Review: Master Wine Tasting Event at The Capital Grille

Monday, June 21, 2010

If there's one thing I want this blog to be about, it's about stretching your wine dollar further than it would otherwise go.  I'm a huge fan of luxury for less.  For example: Why book a studio hotel room at the Four Seasons for $400 a night when you can rent a villa at the same property via timeshare rental for $250 a night?

The other thing I want this blog to be about is relating to brands that deliver on the promise of down to earth intuitive service.  Here's a list of brands I feel fit into this category:
  • Four Seasons Hotels
  • Nordstrom
  • BMW
Here's a list of brands I feel *don't* fit into this group:
  • Ritz Carlton Hotels
  • Neiman Marcus
  • Mercedes Benz
The difference is in the nuance but to me it's a powerful difference.  It's the difference between enjoying a remarkable experience with a great brand vs. a feeling of pretentiousness.  More on this here: Your "best available strategy" is "providing remarkable service and an honest human connection".  It's the difference between an employee of the firm using flowery unnecessarily stiff words vs. using plain language without going so far as to be sloppy.  A relaxing environment can be elegant and when both come together it's exactly what I'm looking for as a consumer.

I recently had a chance to check out The Capital Grille's Master Wine Tasting Event at their Boston Newbury Street location.  Those of you who know me in real life know I'm a fan of The Capital Grille.  And those of you who don't know me in real life may recall this piece I did previously on a Chef's Table we won via a WGBH auction.  At the auction dinner I met Capital Grille Newbury Street Managing Partner Christopher Scott.  I was thrilled to get a call from him recently inviting me and a guest to come in, have dinner, and taste through the wines offered as part of this summer promotion.

The offer provides a chance to taste through up to 10 different wines with your dinner, paired anyway you'd like for $25.  I asked our server, also named Chris, how it usually works- do people consider the offer at the beginning of the meal?  Is it a hard sell?  He said they mention it while a guest is making a reservation so they can think about it ahead of time and not feel like it's a meal-time decision.  Very good plan I say- gives you a chance to think about the opportunity before you arrive.

The first series runs through July 25th, 2010 and features wines from California, Italy and New Zealand.  Starting on July 26th, a second series starts up that features California, Spain and Australia.

We started off with a Lunetta Prosecco from Trentino.  I thought the notes provided were spot-on for this one: "aromas of apple and peach...crisp fruit flavors...clean finish".  A tasty, fruit-forward sparkler to start off the night.  Paired nicely with Figs wrapped in Prosciutto with goat cheese and balsamic vinegar.

Tip: Ask To See the Captain's List

When I go to The Capital Grille, I usually try a couple different wines by the glass given that I find their selections pretty interesting.  And their bottles, like most restaurants, are quite expensive. I got to talking to Chris Scott a bit further and asked him to share some tips for navigating metropolitan steakhouse wine lists like those found at restaurants like The Capital Grille.  He pointed out their Captain's List which I previously thought included only uber-expensive bottles.

There are some very expensive bottles on the list for sure ($1,500 Harlan for example) but there is also a list of bin ends.  The list included some favorable pricing on a bottle of 2000 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cab for example (at $85 as compared to a retail release price of $125) and other more obscure selections.  That being the case, definitely ask to see the Captain's List in addition to the regular wine list.  It's not just for big spenders.

A Trio of Whites

Next up came some white wines paired with an always-impressive Capital Grille Cold Seafood Platter.  Lobster, Alaskan King Crab, Shrimp, and Blue Point Oysters along with some delicious dipping sauces.

The first wine we tried with the seafood was the 2006 Cambria Bench Break Chardonnay.  It's described as offering "rich, buttery citrus, peach and nutmeg flavors with a minerality that is seldom found in California Chardonnays".  It was definitely a warm-weather California Chardonnay but for my palate didn't go over the top.  I thought it paired wonderfully with the shrimp.

Next was a 2007 Teruzzi & Puthod Terre di Tufi from Tuscany.  It's a blend of Vermentino, Chardonnay and Vernaccia.  "Firm acidity and fresh flavors of citrus zest, walnuts and a pleasant touch of toast on the finish".  Tasted alongside the California Chardonnay,  I was surprised how similar they were.  I was expecting the Italian wine to be more austere but I actually tasted a bit of butterscotch on the palate- which I enjoyed.

Finally, a 2008/09 Craggy Range Te Muna Road Sauvignon Blanc from Martinborough New Zealand.  Less pungent than my New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc benchmark Kim Crawford, I enjoyed its fresh-grapefruit-sweetened-with-just-a-little-sugar flavors.  Some oak influence seemed to soften this wine to the point that it was characteristically somewhere between Sauvignon Blanc style you may have had from New Zealand and California.  Very approachable.  Try it with the Alaskan King Crab and some honey mustard dipping sauce (which sounds like it might overwhelm the seafood but is surprisingly mild).

Don't Forget The Wedge

For a salad course we were locked and loaded on The Wedge.  With its incredible blue cheese dressing, ripe tomatoes and bacon, it's one of the best salads I've ever had.

I was looking forward to trying the lone Pinot Noir of the evening, the 2008 Wild Rock Cupid's Arrow Pinot Noir.  Why?  Because during the WSET course I took a while back the single most impressive wine I tasted was a Blind Trail Pinot Noir from the same region as the Wild Rock- Central Ottago.  Relative to other grape varieties, I drink a lot of Pinot Noir.  As compared to domestic Pinot Noir, I'd associate New Zealand Pinot Noir from Central Ottago most similarly with Oregon Pinot Noirs from riper vintages (btw, 2008 Oregon Pinot is supposed to be incredible- read more here).

The Wild Rock Pinot didn't disappoint. "dark cherries...plums...spice notes. full-bodied and well balanced with fine tannins" said the description.  I noted beautiful red candy fruit without getting too sweet.  A little earth and very smooth tannins.  Really nice.  It was my *wow* wine of the night.

Next- a 2006/07 Craggy Range Te Kahu from Hawkes Bay New Zealand.  Labeled on the menu as a Merlot, it's a Bordeaux blend.  Strawberries.  Sour cherries.  It definitely behaves more like the new world continent it's sourced from.  While approachable and friendly, I would have appreciated more firm tannins on this one.

Rounding up this trio was a 2003 Beringer Bancroft Ranch Merlot from Howell Mountain in Napa Valley,  California.  Menu description:  "Ripe, black-fruit...roasted coffee beans".  I thought this wine was pretty darn delicious.  Mocha came through in a big way.

Insider's Tip: $16 Red Sox Valet Parking

We took a short break from the wines and I had a chance to ask more about The Capital Grille's collection of restaurants and the Newbury Street location in particular.  Almost every time I go there, I seem to see a celebrity of some sort.  This night there was a table of a half-dozen LA Dodger players.  Last time it was Ben Watson from the Patriots.  It's popular with Yankees players in particular.

Remember the time Yankee's manager Don Zimmer and Pedro Martinez got in a fight at a day game at Fenway?  After getting out of the hospital, Zimmer made his way over to the restaurant to meet up with his family and was greeted with a standing ovation from everyone in the restaurant- Red Sox fans included.  Zimmer detailed this in his book The Zen of Zim.  Zimmer writes:

"I finally got to my table and the waiter comes over and says. 'The guy over there wants to buy a bottle of wine for you.'  I looked over to where he was pointed and it was Wakefield who was smiling and waving to me again.  'Tell him, no thanks, I'd rather have the cash!' I said to the waiter.'"

"The waiter" was Managing Partner Chris Scott.  He's got dozens of stories like this, but he deals them out with discretion.  He's got an ability to maintain a conversation while keeping an eye on their Yelp and Open Table reviews on his iPhone and running the restaurant with all that entails.  I showed him we'd checked in on FourSquare and he took note of who the mayor was.  He knew him and said he'd say thanks to him the next time he saw him.  You've got to cover a lot of space when you're in his position and he does it very well.

The first Capital Grill was opened by Ned Grace in Providence, RI in 1989.  After expansion and a few mergers, with Bugaboo Creek Steak House and Longhorn Steakhouse, the group was formerly publicly traded as RARE Hospitality.  In 2007 RARE was acquired by Darden and each of the separate restaurant brands were maintained.

There are now over 40 Capital Grille locations in the country.  Like the Four Seasons Hotel group, each location is built on a certain set of core values and then they adapt their style just a bit to be align with each locale they serve. 65% of each wine list is consistent nationally but the remaining is selected locally.

The Newbury Street location opened in 1996 as just the second in the group after Providence and is now a Boston fixture.  Locals know you can valet park for $16 and grab a quick bite to eat at the bar before a Red Sox game and catch a cab or take the short walk over to Fenway.  There are 2 other locations in Boston: Chestnut Hill and Burlington.  The Burlington location is open for lunch.

Value Added Service

Walt Disney used to call the small attention to details that took something from good to great plussing.  This tradition continues today in Pixar films in the form of tiny differences that take the animation to the next level.  At the Capital Grille they call it value added service.

It's the little things they do that make a visit more memorable and enjoyable.  Like having your table ready and waiting when you've made a reservation, complete with a little confetti or rose petals if the occasion warrants.  The dark cloth napkins when you're offered when wearing dark clothing so you won't get white lint on yourself.  Your server passing you a business card (or sending a hand-written thank you like they sometimes do at Nordstrom) at the end of your meal.  They work hard to execute these things in such a way that it looks like it comes naturally.  But it's got to be a lot of work to consistently deliver this kind of intuitive service.

Three Big Reds

As we migrated from the salad course to the main course, we were presented with 3 reds- 2 from Italy and one from California.

First, was a 2003 Freemark Abbey Sycamore from Rutherford, Napa Valley.  Description: "Black raspberries and dark cherries wrapped in a milk chocolate coat.  This is the benchmark for what great California Cabernets should be."  Wow- sounds good.  Sounds like it would be right up my alley.  My first impression was that some menthol characteristics overwhelmed the straightforward fruit the description alluded to.  Our waiter asked how we liked it and I said I was a little underwhelmed so he opened a new bottle (the original bottle we were drinking from was nearly empty).  The newly-opened bottle was substantially better, but that menthol was still on the background on the finish.  Not a flaw or a bad thing in any way- just not what I was expecting.

Next was the 2003 Sella & Mosca Marchese di Villamarina from Sardinia, Italy.  This was a Cabernet-based wine with "flavors of vanilla and black currant, soft tannins, and a long, powerful finish."  I thought this was an elegant red wine that was definitely old world/Italian in style.  It provided a nice contrasting style to the Freemark Abbey and especially the Beringer.

Finally, the 2007 Fonterutoli Poggio Alla Badiola from Tuscany, Italy.  A Sangiovese/Merlot blend, the description included "flavors of wild blackberries and raspberries with a pleasant earthiness".  I thought this one was a little limited aromatically with tart cherry flavors.

Tip: Try the Kona

If you haven't already, I highly recommend you try the Bone-In Kona Crusted Dry Aged Sirloin with Carmelized Shallot Butter.  Even if you're a purist who simply likes a well-prepared piece of premium steak, and you're afraid the Kona treatment will be too sweet, you might be surprised with how utterly delicious this steak is.  They're willing to prepare other steaks Kona-style but I'd stick with the recommended cut.  I've strayed a couple of times and it hasn't paid off.

For sides we had:
  • Roasted Seasonal Mushrooms
  • Sam's Mashed Potatoes
  • French Green Beans with Roasted Tomatoes and Fennel
  • Lobster Mac 'n Cheese
All of the sides were tasty (as I've said before I like The Capital Grille because all of their food tastes so good- not just the steaks) but the Lobster Mac 'n Cheese once again stole the show.  So delicious and decadent without getting too heavy.  It's hard to stop eating.

A side I've enjoyed in the past but didn't get is the Creamed Spinach.  A steakhouse staple for sure and they do it up pretty well.  One side we've had in the past and didn't care for: Truffle Fries.  Nothing special: Skip 'em.

Don't Forget Dessert

Two of my favorite desserts at The Capital Grille are the Flourless Chocolate Espresso Cake and the Coconut Cream Pie.  The Espresso Cake is so dense and rich- it's really special.  And the Coconut Cream Pie is more of a recent discovery for us but we had it again and it was delightful.  It's not just a slice of pie- but rather a 5" round which provides more of the highlight of the dish which for me is the delicious crust.  I was stuffed and wanted something lighter so I went with the Fresh Strawberries Captial Grille- basically glazed strawberries over vanilla ice cream.  It was OK but I don't think I'd make that choice again.

Conclusion and Recommendations

As you can tell I'm a big fan of The Capital Grille, and this was an amazing visit.  Not only for the great wines and fantastic meal, but for the chance to learn more about their collection of restaurants and their style of service.

This Master Wine Tasting Event provides a great opportunity to try a lot of different wines with your meal at a reasonable price ($25 per person).  I've been consistently impressed with their by-the-glass selections and these picks continue a tradition of flavorful wines with broad appeal. Wine drinkers can try some new things and without getting too far off in the wine-geek weeds.

Tip: If you want to purchase any of these wines in the Boston area they're available retail at Bauer Wine and Spirits and The Urban Grape.  The Urban Grape is a new wine store in Chestnut Hill that just opened.  I'll be doing a write-up on them soon.

Check 'em out:
The Capital Grille
Locations Nationwide
Location Visited:
Boston
359 Newbury Street
617-262-8900 for reservations and information

Update: The Capital Grille Boston has moved to a new location on Boylston Street. More on that here.

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