I always ask for tap water, no matter how nice the restaurant is. It's my way of telling the waiter that, despite my choice of the $80 tasting menu, I'm not some self-important yuppie jerk. Other than the Saint Emilion and the truffles, I'm keeping it real. Now nice restaurants are coming around to my way of thinking. Alice Waters, citing environmental reasons, banned bottled water at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. Several other high-end Bay Area spots have also gone tap-only, and soon Del Posto, Mario Batali's expensive Manhattan joint, will join them. I'm betting that fine-dining establishments will eventually follow my environmental lead on napkins too and let diners wipe their mouths with their sleeves.
So when I invited Michael Mascha, author of Fine Waters: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Most Distinctive Bottled Waters, to a lunch where he would pair our courses with different bottled waters, I was doing it To Catch a Predator--style. I wanted to see if the guy who helps restaurants pick their water lists would suggest a coq au Volvic.
I met Mascha at Los Angeles' La Terza, which, I was delighted to find out, is one of many restaurants that serve each table with a vessel of tap they carbonate themselves. This guy was doomed. Sensing what I was up to--because, really, it's what everyone is up to upon hearing that he's a water sommelier--Mascha immediately tried to disarm me. He told me about his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna, where he specialized in food anthropology. And about how he was a wine collector until he found out in 2002 that he had an alcohol allergy that could stop his heart, at which point he transferred his interest to water. I felt sorry but unmoved. Just because being married means staying home and watching TV on Saturdays doesn't mean there are good shows on Saturdays.
So when Mascha reached into his satchel and whipped out 15 bottles I'd never seen before--each to be lovingly served at cellar temperature--from his collection of 350 brands, I was amused. When I mockingly smelled a glass of Spain's naturally carbonated Vichy Catalan, he admitted that waters have no smell and very little taste. I felt that flush of superiority that 60 Minutes reporters feel.
But then Mascha countered by explaining that about 75% of the fine-water experience is mouthfeel--basically, how many bubbles there are and how big they are. Some 20% comes from how dense the liquid is with minerals such as calcium and magnesium--which, to my shock, is listed on the side of most bottles as the TDS: total dissolved solids. The remaining 5%, Mascha claimed, comes down to pH balance: slightly alkaline waters taste sweet; acidic ones have a tinge of sourness.
As I reeled from all the technical details, Mascha further disarmed me by admitting that no one really needs a water sommelier. "A trained waitstaff can advise you. It's not rocket science," he said. Also, he thinks the common restaurant markup of five to eight times the cost of a bottle is horrible business. He told me that, aside from really nice dinners, he downs tap all day long. For our first course at La Terza, beef tartar, Mascha poured Vichy Catalan, arguing that the high mineral content would hold up against the beef. In general, he suggests treating high-TDS waters (above 800) like red wines and low-TDS waters like whites. He also recommends pairing water that has small bubbles with subtler dishes so that the effervescence doesn't overpower the food.
The weird thing is the Vichy Catalan did taste good--and, more impressive, it tasted like something. It had a silvery aftertaste and felt a little thick without obvious carbonation. As I got excited about the water I had come to humiliate, I realized for the first time which side I would have gone with in Vichy France.
With our salad of burrata with heirloom tomatoes, Mascha poured Antipodes, a nearly mineral-free, lightly carbonated water from New Zealand, which, because of its neutral pH, tasted pleasantly sweet against the soft cheese. With my tagliatelle with ragout, I drank a medium-carbonated, high-calcium Italian water. We also had one water that flowed through volcanic rock (Hawaiian Springs), two from melted glaciers (Hawaii's Kona Deep and Canada's unpleasantly sour 10 Thousand BC) and water freshly bottled from Tasmanian rain (Tasmanian Rain). To my surprise, the waters did taste different. Or felt different. Buying an occasional bottle of water no longer seemed insane. "If you're sitting down with nice food, why not spend $3 on a nice bottle of water? I'm not suggesting you shower in the stuff," Mascha said. As we were leaving, Mascha looked like a man vindicated. He didn't even stop in the bathroom. The guy can hold his water.