There is a Komodo dragon on the wall. Huge and menacing, it stares blankly beyond the threshold, beyond all care, its thoughts unknowable, and perhaps best kept that way. I poke at it, wondering if it once had a mommy and who was the callous hunter who shot this magnificent animal, had it stuffed and turned into one scary conversation piece. To my surprise and relief, I realize that its scales are patterns cleverly cut into wood. The beast is one life-sized, reasonably realistic sculpture and its owners thought it amusing to have it watch over people heading to the loo.
Its dashing and genial owner, Frank van der Walle, gives a knowing grin. “We actually have two of them. We were supposed to put them both on top of the table in front of the fireplace but we realized they’re posed the same – they’d look funny side-by-side. So we put the other dragon outside to greet the guests.”
Caviar Restaurant and Champagne Bar is definitely full of surprises. Van der Walle’s offbeat and decidedly wicked sense of humor finds expression in his eclectic décor, from somber plush couches with riotous rainbow thread woven throw pillows, to mixed collages of empty and broken bottles lit up in a picture frame. Archie Elias, his restaurant supervisor, comes in sporting a richly detailed tattoo on his forearm. He pours glasses of wine for us, a Domaine Borie de Maurel Minervois Esprit d’Automne 2010, a bold, deep wine with hints of sun-dried tomato and mineral notes. Elias briefs his boss on the latest business of the day before popping behind the bar, looking more like a rock star than van der Walle’s right hand.
It was certainly a lot to take in. Without preamble, I was being served exquisite Oscietra caviar with gold flakes served on a mirror with soft baby pancakes, grated egg whites, horseradish and onions – this was possibly the most expensive appetizer I had ever sampled in my entire life – and we were hanging out and chillin’ like it was just another weekend, hangin’ out with my buds.
“We try to find the best things for the restaurant,” explains van der Walle in a mellifluous tone. “We didn’t want to compromise the quality but we wanted to make everything more approachable. At first, it was for special occasions – “Oh my God, I have to make up with my wife so I’ll bring her to Caviar” – it was like that for us. And don’t get me started on how many marriage proposals we have – and still get done – here. But I had to make it a bit more casual. For instance, my guys had more formal looking uniforms before but now, I let them show their tattoos to make people feel more at ease here. This is a hangout. People can hang out here.”
That’s quite a shift from how Caviar started out three years ago, as a fine dining wine bar. “It started together with my brother (Bastiaan van der Walle). He’s a sommelier and I have a background in culinary arts. After being in the Philippines for fifteen years, I finally had the opportunity to open my own restaurant.”
The two of them rekindled their bond after two years of living apart and realized they both shared a lot of interests. “We’re both very passionate about fine foods and most especially nice wines,” adds van der Walle. “It was in a little restaurant in Thailand where we started talking about what became Caviar, of all places. I was having a whiskey, he was having a beer, and we were talking about wines, feeding each other information and everything.”
Although the van der Walles have a puissant collection of wines, they insist that their staff at Caviar try to push more affordable, less renowned labels. “We want them to surprise our guests, to try something that’s a neighbor of one of the big names in wine – and we’ve been very successful in that regard.”
I won’t argue with that. I surveyed the monolithic glass chiller where van der Walle had his selection of various reds, whites, Champagnes, proseccos and other potent potables, all being kept at a snug seventeen degrees Celsius. Across from us was his bar, stocked with whiskeys from six major regions of Scotland. Perhaps another time for that because tonight was Wine Night.
Van der Walle brought in some fresh-from-the-pier oysters with Mignonette sauce and lemon wedges for us to sample while pairing it with a Bisol Desiderio Jeio ‘Colme’ Extra Dry Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG. The delectably crisp, citrusy and delightful sparkling white went well with the salty creamy oyster flesh.
To serve as a counterpoint, we sampled some Caves Messias Ten-Year Old Tawny Port – the sweet, rich Portuguese liquor tingled tantalizingly while its heady aroma brought images of galleons sailing the seas to the New World for gold, riches and glory. To cleanse the taste buds, a cheese platter of Brillat Savarin, Crottin de Chavignol and Ossau-iraty was placed before us, to be eaten with little brioches of garlic and butter. While the Jeio Prosecco would’ve been perfect, van der Walle bade us try the Altas Cumbres Malbec 2014 to see how it would pair. Another intense wine, though not as in-your-face macho as the Borie de Maurel, the Altas Cumbres Malbec is easier on the palate, with its complex interplay of apricot and raspberry flavors. A casual wine that’s rather affordable, so I found.
Jumping into the heart of a swirling spectrum of flavors, we indulged in some La Principessa Maipo Valley Red 2011, a Chilean red with green and red capsicum notes – the peppery finish would be best with a thick steak, the kind that’s richly marbled and cooked in its own juices but leaning on the side of rare. My personal favorite, however, was a dulcet Casalino Chianti Classico 2013, an airy yet lively little wine with cherry notes and a candied strawberry finish.
After a night like that, Elias the supervisor offered to drive me home. Take note that if you’ve had too much, take the offer because you definitely will want to come back for another drink, another time.
Big Vino Six
There are wines you can enjoy and there are wines you save for a rainy day, then there are wines that you can use as a down payment for a Lamborghini. These are examples of wines that you normally buy through auction for that’s how rare and rarefied they are. Based on this collection, with the exception of the Lafite Rothschild, 2003 must have been one helluva year for the Pauillac wine region of France.
2003 Petrus Pomerol Grand Vin
2003 Grand Vin de Chateau Latour Pauillac
2003 Chateau Haute-Brion Pessac-Leognan
2003 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac
2005 Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac
2003 Chateau Margaux Premier Grand Cru Classe
And one more…
The Kweichow Moutai from Guizhou China is a brand of baijiu (Chinese liquor). The 50-year old premium version was bottled in 1965 and even comes with a special viewing device that confirms what you have is the real deal.