I called my real estate agent the other day and told her I desperately needed to move from Long Beach to Los Angeles proper. In particular, to the 8000 block of W. Third St. No matter that this is an unprepossessing mélange of fortified store fronts, overpriced boutiques and seedy bars about as commodious to residential living as the inside of a recycling bin. This is the place for me, because this is the home of A.O.C. Wine Bar, my new favorite spot to eat in all of Southern California. You are smirking. I can tell. It’s true I cannot claim to have eaten in all or even half of the top restaurants down here. Maybe there are a few places as good or better than A.O.C. But none of them, I wager, are better for me. Let’s begin with the name, an allusion, of course, to the French system of wine appellations. A.O.C., baby, you had me at hello. Wine is a big part of the experience at A.O.C., and the wine list is justifiably dense. It’s not the longest list in the world, not by a long shot, but it is filled with an extensive selection of wines by the glass and by the carafe (making it easy for our table of three to try a little of everything) as well as esoteric, food-friendly and, most importantly, well priced by-the-bottle items. It is a pleasure to turn through the narrow pages of this wine list just as it’s a pleasure to sit in one of the narrow, spare and comforting rooms in this bi-level restaurant. There is a notable absence of flash in the place. The walls are creamy and mostly unadorned. The table settings are white on white tablecloths. Many of the tapas-style plates come out of the kitchen in little cast iron pans with white napkins tied around the scalding handles. The servers wear little makeup, even the women, and are dressed in white button-down shirts. So down to earth is the vibe at A.O.C. it comes as a shock to leave the place and to find yourself once again in the heart of L.A. Do not be fooled by the ‘Wine Bar’ tag on the end of the restaurant’s name. The food here is not at all secondary to the wine. It is serious food, and at the risk of sounding like someone from Berkeley, it is soulful. The plates are all small and meant for sharing, a nice concept in theory. In practice there were a number of those plates on all three of my visits to A.O.C. that didn’t make it across the table. As befits a place serving serious food, the menu changes daily. And yet everyday there will be a thoughtful assortment of cheeses in all four categories (goat, sheep, cow and bleu), charcuterie plus fish, meats and vegetables from the wood burning oven. On our most recent visit to A.O.C. we ordered one of the additions to the printed menu. It was described as a holiday sausage, a boudin blanc ($13), made in house from pheasant and pork grinded to a fine paste and thickened with oats that had themselves been plumped in cream. It was one whitish sausage in a little white dish, a candidate for the most expensive sausage ever eaten, and it was heavenly. Next a similarly itty plate containing two crostini topped with chicken liver ($8) arrived and were eaten so fast by my table mates I did not stand a chance. No worries, I happily monopolized the ‘salad’ of shaved carrots, smashed and whole chickpeas, oven roasted peppers and prickly sweet seeds of pomegranate all tied together with a snappy crème fraiche dressing ($9). Ha ha! To wash these first gems down we enjoyed a carafe (about three and half glasses) of the 2004 Kracher “Illmitz” Pinot Gris ($16), which was pure acid and minerals along with grapefruit and slate. Not your mother’s Pinot Grigio! We also opted for one glass to share of the Jean-Louis Chave Crozes-Hermitage Blanc “Sybele” ($9.50), a richer, rounder white and the ideal wine to match the next barrage of dishes, which included the arroz negro ($13), a cast iron portion of rice as black as the serving dish, topped with a handful of tender calamari rounds and a spoon of melting aioli. It was salty and deep, tasting of seas and secrets. Oh! Another addition to the printed menu, the oven roasted arctic char ($14) was served again in cast iron, topped with the sweetest skinless peppers and a profound sauce that hinted at herbs, fish skin and salt. The char was pink and salmon like, but without salmon’s too frequent fishiness. Oh! Oh! Drained were our glasses and ignited our palates, and so we ordered anew! This time a bottle of the wonderful 2002 Jacques Puffeney Arbois Rouge ($56). “It’s a rose!” exclaimed one of my companions, and he was only partly wrong. This was a red so lightly colored it would have been dismissed by many an L.A. wine snob as being too pale to be any good. How sad for they, because this pallid little number absolutely delights, making up for its lack of color with an array of woodsy, fruity aromas and a palate impression that reminds one of red Burgundy, Barolo, Rioja and a touch of something…. Valle d’Aosta, all at once! You know that strawberry jam, the French kind, with the plaid lid?? On the palate it has surprising glycerin. It holds on to your tongue. And yet it is totally lacking in tannins. How bright! How vivid. How alive! Yes, the ideal red to finish the fish courses and become our bridge to the next array of dishes, which included a grilled quail ($18), so tiny and defeated on its white plate, and yet so shamefully crunchy and good, a dish of Italian broccoli ($8), which was perhaps too salty, and yet cooked to such a toothsome perfection the salt was easily overlooked, and lastly an absurdly tasty order of potatoes cooked in duck fat ($8). Fat might be the theme of our dinner at A.O.C, either that or salt (more than one dish was over salted, though only on one of our visits). And what better way to add some unneeded fat to your diet than cheese? We chose one from each category, a Brillat Savarin, a sheep’s milk Everona and a curious aged goat cheese called Cana de Cabra ($15 for the three). They were nicely tepid and served without accompanying nuts or bits of fruit. Just white cheese on (another) white plate. And none the worse for it, either. Finally, our wine glasses emptied once more, we picked at the dessert one of us felt compelled to order. It was a sliver of dark chocolate cake ($10) served alongside two little slivers of peanut nougat and very thinly sliced caramelized persimmons. There was nothing wrong with any of it, and yet it was the weakest link in the meal. Or perhaps we were just full at that point. Or maybe, yes that’s it, we were too sad to enjoy the cake. Our meal at A.O.C had come to end and now all we had to look forward to was that long congested drive home on the 405. That realtor chick better get a move on. Got foodie tips on the scene down here? Please post your comments! --Elisabeth Schriber A.O.C. Wine Bar 8022 W. 3rd St Los Angeles, CA 90048 323.653.6359
This month I would like to share with you two of my favorite French regional wines here at K&L. First, the AOC of Faugéres is a tiny 1800 ha, to the north of Béziers in the foothills of the Cévennes, composed of an outcrop of pure schist that is known for its pungent, intense and concentrated wines. Though plantings are in decline, this is an area in which the carignan can reveal its subtlety, finesse and haunting perfume. The 2003 Château de la Liquière Vieilles Vignes Faugères ($15.99) is a lovely example of what happens when a talented wine maker meets old vines (50 to 100 years old) and great terroir. The old-vine carignan and grenache planted on poor schistous soils yield just a few, intensely flavored grapes that translate into a wine redolent of violets, red and black fruits and notes of garrigue, that intoxicating scent of wild herbs, warm earth and roasted meats. Despite the heat of 2003, the wine is amazingly fresh and balanced on the palate with a fine minerality, elegant tannins and a very long finish. This wine can be cellared mid-term but it so delicious now you’ll soon want to enjoy some with all manner of hearty fare. I would also like to recommend a second wine which hails from the Savoie region of France directly across from the swiss border. The 2004 Chignin Domaine Quenard ($10.99) is composed of a little know varietal known as jacquere, and although somewhat esoteric in nomenclature, I am certain that it is not so in taste or likeability. Having cracked crab? Open a bottle of this delicate Savioe blanc and watch your tastebuds sing! Or, as a bright, and refreshing counterpoint to rich raclette or fondue, this jaunty little wine will seal the deal as a natural food wine pairing. Fresh, zingy green apples, creamy pear and gorgeous acidity make trying this little white a no brainer! —Thornton Jacobs
Happy New Year Rhône heads! Those of you who have read my article on page 2 already know of my optimistic resolutions to stretch more, read more and eat and drink orangically whenever possible. Fortunately for us, many appellations in the Southern Rhône exhibit a dry micro climate and windy conditions, making it easier for vignerons to produce their wines along organic, nearly organic (or in this case biodynamic) lines, as they do not have to deal with conditions such as rot and mildew nearly as often. Below are two beautiful examples! 2003 Montirius Vacqueyras ($22.99) Montirius is the family estate of Christine and Eric Saurel, fifth generation growers whose vineyards grace the prestigious Plateau des Garrigues above the village of Vacqueyras in the southern Rhône valley. Their vineyards are tended biodynamically, a strict form of sustainable viticulture. This 2003 Vacqueyras is a grenache-based red that is hands down one of the best Vacqueyras I have tasted from the 2003 vintage. Black currant ripeness is matched by rich black olive flavors. Good acidity to boot makes this southern Rhône one long, cool beauty. 2003 Montirius Gigondas ($29.99) The Montirius Gigondas is another grenache-based beauty that displays ample flesh, yet maintains a degree of elegance and restraint not that easy to come by in most 2003 Southern Rhones. In fact, La Revue du Vin de France (July/August 2005) gives the 2003 Gigondas from Montirius four stars out of five, a truly impressive accolade from what I believe is one of the best reference points for rating French wines. Enjoy now with one hour of decanting and over the next six years. —Mulan Chan
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