Bull Market

Manny's Steakhouse
Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, 1300 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.; 339-9900

When Jon Landberg looks at his wine list he doesn't just see bottles and vintages; he sees a population of personalities. "I have a way of describing wines to people," says Landberg, the sommelier at Manny's. "I say they're like children. When wines are first made they're charming, cute, fruity--they look up at you with their big, innocent eyes--they have to be cute, or we wouldn't keep them around. As they age they get dumber and dumber--their fruit acids and tannins get all out of balance--they're awkward and ungainly, and you wonder why you had them in the first place. Teenagers. Then as they mature you find out if this once promising, once awkward thing turns out to be a doctor or a lawyer, or a janitor. Maybe this wine was just never going to be anything."

Or maybe it was born to outsize glitz, maybe it came into the world as the vinicultural equivalent of Ivana Trump--like the big, blowzy 15-liter bottle of Mumm champagne that awaits some big spender on a special shelf in Manny's nonsmoking dining room. Mumm has 200 of these bassinet-sized bottles made by hand every year, explains Landberg, and because the glass must be exceptionally strong to contain the champagne's pressure, the bottles are tested so rigorously that at least half explode before they're filled. And even so they remain fragile: Landberg says the staff at Manny's used to occasionally lay their 15-liter behemoth, known in the trade as a nebuchadnezzar, on its side overnight to moisten the cork--until they returned one morning to find a hair-sized crack in the glass and $1,500 of champagne soaked into the floor.

Yes, the nebuchadnezzar costs $1,500, and if you want it, you're advised to give Manny's ample time to ice it down. Also, says Landberg, beware of bargain bottles of this size. Once a large party brought a 15-liter bottle of champagne with them, but the staff was horrified to find that it held sour, bubble-free wine, ruined most likely by display in a sunny window. Just ask the Donald: Precious commodities need careful attention.

In addition to the extravagant nebuchadnezzar, Manny's offers the area's largest concentration of gargantuan bottles of wine--plenty of jeroboams (5 liters), imperials (6 liters), magnums, and double magnums (1.5 and 3 liters, respectively). Some of these offerings, like the 18-liter bottle of Stelzner Cabernet, are made exclusively for Manny's because Landberg knows vineyard owner Richard Stelzner from Landberg's days as a sommelier in Boston.

And by the way, don't call Landberg a sommelier to his face: "We don't even use the term 'sommelier' around here," he blushes. "It's a little too hoity-toity. We just call me the wine guy." A wine guy with 250 bottles on his standard list, another 500 on his reserve list, and a stash of 10,000 stored throughout Manny's dining rooms, coat rooms, and cellar. Ask to see the reserve list: It's simultaneously intimidating and enthralling, with pages and pages of spreadsheet printout listing vineyard and vintage. Find one you like and your waiter will search out Landberg who will quote a price. It's like conducting a private auction at your table.

These extravagant bottles with biblical names beg the question: Why would anyone want a wading-pool-sized portion of fine wine? Why would you want a single jeroboam instead of six separate bottles of different wines? For the same reason you can have your Rolex made of platinum and your Mercedes's wire wheels gold-plated: because it's more fun that way--and more obviously fun from across the room or recollected later. Just as flowers in the fields gain their strength from the glory of the sun above, these luxuries reflect the magnificence of far-off corporations' expense accounts.

There's always a festive hubbub at Manny's, and the close-set tables allow you to easily find out what's on the minds of those near you. On my visits I overheard patrons chortling things like "Well, we're not paying for it!" "We deserve it!" and "Use it or lose it!"--the latter, I imagine, referring to entertainment budgets that shrink if not fully spent. One night I sat beside a table of four ordinary-looking diners who ordered an 8-pound lobster to share as an appetizer (Manny's regularly gets Maine lobsters as big as 20 pounds) and then moved on to four orders of surf and turf--king crab legs and 10-ounce fillets--at $65 a pop, followed by three separate side dishes, each of which could feed three or four people, and four desserts.

I'm sort of conflicted on these displays of gluttony. On the one hand it's disquieting to see adults acting like preschoolers given the run of a candy bazaar. On the other hand, I figure that if people devote enormous portions of their creativity, energy, and time to corporations, they deserve to occasionally be treated like royalty while feasting on the choicest bits of the choicest beasts.

How choice are they? Manny's serves steaks from the central third of the short loin, which is itself about a 10th of the cow, namely the area between the ribs and the sirloin. One of the assistant chefs, Todd Bray, told me that they get only two or three steaks per head of cattle, and serve a couple hundred steaks on a busy night. When you do the math, Manny's becomes a quite formidable threat to the cattle population.

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