September 25, 2011

Perfect provenance

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It's dad's birthday again, and for the second year in a row, we are back at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon.  For his 70th last year, I scrounged up the only bottle of 1940 I had left at the time, which really didn't measure up in terms of quality.  This year, however, I managed to secure a little box of treasure for him...

As I sat through the painfully slow Château Latour auction at Christie's in May, I was lucky enough to pick up a case of 3 bottles of ex-château stock for dad.  I cracked open the wooden case last month, and brought one of the pristine bottles back to Taipei to rest.  This bottle had never left the château's cellars since being bottled in the early 40's, until they were shipped to Hong Kong in April this year.  Tonight I would see what perfect provenance tastes like.

This was not my first experience with the 1940 Latour.  Back in 2000 I had managed to secure a bottle of this wine from a London broker, and arranged to fly it from London to Taipei in time for dad's 60th.  After spending some 7 hours on the day of dad's birthday - going through the steps of applying for a one-off wine import licence with the help of dad's secretary, and going to the cargo terminal at the airport to pick up the goods from Fedex - I finally held the box of wines in my arms.

On the way back from the cargo terminal, some 3 hours before dinner, I discovered to my absolute horror that the wines inside the box were not mine.  After all the trials and tribulations I had just gone through, the box I picked up belonged to some guy in Tokyo.  Apparently the London broker had screwed up the labeling on two boxes, and dad's wine had been sent to Tokyo by mistake.  It was obvious that we wouldn't be drinking the 1940 for dad's 60th birthday...

It was a special occasion and I had booked Paris 1930 for the first time.  Fortunately the restaurant had a fantastic wine list, and I ended up buying a bottle of 1961 Lynch-Bages off the restaurant list to celebrate.

The actual bottle of 1940 Latour had to wait for the following year, and was opened on dad's 61st birthday. I had zero expectations for the wine - coming from a terrible WWII vintage - and the label was in tatters. It was actually drinkable and hadn't turned to vinegar. I was happy.

Fast forward 10 years, and I've got another bottle of the same wine with perfect provenance. I had delivered it to L'Atelier on Monday, and Benoit probably saw it on Wednesday when he came back to work. It had been resting in a decanting "basket" for the last few days, and brought out to our table after we arrived. I could see Benoit carefully removing the new tissue wrapped around the bottle, and carefully extracting the cork that had been in place for nearly 70 years...  Come to think of it, I totally forgot to check the level of this bottle, but it didn't really matter.  The provenance and condition wasn't going to get any better...

Benoit decided not to decant the wine, and as he didn't want to shake the bottle too much by pouring too many times, he gave the three of us very big pours into the Riedel Sommelier Bordeaux Grand Cru glasses.  I think he probably poured 85% of the bottle into the three glasses in one go.  Normally I would have kicked and screamed, but in this case I fully understood the rationale behind this.

The wine was perfect.  I don't mean that it would merit a perfect score on any wine critic's scale, but it drank beautifully and I couldn't have asked for a better bottle.  From the moment I took the first whiff, I could tell this was a much, much better bottle compared to the one 10 years ago.  A beautiful nose of smoke and lead pencil came up from the glass to greet me.  The acidity was still a little high and the body still a little thin at the beginning.  But I was already very happy.

With time and further aeration, sweet and grassy notes came out as the wine started to unwind and was no longer tightly closed.  After an hour, the nose was much more open, the sweet fruit a lot more apparent, and even showed a little black pepper.  Benoit was right to gave us all really big pours and let the glasses act as decanters.

When we were done with the first pour, we got fresh glasses and Benoit carefully poured out the remaining wine - with a little bit of sediment - into them.  The bulk of the sediment was left in the bottle.  This last pour, too, was very enjoyable as it had even more body.

Dad was very happy, and kept taking sips from his glass throughout dinner.  I knew that he secretly would have preferred that I spend the same amount of money on a top-of-the-line, bling-bling Japanese driver, which he could show to his friends on the golf course.  But this, I think, is more meaningful.  This is a memory that the three of us could share together.  As Benoit said, this is a piece of history - a wine from a poor, neglected vintage that was made mostly by women as the men were off fighting the war.  The wine had spent over 70 years lying in the cellars of Château Latour, and now its journey has come to an end as it offers itself up for our enjoyment.

At this point I shall stop waxing lyrical about this bottle, and get down to the food.  Once again I decided not to partake in a "menu" and ordered à la carte instead.

The amuse bouche had bonito (鰹) and konbu (昆布) stock at the bottom, with a layer of mushroom-infused steamed egg in the middle, topped with a layer of hairy gourd (節瓜) purée.  A thin slice of king oyster mushroom (杏鮑菇) was used as garnish.  Not bad at all.

L'huitre : de Marennes d'Oléron «Spéciale Gillardeau» - my favorite oyster in the whole wide world... How could I say no?  I added a little vinegared red onions on top.

Le black cod : mariné au saké et mirin, sauce au miso - curiously, I don't remember ever having this signature dish in all these years... Tonight this was delicious as I had expected.  So soft and tender... and the miso (味噌)/mirin (味醂) combination made for a very sweet flavor profile.

The eggplant on the side was garnished with bonito flakes.

Le canard: marinée et rôtie en brochette avec petit champignon, et tomate au lard - probably should have known better and stayed away from this.  It's basically a kebab - just looks prettier.  I knew I was in trouble the second my knife tried to go through one of the chunks of duck breast... there were too many "veins" and the meat was a little too well-done.  I had a hard time cutting, and I didn't exactly use a dull knife...  Not enjoyable at all, except for the little pile of mash on the side and the sprinkle of black truffle "dust"...

Le veau: la langue et la joue en roulade de tete croustillante, sauce ravigote - I can never resist the chance to have some tongue, would scream for head cheese, and cheeks are almost just as tempting, so I was a goner the second I saw this on the menu...  This was soooo awesome!  Little chunks of melt-in-your-mouth tongue and cheek were wrapped in coils of collagen from the head.  The whole thing is then browned for a little crispiness.  Mom was already stuffed at this point, but I offered her little chunks and told her that collagen is good for her... Seasoning was actually on the heavy side, although both the tomato salsa and the chervil both helped to reduce the impact on salt on the palate.

A little opéra for dad's birthday.  We were too full and took it home.

The pre-dessert was almond sorbet, almond foam with kirsch gelée, marinated cherries and fresh cherries.  I liked the use of three different variations of cherries.  Very refreshing.

La rose: en pop royal avec une compoté de pêche, granité a la rose et coulis d'Alchermes - interesting dessert, one that I obviously had no clue how to eat... My ineptitude forced the waiter to take it back from me so he could get it "fixed"... Upon his return I was given clear instructions on how I was to properly consume it.  First I was to use the straw - made of sugar - to suck up the Asti at the bottom of the glass.  Only then should I break the white chocolate cover as well as the straw and mix them in with the rest of the dessert.  The combination of peach and rose was pretty nice and fragrant.

Macarons citron - FAIL.  I don't know why, but once in a while the macarons here would be so moist that they're borderline soggy.  I like my macarons moist, but tonight they were like sponge cake sandwiches with filling.    WTF?!

A very, very wonderful evening.  The food was very good for the most part, and for the first time mom was happy with all the dishes at a L'Atelier and finally feeling the Robuchon magic.  The wine was perfect, and the service was excellent.  Can't ask for much more for an occasion like this...

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