RESTAURANT SPOTLIGHT Alexander's Steakhouse, Cupertino, California
The Sommelier Journal May 2009 Catherine Fallis, MS
A passion for wine, a sophisticated menu, and a knowledgeable staff are the hallmarks of this Bay Area steakhouse.
I first met JC Chen, owner of Alexander’s Steakhouse in Cupertino, Calif., at La Paulée de San Francisco last year. He was a guest at my assigned station for this gala celebration of the great wines of Burgundy. Chen’s enthusiasm was infectious, and when he found out I was a Master Sommelier, he lit up like a Christmas tree. “Who is this guy?” I asked myself. Like a little kid in a candy shop, he offered tastes of the fine, rare Burgundies he had brought from his cellar to me, to my fellow sommeliers, and even, through us, to chefs Daniel Boulud and Michael Mina.
During the course of the evening, I came to learn that Chen was a relatively recent, but fully immersed, wine convert and the owner of one of the Bay Area’s most prestigious restaurants. Chen’s affinity for wine began in 2004 when Eric Entrikin, a sales rep at the time, came to call on him and opened a bottle of the 2003 Domaine du Grand Montmirail Gigondas Cuvée Les Deux Juliettes. As Chen tasted, Entrikin described the wine’s individuality, character, and value. Three days later, Chen hired him as wine director.
Chen pays for all his front servers to attend the two-day Court of Master Sommeliers introductory course. Entrikin, who has now progressed to the Advanced level, started his formal wine studies in the Master of Wine program several years ago. “The majority of our staff are veterans, with good, fundamental wine knowledge to begin with,” says Entrikin. “We brainwash them from the beginning. We use the deductive tasting process for our tastings that we do three times a month formally. You see servers going through their flashcards. There’s peer pressure. It’s contagious. And you can feel the passion. I’m very happy with the results.”
When Alexander’s opened in 2005, west of San Jose in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Chen used a $50,000 opening budget to build a wine list based on top-rated Napa Cabernets. The initial list, prepared with the help of a large distributor, had the wines arranged in alphabetical order, along with their Wine Spectator scores. When Entrikin came on, however, he suggested rounding out the list with steak-friendly European classics such as Bordeaux and Barolo. After tasting a few of those wines, Chen was hooked. “We’re still selling the Silver Oaks,” says Chen. “Don’t get me wrong—our list is still dominated by the Cabs, but there is truly a sense of legitimacy to our wine program, to our restaurant.”
Chef Jeffrey Stout’s menu is, like the wine program, sophisticated and approachable. Japanese A5 Wagyu beef is a major draw; although a house-aged porterhouse (28 ounces after drying) is available for $55, the top-of-the-line, 8-ounce Omi-Honshu filet sells for $285. Stout does have an immersion circulator, but he is more into texture and chewiness than foams. He also offers a Japanese-influenced array of sea creatures in vivid presentations, such as tuna tataki and hamachi shooters, expertly paired with Entrikin’s selection of lighter whites and rosés.
Chen’s pride in his restaurant staff is evident. “I am the coach, Eric is the wide receiver, and Jeff is the quarterback,” he says. “I think Eric’s personality is important. Guests love him and his well-trained sommelier team. They know what they are talking about. Our staff is educated enough to be able to describe and explain the wines, where the grapes come from, the climate, why a Bordeaux may go better than a Silver Oak with the food, why one vintage is better than another, in such a way that guests want to learn more. Those who aren’t interested or who normally wouldn’t ask for wine advice can read excerpts from Eric’s personable wine list about a winemaker or region while they are browsing, or they can go straight to the Screaming Eagle. When we first opened, we sold 80% Napa Cab; now that number is about 40%.”
“Eighty-five percent of our bottle sales are red,” adds Entrikin, “but we have a lot more diversity—Bordeaux, Rhône, Burgundy, Piedmont, Tuscany—as well as many local, artisanal, non-Napa names like Kathryn Kennedy and Varner. By-the-glass sales are about 50% white/50% red, though we move through half-bottles of white pretty quickly. Our staff offers tastes of wines we sell by the glass, and that helps spur sales of lesser-known wines.”
Chen’s passion for wine is as infectious today as it was the night I met him. As he showed me around Alexander’s dining room, he kept talking about Riesling and Caesar salad. “Can you believe it?” he said. “I’m sitting down to have a salad, and now it’s normal for me to think about Riesling. Eric’s four years of trainings and tastings have us all so programmed that it’s second nature now.”
Plans for a second Alexander’s Steakhouse location are in the works; while Las Vegas was an early contender, it now looks as though the next location will be San Francisco. While the city has a number of great steakhouses already, nothing can top the combination of great food, great wine, and a passionate, well-trained, well-versed, and thoroughly professional staff.