Wine

826 620 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

A Virtual Dinner: Viva Cuba!

I have always wanted to go to Cuba: the music, the food, the art, not to mention the very mysterious tradition of Santeria that involves spirits and gods that were brought to the island by the Africans on their way to being slaves on the grand plantations of the American south.

I always thought it would have been very interesting to go when Fidel Castro was still alive. But unfortunately, I couldn’t.

Although, I met Fidel once: it was at CBS News in the early 2000’s. It was September and he was in town to give a speech at the UN General Assembly. So, he popped in, as one does, to say hello to Dan Rather who had interviewed him on many an occasion.

The whole building was on tenterhooks.

Dan went down to the lobby to meet him and took him for a little tour around the building at 524 West 57th Street that used to be a dairy a very long time ago.

I stood in a corner at the Evening News Desk and waited for him to appear: a man who had been such a major player in the history of the 20th century.

And then he came through the doors. Fidel Castro, who I had imagined would come in his camouflage guerilla fatigues, his combat boots and cap, chewing a cigar, walked onto the anchor desk, dressed in a grey, bespoke double-breasted suit, white shirt and a dark red tie. His beard was perfectly combed and his grey hair slicked back. I later found out the suit, shirt and tie were all Valentino.

I smiled politely when I was introduced, and it was a moment I won’t soon forget. Think what you may of Fidel and his history in Cuba, the man was charming and charismatic, one felt his presence even when he had left.

My other favourite Cuban is a musician: not Tito Puente or Celia Cruz or even Gloria Estefan. It’s Bebo Valdés, a superb pianist who was a major influence on the Cuban music scene all the way until 2013 when he died at the age of 94. A founder of Latin jazz and one who pioneered the incorporation of Afro-Cuban rhythms into dance music, Bebo was a genius.

Living in New York, I’ve always kept an eye out for real Cuban food. Victor’s on 52nd Street came close, but it wasn’t like some of the dishes I sampled during a brief stint in Miami in 2010.

I recently talked to a colleague of mine in the wine world, a Cuban, and we began talking about Cuban food and what wines would be interesting to pair with it.

At the end of the chat, he had handed over his mother’s receipe for pork chops, rice and beans and the girls and I made it for our virtual dinner party on Friday.

Mint, lime, cumin and garlic were the predominant flavours: a perfect mix of all the cultures that have come through the island in the past 500 years: Spanish, French, English, Asian, African…

Wine-wise, I decided on an all-natural cabernet franc from the Loire, K had a rose from the Provence and L a sauvignon blanc from South Africa.

Here’s the recipe:

Serves 2:

Ingredients:

Olive oil

4 thinly sliced pork chops

4 limes

2 teaspoons ginger powder

2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon paprika

2 teaspoons cumin powder

Salt & pepper to taste

1 cup flour

14 cloves chopped garlic

1 cup rice (Basmati is a good option)

2 cups cupped red onion

2 red or green Serrano chillies

2 cans Goya red or black beans

0.5 cup chopped fresh mint or cilantro

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

Method:

  • Pork chops:

Marinate chops in marinade of lime juice, salt and spices and set aside.

  • Beans:
    Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil, enough to coat the pot. When hot, 1 cup of the red onion. Stir. When soft, add about 8 cloves of garlic. Stir. When soft, add chopped chilies. Stir. Add beans. Cover and cook on a slow fire
  • Rice:

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Brown 6 cloves of garlic. Add 1 cup of rice, stirring frequently, coating the rice with the oil and garlic. When the grains start to look toasty, add salt to taste. Cover, lower the fire and let cook. When the rice is al dente, drain the excess water in a colander. (You’ll be getting rid of the excess carbs this way). Return to the pot. Cover and let the rice finish cooking in its own steam
Whilst the rice is cooking, put the cup of flour in a shallow bowl. Season with salt and half a teaspoon of cumin.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan. Whilst oil is heating, take chops out of marinade and coat in flour. When oil is hot, add chops. Cook 3 – 4 minutes per side. Drizzle with honey and keep aside.

In the same pan, add remaining chopped red onion and 2 cloves garlic. When soft, add 2 tablespoons good balsamic vinegar and some fresh mint. If too dry, add water. Let cook a few minutes. Top off the chops with the mixture.

Serve with rice and beans.

 

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Life’s Simple Pleasures

Until a few short weeks ago, I was involved in the opening of a new restaurant in New York City.

I was the wine director responsible for a 45-page wine list that boasted 750 references and over 3500 bottles in the cellar, plus a team of sommeliers.

It was the toughest reservation in town, people clamouring to get in, begging for a reservation to dine and be seen at such a hot spot.

Work on the restaurant began months before, but once it actually opened, my life was no longer my own: I was working seven days a week, often putting in fifteen-hour days. I was so busy that I barely saw my own dog: on one of my rare days off, I actually had to call his walker to find out what he ate because I had run out of his food. Needless to say, friends fell by the wayside, collateral damage for an over-achiever that I seem to have been all my life. Clawing one’s way up a ladder, no matter which industry you’re in, does not leave much room for balance that includes friendship, compassion or empathy.

But now, here I am: unemployed and with no idea of what role I’ll play when life goes back to normal. What will the restaurant world look like when the world at large reopens? Will I have a role in that world? And more importantly, do I even want to stay in it?

Nowadays, hours merge, days and nights flow into each other, thoughts ramble along with no compass…because there is none.

The only thing I know is that we have to navigate forward, because there is no other way.

I sat at the foot of a tree today in Central Park with Baxter, my faithful wheaten terrier, rolling around on the green grass a few feet away, I laughed…really laughed, perhaps the first time in months. Seeing him so happy, made me happy. I turned my face up to the sun and breathed deeply, taking in the Vitamin D and…enjoying the pleasure of being outdoors with my dog: no timetable, no schedule, no appointments…nothing, just the whole afternoon ahead of me. It was bliss.

Such a simple pleasure. I had forgotten what they were like.

As we continued our walk around the bridle path, with me masked and gloved and judiciously walking from one side to the other keeping myself within a 6 foot bubble, I began to think about simple pleasures. What are they?

Simple pleasures are experiences that are exactly as described: simple. They are everyday experiences that don’t take forever to plan or schedule, but mainly, they balance our life, allow the prism to shift from our mad, daily schedules to certain things that fill our souls and make us whole again.

Simple pleasures are highly personal: what is a simple pleasure for me may not be one for you.

Many years ago, I worked as a personal assistant to a very rich Park Avenue matron. She claimed that going shopping every day, buying the same dress in three sizes, two pairs of the same shoes and spending on average $30,000 a day on such things was a ‘simple pleasure.’

Mine, on the other hand, include: waking up to a beautiful day and knowing I don’t have a schedule to follow; staring at the ocean listening to its ebb and flow; lying on the grass staring up at the sky; a glass of wine at sunset; catching up with a friend on a lazy summer afternoon over a lunch of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and avocado; cooking Sunday lunch for friends…my list is not one that costs a lot of money, all it requires is time…which in my case has been in very short supply, until now.

I’ve been reading a lot of accounts of people who lived through the Spanish flu pandemic just over a hundred years ago. It reads like history repeating itself, except in one, very important way. Technology.

In our enforced solitude, technology has allowed us to still be with one another. We have the luxury of virtual cocktails, virtual dinner parties, virtual gyms…not to mention Netflix and Amazon Prime. And we can get food and groceries delivered.

So whilst we all think we are alone, and a lot of us are, I can Facetime with friends, text them, call them and I know they’re there.

One of the things I hope drifts into the post-corona world is that we remember our friends and those we love and make time every day for the simple pleasures of life, no matter what they are for you.

Onward.

 

 

 

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A Virtual Dinner Party: Lamb Ragù

About a quarter of a century ago, I went to Sardegna…the one and only time I’ve visited this island in the Mediterranean, but one that I swore I wanted to go back to…and I will.

One summer, a few years after we both graduated, my best friend from college, a Roman girl told me she had rented a small cottage on the West Coast of Sardegna.

“It’s the un-chic side of Sardegna,” she said. “Not the Costa Smeralda…” which is an obligatory pit-stop for the jet set and their magnificent yachts as they cruise the Mediterranean in the summer.

“Why don’t you come visit?” she suggested. “You’ll have to fly into Caligari and take a taxi.”

Why not? I thought and booked myself on a flight to Rome and onwards.

As the taxi trundled north to the address that was not much more than the name of a farm and a general area rather than a ‘street address,’ I was amazed at the scenery. It wasn’t anything like what I’d imagined. It was wild.

Along the coasts, gigantic cliffs plunged into a sea so blue that it redefined ‘turquoise,’ and inland, when the road took us there, the hills were craggy and rugged and the valleys green and rich with local vegetation, the air redolent of the scent of herbs that was reminiscent of the Languedoc region of Southern France.

Shepherds snoozed under the heavy foliage of trees as their flocks foraged for fresh, sweet grass, whilst a strong wind swept through, cooling the effects of the hot summer sun. As we got closer to the house, a flock of flamingos rose up into the sky in a perfectly choreographed formation that took my breath away.

I honestly can’t remember exactly where the cottage was, but it was charming and the view and place made up in spades for what it didn’t have in the more modern comforts of life.

Besides the scenery, what has stayed with me from that trip were some of the meals we had: one a pasta dish made by the farmer’s wife when I arrived, mallerodus, a local pasta, in a simple sauce and lots of pecorino cheese; two, the lunch on the boat that we took to see the coast, was another simple pasta in a red sauce, made by one of the crew. Why is it that pasta in Italy just tastes better?

But the third meal was at an agriturismo, an Italian table d’hote, the dinner table of a local farmer.

At this agriturismo, the table was outside under the star-filled, inky sky of a summer night. I remember it was hot and humid and the air was quite still. Candles lit the area and the smell of wax mingled with the scent of wildflowers.

The table was laden with platters of antipasti and cheese and hot, homemade bread. There were pitchers of cold water and bottles of a homemade rose wine. The pièce de résistance was the incredibly beautiful sucking pig that everyone thought was the star of the show.

But for me, it was the pasta, the primo piatto that came before the pig that I have never been able to forget, the layered flavours of the lamb ragù creating an indelible memory of a dish that I recreated years after the trip, re-building it step by step from the flavours I remembered and the few pointers given to me by the farmer’s wife.

Three years ago, I was in East Hampton for some much-needed time off and my very close friend, K, came to visit. And as we sat drinking a Sicilian rosé by the pool enjoying the August sun, talking about places we’d visited and hoped to go back to, Sardegna was one that came to my mind and I told her about that meal at the agriturismo.

Inspired, I conjured up the dish, feeling a little bit like a witch stirring her cauldron, relying on my palate and olfactory memories from so many years ago. We had it that night, sitting outside, the table lit by candles, a couple of bottles of wine to keep us going and crickets chirping in the bushes. And…I have to say, it was pretty darned good and came very close to being exactly what I had eaten twenty-five years prior.

Last week, following the success of our first FaceTime virtual dinner party, my friends, K and L, suggested we do the lamb ragù next. Problem was that I had never written down the receipe in East Hampton, but, unbeknownst to me, K had taken notes as I cooked. So, we decided to go for it…K, L and I cooked on FaceTime, took a break to take our respective dogs out as the ragù simmered in three kitchens across Manhattan, and came back to it, served it and sat down and ate it…alone, yet together.

Wine was copiously consumed, L decided on a Marsanne from Yves Cuilleron, K a greco di tufo from Campania and I had a monica from Sardegna.

We ate too much and we drank too much and talked far too much, but this time, we didn’t have to get in cabs to go home. We were home.

Not yet sure what we will do next week, but there was some talk of Mongolian steak…

Stay tuned!

 

Meantime, the ragù receipe is below.

Ingredients:

Olive oil

4 cinnamon sticks
10 cloves
10 whole black pepper

2 bay leaves

8 cloves garlic minced
2 red onions chopped
4 pepperoncini or 3 fresh serrano chilies chopped or 4 dried
2 pounds minced lamb
2 of each sweet and hot sausage, without the casing

Salt

4 fresh tomatoes

Pinch of sugar

3 – 4 sweet potatoes, cut in chunks

A palmful of finely chopped parsley

1 box of a short pasta, rigatoni, fusilli, cavatappi or celentani
Pecorino cheese to taste

 

Method:
Heat a good glug of olive oil, enough to coat the bottom of a pot
Add whole spices to perfume the oil
Add garlic

Add red onion and chili
Add a pinch of salt to make the onion sweat
Once onion is soft, add meats and brown

Salt to taste
Peel the tomatoes, puree, and add to mixture
Add a teaspoon of sugar
Cover and cook on low fire, about an hour.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees
Toss chunks of sweet potato in olive oil and salt and roast, about 25 to 30 minutes until soft.
About 5 minutes before ragù is ready, add roasted sweet potato to the pot.
Top with parsley.

Boil pasta in salted water until al dente.

Drain and return to the pot and add the ragù to the pasta and allow it to mix.

Top with pecorino cheese and serve.

450 675 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

A Virtual Dinner Party: Harissa Chicken

One of the things I love to do is entertain at home.

Cooking for friends, picking the wine, setting the table, choosing the flowers, candles music…it’s all part of what I love to do. And if I’m going to cook for someone, they’d better eat! In fact, in my book of hospitality, the empty plate of a guest is a crime of etiquette.

Before I got back into the world of restaurants and had no time for my friends, I would have dinner parties at least once month, informal gatherings of friends or large Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas get-togethers that involved creating more complex menus, cooking over two days and the best part, choosing the right wines and opening a bottle as soon as I put on my apron! You can’t cook without a glass of wine!

Now, in this time of social distancing, I have, ironically, reconnected with these friends and we get together every couple of days at 6pm, via FaceTime for a drink. A few days ago, one of them reminded me about the dinners I would have for monthly column I used to write. It was a column about wine-pairing, written for people who wanted to enjoy wine without breaking the bank.

My editor would send me a receipe and it was my job to make it and pair the dish with a red, white, rose or sparkling wine, with the caveat that the bottle was under $25.

So every month, I’d invite half a dozen friends and we would all gather in my kitchen for a glass of champagne, the opening aperitif, that was my welcome drink of choice. I would cook, and we would all catch up, nibbling on hors d’oeuvres and enjoying one another’s company.

When the dish in question was ready, we would sit at the dining table and I would present the wines and everyone would taste and sip and I would take notes until I had enough. After that, the diner party would take on a positively raucous edge and indubitably, much more wine was opened than the requisite ones that were to be part of the article.

So I got to thinking…why couldn’t we do the same? Virtually? The suggestion was met with definitive enthusiasm and  we agreed to Friday night to cook via FaceTime.

The opening recipe was Harissa Chicken. A simple roasted chicken with the added kick of one of my favourite North African spice paste.

Just as I was in the kitchen washing vegetables, K and L both texted me at the same time. “What are we drinking?”

Ah! The most important part of cooking is what you have in your glass, that liquid that makes the world look slightly better in the midst of all this instability. Since K and L only drink white wine, I suggested a pinot blanc or a pinot gris, something with a little more fruit that would stand up to the spice in the harissa.

And for myself, I pulled out a bottle of Cour-Cheverney, a little-known appellation in the Loire where the local varietal is the rare Romorantin, an old Burgundian varietal now only grown in Cheverney. On the nose it’s all pear and apple and white flowers and on the palate, it’s delicate, elegant and a touch honeyed, which would be perfect with the chicken.

My harissa chicken receipe is incredibly easy to make: everything goes in one dish. Essentially, the chicken is rubbed with the harissa and salt and laid on a bed of a sort of mirepoix of peppers and onions, themselves seasoned with olive oil and salt. And into the oven it goes for about an hour and a bit.

As everyone’s chicken cooked (on FaceTime), we had a drink together and chatted. When everything was ready, we all sat down at our respective tables. I had my chicken with pita bread, yoghurt with cucumber and an extra squidge of lemon; K had hers with naan and tzatziki sauce and L had hers with coucous.

It was delicious and it was a great evening, even though we couldn’t all be in the same room. So much so that next Friday, we’re doing the same, this time, the receipe that is being clamoured for is a lamb ragù that I learned from a farmer’s wife in Sardinia about 30 years ago whilst on holiday there with a college friend.

The receipe for the Harissa Chicken is below:

Makes 4 servings:

Ingredients:

1 red pepper

1 yellow pepper

1 green pepper

1 red onion

One chicken (if you do a whole chicken, cut through the backbone, so you can lay it flat) or pieces of a chicken, breasts, thighs, drumsticks on the bone

Olive oil

2 tablespoons honey

Salt and pepper

Harissa (can be store bought or see my receipe)

Fresh lemon wedges

Method:

Chop all the vegetables, season well with salt and pepper and toss in lots of good olive oil and a tablespoon of the Harissa.

Place in a baking dish.

Season chicken with salt and pepper and take a good dollop of the harissa, at least 2-3 tablespoons and rub the chicken all over before placing it on the vegetables. Drizzle honey over the chicken.

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.

Place the dish in the oven and let the meat sear…about 15-20 minutes, depending on the oven.

Once a crust has formed, lower the oven to 350 degrees and cook the chicken for about 55 minutes.

Take out of the oven and let rest.

Serve with naan bread, pita bread or couscous.

Squeeze the juice of the fresh lemon on the chicken and dig in.

Harissa:

Ingredients:

(about 2 cups)

8 fresh red serrano chilies

8 dried red chilies (can be chile de arbol, chipotle, ancho guajillo)

2 red peppers

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

4 cloves

4 whole black pepper

6 garlic cloves

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

Juice of half a lemon

Salt to taste

Olive oil

Fresh mint

Method:

Rehydrate the dried chilies in hot water, about 40 minutes.

Chop the heads off the fresh chilies and keep aside.

Chop the two red peppers and roast them in the oven at 450 degrees until the skin is charred and the peppers are soft. Peel off the charred skin and keep aside.

In a skillet, dry roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves and black pepper.

Grind the dried spices in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.

Drain the dried chilies and keep the water.

Combine all chilies, roasted peppers, spices, garlic, lemon and salt in a blender or food processor.

Once coarse, slowly add the olive oil to create a paste. If still too dry, add some of the water from the rehydrated chilies.

Add a few sprigs of fresh mint.

Place in a jar and store in the fridge.

You will need to add a little olive oil each time you use the paste after refrigeration.

 

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To Be Or Not To Be … A Wine Sommelier

I read somewhere recently that one should be proud of one’s choices…and not necessarily one’s talents.

Hmmm…?

Because choices involve working hard, and the achievements that follow are worth every drop of blood, sweat and tears you put into it.

Let’s just say for a moment you are lucky enough to have a gift, if you work hard, that gift will pay off. Left to its own devices, the gift will wither.

Passion is a gift. To have passion for something is exhilarating, exciting, and so fulfilling.

I didn’t find my passion until I was in my late 30s. Actually, I have two: writing and wine.

Now…the writing is a solitary existence…but wine…that’s a different story…

At Somm Time, I am so often reminded how much I love working with people who are as passionate about wine as I am…but honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with more passion for or knowledge of wine that my colleague Ciprian Toma. His knowledge is encyclopedic: every time I suggest a little-known wine from a tiny winery tucked away behind the fields somewhere in deepest, darkest Andalucia, he’ll say, “Oh I know that wine…”

What?

Or some obscure Cabernet from Georgia that he had me taste, matured in clay kvevris…or…well the list goes on and on.

I feel so privileged to work with someone like Cip because I learn something every single time. His way of talking about wine opens my mind and my palate beyond my personal likes and he does that with all the guests who come through the door. “Spend a little time with the wine,” he’ll say to someone who may be on the fence about a brand new orange wine…or an all-natural trousseau from the Jura in Eastern France. “You will love it, I promise.”

And when Cip likes a wine…it is a rather grand performance, worthy of a Shakespearian play. He walks around, gesturing, gesticulating, shaking his head, pacing the room, looking up at the sky, throwing his arms in the air…and no words…at least not until the second sip.

Clearly, he is not the stiff, pompous sommelier who takes himself overly seriously, of which there are so many running around New York City. One I recently met reminded me of Lurch Addams. It is wine after all…not brain surgery. And wine is meant to be a celebration, so go ahead…enjoy it…the Cip way!

Originally from Transylvania in central Romania, he started life as a political journalist, followed by public relations, finally finding his way to New York City, where he started tasting wines, mostly Italian and discovered he had a “thing” for wine…certainly a nose, a palate and a passion that led to a sommellerie diploma.

I feel a certain camaraderie with Cip, and even though I don’t know him very well, I know enough to realize that he is a serious fellow with a keen sense of humor and we have alot in common respective to the roads we have traveled, switching around before we got to where we were meant to be.

Nonetheless, I have huge respect and admiration for someone who has realized what he loves and goes for it, full throttle.

Once you figure out what you love, it really lights up your life and it will make it easier to succeed.

And one last thing…Cip really loves the desert!

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Wine & Warmth

These days, when you tell someone that you’re a wine sommelier, they inevitably register a look of awe: eyebrows raised, eyes wide, mouth gaping…

“You must be really smart,” is the opening line that invariably follows.

Thank you “Somm,” the 2013 documentary that follows four wine captains in their quest for the Master Sommelier certification.

And whilst a good sommelier indeed should know his/her wines, varietals, flavour profiles, terroirs, geology and geography, I believe the job of a good sommelier requires a few other qualifications: namely a hospitable nature, of which warmth is the most important ingredient; good instincts and some psychological insight that gives him/her the ability to read the table.

I am one who admittedly goes out to eat at restaurants a lot, and have worked in my fair share of them and therefore have come across many a sommelier…and the ones who remain indelibly etched in my mind are the ones who smiled when they greeted me, the ones that made me feel good about the wine I had chosen and gently waltzed around a few suggestions of their own, explaining in simple words why their choices might be more appealing. Sometimes I agreed and sometimes I didn’t, but either way, we both ended up extremely pleased with the choice.

Years later, I may not remember much else, but I shall not easily forget Luis Garcia de la Navarra, the owner and Master Sommelier at his restaurant that carries his name on the Calle Montalban in Madrid.

Luis is tall for a Spaniard and handsome to boot. The first time I ate there, I had picked a simple Verdejo for lunch. It was a hot summer day and he applauded my choice and came back with:

“Perhaps the Senora would like to try a wine that just arrived in my cellar?”

Of course, I agreed.

That lunch, my friend Maria Jose and I ended up drinking the most delicious Godello…it was ‘As Sortes’ from Rafael Palacios, a honey-coloured liquid made from grapes that came from Palacios’ seven oldest plots. It wasn’t even that much more expensive than what we had originally picked, but it was so much more interesting than the Verdejo, and way more complex and layered.

And Luis suggested a simple plate of Pata Negra Jamon to start out with and rounds of juicy tomatoes drenched in a spicy green olive oil and warm bread to go with.

I must say it was probably one of the best lunches I’ve ever had.

And Luis…well, he won my confidence with his smile and twinkling eyes.

Then of course, there are the sommeliers who take themselves far too seriously and when they approach a table, they live up to their reputation of being unapproachable and borderline arrogant. Why? I’ve often wondered. Why be in the hospitality world if you’re not hospitable? Why can’t they smile. Why so stiff? In fact, I recently bumped into one who came off as quite rude. After all, it’s about the wine, not about them; and isn’t it all about the guest and helping their experience to be an unforgettable one?

Somm Time in New York City is a wine bar where a warm smile and hospitality go hand in hand with a spectacular wine list…the kind of list that wine aficionados might put up with a dour, dull sommelier, just for the pleasure of drinking the bottles curated so thoughtfully by Maria Rust. But in fact, you get it all at Somm Time: the warmth and the wine.

And with that combination, you just can’t lose.

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A Time To Wine

Back in the day, there was a bar on Greenwich Avenue called “The Bar.” It was truly a neighbourhood dive, with a great jukebox and a man called Johnny with a long ZZ Top-style beard behind the bar. Open until 4am, it attracted all kinds: nurses getting off their shifts, servers, other bartenders, writers, artists and the occasional lost soul.

I used to go in there for the odd dirty martini and put coin after coin in the jukebox, listening to The Cure and The Rolling Stones over and over.

I remember once asking Johnny for a glass of wine and he looked at me and raised a sardonic eyebrow.

“Lady, this is a bar,” he said.

That was in 1995.

A few years later, just as I had begun to gravitate towards the wine world, I happened to be at “The Bar” late one night and asked Johnny the same question.

“What color?” was the reply this time.

“White…” I said, shrugging slightly.

He bent down and pulled out a box, put some ice in a rocks glass and poured some of the golden liquid over the ice. “Here you go,” he pushed the glass towards me. “Wine.”

15 years later, after a particularly superb dinner of paella with Maria and Angie, two of my closest gal pals that included five bottles of vintage Burgundy and Bordeaux, I decided they needed to know about “The Bar.”

We piled into a cab and off we went downtown.

It was just as I remembered it. A real dive. Except that the jukebox now took debit cards and Johnny proudly served Pinot Grigio, Sancerre, Pinot Noir and Cabernet.

All this to say that wine is now a beverage of choice, and not just among aficionados and connoisseurs, but it is now accessible and available to all. And wine bars have cropped up all over the city. But they’re not all alike.

These days, I hang my hat at Somm Time, a wine bar par excellence, that is the brainchild of Maria Rust. A sommelier and wine maverick, she had always wanted a wine bar where wine was celebrated and enjoyed…and not for any particular reason, but just because.

When we worked together several years ago, we always said, we would have such a bar and lo and behold, now there is Somm Time.

Somm Time is a wine bar with a list that is extraordinary, filled with wines that appeal to everyone: from the sommelier and master of wine to the young law student who lives next door. But it’s not just about the wine: it’s also about the atmosphere, the ambiance and the sheer warmth that emanates when you walk in. People say it feels like their living room…and there may be some truth to that. But that is what we want. We want people to feel comfortable and happy…whilst they try new wines and teach their palate about something new.

None of us who work at Somm Time (and there are only three) preach about wine…it’s a conversation; we put people at ease with a smile and let them tell us what they want before we make gentle suggestions.

And for us, the greatest reward is when someone’s eyes genuinely light up when they take that first sip. That is what makes the very hard work we put into Some Time worthwhile.

Somm Time isn’t just any wine bar. It is a quintessential wine bar run by people who care not only about the wine but about the experience…because while the average person may or may not remember the wine, he or she will most certainly remember how we made them feel and hopefully come back again and again.

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The Art of Hospitality

This summer got me thinking seriously about restaurant hospitality.

I spent a grueling four months as the wine director, sommelier and special events guru at the Hamptons outpost of a New York City restaurant that has been around for three decades and I noticed that the time-honoured tradition of hospitality isn’t quite… ‘hospitable’ … but then again, it’s like most everything else these days: a watered-down version of what it really is supposed to be.

Hospitality has become a business and restaurants are now ruled by accountants and their spread sheets rather than the convivial hosts who made you feel like the king or queen of the world.

A quarter of a decade ago, there used to be a small restaurant on the upper east side called Café Trevi. Charming and brick-walled, it sat no more than 40 people. It wasn’t particularly chic or posh or even sexy, tucked away as it was on First Avenue…not Madison, nor even on a tree-lined street between Park and Lexington…no, it was on the Avenue with a nondescript entrance.

I stumbled upon the restaurant completely by accident. It was late September and the skies suddenly opened and a monsoon-like downpour began. With no umbrella, not a cab in sight and several very long blocks from the subway, I took refuge under a yellow awning. Minutes ticked by and I was slowly getting drenched, my Jimmy Choos destroyed. I turned around and realized I was standing by a restaurant and looked curiously at the menu. A drink? I thought…and at the very least, a chance to dry off.

I walked in and was taking off my raincoat when,

“Signora!” a male voice with a lilting Italian accent said behind me.

I turned and saw a very dapper man in his late 50s, dressed in a grey suit with a blush-pink shirt and a purple tie and matching silk pocket square peeking out of his breast pocket, smiling at me as though I were his long-lost daughter.

I grinned.

“Allow me please,” he said helping me with my wet bag, my raincoat, handing it to the bored coat-check girl with too much makeup.

“Now…” he said, rubbing his hands together, “how about a nice plate of pasta and a glass of wine?”

And despite the fact that I was on my way to meet my husband for dinner, his suggestion sounded so perfect that I found myself nodding, thinking that I ought to just call Duncan and have him meet me here instead of the overpriced French bistro where we had reservations.

And that was my introduction to Primo Laurenti, the owner and maître d’ of Café Trevi where I ended up about three times a week until it closed.

I went to the restaurant not for the ambiance or the “scene,” because admittedly, there wasn’t much. I went, because Primo looked after me from the moment I walked in: he honestly made me feel like I was, in that moment, the most important person in the world to him…his words and gestures warm and comforting, never cloying or overbearing. He knew when to speak and when to melt away. And every single time, he seemed to know exactly what I wanted, when it came to food and wine, always suggesting delicious dishes that he would have the cook whip up.

I watched him with his other clients. He glided through the room, danced elegantly around tables, courting them, talking about food, wine or anything else. When the meat arrived, he would be there to debone it, or the fish, to filet it, or the sauce that he spooned.

I took everyone there. At the time, I was working for CBS News and one by one, Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Mike Wallace, Bob Simon and Ed Bradley…all went to Café Trevi.

Primo had a gift…a very special one…he was the consummate host. It was a gift that cannot be bought or taught. You either have it or you don’t.

A few years ago, after leaving CBS News, I decided to study wine and became a wine writer and sommelier. Now, in the hospitality game myself, I often think about Primo and how he made me feel and I try to do the same when I talk to people about wine: warm and humble without an ounce of pretension. I don’t want to scare people about wine, I want them to enjoy it as much as I do. My greatest satisfaction comes from the enjoyment people get from trying a wine I have suggested.

Good hospitality creates memories and at the of the day, isn’t that what makes us all richer?

 

 

 

 

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The Quality of Life

Of late, I’ve been quite preoccupied with the idea of quality of life and what it really means to me.

I’ve always been a hard worker, whether it was in school or later when I started working…somehow, I was happy to put in long hours, trying to go the extra mile, keeping ahead of the 8 ball.

All through my 20s, 30s and 40s, I was convinced that if I could do better, my quality of life would improve, and so I worked feverishly, constantly striving, achieving, getting ahead, climbing the ladder, call what you will, but I felt that I needed to be the best I could be at whatever I turned my mind to.

For example, I took up flamenco dancing, first as a hobby and became so obsessed with it that I decided to move to Sevilla, the mecca of the artform. And not just that, I took it all the way to the top, dancing professionally, touring Europe and the like.

I turned my hand to cooking and would run home every evening to cook a rather grand meal for my then hubby, who affectionately told me that I probably wouldn’t stop until I ended up on Iron Chef facing off with Alain Ducasse.

I came up with an idea as to how to make the most of a small closet in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City and turned it into a business known as Garde Robe.

I love wine and drink it, copiously…but I turned that into a sommelier certificate.

Over achiever? Yes, probably.

But that was then.

Today, I am more concerned about happiness and being content and I realize that the smallest things bring one the greatest pleasure, if one slows down and stops for just moment to notice them.

I was at a friend’s house in Sag Harbour recently and she had the most beautiful, vibrant watermelon pink peonies on her front table. Something about the flowers got to me and later that evening as I walked on the beach enjoying the sunset, I realized how little it takes to make me happy: the sight of a flower, the feel of sand between my toes, a kind word, a stranger’s smile, a melody of a song that reminds me someone I once loved…

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to pack up and go off and live La Dolce Vita in a villa in Tuscany…as much as I would love to, I can’t afford it!

I still work hard and I love being busy. But my most precious moments are when I am deep into a manuscript and the words are flowing off my fingers appearing magically on the computer screen, or a walk in Central Park with the dog when the cherry blossoms are in bloom or when I have friends over for dinner and the food and wine and laughter make for indelible memories, or even something as simple as a walk along the River Seine in Paris on a bright, sunny Spring day.

What all this means is that balance is key to a harmonious life.

Work…of course, we all have to. But time for oneself and time for those in our lives will only enrich us even more. And time is honestly the greatest gift one can offer.

768 1024 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

The Wine of Memories

“Drink wine…Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life…” so said Omar Khayyam in his Rubaiyyat in the 11th century.

Fast forward a thousand years:

I was about ten years old when I had my very first sip of red wine…it was a Chateau Margaux Grand Cru Classe, 1959.

I don’t remember the nose or the tasting notes on the palate…all I remember is that it felt like red velvet going down my throat.

That was the beginning of my love affair with wine, one that has lasted since…over 40 years I should say.

I went from being a neophyte to a connoisseur to a full-on sommelier, studying, smelling, tasting and writing about that delectable nectar.

Over the past several years, I’ve dipped in and out of the world of wine, dedicating myself mostly to writing, but now, I’m back in it full time, creating wine lists, going to tastings…and best of all, serving wine: talking to people about what they like and guiding them…perhaps to what may be a new discovery for them, or simply the ideal pairing with what they’ve decided to eat.

For me, there is nothing quite like watching their eyes light up as they taste, savour and simply enjoy that first sip I pour.

I had temporarily forgotten what it entails to be a sommelier: people seem truly impressed. “I’m just the sommelier,” someone mimicked the phrase back to me, “just the sommelier.“You must be really smart,” he added.

I don’t know about all that…perhaps he saw “Somm,” the documentary about the four wine stewards who decide to take the Master Sommelier exam.

Nonetheless, it appeared that he had a newfound respect for me. As do most others.

But wine, like writing, my other passion, is bloody hard.

Of course I still enjoy it…but when it becomes a profession, it takes on another dimension: people expect you to know more, look to you to educate them in the three minutes you spend talking to them about the wine as you serve it.

And frankly, I don’t take it all so seriously: wine has always been a celebration…of life, of love, of friends…all the stuff that matters.

For me, wine has always been part of my memories…just like the Pouilly Fume I had at Les Deux Magots on the Boulevard Saint Germain in Paris one recent beautiful Spring day…a day when I forgot all the mundanity of life and breathed and really smiled.