Sunday, April 18, 2010


Lou, a paradise of urban oenophilia, is hidden in the elbow of a wretched Hollywood strip center somewhere between an incandescent lunch counter called Flaming Patty's and a rub-and-tug joint that advertises itself as a "Thai massage parlor." Yet such a humble setting is not unbecoming, even though the proprietor, Lou Amdur, with his immense vinic erudition, has earned a more propitious location. For Lou, the restaurant and the man, are most approachable and democratic, and display not a trace of condescension or imperiousness. There are no special dispensations for celebrities, even for those persons with lead roles in Coen brothers' movies who were turned away a few months ago. You're darned tootin'!

A fastidious curator of his wine list, Lou is, by definition, opinionated -- and he more than most -- so his knack for self-deprecation and clever, even nerdy wit come in handy. For example, after the oft scorned wine critic Robert Parker, a proponent of wines from Down Under and supposedly of "power and concentration over subtlety and nuance," commented that "once very expensive Aussie shirazs [are] out of fashion among the anti-flavor wine elites," Lou countered "that's us, just a bunch of snooty clueless assholes."

The small bar is the best place to sit for a whole host of reasons. Lou stations himself there, and his idiosyncratic charms drive the restaurant's personality. As far as I am concerned, l'état, c'est Lou. Moreover, the bar ameliorates any lingering claustrophobia from what Lou has himself described as a "wallpapered shoebox." The chalkboard wall, which can best be studied from the bar, boasts a half-drawn map of the United States and demarcates the boundaries of only those states from which Lou sources cheeses and meats. He lists the purveyors' names on the map, as geographically appropriate. The rest of the country, we are left to deduce, is a vast nothingness. Naturally, Ann Arbor is at the center of the map and "Zingerman's" is displayed prominently. But directly south of the Michigan border and east of Indiana is an uncharted abyss. Could it be a forgotten vestige of the old Northwest Territory? A western nether region of DFW's toxic wasteland, the Great Concavity? No one knows for sure.

The wine list consists of, in Lou's words, "wines that are grown with minimal or no dependence upon synthetics in the vineyard and winery, fermented using natural (wild) yeasts, and made without dependence upon fancy technologies . . . and wines made from groovy indigenous grape varieties, old vines, sometimes, very, very old, and traditional winemaking techniques." In short, obscure wines from France, Italy, and Spain predominate. Wines from other European countries and the Western Hemisphere complete a short list that is in a state of Hericlitean flux. There are few wines from the most famous and expensive regions; to sample rare wines from Bordeaux or La Côte-d'Or, a trip to Bastide will have to suffice.

I was especially taken with the Chamonard Morgon, a Beaujolais that Lou poured for me a month or so ago. Its various subtleties and complexities, and overall wonderful flavor, loom larger in my mind every day. This past week, I loved the Eric Chevalier Fié Gris, an old varietal from the Loire that is a predecessor of the sauvignon blanc grape, and the anagrammatic Causse Marine Rasdu, which is made from the duras grape in the Southwest. (I will leave the business of describing wine to Jay McInerney notwithstanding his comparing Dom Pérignon to a Porsche, and not for the purpose of disparagement, in his very first column for Murdoch's Wall Street Journal.) Ultimately, Lou is incapable of pouring an uninteresting wine; the common thread running through the list is that all of his selections have unmistakably distinct flavors and are steeped in regional histories and tales. But drinking Lou's wine is no academic exercise. The best of his selections, with their flavors and bouquets, transport me to the countrysides and villages where the wines come from.

Lou is able to hover around the bar and go about his business as wine pontificator and dispenser of snarky witticisms, because of his good fortune to work alongside chef D.J. Olsen. Those hip-hoppy initials belie his actual background, a classical musician originally from Minnesota (like Lou) who decided to attend culinary school later in life. In light of the breadth of D.J.'s experience, his cooking is lucid and self-assured in a way that more prominent chefs in Los Angeles wielding more distinguished culinary résumés cannot match.

D.J. makes the bacon for the pig candy, a delectable pre-appetizer whose balanced use of cayenne paper and brown sugar adds a complexity to the simple genius of bacon and offsets the gimmickry of the dish's name. D.J. also brings a light touch to a smoked trout salad with apple and endive. Purveyor Michel Cordon Bleu smokes an ethereal piece of fish using only hickory, salt, and sugar, plus a few green herbs for good measure. Somehow the trout somehow retains its fresh taste, yet is balanced by a light and subtle smokiness. Avoiding any conceptual flight of fancy, D.J. ensures that the trout is front and center, accentuating the filet with thin slices of apple, short endive leaves, farmer's market peppercress, and a few pecan halves for extra crunch. An unobtrusive champagne vinaigrette binds the components together and adds just the right touch of sweetness to prevent the endive from overpowering the dish. I could eat this dish every night.

My favorite dish on Lou's menu is whatever iteration of scallops D.J. is serving. Lou has served four sautéed mollusks, circumscribed around a puree of celeriac, a slaw of julienned apples and fennel, and garnished with strips of the bacon cured onsite. D.J.'s dexterity with the scallops' texture makes them so appealing; he can coax different nuances of texture in various spots in a single scallop. The creamy, pureed celeriac and the apple-fennel slaw's sweetness emphasized the scallops' robust flavor. However, the bacon was superfluous and a potential threat to the delicate harmony of the other flavors. So I waited to finish off the scallops before I made a pre-dessert out of the bacon strips.

The grilled flat iron steak is also an excellent choice. Served medium rare, the Niman Ranch cut of meat is topped with succulent grilled onions and a few stalks of asparagus and potatoes, both unadorned but of superior quality and obviously traceable to the farmer's market.

A self-respecting wine bar, Lou offers up a proper cheese plate. Recent selections include Cowgirl Creamery's Devil's Gulch, a very rich and creamy cow's milk cheese amplified by spicy, dried red pepper flakes. The cheese received its fullest expression from Lou's proper attention to temperature, which allowed the Gulch to possess an exquisite balance of softness and sturdiness that we were unable to match at home. I also enjoyed the aged cheddar which swiftly disarmed my normal harrumphing over a cheese that can so often be pedestrian.

This cheddar also finds its way to the desserts, where it accompanies a thin and very tasty apple tart. No mere garnishment, the dish is a bid to split the difference between dessert and a cheese course. On our last visit, we must have tried a dozen wines by the time we reached dessert, or so it felt. Now Lou was hauling out his Madeiras from the Rare Wine Co. to pair with the tart and cheese. By the end of the meal, when I looked around and saw that we were the ones closing Lou down, I realized that the following day would involve a lasting red wine haze.

Lou feels like home the way the old Arabica Cafés at Coventry and Shaker Square did. The restaurant's wine pedigree aside, there may be something about Lou's personality--its sense of itself and humor--that appeals especially to refugees from the post-industrial Midwest. I submit that it is no coincidence that Lou and D.J. are from Minnesota, if only for the irony that the actor responsible for the Twin Cities' own Jerry Lundegaard could not find a table. Regardless, I have Lou Amdur and his quiet sidekick D.J. Olsen to thank for building the rara avis of a genuine home-away-from-home.


724 Vine Street