have built our reputation and stood the test of time with us under three different names. Of course, the faces change, but their importance to our village remains constant.

September, alas, is also a time of evanescence. Leaves being to wither and fall. We will harvest our last garden vegetables in September. Perhaps most importantly, we will pluck countless pounds of delectable edible mushrooms from the earth and put them on plates in every form imaginable (except ice cream).

Already this year, I have harvested--with help from my daughter--the following species, whose names are almost as rich as their flavors:

  • Purple-gilled Laccaria

  • Hedgehog mushroom

  • Horn-of-plenty

  • Fragrant Black Trumpet

  • Chicken-fat Suillus

  • 5 Boletes, including Kings

  • Chanterelle

  • Trumpet Royale

  • Chicken Mushroom

  • White Coral

  • Lobster Mushroom

We will return to our rigorous once-a-month wine dinners (beginning with a first-of-its-kind "Beer and Game Dinner" in early October. Keep an eye on our website (or subscribe to our email newsletter) for dates.

We wish a peaceful September to you all,

Evan Mallett

Friday, July 20, 2007

29 Ceres Street - looking back, moving ahead

Four months have now passed (in the blink of an eye, it seems), and Denise and I continue to feel rewarded by the community’s response to Black Trumpet. There is no question that we have worked hard (with tons of help from our inherited Lindbergh’s staff) to make this transition as smooth as possible. We remain sensitive to the needs of the “old guard,” but the changes to menu and d├ęcor have gone over very big indeed. Feedback continues to be resoundingly positive, despite the anxiety and trepidation of many.

It has been interesting to note that for everyone who has inquired, “What happened to Lindbergh’s?” there is someone else who steps in to ask, “Did this used to be Blue Strawbery?”

Many newcomers to town don’t fully grasp the significance of Blue Strawbery’s impact in the space we now call home. James Haller’s incredible vision survived a thoroughly baffled town planning board (which predated the Chamber of Commerce), an initial public reception that bordered on hostile and twenty-six ensuring years of restauranting through changing times.

Buddy Haller (his preferred nickname) should be vaunted in the company of America’s culinary heroes; he was innovating dishes and wowing customers with local product (there wasn’t any non-local product to speak of then) at the same time Alice Waters and Jasper White were getting national attention for similar efforts.

Chef Haller and I have begun work on a cookbook that will span the 36-year history of 29 Ceres Street, including the prolific 7-year period of Chef Jeff Tenner’s recipes at Lindbergh’s Crossing. The book – currently seeking a publisher – promises to be a monumental tribute and fascinating study as well.

Signing off for now,
Evan

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Our First Month

Hello and thank you to all Black Trumpet fans, friends and patrons!

Denise and I are overwhelmed that so many Lindbergh's regulars, joined by a thrilling number of new faces, have dined with us during our first month of business. For those of you who haven't had a chance to stop in for a cocktail, dessert or full meal, we look forward to your first visit. Here's a taste of what has transpired since March 1st.....

March 1:
After closing with Tom and Scott, Denise and I hurried back to the restaurant where we plotted our course for the next two weeks and celebrated the change with a glass of wine by the window, at the very same table where we decided to move to Portsmouth after our wedding in 1998.

March 2 through 16:
Gregg Duke, master carpenter (and former Lindbergh's sous chef), began demolition on the morning of the 2nd. Every kitchen employee volunteered to help with that portion of the transition. What is it about us kitchenfolk and propensity for fire, knives and sledgehammers?

On the 4th, Josh and Lauren, the incredibly capable and friendly pair of artists who run The Green Foundry in Eliot, raised and unveiled the heavy wood and cast bronze sign they created to a round of cheers from the cast, crew and support team of Black Trumpet. For my part, I smashed a really small bottle of bubbly against the brick doorframe--twice--without hurting anyone.

Over the course of twelve days, Gregg knuckled down on a tight deadline and rebuilt the entryway, among lots of other heroic work. He was assisted by Josh (another former Lindbergh's and Ciento chef) and his lovely partner Michelle (former owner of Saucy Grace, up the street).

Friends and family joined our crew of dedicated local craftsmen and workers to demolish walls, tear up rugs, remove old appliances and deep-clean everything remaining. Paul Laliberte and John Durante, both longtime Lindbergh's servers and Home Depot regulars, offered their construction help. Good friends, including many who work at other Portsmouth restaurants, contributed to our impossible dream of completing the "refreshing" project in two weeks.

On a dark and stormy night, literally seconds after hanging the last framed menu in the stairwell, we opened our doors to a brave crowd of weather-defying diehards. We thank you all