Why indulge? It's our pleasure

Times Staff Writer

IT began almost a decade ago, as a lark. Well, not a lark exactly -- more a collective thumbing of our noses at what I think of as the "pleasure police." Diet nazis. Tobacco tyrants. Neo-Prohibitionists. Neo-Puritans. The kind of killjoys Mencken had in mind when he spoke of those burdened with "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

For any number of reasons -- from religious training to toilet training, overbearing parents to an overweaning social conscience -- these folks are incapable of having any fun themselves so they resent anyone else having any fun, of any kind.

To protest both this mind-set and the work, work, work, rush, rush, rush mentality that I felt taking hold everywhere, I began inviting a small group of friends to meet every three or four months at one of the better restaurants in town to spend an entire Friday afternoon in sybaritic self-indulgence. The group would vary slightly from lunch to lunch but the format was constant: Noon start. A dozen bottles of wine, all from either the same year or the same grape. A six-course menu created for us by the chef and ending with his richest, most cholesterol-laden cheeses and desserts. Then, cigars and talk until 6 o'clock or so.

We had great fun, great food, great wine and great Cuban cigars. But over time, the pleasure police struck anew, and it became virtually impossible (indeed, illegal) to smoke cigars in restaurants. Around the same time, various members of my group -- myself included, to my embarrassment -- found it increasingly difficult to take three or four afternoons a year off work. The lunches gradually disappeared. Except for one.

I refused to give up my annual Barolo/white truffle/cigar lunch.

After red Burgundy, Barolo is my favorite wine. White truffles offer the greatest aroma -- and one of the greatest tastes -- on Earth. The combination of Barolo and white truffles is as indescribable as it is unbeatable. And, fortunately, the site for that particular lunch has always been Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica, which has a small outdoor patio, to which we can happily (and legally!) repair with our post-prandial Havanas.

It doesn't hurt that Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor, is both a friend and a great host, willing to tolerate our arriving at the start of his Friday lunch and our staying until after his first dinner customers have been seated.

For the recent ninth annual lunch, one friend flew in from Napa, another from D.C. and a third from the state of Washington. Because I like drinking wine, not just tasting it, I've always tried to keep the group at eight or nine so each of us can have a generous pour of each wine, not merely a couple of token sips. But my D.C. friend was a last-minute addition, so we were 10 in all -- and a pretty diverse group at that: a college professor, a movie producer, a general contractor, a business executive and a jewelry designer, as well as two journalists and three people from the food and wine world.

Because I don't like all-male gatherings; I try to include women at these lunches. I've never managed to entice more than three at a time, and only two made it to this lunch. But they were, as always, a civilizing influence. Not that we were all that civilized, come to think of it. Our conversation was lively and varied, and when my businessman friend said he'd voted for Bill Simon over Gov. Gray Davis because "Davis is a prostitute," two other friends -- one of whom had voted for Davis as "the lesser of two weevils" -- leaped to defend the honor of prostitutes.

As usual at our lunches, political correctness and the predatory nature of the pleasure police came in for a pounding, and midway between the first course (filet of red mullet in a sauce made with aged scamorza) and the second (a cream of chestnuts and cauliflower topped with white truffles), my journalistic colleague suddenly began grumbling about having been asked to stop smoking once while he was based in Nairobi for The Times.

"I'd just come from covering genocide in Rwanda," he said, "and here were these people from Santa Monica asking me to put out my cigarette." He shook his head. "I can't tell you how much pleasure I got from saying, 'No, I won't put it out. You're part of the reason I moved away from California.' "

As the wine flowed, so did the non sequiturs. At one point, the movie executive, talking about the premiere of "Analyze That," told us that the movie's predecessor, "Analyze This," "did very well in Australia because so many Greeks live there."

Huh?

The few, the hearty

Much as everyone in our group loves food and wine, ours is not a collection of foodies or wine geeks, so there was no babbling about "a nose of tar and roses" on this or that Barolo, and no one dropped the name of the last famous chef he'd chatted with over dessert. But we sure did appreciate what we were eating and drinking.

The Barolos came from the four most recent available vintages (1995, '96, '97 and '98) and from three great, older vintages (1982, '89 and '90). They came from several of the most distinguished houses in Piemonte -- Giacosa, Clerico, Seghesio and both Conternos (Aldo and Giacomo) -- and from my personal favorite, Giuseppe Mascarello.

One wine -- a '96 Bricco Bussia Vigna Colonnello -- was corked, so we substituted two others, from Seghesio and Aldo Conterno, to make up for it. We also drank three bottles of white wine -- Giacosa's Arneis.

The '82 Barolo Monfortino from Giacomo Conterno -- which we drank with some aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, just before dessert -- was the consensus best wine. But chef Angelo Auriana's food was the real star of the day.

Raw, hand-cut beef topped with a quail egg. A timbale of cardoons with toasted almonds and white truffles. A tortellone of fonduta topped with white truffles. Gnocchi infused with porcini mushrooms and topped with white truffles. Saddle of wild hare, roasted with a sauce of Barolo and juniper berries.

The flavors built on each other and complemented each other in an extraordinary fashion, and there was no consensus favorite, though to me, the hare -- with its rich, gamy taste -- seemed the perfect accompaniment to the ideal-for-drinking-now '89 and '90 Barolos.

We were all feeling quite pleased with ourselves by then anyway, but our self-induced reverie was briefly interrupted when one guest said he had to leave early -- before the cigars came out! -- to attend a business meeting. This violates the spirit of the event -- our individual and collective desire to escape for an afternoon from the world of commerce, conference and convention -- and several of us subsequently discussed whether this breach should eliminate him from next year's lunch. After all, we have many other friends who'd happily abandon work for several hours to share our Barolo, white truffles and cigars.

On second thought, maybe we'll just insist that, as both penance for this year and admission for next year, he bring a bottle of Aldo Conterno's '71 Barolo Gran Bussia riserva. In magnum.

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