Archive for December 2007

WINE OF THE YEAR- 2007

December 30, 2007

For anyone who hasn’t heard or read this from me yet, here’s the deal: I think that Napa Valley Syrah is about the most exciting thing going on in all of the wine world currently. Syrah has long been one of the planet’s most complex varietals, serving as a blending grape in famous Rhone wines such as Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape before finding additional fame as a stand alone grape in Australia (as “Shiraz”) and, to a lesser extent, in countries such as Spain, Chile and Argentina. To me, the inherent opaque body, balance of dark black and blue fruit flavors, occasional chocolate, leather and tar nuances and of course the all-important black pepper spice notes that can be seen in a well made Syrah are often tough to match by other varietals. Napa Valley, a region that came to fame through its production of world class, unblended Cabernet Sauvignon, has come to realize that its climate is also very well-suited to producing Syrah, a varietal which succeeds in a wide-variety of growing conditions but which almost certainly benefits from warm summers. Some of the top producers in Napa Valley are really knocking the ball out of the park with their attempts at making 100 percent Syrah, but there was one wine in 2007 that literally stopped me in my tracks. Actually, I tasted the previous vintage of this wine last year and had an almost identical reaction, but something about the 2004 vintage that I tasted this year seemed even a step up from the 2003. It isn’t an everyday wine, but it isn’t ridiculously overpriced either for the quality that it delivers, and could be one of the leaders in an exciting new wine-making trend in the Napa Valley. My Wine of the Year for 2007 is the Shiraz Signature Napa Valley 2004 from Darioush.

DARIOUSH SHIRAZ SIGNATURE NAPA VALLEY 2004, 95 Points, $65, 1,750 cases made

Deep blackberry jam aromas with hints of chocolate. Full mouthfeel of blackberry, black licorice and a blast of peppery spice that lingers forever with a firm tannic grip and a leathery chocolate aftertaste. A massive wine, with powerful command of its black fruit, leather and spice nuances. Should age well into the next decade.

2007 Wines of the Month (lots of Syrah!)

January: Falesco Vitiano Umbria 2004 (87 Points)/ Columbia Crest Two Vines Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot Columbia Valley 2002 (87 Points)/ The Little Penguin Cabernet Sauvignon Southeast Australia 2005 (87 Points)

February: Chateau Meyney St. Estephe 2003 (93 Points)

March: Tapestry Shiraz McLaren Vale 2003 (91 Points)

April: Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec Mendoza 2004 (91 Points)

May: Tenimenti Luigio D’Alessandro Syrah Il Bosco 2003 (94 Points)

June: Thorn-Clarke Shiraz McLaren Vale 2003 (91 Points)

July: Vina Montes Syrah Colchuaga Valley Alpha Apalta Vineyard 2005 (90 Points)

August: Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2006 (89 Points)

September: Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero Tinto 2004 (91 Points)

October: Schild Shiraz Barossa Valley 2005 (93 Points)

November: Marchesi de Frescobaldi Chianto Rufina Castello di Nipozzano Riserva 2004 (90 Points)

December: Mollydooker Shiraz The Boxer South Australia 2006, 91 Points

Other Wines Under $100 that I rated 92 or better:

Chateau Leoville Barton St. Julien 2003, 96 Points, $75

Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2004, 94 Points, $70

Marchesi di Barolo Cannubi Riserva Piedmont 2001, 93 Points, $60

Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta Colchuaga Valley 2003, 93 Points, $70

Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste Paulliac 2003, 93 Points, $50

Scalette Il Carbonaione Tuscany 2003, 93 Points, $50

Bodegas Catena Zapata Alta Malbec Mendoza 2004, 93 Points, $40

Nicolas Catena Zapata Mendoza 2003, 93 Points, $90

Elderton Command Shiraz Barossa Valley 2002, 93 Points, $70

St. Clement Orropas Napa Valley 2004, 93 Points, $50

Paolo Scavino Barolo Piedmont 2001, 92 Points, $40

Chateau Phelan-Segur St. Estephe 2003, 92 Points, $30

Chateau Pibran Pauillac 2003, 92 Points, $25

Marchesi di Barolo Piedmont 2001, 92 Points, $40

Penfolds RWT Shiraz Barossa Valley 2003, 92 Points, $75

Martinelli Giuseppe & Luisa Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2005, 92 Points, $50

Plumpjack Syrah Napa Valley 2005, 92 Points, $45

Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon Signature Napa Valley 2004, 92 Points, $75

Rubicon RC Reserve Syrah 2004, 92 Points, $60

Numanthia-Termes Numanthia Toro 2004, 92 Points, $55

Spring Valley Uriah Walla Walla Valley 2004, 92 Points, $50

Highest Rated Wines I tasted:

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Superiore Bolgheri 2003, 96 Points, $120

Chateau Pavie St. Emilion 2003, 96 Points, $215

Chateau Leoville Las Cases St. Julien 2003, 95 Points, $185

Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes 2003, 95 Points, $300

Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion Pessac-Leognan 2003, 95 Points, $140

WINE OF THE MONTH- DECEMBER

December 26, 2007

Awhile back, I wrote about a dining experience in which I grudgingly forced a waiter to open a bottle of wine that wasn’t available by the glass and serve it to me by the glass anyway due to an error in vintage presentation on the wine list. I scoffed at the idea of drinking the 2006 Mollydooker Shiraz The Boxer over the 2005, which was Wine Spectator Top 100 Wine last year. I ended up drinking three glasses of some of the best wine I’ve tasted all year for about half the price (the Schild Shiraz Barossa Valley 2005, my wine of the month for October.) However, in retrospect, I was probably a bit too hard on the 2006 The Boxer, and the wine was able to prove itself to me in very impressive form at a tasting recently. I find it only fair to honor this inexpensive, widely available and stylistically made wine as my December wine of the month.

MOLLYDOOKER SHIRAZ THE BOXER SOUTH AUSTRALIA 2006, 91 Points, $20, 24,000 cases made

Deep, dark aromas of smoked meat, blackberry and licorice. Fleshy, inky body of smoke, meat and black licorice with notes of leather, black cherry and tons of peppery spice. This is a velvety Syrah that draws upon its strong black and blue fruit components and well integrated spiciness to carry through the long finish.

Top 25 Albums of 2007

December 14, 2007

This year provided a vast array of great new releases from newcomers and well-established bands alike. From the shockingly sudden release by a long-acclaimed band to innovative new rap, dance-rock, electronica and pop albums, 2007 had a little bit of something for everyone, and was certainly the best year for music since at least 2004. Here are my top 25 albums of this year.

#25: M.I.A/ Kala: The Sri-Lankan import followed up her highly acclaimed debut Arular with a diverse collection of rap in her unique style. The middle-eastern tone of “Jimmy” is immediately memorable, and the almost annoyingly repetitive brilliance of “Boyz” is tough to get out of your head as well. Other highlights include the downtempo “Paper Planes”, which enters new territory in its melodic sampling of shotgun blasts and cash register jingles, as well as the catchy “Come Around” and the smashing closer “Big Branch.” The political agenda is less prominent on Kala and M.I.A seems to let loose, turning out an album full of experimentation and diversity.

#24: Jens Lehkman/ Night Falls Over Kortedala: If you can bear the soft sweetness of Lehkman’s Swedish accented voice, then you can appreciate how this album flows with intrigue over its folky, disco sound along with heavy string and horn arrangements. Lehkman’s unique, often-spoken word vocal style soars on tracks like the jazzy “The Opposite of Hallelujah” and the soft but driving “A Postcard To Nina”, while a dancier disco element adds complexity on “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar” and “Into Eternity.” The album is held together by standout tracks that showcase Lehkman’s vocals, and none are prettier than the straightforward, honest “I’m Leaving Because I Don’t Love You”, and the mesmerizing “Shirin.” There may not be a “Black Cab” on Night Falls Over Kortedala, but the songs have a more consistent flow this time around.

#23: Liars/ Liars: After pioneering the dance rock movement and then sinking their teeth into a full blown post-rock concept album, Liars come back with an eponymous album that is somewhat of a combination of the two. From the opening riffs of the terrifying “Plaster Casts of Everything” it’s clear that the band hasn’t strayed from its dark sound, although this sounds a lot louder. Switching gears is the post-modern pop sound of the Beck-esque “Houseclouds”, a dancey track that succeeds with its atmospheric simplicity. “Freak Out” works well enough for being a complete Jesus and Mary Chain ripoff, and the album overall approaches shoegazing from time to time, a new realm for the band. The heavenly riff on “Pure Unevil” is a sure highlight while “Clear Island” rocks as with its scary circus rockiness, coming closest to sounding like the Liars of old. In between, the material isn’t as strong nor does it flow as perfectly as Drum’s Not Dead, but it’s good to see that the band continues to experiment musically.

#22: Kanye West/ Graduation: The third installment in the seemingly anti-education album titling by West delivers more amazing beats and production, albeit behind often lackluster lyrical work. Opener “Good Morning” sets a somber but hopeful tone, the seriousness of which we haven’t seen from West at the start of his albums. More upbeat numbers like “Champion”, the Daft-Punky “Stronger” and “Good Life” of Entourage fame give the album a nice pace, while the Chris Martin cameo on “Homecoming” and the honest arrogance of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” are the real showstoppers. Graduation is a move forward musically for West, who depends on piano arrangements along with string elements throughout another complex and well-produced album.

#21: The New Pornographers/ Challengers: The band tried to grow up a bit on this album, providing a more mature collection of tunes that generally leans more towards soft, beautiful melodies than one would expect from the band’s former power-poppy beginnings. Neko Case is always a star, and such is the case on two of the albums prettiest numbers, “Go Places” and the title track. Lead man A.C. Newman enters new territory on the ballad “Unguided”, but still rocks it out on more familiar sounding tracks like “All of Things That Go To Make Heaven and Earth” and “Mutiny I Promise You.” For hardcore fans, Challengers may seem a bit of a departure from the band’s style, but all of the main elements are still there along with a sort of musical branching out.

#20: Prodigy/ Return of the Mac: The year’s best rap album arises from a surprise comeback story, as Prodigy of Mobb Deep releases his best work in over a decade. Raw, hard-hitting lyricism combines with reflection on this deep album, which benefits from Prodigy’s dark, insightful rhymes combined with razor sharp beats. Highlights include the catchy “Stuck On You” as well as the immaculately arranged standout “Take It To The Top”, which features intense orchestral elements. Near the end of the album, the beats really shine on “My Priorities”, another more modern track. Meanwhile, Prodigy gets back to his roots with more familiar melancholy sounding tracks like the crushing “Legends” and the twangy “The Rotten Apple.” Return of the Mac is incredibly musical throughout, as it incorporates strings, horns, piano and guitar but never loses its east-coast flair, and is a welcome accomplishment for the nearly forgotten Prodigy.

#19: Iron and Wine/ Shepherd’s Dog: Sam Beam’s songs are often so low-fi, repetitively formatted and ultimately relaxing that they are often difficult to separate from one another. This album adds twangier guitar work and a newfound jammy hippyness in addition to more familiar sounds as Beam succeeds once again. Shepherd’s Dog is consistent throughout as all Iron and Wine albums are, although might grow a bit tiring on the unfamiliar ear. Keeping things interesting this time around are the jazzy “The Devil Never Sleeps” as well as the anthemic, hippyish opener “Pagan Angel And A Borrowed Car.” More familiar are the simplistic beauty of “Lovesong Of The Buzzard”, the devastatingly pretty “Carousel” and the soft repetition of “Innocent Bones.” I’m not sure that the album is any better or worse than any of his previous work, but once again Beard provides a solid collection of tunes.

#18: Band of Horses/ Cease to Begin: While it doesn’t quite rip your heart out the same way that last year’s brilliant debut Everything All The Time did, the sophomore effort from Band of Horses doesn’t disappoint by any other measure. On the whole, the songs are softer, highlighted by the standout ballad “No One’s Gonna Love You” and the pretty, if slightly forced “Ode to LRC.” More upbeat attempts to duplicate their debut such as the foot-stompin’ “The General Specific” and the “Funeral”-esque “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands” succeed for the most part, although seem to be lacking a bit compared to their best prior work. Nevertheless, it’s still Band of Horses, and that goes a long way, as Cease to Begin creates a similarly ominous tone.

#17: Animal Collective/ Strawberry Jam: Let’s face it, Animal Collective isn’t for everyone. The syncopated shrieking of Avey Tar and the smooth harmonies of Panda Bear have led to some of the most unique music of the decade from a band that is truly one of a kind, and Strawberry Jam is no exception. Opener “Peacebone” is immediately gripping, as Avey Tar raps over rolling, syncopated carnival beats and loops back through his own patented shrieks, all with impressive and addictive melody in its simplistic brilliance. “For Reverend Green” ranks among the best songs that the band has ever done, building with nervous persistence through an amazing melody with well-arranged harmonies that lead right into the shrieking coda. As with many of their albums, the music is so experimental that concentrating through all of it becomes a bit of a tough task towards its conclusion, although more harmonies separate the rockier “Winter Wonder Land” as a memorable track, while the slower “Fireworks” uses similar tactics to create its own air of beauty. Their music is often difficult to separate, but Strawberry Jam is no departure from the quality of their past work.

#16: Bloc Party/ A Weekend In The City: After the immediate success of debut Silent Alarm, the best album of 2005, the boys from Bloc Party tone it down a bit on their less intense follow-up. Opener “A Song For Clay” shows huge promise and gets the album off to a rocking start, but many of the attempts to top it seem overlong, toned-down and over-serious, if not bordering on sappy. In between some huge misses, the band still finds time to rock out with the familiar sounds of “Hunting For Witches” and “Where Is Home?”, although the latter suffers a bit from its inability to start with the huge punch that made Silent Alarm sound so consistently energetic. The band recovers a bit towards the end of the album with the classic pop tune “I Still Remember”, which is the clear album highlight as it builds with rolling guitar riffs and pounding percussion. While certainly a disappointment overall, there are still enough solid tracks here to put Bloc Party’s follow-up effort on the map.

#15: The Shins/ Wincing The Night Away: James Mercer and company step outside the box on their third album Wincing The Night Away and deliver a collection of tunes not completely baroque or poppy while as transcendant at times as it is inconsistent overall. Nevertheless, The Shins don’t disappoint early on. Opener “Sleeping Lessons” builds slowly behind light electronic beats and feedback into a pounding crescendo that gets the album off to a great start. The next track “Australia” sounds like vintage Shins–bright, upbeat, unrelenting, slightly tropical and reminiscent of the best moments of the epic Chutes Too Narrow, while “Phantom Limb” is simply marvelous. Towards the end of the album, “Girl Sailor” is a surefire highlight lyrically, and reminds me of the subtle heartbreak of the brilliant “Gone For Good”, even adding a touch of the same twangy western elements. Overall, Wincing The Night Away certainly provides its fair share of highlights, even if those highlights don’t amount in quanity to either of their previous two efforts, and these guys look poised to keep making great music for many years.

#14: Okkervil River/ The Stage Names: One of the year’s most honest and frequently heartbreaking records came from this band, who combine an All-American guitar sound with some of the prettiest melodies and lyrics that any of us heard all year on their fourth full-length. Opener “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” starts the album off on a rocky note that is not without its own bittersweet note of regret while upbeat tracks “Unless It’s Kicks” and standout “A Hand To Take Hold of the Scene” follow, the latter a dancey R & B number that benefits from a catchy horn arrangement at the chorus. However, the early tone of the album quickly fades into softer, somber and often devastating tunes. The best of these are the hopeful relationship analysis on the melodic track “Plus Ones” and the soft, tender heartbreak of “A Girl In Port.” The album closes on a perfect note with a quasi-cover of the Beach Boys “Sloop John B” re-written as a failed attempt at suicide before evolving into a raucous, crushing cover of that famous track. The band packs a lot of depth and feeling into these nine tracks, and they aren’t to be missed.

#13: The National/ Boxer: The sophomore album from The National creates a unique, consistent mood, somewhat reminiscent of walking through an abandoned, rainy city at night. As dreary as that may sound, leadman Matt Berninger’s deep, haunting baritone and the band’s persistent rock feel carry Boxer a long way. From the dark, isolated sound of the brilliant “Brainy” to the soft, beautifully arranged acoustics on “Slow Show” and the culmination of complex sounds including piano, guitar and horns on the penultimate “Ada”, the band shines throughout without a weak track. They really show their stuff on rockier tracks like “Mistaken For Strangers” and “The Apartment Story”, while “Guest Room” provides a mixture of melancholy and hope all at once. It’s an addictive listen to be sure, and shows a lot of promise behind its subtly orchestrated beauty.

#12: Battles/ Mirrored: This is certainly one of the most original albums I’ve heard in awhile, relying on heavily on the increasing technological advances of lap-top software to amp-up its mechanical, almost robotic guitar rock, while still drawing noticeable influence from the post-rock movement. It all adds up to a fascinating and innovative collection of futuristic music. Opener “Race: In” probably comes the closest to sounding like classic post-rock, drawing immediate similarities to Tortoise’s early work, while moving along in a repetitive manner above a whistling electronic melody before gradually breaking down into a series of chants. This leads into the epic second track “Atlas”, as tribal percussion initially draws us in beneath chants that sound like they could be coming from a machine of some sort before evolving into more chanting in an unintelligible baby-talk chorus. The diversity of the music is certainly a credit to the album, as the shorter track “Leyendecker” provides harder drumming, subtle piano keys and a more “in your face” sound, a complete contradiction to the previous track “Tonto”, which is more of a groovy, rolling bass jam. “Rainbow” follows as maybe the album’s most complex tune, starting slowly and curiously before abandoning reason and delving into a shocking cartoon-like quasi-breakdown. “Battle” your way through this album and you shall be rewarded.

#11: Modest Mouse /We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank: After 2004’s commercially successful Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse gets back to its roots and produces its best album since The Moon and Antarctica. The latest release from this long time indie-rock staple balances and combines intense emotion with the same fun, upbeat rockiness that made “Float On” instantly adored three summers ago. This time around, Modest Mouse takes it a step up, and what results is a consistent, if not incredibly complex album that works well as theme music for the summer of 2007. Opener “March Into the Sea” starts with a bang as leadman Isaac Brock howls in his patented unintelligible dischord, and the song switches between this intensity and its softer, sweeter verses before building into an impressive crescendo. More fun but no less effective is the upbeat second track “Dashboard”, which speeds along above strings, quick guitar plucks and more Brock yelping and ultimately enters some innovative territory for the band. if I’m forced to pick a favorite from this impressive collection of music, I’d have to go with the penultimate track “People As Places As People.” At its center is a rolling, grinding drum line which carries the track throughout along with catchy guitar riffs, but beneath are insightfully circular lyrics. By continuing on the same path they’ve been following for over a decade now and by not trying too hard to change their uniquely identifiable sound, Modest Mouse has delivered another enjoyable collection of songs.

#10: Panda Bear/ Person Pitch: Noah Lennox, the man disguised as Panda Bear in the innovative post-rock duo Animal Collective, brings his own vision to his latest solo album, complete with harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys, but extending further than that. The beauty of this album is its ability to combine elements of those influences with Lennox’s unique tastes in dance music, pop and post-rock, eventually forming a record that is immensely layered and demonstrates amazing musical depth. I prefer this album to any of the Animal Collective’s work. Opener “Comfy in Nautica” sounds like a campfire chant at first, but Lennox’s skillfully redundant melodies and Brian Wilson-esque vocals create a hypnotic element that sets a great tone right out of the gates. Second track “Take Pills” begins slowly with tambourine beats and feels almost as if was recorded underwater. The subdued beats and vocals take a quick turn halfway through the song, and gain an almost tropical vibe. The devastating “Bros” combines incredibly refined melodies above synthesized drum loops initially, but builds into much more. The twelve-minute track evolves slowly but marvelously, intertwining elements from all across the musical spectrum, and concludes triumphantly with piano and horns crashing together with all of these to form a crescendo-based, melodic tune for the ages that certainly ranks among the best tracks of the year. Person Pitch is a huge harmonic and electronic accomplishment all the way through.

#9: The Field/ From Here We Go Sublime: Axel Willner’s From Here We Go Sublime is surely one of the most dark, intense, ambient and sharply focused electronic records in recent memory. Opener “Over the Ice” captures attention right off the bat with repetitive, syncopated techno percussion lines and subtle, computer-generated vowel chants of “E” and “I.” Indeed, this wouldn’t sound bad in a dance club, but it elevates well above that genre because of the somber, serious mood it creates. Later on the record, “Good Things End” further accentuates this tone, using even darker melodies above more repetitive rolling drum lines. Standout track “A Paw In My Face” builds slowly and evolves into one of the most melodic songs on the album, creating a downtempo, bittersweet tone perfect for background music at a gathering. Faster songs like “The Little Heart Beats So Fast” and “Everday” work better as dance party tunes, although they aren’t without their own tones of seriousness. This is music that can be used to have fun, but that isn’t why it was created. From the atmospheric electronic melodies on epic “The Deal” to the eerie syncopations of the astonishing “Mobilla”, From Here We Go Sublime stands true to its title, never wavering and never becoming the least bit disengaging. If there was ever an electronic album to prove to naysayers that beats and melodies created by computers can be intensely musical, this could be the one.

#8: Menomena/ Friend And Foe: On their third release, experimental indie rock band Menomema really knock the ball out of the park with Friend and Foe. The band uses custom software which they refer to as “deeler” to loop simple musical segments throughout entire songs. Leadman Brent Knopf writes the software and sings the songs, and the end result is an impressive album full of ideas and diverse tracks. “The Pelican” is a stomping, rolling track with all kinds of diverse musical elements, and really benefits from Knopf being at his most intense vocally. The best song on the album is “Wet and Rusting”, which sounds nothing like the first two in any way, enough to make one ponder if this even the same band. This mesmerizing track combines early piano elements into strumming acoustic guitar and looped drum beats and eventually combines all of these together to form perfectly executed layered rhythms. “Air Raid” follows gloriously with a more futuristic progression while the softer “Rotten Hell” provides the album’s prettiest melody behind soft piano keys before building into its most impressive and dramatic finish. Without a single weak track, Friend and Foe is, in the end, a remarkably consistent album thanks to its innovative musical arrangements, catchy melodies and strong lyrical quality throughout.

#7: The Twilight Sad/ Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters: One of the year’s best debut albums came from this quartet from Glasgow, Scotland whose name seems to perfectly capture the essence of its music. Using a unique style by intertwining shoegazer guitar with a story-telling Scottish folk style, The Twilight Sad delivers a record with compelling lyrics and a sound all its own. The album begins on a soft note with “Cold Days From the Birdhouse”, which starts sweetly and sadly before it picks up steam and builds into a startling crescendo. Lead singer James Graham is at his best on tracks like the amazing “That Summer, at Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy” where his ability to oscillate between soft, deep vocals and angst-filled screams add powerful emotion to the songs. Almost every song on this album uses a similar technique, starting slowly before building into a gut-wrenching climax that is usually accompanied by soaring shoegazer guitar work that mimics My Bloody Valentine. Towards the end of the album, songs like “Mapped By What Surrounded Them” show the band at its darkest and most hopeless, as pounding drumbeats create the backdrop for Graham’s wailing vocals before the track surrenders into the abyss. A real highlight here is “And She Would Darken The Memory” which seems upbeat compared to its company, beginning with a bonga-drum beat and evolving into a pure masterpiece behind perhaps the prettiest musical and vocal work on the album. After repeating the opening line several times softly early in the song, there is a moment where Graham absolutely shrieks the same line at a later point, which provided for me one of my favorite live moments of the year at the Pitchfork Music Festival. This isn’t music for the easy listener, but for those that enjoy music that conveys a lot of feeling and sounds incredibly good while doing so, I wouldn’t miss out on this one.

#6: Arcade Fire/ Neon Bible: Expectations couldn’t have been higher after the release of Funeral at the end of 2004 led many critics to crown the Arcade Fire as the second coming. On their sophomore effort, the band seems distraught in a more outward manner than on their first album, musically advanced but at times overly self-righteous and pretentious. Nevertheless, the introduction of new musical elements and the increased vocal prescence of Regine Chassagne help Neon Bible rise over all of its negativity. Engaging early on is “Keep The Car Running”, an old-fashioned, foot-stomping rock song with folky elements that we recognize from last time around. Probably my favorite thing about this album is the introduction of church-style organs to the music. One of the better tracks here is “Intervention”, the opening organ chords of which are reminiscent of orthodox style church hymns. However, what really holds this album together is the brilliance of “Ocean of Noise” in the dead middle. The band is happy to build slowly with light piano and vocals with elements of hopelessness before exploding into the best finish to a song Arcade Fire has ever produced, complete with wailing vocals and classical violin. At times, Neon Bible seems incredibly over-serious, and for any other band this might have been a disaster. But the Arcade Fire has an ability to exude its energy over even its own mood and its often over-the-top lyrics.

#5: Of Montreal/ Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer?: What a delightfully diverse and well-made album this is. It’s lyrically dark, but benefits from its unique style and comes off on the whole as rocky and incredibly interesting musically, complete with probably the most eye-catching album title in recent memory. “Suffer For Fashion” gets the album off to an upbeat, well-disguised cheery start behind circus-like Atari keyboards and a catchy melody. The poppy, tons-of-fun “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethan Curse” follows in the same style complete with seventh-inning-stretch organ and synthesized percussion. Slow grooves like “Gronlandic Edit” and “Faberge Falls For Shuggie” keep the album moving along smoothly, the latter adding eerie violin notes. The relative fun stops with the devastating album centerpiece and masterpiece “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal”, a twelve minute epic filled with pain in its universal and incredibly real lyrics. This was my favorite single song of 2007 due to its strong emotional delivery and complex musical layering. Meanwhile, highlight track “She’s A Rejector” sounds like a combination of a Franz Ferdinand guitar riff and vocals from The Rapture, and although shockingly different from the rest of the album is perfectly placed near the album’s conclusion. This track really rocks, yet carries a tone of sadness all the while. Overall, this is an incredibly interesting album that while sounding upbeat for the most part is actually upon repeated listens a dark album channeling deep inner pain. I suppose the combination of those two things make it all the more of an interesting listen.

#4: Deerhunter/ Cryptograms: The fantastic sophomore album from this Atlanta band makes an astounding argument to be crowned the greatest shoegazer-noise rock album since My Bloody Valentine’s epic Loveless. As the title would suggest, Cryptograms is a haunting, immaculately arranged work containing soaring melodies, rolling basslines and space-rock guitar punches. In the early stages of the album, Deerhunter seems content to progress at a snail’s pace, placing purely instrumental tracks intermittently throughout. In fact, out of the twelve tracks on the album, only seven are actual songs with lyrics (which are not always discernible). What makes Cryptograms such an accomplishment is the fact that those seven songs are all the album needs to attain immediate status as a classic, and the instrumental tracks in between add positive elements to both its complexity and its continuity (although foregoing those in favor of the tracks used on the amazing Flourescent Light EP might have raised this album’s ranking a notch or two.) On the title track, leadman Bradford Cox opens by speaking over transitive feedback, which is followed by the catchiest bass line in recent memory combined with a simple repetitive guitar riff which all eventually evolves into absolute musical chaos behind soaring electric guitar and heavy drum beats. Eerie guitar rings out over the devastating “Spring Hall Convert”, which is probably the best song on the album besides the title track. On the whole, Cryptograms combines elements of shoegazer, dream pop and noise rock almost perfectly into an album of pure beauty that concentrates more on the sum of its parts than on each individual track.

#3: Spoon/ Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga: It is truly amazing to me how easily Spoon continues to pump out such great music. On Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon combines elements from all of its terrific previous work into short, intense, diverse pop-rock songs that pack serious punch, and the result is the band’s best album to date aside from 2002’s influential, stunning opus Kill The Moonlight. The album opens with that characteristic bluesy Spoon guitar grind on “Don’t Make Me a Target” as leadman Britt Daniel sings about “nuclear dicks with their dialect drawls.” As piano chords creep into the forefront about halfway through, the tune becomes all so familiar yet still incredibly refreshing. The devastating “The Ghost of You Lingers” follows and serves as this album’s “Paper Tiger”, using softly syncopated keyboard lines and eerie, echoing vocals to perfectly capture the mood of sadness that the song is intended to create. This song actually makes me want to cry. The short, poppy “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” switches the mood quickly with its upbeat percussion and the addition of triumphant horns and tambourines, while the dancy “Don’t You Evah” draws comparison to past classics like “Turn My Camera On”, “Was It You” and “Stay Don’t Go”, using a rolling bassline and catchy percussion beneath upbeat guitars. The intense acoustic guitar on “Rhthm & Soul” bears resemblance to Gimme Fiction’s “I Summon You”, although I actually prefer this track to that one. Spoon really serves it up in the album’s second half, beginning with the album’s first single “The Underdog.” We see the band at its most triumphant here, as jangly guitar riffs and horns combine wonderfully to form one of the album’s strongest tracks. Penultimate track “Finer Feelings” keeps things moving with its tambourine percussion, jabbing bassline, hand-clap chorus and a bittersweetly hopeful lyric. “Black Like Me” closes the album with its beautiful melody and the unforgettably honest lyric “I’m in need of someone/ To take care of me tonight.” As the coda turns the regretful melancholy of the tune into a full-blown emotional break down, the album ends on a perfect note. Spoon has certainly found its own unique sense of musical perfection here, balancing bluesy piano, jabbing guitar lines, eerie syncopation and flat out enjoyable rock music all into one fantastic piece of work.

#2: LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver: Could this be the best dance rock album since–well, ever? The Rapture’s Echoes may still hold that honor, but with Sound of Silver, LCD Soundsystem has created its masterpiece. With this album, James Murphy has put together a relentless, high-octane dance record which at the same time feels decidedly musical- in and of itself, quite a combination. It is evident from the opening beats of the show-stopping opener “Get Innocuous” that Murphy has sharpened his art considerably. This opening track immediately tops the best of the last album (which is no small feat), combining catchy synth and heavy percussion beneath subdued, chanting vocals reminiscent of the Talking Heads. Playful songs like “Time to Get Away” and “Watch the Tapes” hold the album together nicely as strong dance tracks that sound more similar to the last album, while others like “North American Scum” take it a step further and provide shockingly intense beats and crescendo choruses all behind Murphy’s trademark spoken vocals. If you aren’t bouncing off the walls while listening to this one, there’s something wrong with you. However, what really will end up separating Sound of Silver from other albums released this decade is the complexity it gains from softer, melodic and poignant tracks such as “Someone Great”, “All My Friends” and “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down.” If Echoes defined perfection of the ill-fated dance-punk genre, this album defines the perfection in dance-pop. Without a single weak track, this record seems likely for a long shelf-life, and its innovation merits it deserving of a special place in music history. In fact, I had it cemented in the #1 slot until the big surprise happened….

#1: Radiohead/ In Rainbows: When the band announced on the first day of October that they would be releasing a brand new album nine days later, and without a label, it isn’t hard to imagine the frenzy that resulted from hard-core fans and the music industry at large, with some speculating that the peculiar release style was somewhat of a cover for the band’s inevitable musical decline. Leave it to Radiohead to shock everyone, in every way possible, once again. With In Rainbows, Radiohead achieves its most beautifully calculated collection of songs to date within an arrangement that flows as though it were a symphony, and the end result is their greatest album since Kid A. Thom Yorke’s voice has never sounded better, and the addition of string elements on many of the tracks flow together brilliantly, demonstrating the band’s reborn focus on the music itself and away from the experimentation that drove some fans away in recent years. Instead of retreating back to the arena-rock guitar that gave the band its beginnings, Radiohead enters new territory on this album, focusing on the pure beauty that they have always been able to create and stringing it together over an entire album.

Opener “15 Step” begins with syncopated drum beats that initially render memories of past experimental tracks, but once the catchy guitar riff comes in, we know we are in for a treat. Songs three through seven are easily the most amazing twenty minutes of consecutive music that Radiohead has recorded since the opening half of OK Computer. The onslaught of fantastic tunes begins with the long-awaited recording of crowd-favorite “Nude”, which has undergone quite a transition from its former condition. Radiohead nails it by recording a version that is hopelessly pretty beyond explanation. We get a full blast of orchestral string notes through the soft, intimately produced track, which carries itself on the strength of some of Yorke’s best vocal work to date. “Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi” follows with its rolling percussion, submerged-underwater guitar rhythms and some more great vocal work by Yorke, eventually building into a classic Radiohead crescendo and one of the album’s greatest surprises. And then there’s “All I Need”, which is probably my favorite song on the whole album. The track opens with a deep string arrangement, heavy bass and a dancy drum rhythm and rolls along with suave persistence. What could have been a simple romantic tune succeeds as one of the band’s greatest songs ever behind glockenspiel notes, deep strings and an eerie simplicity before exploding into a piano-based crescendo supporting Yorke’s soaring vocals the likes of which we haven’t heard from these guys since “Let Down.”

The mysterious “Faust Arp” and its downtempo Beatles-esque acoustic tune integrates some of the album’s best use of string instruments and serves as the album’s perfect glue. The next track is titled “Reckoner” but bears no resemblance whatsoever to the unreleased track of the same name that the band has played on numerous occasions live. And to say that the new “Reckoner” is better is a massive understatement. Yorke sings in falsetto on a high octave throughout the seemingly redundant but impossibly beautiful first half of the song before the tune slows down to a crawl and picks back up again with more strings, tambourines and more great vocal work by Yorke. After that, the band hits us with a jangly, upbeat tune called “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” which outdoes previous post-Bends attempts at guitar-rock such as “Go To Sleep” in terms of intensity and musical quality while still flowing wonderfully with the album’s somber tone. Closer “Videotape” is almost frustrating in its simple beauty and seemingly intentional lack of building into anything that resembles the crescendo that listeners have come to expect from previous closers. Again, the beauty of Radiohead lies within their ability to shock and amaze and always keep the listener guessing as to what they could possibly have up their sleeves next. This album is simply crushing, and I’d be amazed if anyone makes anything better for at least five years.

Restaurant Roundup, 2007

December 9, 2007

So I’ve been eating pretty well lately–probably spending way too much money on food actually, but hey, you only live once right? Here’s a brief rundown of the culinary establishments I tackled in the last quarter of 2007. It was a yummy time. (Prices for two people, after tip, usually with about three or four glasses of wine)
SAN FRANCISCO AREA

Plumpjack Cafe, San Francisco, $150

We were lucky enough to have some connections at this lovely restaurant on San Fransico’s west side, and were treated like kings for an entire evening of wonderful cuisine and wine. The restaurant, as you might have guessed, is affiliated with Plumpjack winery, and as a result offers Plumpjack wines at retail cost on the menu. If that wasn’t enough to get me to give it a try, I don’t know what else would have been. The dining room is small and quaint but very upbeat, with only about fifteen tables in a dining room that can get enjoyably noisy at peak hours while still maintaining its elegance. Wine is showcased throughout the dining room, which reminded me once again why I was really here, although I had heard great things about the food as well. Former sous chef Tyson Greenwood has just taken control of the reigns, and demonstrates his passion for food through carefully designed California cuisine.

Upon my immediate inspection of the wine list, I noticed an interesting choice: The Plumpjack Syrah Napa Valley 2005 for a mind-boggelingly reasonable cost of $45. Given my recent fascination with Napa Valley’s ability to produce great Syrah, especially at higher echelon wineries, I had to give it a try. My first whiff and subsuquent quaffs were immediately pleasing; this was a big, leathery Syrah with dark black fruits, licorice and peppery spice, incredibly powerful for such a youngster but still maintaining its elegance and crying for gamey meat to accompany. As it turned out, our wonderful wait staff had already arranged a complimentary wine pairing with our courses, so we probably didn’t even need a whole bottle, but we tried our best to get through it, at it was too delicious to leave behind! After a glass of champagne along with an amuse bouche of fois gras, my appetizer of yellowfin tuna sashimi arrived with a glass of sake. The immacualte preperation and tender, flavorful high grade tuna grabbed my attention, and the sake pairing was beyond brilliant, perfectly complementing the subtle flavors. I ordered the lamb chops medium rare for my main course and opted to stick with my Syrah. They weren’t disappointing either, loaded with flavor and generously portioned, although I suppose I’ve had more tender lamb before. As expected, the Syrah was a star next to the lamb chops. I was actually stuffed before dessert arrived, although I did partake in the port that was given to us with our dessert. This is a great place to try in San Francisco; they’re serious about their food here at Plumpjack Cafe and maybe even more serious about their wine.

Gary Danko, San Francisco, $300

Perhaps the greatest travesty of the year 2007 was Gary Danko’s demotion from a five star to a four star restaurant in the usually dependable Mobil Travel Guide. After yet another amazing meal here, I had no choice but to bring up this absurd development to our waiter as we toured the impossibly tiny kitchen. I could hear rumblings after I voiced my inquiry; it was immediately obvious that this wasn’t the first time the staff had heard this question, nor was it something that they had been able to push aside, accept or forget about. The answer, as it turns out, lies within both the design of the restaurant (the upbeat, modern atmosphere boasts a great cocktail bar in the main dining room, which apparently is a big no-no now for Mobil) and the leniency of the menu (Danko offers a three-course, four-course and five course prix fixe but allows diners to mix and match their courses. That is, if you want five meat courses and no appetizers, fish courses or dessert, your wish is their command, although be warned–the portions here are huge, which is apparently another big negative for the powers that be). Ironically, these purported negatives happen to be two of the biggest factors that continue to make Gary Danko my favorite all-around dining experience in the United States.

As I admitted to our waiter after asking my somewhat taboo question, this was easily the best meal we’d ever had at Gary Danko, and we didn’t think that was possible after our first two visits. Mobil be damned, I was actually shocked by how well this place is consistently able to hold itself on such a higher level from purely a cuisine aspect than virtually every dining establishment in the county besides maybe French Laundry and Charlie Trotter’s. I began as I always do with the lobster and stone crab risotto, a rich, flavorful dish that is always hard to top, and this time was no exception. The al dente rice preperation and a nice dash of saltiness gives the risotto here such an authentic consistency and freshness (after all, you’re in San Francisco, so the ocean isn’t far). Yellowtail tuna provided a nice subtle intermission before moving on for more lobster, a generous portion of the immaculate steamed seafood dish that approached sheer perection. No meal at Danko is complete without game of some sort, so I ordered the lamb loin and the Morrocan-spiced squab. My delicious Schild Barossa Valley Shiraz came to life with the impressively prepared lamb, which benefited from a red wine reduction sauce and mint. The star of the whole meal, however, was the squab, a portion so large that it may very well have been the entire bird. It was butterflied, sliced and stuffed with couscous, all under an intensely flavorful Morrocan spice that was also complimented nicely by my Shiraz. I was completely blown away by this dish, and again, by this amazing restaurant that deserves even more credit than it already gets.

Redd, Yountville, $150

Chef Richard Reddington brought his expertise to an area of Napa Valley that is already well-established on the culinary map thanks to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. For those that want a serious meal on the same street without a $200 per person prix fixe menu or a two-month advance reservation, Redd is an excellent choice. The modern, almost trendy decor is vastly different than the aforementioned French Laundry, and the cuisine leans more toward Californian than French. We ate here after a long day of tasting thanks to the folks at Darioush who were able to get us a reservation at the last minute despite our having lost hope of eating here. In any event, pardon me if my memory is a bit blurry as a result.

Our waiter was clearly very professional and experienced, although he made a crucial error right off the bat. We had ordered a risotto for the table to split as a first course and then all ordered second and third courses, and were surprised to receive our second courses immediately without any mention of the risotto. I didn’t have the heart to bring it up some reason until later into the delicious meal, and when I did our waiter was clearly horrified. He brought out a complimentary risotto quickly, although by that point I had moved on to my other courses for the most part. I ordered the tuna tartare for my second course, and I have to say that I was shocked by the dense flavors in the dish. The tuna was tender, fresh and served at a perfect temperature in somewhat of a salad format, with lime juice providing great balance and chunks of pear adding a pleasant crunchiness to the superb dish. For my entree, I decided to order the New York Steak with shortribs, which is something I don’t order very often but always enjoy. The entire dish essentially melted in my mouth, as the New York Steak was cooked to medium rare perfection as it sat in a flavorful red wine sauce, and the shortribs didn’t even require a knife and were quite filling. The meal was topped off by a tour of the kitchen and some pleasant cuisine-related commentary from our waiter, who had recovered from his previous blunder. I have to say that I was surprised by the food here overall and quite enjoyed my dining experience at Redd.

CHICAGO

Alinea, $450

You’ll be hard-pressed to ever find a restaurant on planet Earth that puts more care, attention and precision into the sheer presentation and aromatic elements of its food. Young chef Grant Achatz is at the forefront of the culinary movement dubbed “molecular gastronomy” by in-the-know foodies, and despite his current and tragic struggle with tongue cancer, he has created a restaurant that is not only highly original and innovative, but one that has also received critical acclaim with unprecedented quickness (the restaurant was given the Mobil Five Star rating in only its first year, and was meanwhile rated the #1 restaurant in the United States by Gourmet Magazine). My wife and I decided that we had to check it out, and that our anniversary was the perfect occasion. I should preface by saying that this place does not mess around at all. When you call for a reservation, they ask you what you would like to eat. What they mean by that is to ask whether you would like a 12-course or 24-course tasting menu. Since we weren’t able to get a reservation before 9:30 on a Friday night, we opted for the 12-course.

Alinea is certainly the epidomy of five star service from the instant the hidden doors open into the reception area, which sits in front of the exposed, grossly oversized and almost showy kitchen space that couldn’t look any more immaculate. We originally had wanted to sit upstairs in the busier dining area, but opted instead for a large table in the more private dining room to the left of the hostess stand. The food is so carefully prepared here that it almost seems a shame to eat it; this restaurant views its cuisine as so much more than simply food, but rather as a work of art. The courses are tiny from the perspective of being filling, but when you’re planning to eat twelve of them you aren’t exactly looking for plates full of food. Our first course was a small piece of duck atop butternut squash, banana and thai flavors that melted in our mouths with a burst of flavor. We ordered the house champagne cocktail which went marvelously with our next course, slices of brook trout above juicy watermelon and coriander. Fish and watermelon, who’d have imagined how good that would taste? And that was only the beginning.

One of the most surprisingly flavorful dishes was an complex puree of navy beans with twelve garnishes served on a pillow (yes, a pillow) that exhumed aromas of nutmeg onto the dish. This was my wife’s favorite course and probably about the point that we realized that we’d never seen anything this creative before. My favorite course followed, as we were served a giant sea scallop above parsnip, oranges and hyacinth flavors that were also steaming their vapors into the dish, which was simply beyond words. A seemingly simple sip of apple cider came out after that, combining notes of walnut milk, cinnamon and vegetables into the stunning concoction. Tender sweetbreads arrived shortly after, followed by a single piece of kuroge wahyu beef buried under piles of cedar braches that spewed their glorious aromas above the flavorful piece of beef. Achatz is surely a chef that understands the simplest principle of taste, which is that our senses taste what they smell. If you don’t believe that, try plugging your nose and telling the difference between chocolate and strawberry ice cream.

The famous hot potato course followed, which involves a contraption that suspends a potato over a dish of butter and black truffle cream. Pull the contraption, and the potato falls into the garnishes- -such fun! The proverbial lamb course was anything but, cooked to perfection and far from ordinary. This was also one of the largest courses. Four light dessert courses closed the meal, including a transparency of raspberry in rose petals and yogurt, a guava dish, a chocolate passion fruit course with elements of lemongrass and soy. The final dessert course was a pumpkin fried ice cream baked in brown sugar and served above burning autumn leaves, which was a fitting end to a meal that consistently aims (and succeeds) to shock and amaze. For some, the presentations are a bit over the top, but one certainly doesn’t feel too badly about dropping a half a grand on dinner when such great care is put into the quality, orginality and presentation of the food as well as the exceptional service. It’s probably not a dinner you want to make a habit out of, but it can’t be beat for a special occasion meal that delves deep into the art of cuisine– an art that is rarely demonstrated with such zest anywhere in the world.

Crofton on Wells, $200

I’ve been wanting to try this small, cozy restaurant for a long time, and decided to give it a try for my birthday dinner. Chef Suzy Crofton has been here for ten years now on nearly a daily basis, and has earned the Mobil Four Star rating for half of that time period. The dining room is inviting and unpretentious as four-star dining rooms go, composed of small tables covered in white tablecloth and dark greenery serving as the main decor. The menu is also generously priced for a restaurant of such high quality, featuring diverse a la carte selections broken into three separate course divisions. The service is friendly, down-to-earth and honest. When struggling with course decisions in fine dining establishments, I almost always turn to my server, and she did not hesitate to make difficult decisions for me with conviction. We ordered the Chappellet Mountain Cuvee Napa Valley 2004, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which went well with most of our courses.

I started with the ravioli stuffed with confit of gunthrop farm rabbit and rutabaga cheese sitting above watermelon radish in a guinness reduction. The dish was simply packed with well-concentrated flavor within the soft, melt-in-your mouth ravioli pasta. The sauces complemented the flavors well, and I enjoyed the extra rabbit meat that sat beneath the ravioli. This was quite a way to start the meal. For my second course, I ordered the lobster risotto, which came out in small dish in a thick mass about the size of a large ice cream scoop. This was plenty large for a single serving, as the risotto was incredibly rich and lemony with large chunks of tender lobster meat spread generously throughout. The dish was delicious, although I tried to avoid drinking very much of the wine with this particular course as the acidic lemon flavors didn’t make for a very good match with the deep, dusty black fruit and chocolate flavors of the Mountain Cuvee. I instead saved more of the wine to match with my main course, which was a shockingly large pile of rare to medium rare venison meat. This amazing dish was served above arrugula with a delicious blueberry jam which added unexpected compliments to the smoky, gamey venison. The meat was perfectly cooked, tender and flavorful without seeming blood-rare, and retaining a memorable smoky characteristic that finished with a strong peppery element.

As delicious as the venison was, I am still in disbelief as to how large the portion size was for the cost. Aside from putting together an amazingly diverse menu in an adorable little dining room well off the beaten path in Chicago’s western side of River North, Suzy Crofton gets major points for not taking it too hard on diner’s wallets, while at the same time not sacrificing any effort or imagination in her cuisine preparations. This is the type of four-star establishment that serves well for special occasions, but doesn’t have to be designated strictly to that criteria. I hope to return soon, although it’ll take a pretty convincing argument to talk me out of ordering the exact same three courses again.

LAS VEGAS

Bradley Ogden, $225

Las Vegas is shockingly making a push to stake its claim as the top dining city in America. With two five-star restaurants and five four-star restaurants in the 2007 edition of the Mobil Travel Guide, only New York, Chicago and San Francisco (in that order) appear stronger by that measure, and Vegas is adding new fine dining establishments more rapidly than any of those cities are. One of those establishments is Bradley Ogden, the first restaurant by the experienced chef of the same name from outside his home state of California. The food is carefully prepared, farm-raised American and the setting is a lively, modern dining room located inside of the casino at Caesar’s Palace. This might be a turn-off to some, but the restaurant really has a happening feel to it, and the tables looking out into the casino add to the excitement. I was lucky enough to get one of these, which I found quite enjoyable. Besides, I remember the first five-star dinner of my life at Renoir (now closed, sadly) in the Mirage, which was also located in the casino, and that certainly didn’t subtract any elegance from that glorious place.

I had read reviews of this restaurant that complained about the portion size being too small. This is of course a common complaint by novice diners who aren’t accustomed to fine dining restaurants, but I ran across the complaint enough as I was researching the restaurant that I had to take it under advisement. My wife and I had initially decided to simply order two courses each since we were heading to a show shortly after dinner and really just wanted to get a feel for the place, and began filling up on the wonderful bread offered here in hopes to avoid leaving hungry. As we explored the menu, we decided on the same two courses (this never happens to us). I told our waiter that we hated to order the same thing but were both adamant at trying the blue cheese souffle dish and pork tenderloin. He accommodated us marvelously by suggesting that we simply pick two more dishes, and that he would happily split the four choices evenly between us so that we could taste more variety of the cuisine, essentially creating for us our own four-course tasting menu for half the cost. My wife and I agreed that this was a brilliant suggestion, and were surprised we’d never encountered this option at any of our many previous fine dining experiences.

As for the food, it was wonderful, and the portions weren’t small at all even though they were presumably split down the middle so that we could share them. We started with the ahi tuna, which set a nice tone for the meal with its melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. Then came the blue cheese souffle, which was unlike anything that either of us had ever tasted. The small but rich souffle of blue cheese sat in a salad of walnuts and blue cheese crumbles. The fluffy souffle itself was amazing in its consistency of both texture and flavor, and got major style points in the originality department from both of us (apparently Ogden is famous for his blue cheese concoctions, and I’m glad I’d read that before I dined here because I can’t imagine ordering something like this otherwise!) We selected the black cod for our fish course, and it really hit the spot as well, sitting atop oyster mushrooms, tortellini and an apple foam. The mushroom flavors perfectly complemented the lightly crispy cod, which was perfectly moist and impressively flavorful for what could have been an ordinary fish dish. At this point we were surprised by how full we were, but braced ourselves for the pork tenderloin. Again, the concentration of different flavor elements was impressive. The pork itself was tender and lightly grilled on the outside skin which provided a pleasant crunch, while the gnocchi and pork belly accompaniments added a lot of character to this classic American dish. Besides being amazed by the overall quality of the place and surprised at being absolutely stuffed, we were impressed by the impeccable service and perfect timing of the course delivery.

WINE OF THE MONTH- NOVEMBER

December 6, 2007

I’m always looking for a great Italian red on Sunday nights to go with my pasta and homemade tomato sauce, but great tasting, widely available, affordable Chiantis are hard to come by these days. My wine of the month choice for November was recently chosen as one of the Top 100 Wines of the year by Wine Spectator, has widespread availabilty and shows potential to improve with age.

MARCHESI DE FRESCOBALDI CHIANTI RUFINA CASTELLO DI NIPOZZANO RISERVA 2004, 90 Points, $20, 131,000 Cases Made

A classic chianti-style, with lifted fruit aromas of blackberry and black cherry with notes of herbs and vanilla. Well-balanced, fruity body of cherry stone, blackberry and herbs with undertones of minerality and light chocolate in the finish. Lots of fruit in the length, fine tannins add balance.

College Football Recap- Final

December 4, 2007

I’ll keep this short and to the point, because there aren’t too many words that can express the fitting ending to the craziest college football season in history that this past weekend provided. How, and I mean HOW, can West Virginia lose at home to a very below average Pittsburgh team with a trip to the national title on the line? We’ve seen some crazy things this season, but that might be the biggest shocker of them all! Sure, it doesn’t provide the same initial shock that Appalachian State over Michigan did or even that Stanford over USC did, but think about how much more was on the line in this one. And the Mountaineers choked big time, scoring only a single touchdown behind a mind-boggeling 11 yards rushing from star tailback Steve Slaton. Heisman candidate quarterback Pat White’s injury in the second quarter certainly didn’t help things, but come on. Head coach Rich Rodriguez described it best, calling it simply a “complete nightmare.”

Missouri’s loss to Oklahoma with the title on the line isn’t nearly as surprising, although it was certainly an eye-opener to see how badly they were beaten after playing the Sooners so closely in their earlier loss this season. However, it’s really a shame that the Orange Bowl decided to pass on the Tigers and invite instead a Kansas team that Missouri beat two weeks ago. Missouri shouldn’t have been penalized for having to play the best team in the Big 12 twice and losing both times (note that Kansas didn’t have to play Oklahoma even a single time, and has no wins over teams even receiving votes in either poll). Right now, Virginia Tech minus three points in that game looks like one of the best bets of the entire bowl season.

In the end, it truly seemed as though no one wanted to play for the national title, as the Ohio State Buckeyes were able to scoot into the #1 spot when it was all over despite their incredibly soft schedule and while sitting on their couch Saturday afternoon. It seems only fair then that the most deserving two-loss team leapfrogged a few spots into the #2 spot. LSU’s two losses this season both came in triple overtime. Ten years ago, they’d be 11-0-2 and the undisputed #1 team in the land. After the schedule they’ve played and the teams they’ve beaten, I don’t see a resounding argument for any other two-loss team getting the nod ahead of LSU, and regardless of what seemed to play out as a doomsday scenario for the entire BCS arrangement, I have to say that at least they got it right this time, and I feel pretty certain that the right team will win the title this year.

FINAL TOP 50 OF THE MATTY:

  1. Ohio State (11-1)
  2. LSU (11-2)
  3. Oklahoma (11-2)
  4. Virginia Tech (11-2)
  5. USC (10-2)
  6. Georgia (10-2)
  7. Missouri (11-2)
  8. Kansas (11-1)
  9. West Virginia (10-2)
  10. Hawaii (12-0)
  11. Florida (9-3)
  12. Arizona State (10-2)
  13. Illinois (9-3)
  14. Boston College (10-3)
  15. Tennessee (9-4)
  16. South Florida (9-3)
  17. Auburn (8-4)
  18. Texas (9-3)
  19. Wisconsin (9-3)
  20. Cincinnati (9-3)
  21. Arkansas (8-4)
  22. Clemson (9-3)
  23. BYU (10-2)
  24. Michigan (8-4)
  25. Virginia (9-3)
  26. Boise State (10-2)
  27. Air Force (9-3)
  28. Kentucky (7-5)
  29. Connecticut (9-3)
  30. Oregon State (8-4)
  31. Oregon (8-4)
  32. Central Florida (10-3)
  33. Texas Tech (8-4)
  34. Georgia Tech (7-5)
  35. Penn State (8-4)
  36. Florida State (7-5)
  37. Michigan State (7-5)
  38. Mississippi State (7-5)
  39. Wake Forest (8-4)
  40. Alabama (6-6)
  41. South Carolina (6-6)
  42. Rutgers (7-5)
  43. Tulsa (9-4)
  44. Troy (8-4)
  45. Indiana (7-5)
  46. Houston (8-4)
  47. Oklahoma State (6-6)
  48. Texas A & M (7-5)
  49. Utah (8-4)
  50. California (6-6)

HEISMAN BALLOT OF THE MATTY:

  1. Tim Tebow, Florida
  2. Darren McFadden, Arkansas
  3. Chase Daniel, Missouri
  4. Colt Brennan, Hawaii
  5. Dennis Dixon, Oregon

BEST SURPRISE STORY: Kansas. Even though they didn’t play anyone and don’t deserve to be in the BCS, no one expected the Jayhawks to be 11-1. This was a program building season.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: California. What happened to the Golden Bears? After a gutsy win on the road against Oregon to move to 5-0, Cal looked to be in solid position to make a run at the national title. Then they lost six of their next seven game, including some real shockers against Washington and Stanford. I’ll be trying to figure this one out for a long time.