What a difference a font makes

I haven't seen gothic font used for anything except Halloween party invitations in many, many years.

I haven’t seen gothic font used for anything except Halloween party invitations in many, many years.  (Photo from fonts101.com.)

I’ve written before about evolving styles in wine labels – from parchment with Olde Worlde calligraphy, to the endless etchings of farmhouses and vineyards, through minimalism, and now to something more representative of the winemakers’ philosophies.  But I got reminded a few weeks ago that wine lists have undergone a similar transformation.  Not just in what they contain, but also how they’re presented.

My husband Cy is the Library Director for a think tank here in DC.  One of the things the library is responsible for is maintaining and digitizing the organization’s archives.  You’d expect to find some pretty neat stuff in a place that has hosted world leaders within its doors.  And there is, definitely.  But also a lot of things that are less important for historic reasons, but interesting to see because they say something about a particular time.   Like documents about making arrangements for a 1985 board meeting and dinner in Chicago, complete with catering menu and a wine list.

It’s a neat kind of time capsule for a particular style of dining and drinking.  The dinner was held at The Chicago Club, a private club that still exists, and appears – at least from the photo on its homepage – to be every bit as leather-bound as you’d expect.  The main course for the dinner was “The Chicago Club Bone Tenderloin.” I’m guessing there wasn’t a vegetarian on the premises, or likely within miles.  What really caught my attention, though, was the wine list that the club sent to the client for a dinner selection.

No mistaking this for some piddling little wine list.  Big and impressive wines, like the food.  The pages labeled “Red Wines of France” have a number of lovely Bordeaux and Burgundies.  Among the domestic wines my 2016 self would be happy to get a bottle of the Stag’s Leap Cab if I were there.  Especially for $28.  I used an inflation calculator to see what $28 would be now, and it’s $62.26.  Can you imagine being able to get a bottle of six-year-old Stag’s Leap Cab for $62 in a restaurant today?  I’m guessing that you’d pay something more like $110 to $150, based on some random searching.  The 80s were clearly a prime time to be drinking great wines on the cheap.  Too bad I didn’t know better back then.  Imagine the insufferable prig I could be now, going on about the glory days!

Part of the first page of a wine list for a think tank board dinner in 1985. Note the very important font for the very important wines.

Part of the first page of a wine list for a think tank board dinner in 1985. Note the very important font for the very important wines.

And then there’s the font.  Because this is a very serious list of very serious wines.  It must be: Every. Single. Word. Is. In. Gothic. (including the prices).  I’ve looked at a number of restaurant menus from the 70s and 80s, and it wasn’t unusual to see gothic used on menus and wine lists, at least for white tablecloth restaurants that were more than, say, 20 years old.  This one has more gothic on it than usual, which doesn’t surprise me considering where it came from.  It definitely made things seem established, old-world, and reliable.  It says you can trust us to do right by your wine needs.  Just leave it to us, don’t worry your little heads about making a bad choice, because we’ve taken the guesswork out.

It’s as comforting now to have a well-selected wine list that’s designed to set off the food as it was in 1985.  Certainly that would include more than the usual suspects of California Cabs, Bordeaux, and Burgundy these days, even for a steakhouse.  But really, can you imagine people using gothic on a wine list today?  Even the Chicago Club, which looks like it hasn’t changed in 100 years, doesn’t use gothic on its website.  I’d like to be able to call it retro-kitsch, but I can’t – it just seems old and stuffy.  How did we ever take wine, or ourselves, that seriously?


I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t appreciate a good steakhouse meal, even if I made fun of it earlier.  It somehow feels more decadent to me than other meals.  Maybe because of all the red meat/saturated fat warnings we grew up with.  But also because the side dishes – often my favorite part of the meal – are drenched in butter.  That’s what makes them taste so good.  Creamed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, potatoes made many ways, they’re all delicious.

So I thought I could try and make a dish that’s a combination of all those steakhouse sides, and maybe make it a little lighter.  (Not too much lighter, though.)  The result is a big hash brown topped with spinach, mushrooms, and a little cheese.  Cut it into wedges and serve it as a first course, a side dish, or a nice main dish with a little salad.  It’s also great for breakfast with eggs.

I like to use cooked potatoes for hash browns, it takes less time to brown them and you can cook the potatoes ahead of time.  In fact, it’s better that way – boil the potatoes in their skins and then put them in the fridge to cool completely.  They’re easier to grate and the hash browns hold together better.  And the inside gets just a little creamy, so you’ve got a hint of mashed potatoes in there as well.  While you’re cooking the hash browns in a small skillet, you can prepare the mushroom and spinach topping.  Other than precooking the potatoes, you’ve got it ready in about 45 minutes.

The mushrooms and cheese are naturals for red wine, even if you’re not going to have this with steak.  Choose something medium- to full-bodied, like Cave la Romaine Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret ($15).  It’s 70% Grenache, 30% Syrah, aged in concrete.  Séguret gets a lot of sun, so there’s a little more fruit and spice than you’d expect from so much Grenache.  But there’s still enough earthiness for the mushrooms and cheese.   Be sure to present it to your guests with gothic font on your exquisitely-printed menus (NOT)!



All-in-one Steakhouse Sides

(Hash browns topped with creamed spinach, mushrooms, and cheese)

Serves 4

2 large russet potatoes, scrubbed

8 to 9 ounces baby spinach

6 white or crimini mushrooms, sliced

1 large shallot, minced

1 tablespoon flour

¾ cup milk

1/3 cup grated Gruyère cheese

Unsalted butter

Olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground pepper

Put the potatoes in a saucepan and cover with water by at least an inch.  Put the pot over high heat, bring to a boil, then simmer the potatoes until tender, about a half hour.  Drain the potatoes and put them on a plate in the fridge for at least 2 hours, until cold.  You can also do this a day ahead.

Peel the cold potatoes, then grate them on the large holes of a box grater.  You should have between 2-1/2 and 3 cups.  Heat 2 tablespoons of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in an 8-inch nonstick skillet.  When the foam subsides, add the potatoes, a big pinch of salt, and some pepper.  Stir with a heatproof spatula to get everything well-coated, then press the potatoes into a flat layer in the pan.  Let it cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes or so, shaking the pan occasionally.  It should be nicely golden on the bottom.

In the meantime, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet, and saute the shallot with a pinch of salt until just starting to brown.  Add the spinach a handful at a time, and cook until the spinach is wilted.  Scrape the mixture into a small-holed strainer/colander and let it drain and cool for a few minutes.  Wipe out the pan, add a tablespoon of butter, and heat until the foam subsides.  Add the mushrooms and a little salt, then cover the pan and cook for about 5 minutes so the mushrooms release their liquid.  Uncover the pan, raise the heat, and cook until they start to brown, about 3 minutes more.  Set the mushrooms aside in a small bowl.

At this point, you’re ready to flip the potatoes.  Have a dinner plate at the ready.  Turn off the heat and move the skillet to a cool spot.  Put the plate upside down on top of the skillet.  Using potholders or kitchen towels, grab the whole thing –plate, skillet, and all – and turn it over.  Take the skillet off.  The potatoes will be cooked-side down.  Brush the top, uncooked side with a little olive oil.  Then put the skillet upside down over the potatoes and flip the whole thing again so the potatoes are back in the pan.  Press the potatoes down with the spatula, and let cook over medium-low heat for another 15-20 minutes, until browned on the bottom.

When the spinach is cool enough to handle, put the whole bundle in a large, clean kitchen towel (I have a green one just for this purpose).  Wrap up the sides of the towel, then squeeze over the sink to remove as much liquid as possible.  Set it aside.

Melt a tablespoon of butter in a medium saucepan, then add the flour.  Stir well, and cook for about a minute.  Add the milk, and stir or whisk until it’s smooth.  Bring to a boil over medium-low heat, stirring constantly.  The mixture should thicken a little.  Turn off the heat, add the Gruyère and mix well.  Stir in the spinach and mushrooms.

Slide the potato cake onto a serving platter and top with the spinach/mushroom/cheese sauce.  Cut into wedges and serve right away.

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