These days there’s certainly no shortage of restaurants with spectacular food, though it’s not as common to find a great selection of beer and wines to go with said cuisine. More often than not restaurants opt to work with large wine/liquor companies, giving them most of their wine list to move big-quota items in exchange for deep discounts on liquor and maybe even free menu print outs. It’s often why you find the same beer and wines in most restaurants you frequent.
This is something that is understandable for most places, from the big scale operations to small mom and pop restaurants. In the case of large chain restaurants or restaurant groups, they’ve got the space and the budget to move big items from the distributors, and having menus printed out (among other free goodies given to the owners) is a nice “trade.” In the case of small restaurants, a chef/owner may not have the money to hire a wine/beverage director, or lack a good wine palate, so for them, the less work on their plate, the better.
As you might have guessed, I’m very passionate about pairing great wines with great food. It pains me to continue to find the same 10-20 wines on the list of most every place I eat at. That said, there are some places that I feel stand out from their peers. Below are a few people/restaurants that have a place in my heart. As in our store – and yes I’m tooting my own horn here - these folks have sought to work with many distributors, small and large, to create a diverse selection that will make your dining experience from good to memorable. And, these folks don’t just possess great wine knowledge, they’re very cool and friendly.
Sandy Block/Park Plaza, Legal Seafoods
I first met Sandy back at Horizon’s headquarters for a Jadot seminar. The first thing I remember about Sandy was his down-to-earth nature. Over the years I’ve bumped into him several times at trade tastings and events and it’s always been a pleasure chatting wine with him. Aside from being one of only 279 people worldwide to hold the prestigious Master of Wine title, he is the beverage director for Legal Seafoods. Specifically, it is Sandy’s headquarters – the Park Plaza location – that I’m singling out. Magnificent wine dinners aside, his wine list at this location has tons of hidden gems like very well aged Muscadets, white Burgundies of all stripes and styles, and quite the interesting and eclectic sparkling wine selection. He’s really focused on the Loire Valley of France, which is a perfect fit for Legal’s fish items. In fact, he’s got a wine dinner coming up, featuring the wines of the Loire on July 18th, which I highly recommend you attend.
James Nicas/The Castle, Leicester, MA
The Nicas family has owned and operated The Castle since the 1950s. Driving past this magnificent “castle” on Route 9, just leaving Worcester, the first thing that comes to mind is Medieval Times or some strange, vacation-style theme park. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cuisine-wise, the food is traditional French cuisine (escargot, Chateaubriand) complete with the dessert carts that get wheeled out to you at the end of the meal. This is the kind of place that was “farm to table” before it became a trendy phrase to use.
Wine-wise this place is where it’s at with James Nicas offering a wine list that will make any fan of aged Bordeaux, Rhone, Burgundy and California Cabernets drool like Pavlov’s dogs when that menu unfolds in front of you. This place is where I had many of my wine epiphanies; 1994 Musar, 1981 Nino Negri Sfursat, 1985 Palmer Margaux, 1985 Chapoutier Hermitage ‘Sizeranne’ to name a few. The Nicas family has been stockpiling wines in their cellar for decades, but the best thing about this place is that these wines are a fraction of what they’d cost in Boston or any other major city. Even their wine tastings are crazy affordable. I remember attending a Loire Valley lineup, at least 15 wines to try, for $30. A 1993 La Doucette Pouilly Fume, and 2002 Menetou Salon Blanc, 1996 Sancerre Rouge were just a few of a 15+ wine lineup. Another tasting featured so-called “off” vintages: 1998 Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa and the 1981 and 1983 Bordeauxs. Again, I’m pretty sure the tasting prices for at least 15 wines were under $50. You’ll also find some aged bottling of Chartreuse and Vintage Porto that will make you… well, I can’t say here.
Still, this wouldn’t as so cool without James himself. I’d probably combine the Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes book and all other material written in the past 40 years into this man’s brain. On top of that, he’s the sweetest guy you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting. Snobbishness and pretention are two words you’d never associate with James. This is a must visit for any retailer, sommelier or fans of wine. It takes a bit of a drive to get there but it’s definitely worth it! http://www.castlerestaurant.com/about.html
Theresa Paopao and Lauren Friel/Oleana Restaurant
I’d like to think that at this point everyone knows Oleana Restaurant in Cambridge. Since 2001, Ana Sortun’s Eastern Mediterranean/Turkish restaurant has grown into what is the coolest (and tastiest) place on the east coast, IMHO anyways. I recall dining there the first time years ago and was not only blown away by the food on my plate but the wines that were carefully chosen by the sommelier, at that time, the famous Theresa Paopao. Rumor is Theresa’s back in the Boston area helping out at various restaurants before she heads to NYC to set up a second Toro location. People still come in and ask where to go for great food and wine, and Oleana is always the first name out of my mouth. Lauren Friel is the current sommelier at Oleana and she’s taken the torch from Theresa and is rocking one of the best wine lists in the city. I love the way the wine list is organized. The sub-headings are a playful and educational way of letting you know the style of wine and what type of foods they will go with. Of course, the staff is insanely educated too, so even if Lauren’s not there, you’re in good hands.
Lauren and Theresa are no strangers to taking chances and putting things on the list that match the cuisine, no matter the origin of the wine. Lots of Greek and Lebanese wines can be found on the list, and now that summer’s in full swing, the Summer of Riesling is put out front and center. Lauren also started a natural wine night on Mondays, I believe. http://oleanarestaurant.com/