July 31, 2006
Even Alleys Getting Chic

Midtown Sacramento doesn't have enough streets to accommodate all the new businesses springing up in the area, not even just the food businesses. Now they're starting to move into the alleys, which may be just what it will take to get those grim shortcuts spruced up and vibrant.

Jason Griest and Tim Jordan have taken over a brick-and-timber industrial space in the alley between 17th and 18th streets, Capitol Avenue and L Street, and have transformed it into Old Soul Co. to bake artisan breads and roast coffees.

It's a wholesale business only, with no retail sales, though people working and living in the area are dropping by in the mornings for a cup of coffee and maybe a scone. The old warehouse has cushiony sofas, abstract paintings and a coffee-brewing island in the middle of the space, but without parking, a bathroom, other seating and regulatory permits it isn't set up to deal directly with the public.

Jordan and Griest, however, are scouting the neighborhood for retail space. In the meantime, they crank up their coffee roaster in one corner, bake breads, muffins and scones at ovens in another, and on Monday mornings invite prospective retail customers to gather around a big farm table for a coffee cupping, an exercise aimed at coming up with appealing roasts and blends.

Jordan, a Sacramento native, was a printer for more than 20 years before realizing that baking is his passion. He's learning as he goes, though he's being tutored by one of the more highly regarded bakers in the area, Casey Hayden. (Yep, Hayden's back in town after signing on with Habitat for Humanity to help build houses in Armenia and Poland. After a year away from the local culinary scene he's getting ready for a comeback. He's consulting to the Leland Stanford Mansion Foundation, and any day now could be named the mansion's event director, overseeing soirees at the facility for the governor and legislators.)

Griest is from Pittsburgh, Penn., but he's been a presence on the local coffee-house scene for years, most notably as a former partner of Naked Lounge at 15th and Q streets. He tends the roaster and coordinates the coffee cuppings.

The business is a little more than a month old, but their coffees are being served and sold at Taylors Market and are being poured by nearby restaurants Mulvaney's Building & Loan and 58 Degrees and Holding Co. and at the coffee houses Coffee Garden, Java Lounge and Temple. Their breads just are starting to enter the market, with Tortugas picking up their rolls for the Mexican sandwiches called tortas.

Griest came up with the name Old Soul to evoke a sense of the Old World craftsmanship they want their artisan products to represent.

July 31, 2006
A Brunch that Towers Over Others

No one has called me a dimwit, at least not to my face, not within the past week, though people have been passionate in responding to a feature that appeared in The Bee's Taste section this past Wednesday. It was a compilation of 50 foods and culinary landmarks that make Sacramento such a delightful place if you're a food enthusiast. As readers subsequently have pointed out, several worthy foods and places weren't on the list, which goes to show just how big the Sacramento cornucopia is.

But we had only so much space, and I don't know what I would have eliminated to make room for additional suggestions to come our way, most of which we're aware of but couldn't accommodate. (Several of them will be mentioned in this Wednesday's Taste.)

In retrospect, I especially wish I could have included Tower Cafe at 16th Street and Broadway. I could say I overlooked it because of all the foliage that cafe owner James Seyman has added to the corner since he opened the restaurant on Earth Day 1990. I don't know why he hasn't renamed it the Tower Botanical Garden.

Surprisingly to me, people who've lobbied for Tower Cafe especially have praised its New Mexico blueberry cornmeal pancakes and its French toast. I've frequented Tower Cafe for its dinner menu and its desserts, the list of which is so long, rich and varied that even reading it you feel you should loosen your belt. But breakfast or brunch? Not that I can recall.

Yesterday, however, we stopped by. The line out front was long, but the wait was a not unreasonable 10 minutes. We were asked, "Inside or out?" Whatever is available first, we replied. Inside is far different from the garden outside, but in its international art and artifacts it represents brightly and with diverting variety the global village Seyman set out to create.

First suggestion: Do indeed order the New Mexico blueberry cornmeal pancakes ($6.95 full order, $4.50 half) and the "famous French toast," as the menu puts it ($8.95 full order, $4.95 half). Second suggestion: Take the menu's hint and request just half an order. Only marathon runners and loggers possibly could eat a full order. This was the first time I've ever left a restaurant with leftover pancakes. They did have the gentle grittiness and sweetness of corn, as well as the sunny fruitiness of blueberries. The French toast was novel, a torpedo-shaped length of baguette with a custardy interior and a crust substantial yet tender, with a dark toasty flavor.

Next time I visit Tower Cafe for breakfast or brunch, however, I've got to try the birria, something you just don't see around here often.

And next time I round up 50 foods and culinary landmarks to distinguish Sacramento, I've got to figure out some way to make room for Tower Cafe

July 31, 2006
Catch That Sniff of Pinot Noir in the Air?

What a glorious weekend. The air conditioner was off, the windows open, the soothing Delta breeze and the billowing curtains frolicking like contestants on "So You Think You Can Dance." The cats, for the first time in weeks, moved out of the shadows on the damp bricks into a pool of sunlight on the carpet. The siege of Thermopylae was over, the gates of fire closed...but not locked. The summer of '06 is in the history books, but it isn't over.

Nonetheless, that hint of fall in the air this weekend was enough to get us thinking of the segue from the white wines of summer to the red wines of autumn. No need to rush things, however. Let's start off gently, with the gentlest of red wines, pinot noir, customarily so light it's the one red that easily can be enjoyed as much in summer as winter.

Granted, pinot noir can be big, even tannic and warm, but the most alluring of the breed tends to be light in color, silken in feel, and elusive yet haunting in its complexity, drawing you in and then playing with you, sassy one moment, shy the next.

It's also the most versatile red at the table, the wine to pour when salmon is on the menu, yet with a powerful enough grip to hang on even if the main course is rib-eye steak hot off the grill.

We rounded up a few pinot noirs from the 2003 vintage for a blind tasting and again were reminded not only that the variety can be charming but temperamental. All but one were from California. The lone outrider was from New Zealand. Vintners in New Zealand have been making impressive strides with pinot noir, and this one, the Whitehaven 2003 Marlborough Pinot Noir ($28), stood out for its brooding masculinity. It had a dark truffled fruitiness, with a tangy finish, but it wasn't our favorite wine in the flight.

There were two of those, and they weren't at all alike. The Merry Edwards 2003 Russian River Valley Olivet Lane Pinot Noir ($50) had the brightest, most youthful color, with a touch of purple on its rim. It was the lightest wine in the flight, and the most elegant, with a lean build and pointed cherry flavor with an herbal accent.

In contrast, the Morgan 2003 Santa Lucia Highlands Gary's Vineyard Pinot Noir ($45) was the heftiest wine of the bunch, with leather and rhubarb notes bringing delightful complexity to the richness of its cherry/berry fruit. It also had the most obvious oak, adding creaminess to the texture, and the longest finish.

Despite their differences in weight, both had the structure and acidity to go with the foods that followed the tasting, the Chinese dishes five-spice beef and dry-braised green beans. Both dishes were rich and spicy, and pinot noir wouldn't ordinarily be my first choice as the beverage to have with them. But for a test of pinot noir's versatility, they pushed the varietal to the limit, and it still shined.

July 28, 2006
Malabar Almost Ready for Seatings

For awhile there it looked as if Natomas might get a new arena for the Kings before it got the long-anticipated restaurant Malabar. John Cook, a partner in the Scott's Seafood restaurants in Sacramento and Folsom, announced plans for Malabar early in 2005, saying he expected the place to open late that year. But delays for this reason and that kept putting off the debut. Now, however, Cook is predicting the place will open within the next week or two. The staff is in training, and just a few finishing touches need to be applied to the restaurant, at 2960 Del Paso Road, just east of I-5 and northwest of Arco Arena.

Mike Wilson, formerly of P.F. Chang's in Roseville, is the executive chef. While Malabar has an Indian sound to it, the restaurant's extensive menu will celebrate American regional cooking, along with several dishes representative of Latin America and Asia. Starters, for example, are to include a chicken quesadilla and tempura ahi rolls as well as the classic Cobb salad, fried calamari and chili.

The name Malabar was inspired by a late friend of Cook's who enjoyed curling up in a roomy woven-rattan chair to read. She not only thought it would be a good name for a restaurant, Cook feels that the strength, comfort and invitation to linger associated with the chair are standards a restaurant should emulate.

July 27, 2006
Coming: Another Cafe Bernardo

Roseville is losing its Cafe Bernardo, but Sacramento is getting another one. After pondering for weeks what to do with his mammoth property at 15th and R - originally the pan-Asian restaurant Sammy Chu's, most recently the New American bistro Icon - restaurateur Randy Paragary has decided to turn it into the city's second Cafe Bernardo.

But there's more to it than that. The bar portion of the facility will be rechristened R15. Paragary isn't calling it a sports bar, but it will have nine or so TVs, along with four pool tables in one of the structure's former dining rooms. "There will be a lot of televisions playing sports when sports are on, but we're not really filling it up with sports memorabilia and that type of thing," says Paragary. "It will be a little edgier than a sports bar, with more of a Monkey Bar look to it." Monkey Bar is an immensely popular tavern in connection with Cafe Bernardo at 28th and Capitol.

Paragary is most excited about this latest project because of the Australian-made music-video system he's installing, stocked with 8,800 selections ranging from country to hip-hop. "It's like a big iPod," says Paragary. Once sports are over for the evening, the system can be programmed to play only a specific kind of music the rest of the night, he notes.

The Cafe Bernardo portion of the business will be in the back, in conjunction with the site's kitchen, which because it is larger than kitchens at other Cafe Bernardos will allow cooks to expand on the cafe's basic menu. Counter service will remain the norm, however.

Sacramento designer Bruce Benning is in charge of the makeover. Paragary hopes to have the place reoponed around Sept. 1.

As to the Cafe Bernardo in Roseville, it's being restyled into Mas Mexican Restaurant, a collaboration involving Paragary and Ernesto Jimenez of the restaurants Ernesto's, Zocalo and Tortugas in Sacramento. Mas is expected to open around Aug. 7.

July 27, 2006
Sacramentan's Culinary Profile Rising

For seven years during the 1990s, brothers Thomas and David Schnetz owned the sandwich shop and coffee house Marshall Grounds along J Street, in a slip of a space now occupied by Black Pearl Oyster Bar.

David Schnetz still is here, buying and refurbishing real estate. Thomas Schnetz, who graduated from McClatchy High School in 1984, still is in food service, making his living and raising his culinary profile in Oakland and Berkeley.

After he and his brother gave up Marshall Grounds, he returned to the East Bay, where he earlier had earned a degree in political science at the University of California.

There, Thomas Schnetz and partner Dona Savitsky opened the regional Mexican restaurant Dona Tomas at 51st Street and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland in 1999. Three years ago, they opened a second restaurant, the taqueria Tacubaya, along Fourth Street in Berkeley.

They have a third restaurant in the works for Oakland, but that isn't expected to open for another six months. It will be a departure from the Mexican formula working well for them. Instead, it will be an American bistro with "old school cocktails" and a menu that reprises some of the food from Marshall Grounds.

In the meantime, Schnetz and Savitsky are busy promoting their newly published cookbook, "Dona Tomas: Discovering Authentic Mexican Cooking" (Ten Speed Press, $29.95, 240 pages). As part of that, Schnetz will be signing books at the posh Napa Valley market Dean & DeLuca in St. Helena from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday.

Is Schnetz at all intrigued about returning to his native Sacramento to open another restaurant here? Yes, but no plans are in the works, and he likely only would do it if his brother also were involved in the project. In the meantime, he enjoys living within five miles of his two restaurants and the third taking shape.

July 26, 2006
Katrina Dinner

Justin Lundgren, the photographer behind the "Greetings from New Orleans" art project, in which he randomly left custom postcards about the city to see if people would pick them up and mail them - most cards did get to their destination - is working on something new.

He's hoping that come Aug. 29 - the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina - residents of New Orleans still scattered about the country will sit down for a ritual dinner celebrating the gumption and history of the Crescent City.

Toward that goal, he's created a Web site where he provides rituals, readings and recipes, along with a list of musical selections, he sees as fitting for his proposed "Katrina Dinner." The site also provides a link to the "Greetings from New Orleans" project, a bright reminder of what temporarily has been lost in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

July 25, 2006
Looking Back at Biba

Sacramento will have its own Hot August Nights this year, but unlike the revelry about to commence in Reno, the local version will celebrate retro dishes instead of retro cars.

To recognize the 20th anniversary of her midtown Sacramento restaurant Biba, owner/chef Biba Caggiano is supplementing her regular summer menu with a tasting menu of dishes popular during the restaurant's first three years.

They include cold veal sliced and served in a sauce of mayonnaise and tuna ($6.25), penne with prosciutto, shallots, tomatoes, peas and cream ($8.75), breaded lamb chops with swwet-and-sour onions ($13.75), a salad of green and yellow tomatoes with red onion and fresh basil ($3.50), and baked peaches with an Amaretto zabaglione ($3.50).

The prices are the original prices, but this is a tasting menu, so portions won't be as large as they were originally. The menu will be available for dinner only, starting Aug. 1 and continuing to Aug. 12.

July 24, 2006
World Tri-Tip Cup, Round 4

I'll never be a true Sacramentan, but after 15 years of living here I've picked up a few local habits. I don't complain about the heat, I'll turn around and drive back home if I can't find a parking place within a few steps of the restaurant I'd planned to visit, and I'll fire up the grill even on days when common sense suggests you are daft even to step outside, like yesterday.

But I'm on a mission - to find the best wine to go with tri-tip, the Sacramentan's favorite cut of beef for summertime grilling, with the possible exception of hamburgers.

At any rate, last night was the malbec round. Malbec is a red wine most closely identified with Argentina, where they also know something about grilling beef, so the two would seem to be a natural fit.

First, what kind of wine does malbec customarily yield? I don't know that I've had enough malbecs from Argentina to say confidently, but those I have had have tended to be juicy, meaty, dry and accessible, with a fruitiness that runs to small, perfectly ripe cherries.

The malbecs we tasted last night fit this profile, but they also stood out for a few other attributes: They had good acidity, their structure was firm without being hard, and they generally had little oak influence. By and large, they were wines of elegance and balance. They weren't huge and they weren't complex, but they were drinkable.

Two of them stood out with the tri-tip, which was pretty straightforward, without a lot of seasoning. I'd marinated the beef with chile peppers, roasted tomatoes, orange juice, cilantro, garlic and just a shot of tequila, all of which added only modest complexity to the meat, without too much spice to interfere with the wine.

As I have come to appreciate with other rounds in this tri-tip festival, the fruitiness of the wine and its oak is much less important than the wine's structure. To accompany tri-tip, a wine should have some backbone, but that doesn't mean rigid tannins. Tri-tip isn't a particularly rich or succulent cut of beef, especially when the fat is trimmed, as it generally has been in this series of tastings. The wine to go with tri-tip need not be jammy and fat, just pleasantly fruity; given malbec's typical grace, it's a pretty good choice if you are about to grill a two-pound or so tri-tip steak.

Bottom line: The two wines that were most impressive with last night's tri-tip were the Enrique Foster 2002 Mendoza Lujan De Cuyo Reserva Malbec ($25) and the Andeluna 2003 Mendoza Reserve Malbec ($23).

The Enrique Foster has pleasant sweet cherry fruit with a thin coating of chocolate. It's a big but gentle malbec, needing time to open and to express itself.

The Andaluna is denser in color and richer in flavor, but it isn't heavy. It tastes of bright cherries and ripe plums, with the sort of sharp acidity that made it a good companion with pieces of the tri-tip both lean and with an edge of fat.

Both wines are just starting to arrive in the country. The Enrique Foster is being distributed by Southern Wine Group, the Andeluna by Kysela Pere et Fils Ltd.

July 21, 2006
Warning: Build Now, Drink Later

Admit it, you've got a stash of empty Carlo Rossi wine jugs in your garage. You also have a weekend ahead with absolutely nothing to do. Why not take those jugs and make some household furnishings, like a chandelier or a couch. Seattle artist Jay Blazek has, and while they might not fit in my house, they're pretty neat. You not only can see them here, you can download building specs and watch videos of Blazek building the stuff.

"Unchanged for decades, the Carlo Rossi jug itself is simple in design, with practical elements like a screw cap and a glass ring handle. It's genius, really. Right away we realized that there were so many possibilities, so many ways of inventing something new and fresh from this iconoclastic form," says Blazek.

He calls the pieces his Jug Simple Furniture Collection, and will be taking it on tour to Minneapolis, Boston and Austin.

July 21, 2006

Must be the heat, but paralleling the current spike in temperature is a rise in the number of restaurant dishes that have been arriving at my table missing one of the ingredients listed in the menu's description. This happened to me again last night, when I ordered a scallop appetizer that also was to include potato chips. I'm not a big potato-chip fan, so it was no big deal when they weren't on the plate with the scallops. Nevertheless, I asked the server about the missing chips. She went into the kitchen to find out. When she returned, she said the chef said they weren't up to his standards, so he eliminated them. She assured me it wouldn't happen again.

This was the second time within a week, however, that I'd ordered this dish at the same restaurant, and the second time that the chips weren't with the scallops. The first time I was curious about the missing chips, but didn't give their absence much thought and didn't make an issue of the matter.

This wasn't the only component missing from a dish last night in contrast to the menu's description, but like the chips the other AWOL ingredient was more garnish than essential element. But like I note, this sort of thing has been on the rise recently.

Do we need to return to the day when the state actually hired people to review menus against what actually was served and then slap the wrists of transgressors? No, I wouldn't go that far. Lately, the missing items have been minor players in a dish. Without the menu in hand, most diners probably aren't going to recognize that something promised has gone missing.

Nonetheless, trust has been breached. So what's a diner to do? You could request that the cost of the dish in question be reduced. The scallop appetizer, for example, wasn't cheap at $14 for two scallops, so a couple of bucks off wouldn't have been unreasonable. The restaurant didn't make that offer, however, and not being exercised about the missing chips I wasn't going to propose it, nor do I think most diners would be comfortable making such a suggestion. If the missing ingredient were truffles or caviar, on the other hand, a discussion might be in order. A guest need not be outspokenly riled about the issue; a polite question about a missing ingredient he or she especially was looking forward to generally will prompt conscientious restaurateurs to offer some sore of accommodation.

And if they don't? Diners, of course, have the final say in the matter. They just don't return.

July 20, 2006
A Walk Through Walker Vineyard

When people learn you earn part of your living writing of wine, they say things to indicate that they think the task is all about traveling to glamorous wine regions, touring historic wine cellars, and sitting down to tastings that cover about 100 years of the winery's signature wine.

Actually, like a lot of journalism today, the job involves a computer and a telephone. For every hundred or so days in the office, I actually get out into a vineyard and winery. Today was one of those days. I spent it with the gents pictured here, Greg Boeger, on the left, and Lloyd Walker. They're next to Walker's zinfandel vines, which top a knoll overlooking the canyon of the North Fork of the Cosumnes River about eight miles southeast of Placerville in El Dorado County.

Since around 1980, Boeger has been making a Walker Vineyard zinfandel at his family's Boeger Winery on Apple Hill. Vintage after vintage, it's been one of my favorite zinfandels, which I've appreciated for its clear berry fruit, supple texture, notes of peppery spice and overall elegance.

I'll be writing more of Walker Vineyard in a future Dunne on Wine column in The Sacramento Bee. But for the benefit of people who have collected Walker Vineyard zinfandels over the years and are curious about how they might be aging, I have some advice based on a vertical tasting of several vintages over the past 20 years. This we did in the cool comfort of Boeger Winery following the trek about the vineyard. If you have vintages from 1984 through 1991 in your cellar, I'd drink them now, or soon. They are holding up remarkably well, with amazing vitality for a varietal underappreciated for its aging potential, but they aren't likely to improve. From the mid-1990s on, the wines should continue to evolve quite reliably for another decade for the older releases, longer for younger vintages.

We finished with the latest release, the 2004, already sold out at the winery and probably going fast in wine shops and restaurants, in part because wine critic Robert Parker Jr. recently annointed it with 90 points. It's a lush and lovely take on the varietal, brimming with jammy berry fruit and structured firmly without being hard, its oak finely integrated. If they sold stock in Walker Vineyard, I'd say buy whatever you can right now, but settling for the wine alone is no less a pleasant alternative.

July 19, 2006
Welcome to David Lawrence's World

David Lawrence is a Carmichael native now working as a personal chef in Beverly Hills. He's also the author of a newly published cookbook, "Boy Eats World!: A Private Chef Cooks Simple Gourmet" (Lake Isle Press, $18.95, softcover, 208 pages). In the Taste section of today's Sacramento Bee, I have an article about Lawrence, and you can catch a bit of my interview with him at this link.

July 19, 2006
10 Best Wines of the Year, So Far

In the Dunne on Wine column in the Taste section of today's Sacramento Bee, I list my "10 best bargain wines of the year, so far." This exercise reminded me that I need to update my list of the "10 best wines of the year, so far," originally posted here May 26. Here's the latest version, with two new additions, both from Australia:

C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery 2003 Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel ($25): .Zinfandels out of the Sierra foothills typically are intensely ripe, chewy and warm, and while this interpretation doesn’t back down from that kind of muscularity it is packaged with unusual balance and even elegance for the region.

Clos du Val 2000 Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($95): A classic Napa Valley take on cabernet sauvignon – extravagant with sweet cherry fruit, eucalyptus, cocoa, cedar and mint, with tannins that while obvious nonetheless don't erect a barrier to enjoying the wine today, though it should age handsomely for many years to come.

Forefathers Wine 2004 McLaren Valey Shiraz ($23): By day, globetrotting Nick Goldschmidt is executive winemaker for Beam Wine Estates. The rest of the time he oversees his personal labels, Goldschmidt Vineyards and Forefathers Wine. For Forefathers, he seeks out choice vineyards in appellations recognized for doing especially well by specific varietals, such as sauvignon blanc in New Zealand's Marlborough district. The fruit for his shiraz comes from a 15-acre vineyard in South Australia's McLaren Vale. It could be the most aromatic wine I'll smell all year, shot through with tantalizing hints of blueberries, eucalyptus, licorice, cedar and oak. On the palate, it's all silk, with subdued tannins and breezy acidity. This is one lush yet lively shiraz, drinkable now but with the structure and balance to age confidently for several more years.

Taltarni Vineyards Lalla Gully 2005 Tasmania Riesling ($20): More fine wines are showing up in bottles with screwcaps, and this is one of the finer examples, a riesling so juicy with peach flavor you suspect some of the wine may dribble down your chin as you sip it. It's just a little sweet, but with the kind of gripping acidity that masks much of the sugar. The Lalla Gully vineyard is in the Pipers River region of northeast Tasmania. Not many wines arrive here from there, but this is one worth seeking.

Merry Edwards 2003 Sonoma Coast Meredith Estate Pinot Noir ($48): I had a hunch this wine would be special, so I opened it for dinner on Valentine’s Day, and it delivered with an amplitude rare for California, even though the state is producing more and more pinot noirs of complexity and resonance. This one had a kind of papal richness about it – authority, tradition, grandeur – starting with alluring berry, cherry and deli-case aromas, swaggering with assurance in its bloodline, finishing with flavors that seemed as if they would last all year, and so far they have, at least in memory.

Mumm Napa 2001 Blanc de Blancs ($25): Sparkling wines rarely win the sweepstakes award at a major wine judging. They may be perfectly fine wines, but they tend to be too light against what generally is pretty heavy competition. At the final round of the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in San Bernardino this spring, however, the Mumm Napa 2001 Blanc de Blancs, which has the classic dry fruitiness and trademark toastiness of Champagne, won the top honor. An unusual blend of two-thirds chardonnay and one-third pinot gris, the wine offers a stony foundation topped with feathery bubbles, crisp acidity and refreshing fruit.

Philip Shaw Wines No. 89 2004 Orange Shiraz Viognier ($45): Legendary Australian winemaker Philip Shaw finally is starting to show up in the American market with his own label. His lineup includes this exceptionally rich, juicy and complex interpretation of Australia’s flagship varietal. Only one percent of the wine is viognier, added to help tone down shiraz’s striking white-pepper spiciness when the grape is grown in a cool area like Orange.

Rancho Zabaco 2003 Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard Toreador Zinfandel ($50): OK, so it has a whopping 15.9 percent alcohol, but it also has the fruit, oak and body to balance it all out, showing that even high-alcohol table wines can be elegant. It’s a monster, all right, but lovable for its ripe and spicy raspberry and blackberry flavors, punctuated with licorice and rhubarb. Just 174 cases were made.

Robert Pecota Winery 2005 Napa Valley L’Artiste Sauvignon Blanc ($15): I taste a lot of sauvignon blanc, and am especially keen on examples of the varietal from New Zealand. This sauvignon blanc, however, shows that California can produce a style that doesn’t just mimic the grapefruit and lime zestiness of the New Zealanders. The Pecota is equally as aromatic, vivacious and refreshing, but it has more structure and sinew, and a fruitiness that says peaches more than citrus.

Spring Mountain Vineyard 2002 Napa Valley Estate Caberent Sauvignon ($50): Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is muscular; that’s a given. Rarely is that power presented as gracefully as it is here, however. Think the weather is too warm for a hefty red? Not when it is as lithe and lively as this one, with its lip-smacking flavor of ripe and dewy Bing cherries and blackberries, with hints of chocolate and eucalyptus.

July 18, 2006
Running a Fever? Try a Freeze

For 60 years, Sacramentans have been seeking brief respite from the city's torrid summer heat in a sweet and fruity slush called "Merlino's freeze." The Merlino family no longer makes the freezes, but the icy concoctions, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, live on.

The freezes are especially welcome during heat waves like the one we're weathering right now, which prompted me to drop in to two places with Merlino's ties.

The first was Hagen's The Original Orange Freeze at 2520 Walnut Ave. in Carmichael. The Merlinos ran a freeze stand on the site until it closed about six years ago. After the place stood idle a couple of years, Temme and Toy Hagen, both of whom had worked for the Merlinos, reopened it in 2003. Temme Hagen says he and his wife make the freezes just as the Merlinos began to make them in 1946, with fresh fruit, squeezed daily.

Our second stop was Mr. Pickle's, a sandwich shop at Folsom Boulevard and 32nd Street, whose owners, Jo Jo Martinez and Javier Ramos, recently bought the Merlino's brand, including the family recipes.

At both stores we ordered small orange and strawberry freezes - $2.09 each at Hagen's, $3 each at Mr. Pickle's. Both looked to be about the same size, 9 ounces or so.

Despite the family links, the freezes were surprisingly different. The Hagen's versions were fruitier, sweeter and more finely textured, with an almost creamy consistency; they invited you to play with your freeze, using the edge of the spoon to peel off tastes in fine ribbons while sculpting the icy mound into a miniature version of Half Dome.

The Mr. Pickle's versions were made with more coarsely shaved ice, flakes of which occasionally froze into small, firm chunks. They weren't as easy to play with, their citric flavors not as pronounced. Nevertheless, on any day when the temperature nears 100 degrees they're cool and refreshing. I'd like one right now, but I also still have to check out the snowcones at Osaka Ya along 10th Street, another popular Sacramento hot-weather destination.

July 17, 2006
Looking for Novelty in Grilling?

Visualization would have helped. Memory, too. If only I'd remembered that if you apply enough heat to enough salt, you end up with walls for a new house.

No, I exaggerate. The result isn't that solid, but it is sturdy. Seasoned cooks have used this technique for centuries, encasing chicken, beef and fish in a thick coating of salt that seals in moisture while flavoring the meat as it cooks, though without turning it too salty.

But I'd forgotten that when I read David Lawrence's recipe for "salt steak" in his new cookbook, "Boy Eats World."

He's a Carmichael native, now living in Los Angeles, where he's a personal chef to a couple of Beverly Hills doctors. When I interviewed him the other day for a story in this Wednesday's Taste section, I expressed reservations about his recipe for "salt steak." Didn't sound to me like it would work. He swore it would. I said I'd try it over the weekend. Last night, I did.

Basically, the recipe calls for about 2 pounds of London broil to be grilled on half an inch or so of kosher salt spread on a triple layer of paper towels. I pictured the paper bursting into flames the moment it was slid onto the grill, the salt falling onto the briquets below. True, the edges of the towels did burn, but not the portion under the steak. It held, along with the salt, which formed a thick and firm foundation for the beef, even when I lifted and turned the beef over.

"London broil," incidentally, is a generic term for just about any cut of cheap meat, and today is applied to cuts as diverse as flank steak and chuck shoulder. The cut I picked up at the supermarket was labeled "London broil top round."

In short, Lawrence's recipe worked just dandy. The steak was flavorful, with just the right proportion of salt and pepper. That it was served in thin slices atop sourdough bread dipped in garlic butter didn't hurt, though another cut, perhaps bottom round, might not have been quite as chewy, but that was no fault of the recipe.

Next time, I'll also put the lid on the grill as the steak cooks. Without the top, the meat took a bit longer than the time Lawrence calculated, but maybe my coals weren't as hot as his. At any rate, here's the recipe, which will serve 4 to 6 people easily:

2 to 2-1/2 pounds London broil

1-1/2 cups kosher salt

Freshly cracked black pepper

2-1/2 sticks unsalted butter

3 cloves garlic

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 loaf sliced French bread (sandwich style)

Preheat outdoor grill to high heat.

On a plate, layer 3 plain white paper towels one on top of the other and place the meat on top of the paper towels. Allow the meat to sit for several minutes so the juices soak the towels, leaving behind an impression of the meat. Remove the meat and fill the impression with an even layer of salt, about ½ inch thick. Season the meat generously with pepper on both sides and place it on the salt.

Lay the whole thing on the grill. (Don't be alamred when the dry edges of the paper towel catch fire and burn up almost immediately; the soaked portion of towel will be fine.) Grill the meat for about 10 to 12 minutes per side, turning it once back onto the paper towel. For medium rare, it's done when an instant-read thermometer registers 130 degrees to 140 degrees F. Tranfer the meat to a cutting board and allow it to rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter with the garlic and allow the flavors to infuse for a few minutes. Pour the butter into a shallow pie dish and stir in the chopped parsley.

To serve, slice the London broil diagonally across the grain into thin strips. Quickly dip one side of each piece of bread into the melted garlic butter and place butter side up on a plate. Lay several slices of meat over the bread and dig in greedily. Take advantage of those hot coals to grill some corn on the cob to accompany the beef.

July 14, 2006
Relief from the Heat: Gewurztraminer

Yesterday evening's Grape & Gourmet, the annual Cal Expo gala where officials of the California State Fair reveal the major winners of this year's wine competition, got us primed for the wine that should be perfect for this weekend's torrid temperatures: Gewurztraminer.

A wine of extravagant floral and spicy highlights set off against flavors suggestive of lychee nuts, grapefruit, peaches and apples, gewurztraminer expresses itself most profoundly when it comes from cool-climate regions of Germany and Alsace. California generally is considered too warm to do well by gewurztraminer. But while gewurztraminers from California might lack the complexity and finesse of their European counterparts, they can be surprisingly forthright and alluring.

Judges at the State Fair wine competition this year found one gewurztraminer so soundly constructed and so refreshing they named it the Best of Show white wine. It's the Fetzer Vineyards 2005 Valley Oaks California Gewurztraminer ($9). That price also explains why it was named the competition's best value.

Inspired by the wine's showing, I spent most of my time at the gala looking for other notable gewurztraminers, and found several that will help temper this weekend's heat, regardless of whether hot dogs or prawns are coming off the grill, and regardless of how robust their accompaniements. They were the Firestone Vineyard 2005 Santa Ynez Valley Carronza Mesa Vineyard Gewurztraminer ($12), whose sharp flavors were matched by surprising length; the Jekel Vineyards 2005 Monterey Gewurztraminer ($13), which like the Fetzer, the Firestone and most California interpretations of the varietal is off-dry, with enough sugar to enhance the fruit without turning it sticky; the Nevada City Winery 2005 Sonoma Gewurztraminer ($14.50), which has a bit more sugar than many of the others but nonetheless also has enough bright acidity to give it lift; and the Ventana Vineyards 2004 Monterey Arroyo Seco Gewurztraminer ($16), the ripest and most complex of the gewurztraminers I tasted all evening, and less sweet than a lot of chardonnays nowadays.

Grab a corkpuller, secure a spot in the shade, and have yourself a very pleasant weekend.

July 13, 2006
Winters Two-Step

Like all small farm towns, Winters comes alive on weekend nights. Unlike other small farm towns, however, the attractions are more diverse than a few bars and maybe a dance pavilion. Main Street through Winters has the Palms Playhouse, the Buckhorn Steak & Roadhouse, the tasting room of Berryessa Gap Vineyards, and, starting Aug. 5, Monticello Bistro.

Anthony Gruska, owner of Tastebuds Catering in Davis, and his wife Rhonda, a former events planner at the Capitol in Sacramento, are easing into the restaurant business. Their Monticello Bistro initially will be open Saturday nights only, then Friday and Saturday nights starting in September.

It will occupy the small cafe Steady Eddy's Coffee House & Juice Bar, which will remain open by day but become Monticello Bistro on weekend nights. This abbreviated schedule also will allow Gruska to continue his catering business during the week. The cafe is at 5 E. Main St.

The Gruskas are departing from the norm in one other respect. They'll be serving just one fixed-price, multi-course dinner, with only one seating. The opening-night menu, for example, will start off with a white-peach Bellini, to be followed by such dishes as a panzanella salad, beef braised with local syrah, and an Italian chocolate cake with raisins and walnuts. The price for the first three Saturday-night dinners is $45 per person, but note that the first event already is sold out.

The Aug. 12 dinner will have a Turkish theme, while the Aug. 19 dinner represents California Cuisine. The Gruskas are keen on assembling menus based on local seasonal ingredients, so dishes will capitalize on provisions now at their peak, such as green beans, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and figs.

Reservations are required: (530) 902-5520.

July 13, 2006
Sushi Showdown

Taka Watanabe has a big responsibility riding on his shoulders. His hands, actually. It's up to him to salvage the Sacramento area's sushi reputation. Watanabe, owner of Taka's Sushi in Fair Oaks, and partner in Kru in midtown Sacramento, just has been named one of nine chefs to compete in the second annual California State Sushi Competition, also known as SushiMasters.

During the first competition last year, two local sushi chefs, Kotaro "Taro" Arai of the Mikuni group of restaurants and Ranee Delacruz of Dragonfly and Tokyo Fro's, were shut out. The overall winner, Jerry Warner of Cafe Japengo in San Diego, will return to defend his title.

Watanabe is supremely confident he will represent Sacramento proudly. "I’m going to win. I have something up my sleeve," he says.

The chefs, chosen by a panel of sushi instructors and chefs convened by the sponsoring California Rice Commission, will be judged in three categories: morikomi, signature roll and the "California governor's roll," the latter to be based on a list of ingredients drawn up by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Morikomi is a traditional combination sushi plate that is to include nigiri, maki and temaki styles.

Four of the other chefs are from the San Francisco area, two are from Los Angeles and one each is from San Diego.

For the first time this year, the competition, to be at Memorial Auditorium, will be open to the public. Tickets - $50 each - are to go on sale later this month at and The event is to include sushi, a buffet, and wine, beer and sake.

Watanabe, incidentally, hasn't been affiliated for three years with the recently closed Sacramento restaurant Taka's Sushi, also known as Taka Japanese Restaurant.

July 12, 2006
Coasting Inland

While in the Temecula Valley I've been staying at South Coast Winery Resort & Spa, which isn't on the coast at all but in the middle of vineyards and orchards. The terrace of each individual villa, in fact, opens onto vineyard or citrus grove. While the place is posh, it also is a true working winery. If you continue straight ahead as you approach the front door you end up in the tasting room; turn left to register for a room.

The winery isn't a tourist gimmick, but a serious operation with a serious winemaker, Jon McPherson. That was shown last night when the Temecula Valley Wine Society announced the winners of the region's second annual wine competition. I haven't totaled up all the medals South Coast Winery won, but I do know that three of the four gold medals we gave syrah wines went to South Coast Winery for various interpretations of the varietal. (The fourth, however, went to the syrah judged the best red wine in the competition, the lush Wilson Creek Winery 2004 Estate Temecula Valley Syrah ($35).)

The competition's sweepstakes winner was a surprise for a region that is swinging to more warm-climate grape varieties. It was the gentle but characteristically floral and spicy Van Roekel Vineyards/La Cereza 2005 Temecula Valley Gewurztraminer ($15), the only example of the varietal we tasted all day, and a varietal that generally shows this well only in cooler microclimates.

Unfortunately, few Temecula Valley wines get to Northern California. In other words, you've got to plan a long weekend down here, but be forewarned: If you come soon don't expect the weather to be any cooler than Sacramento. South coast, indeed.

July 11, 2006
Temecula Countdown

After tasting through 142 wines of the Temecula Valley, what conclusions can I draw about the region? Only the most rash:

1. As California wine regions go, Temecula Valley is an appellation still in search of itself. This is perfectly understandable. By winemaking standards, the area still is young, really starting only in 1968, when Vince Cilurzo, an Emmy-winning Hollywood lighting director, planted the first substantial modern-era vineyard in the area, 40 acres given over to petite sirah and chenin blanc. I talked with Cilurzo last night. He's not sure he'd plant the same varieties today. But in 1968 he was confident petite sirah and chenin blanc would sell regardless of where they were planted. Today, however, the judges at the Temecula Valley wine competition tasted just one petite sirah and two chenin blancs. Clearly, the area is betting its future on other varietals, though it's almost impossible to say which one is the front runner.

2. Nonetheless, if I were a gambling man, I'd put my money on syrah. We tasted 15 of them, four of which ended up among the seven wines to vie for best-of-show red wine. The results won't be announced until later tonight, but I can tell you this, a syrah was chosen best-of-show red.

3. Much of the wine consciousness here is driven by market considerations. This is true of other wine regions, to be sure, but the emphasis here is more pronounced, largely because so much of Temecula's wine is sold through winery tasting rooms, primarily because the area is so accessible to so many people - San Diego to the southwest, Orange County and Los Angeles to the northwest, Riverside and San Bernardino to the northeast, Palm Springs to the east. One local resident remarked to me that 15 million people, maybe 20 million, live within a 90-minute drive of Temecula. With so many people so close, why not just cater to their tastes, and their tastes run to refreshing whites, thus the swing to viognier, riesling and pinot grigio. Thus, for a competitition with just 142 wines we ran into a disproportionate number of wines that consumers quaff in winery tasting rooms but are reluctant to order in restuarants and wine shops.

4. If you're planning to visit Temecula and tour its wineries, focus on the area's roses. They didn't win as high a percentage of gold medals as syrahs, but they were exquisite, showing refreshing fruit and refined structure in one attractive package after another.

Got to run. The grand awards are about to be announced.

July 11, 2006
Temecula Touchdown

As I sit down to write this, several hot-air balloons rise brightly over the vineyards just outside my room. Ahhhh, the Napa Valley early on a summer morning. Nope, not the Napa Valley, but another, much less celebrated California wine area, the Temecula Valley, deep in Southern California.

Northern Californians may think the vineyards of Temecula Valley have dried up and blown away because of an infestation of the glassy-winged sharpshooter and the vine-killing Pierce's disease it carries over the past seven years. Granted, one-fourth to one-half of the vineyard acreage in the Temecula Valley seven years ago has been removed, and the area is down to around 1500 acres in vines.

But vineyard acreage again is growing, and so is the number of wineries, now up to 25, double what it was seven years ago. As a measure of local confidence in the future of the wine industry here, the 200 members of Temecula Valley Wine Society are sponsoring for the second straight year a commercial competition. The content of all wines entered must be from at least 75 percent Temecula Valley grapes. At last count, 142 wines have been entered in the judging, which commences shortly. It's why I'm here, as one of five judges.

The theme of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association is "Taste the Place." By the end of the day I hope to know more about what Temecula has to say when it comes to expressing varietal intensity, stylistic clarity and sense of place. Right now I'm going to grab a cup of coffee and watch those hot-air balloons.

July 10, 2006
Poor Red's For Sale; Includes Cadillac

I'm working up a list of 50 reasons why Sacramento is such a great place to live if you're a food enthusiast. High on the list is the Gold Cadillac, also known as the Golden Cadillac, a yellow-hued cocktail made with the sweet Italian liqueur Galliano, white creme de cacao, Half and Half, and ice, all whipped into a froth with a blender. It's the signature drink of Poor Red's in El Dorado, which introduced it along about 1952.

The Bee reported in one of its regional editions in June that Poor Red’s is up for sale. So I called Dave Chapdelaine, who has owned Poor Red's since 1992 and who has been a fixture on the premises for more than 30 years, starting as dishwasher.

As we chatted, he dropped the bombshell that Poor Red's is up for sale, and is drawing all kinds of interest, though no deal yet has been closed. If you want to get in on the bidding, he'll sell the business alone for about $549,000. If the buyer wants the century-old building that houses the restaurant, the price will be around $759,000.

Poor Red's, now in its 54th year, is best known for its ribs and New York steak...and the Gold Cadillac. It's reputedly the largest user of Galliano in the world, going through "30 or 35" bottles on a Saturday night, says Chapdelaine.

July 10, 2006
World Tri-Tip Cup, Round 3

After a Sunday that included the World Cup finals and an even more tedious "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," we resumed our search for the best wine to accompany California's signature cut of grilled beef: tri-tip.

This was the zinfandel round, four recent releases from the 2004 vintage, representing various appellations.

As a group, the wines were fairly tight - slow to express themselves - but pleasantly lean and relatively modest in alcohol in contrast to many examples of the varietal nowadays. ("Modest" in this sense is 14.5 to 14.9 percent alcohol.)

The best with the fairly assertively seasoned tri-tip - somewhat heavy on the salt, plus peppercorns - was the Artezin 2004 Zinfandel ($15), made with fruit from Mendocino County (58 percent), Sonoma County (25 percent) and Amador County (17 percent). A brand of the Hess Collection in the Napa Valley, the Artezin went well with the tri-tip not so much for its juicy fruit, which it did have, but for its solid structure and its ample weight, all of which danced gracefully with the richness of the beef. On its own, the wine, which includes 6 percent petite sirah, carries a note of white and black pepper to spice up its gentle blackberry and raspberry fruitiness.

A close second in the tasting was the DeLoach Vineyards 2004 Russian River Valley O.F.S. Zinfandel ($30), whose big berry juiciness, spirited spice and zesty acidity provided lively counterpoint to the power of the tri-tip. Be patient with the wine, however; it took forever to open.

July 10, 2006
Suds, Sex and Sculpture

After 14 stops during the Sacramento art walk called Second Saturday, I have to say that the quality of the works on exhibit just get more and more compelling. So does the wine. Fewer galleries, boutiques and other stops along the stroll are pouring Charles Shaw wines, also known as Two Buck Chuck, and more are opting for labels a bit more expensive and a bit more complex, like the art itself.

Curiously, however, of the 14 midtown places we visited just one really understood the Sacramento climate and attitude. That was the salon Lush, where the staff was handing out cups of Rubicon Brewing Company's cold, rich and foamy IPA. This was the only beer we found all evening, which wasn't much cooler than the day, when the temperature topped 100 degrees.

With refreshing cups in hand, we drifted to the nearby 20th St. Art Gallery, where the band Sex on Sunday was playing out front and a food-theme group show inside was drawing the biggest and most excited crowd of the night.

As I stood looking at Leslie DuPratt's "One Less Egg to Fry," I heard someone say, "Look, she's drinking wine in the morning." True, the subject of the painting, whose expression of barely controlled rage is priceless, was holding a glass of red wine, with the half-empty bottle on the counter next to the range. But the setting could have been evening as well as morning. Why not a fried egg for dinner? But why red wine instead of white? Got to try both sometime.

In the meantime, the show continues until July 28. I really don't need to say "don't miss" the Melissa Bowden sculpture "A Damn Big Pear."

July 7, 2006
Masque Still in a Groove

In the dining column of Sunday Ticket in this weekend's Sacramento Bee, I respond to reader questions, including one that asks about restaurants with live musical entertainment.

I mention Masque Ristorante in El Dorado Hills as one place with occasional music, but before last night - the column was written earlier in the week - I hadn't realized just how entertaining the restaurant's music could be.

Last night's performance was by an R&B group that a server said was Devious Groove, whose cohesive, driving and catchy sounds had guests up and dancing despite crowded conditions on the patio.

This was our first return to Masque since a tumultous turnover in key personnel in January. Chef Angelo Auriana and manager Nicola Rivieccio left in a falling out with the restaurant's two other partners. Since then, none has said much about the breakup other than to remark that it was like a marriage that just didn't work out.

At the time, Masque was one of the Sacramento region's finer restaurants, with an inspired interpretation of regional Italian cooking, servers of snap and flair, and an exhaustive and exhilarating wine list.

I'll elaborate on our experience last night in a future dining column in Sunday Ticket, but for now I'll just say that I haven't had a more impressive dinner this year, from the seasonal appropriateness and assuredness of dishes through the more relaxed yet equally smart service to the sweep of the wine program.

No plans this weekend? Check out Masque.

July 6, 2006
New Chances for Brain Freeze

Merlino's Freeze, with which Sacramentans have been beating back the summer heat for 60 years, has new owners who are keen on making the icy fruit slushes just as available and popular the other three seasons.

"Merlino's no longer is a seasonal business, it's no longer a summer drink, it's a year-round product that will be available every day of the year," says Jo Jo Martinez, who with his business partner, Javier Ramos, has bought the business from Bob Hemond.

Hemond, an executive with the Sacramento River Cats baseball squad, teamed up with Warren Smith and Matt Re to buy Merlino's in 2000 following bankruptcy of one of the city's culinary icons. Hemond subsequently bought out Smith and Re.

Martinez and Ramos own two branches of the Mr. Pickle's chain of sandwich shops, one along Gerber Road in south Sacramento, the other along Folsom Boulevard in east Sacramento, which had been a Merlino's store.

Martinez and Ramos are making Merlino's freezes available at their two stores, and aggressively are negotiating with other branches of Mr. Pickle's to also carry the products. They're also talking with the fast-growing chain of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue restaurants to make available the freezes. They're also eyeing Sacramento International Airport and Old Sacramento. Stands dispensing the freezes already have been set up at Raley Field and the Music Circus, and two will be at the State Fair, said Ramos.

In addition to the original orange, strawberry and lemon flavors, they've added black raspberry, watermelon and pineapple.

No terms of the sale were disclosed. "I'm not comfortable discussing details," said Martinez.

July 6, 2006
Olive Oil, Olive the Time

Bottles of olive oil, like bottles of wine, often bear the year in which the fruit was harvested. Both wine grapes and olives are harvested in the fall and early winter, generally starting with grapes in August and ending with olives in December. Thus, I was taken aback to see the newest releases from Apollo Olive Oil of Oregon House in Yuba County with "2006" on the labels.

Steven Dambeck, a partner in Apollo Olive Oil, explains that the practice of vintage dating olive oil is relatively new and in a state of flux. Without uniform standards, each producer is free to decide how to vintage date their releases. Some settle on the year the fruit was gathered, some prefer the year in which the olives were processed into oil. The issue is complicated by a harvest that may start in one year but not finish until the next.

"We usually straddle the year a little bit, and blend fruit that is harvested early with fruit that is harvested later," says Dambeck. He felt it too awkward to label the oils "2005/2006," so he settled on 2006. Because olive oil is best consumed young, he's hoping the "2006" also will suggest to consumers that this is the year in which to enjoy it.

In the future, the date is likely to end up on the back of the bottle, which is the trend on the international olive-oil scene, regardless of how the date is calculated, says Dambeck.

And speaking of the international olive-oil scene, Apollo's 2005 Organic Sierra Olive Oil was named the "best olive oil from overseas" at Olio 2006, a competition in Munich sponsored by the German travel and food guide Der Feinschmecker. Some 750 olive oils were tasted, around 200 of them from "overseas," which included South America, Australia and California.

The 2006 olive oils now being released by Apollo are the first to be made in the United States with a new vacuum mill developed by Italian olive-oil authority Marco Mugelli. One of just four such mills in the world, though two more are to be installed this year, the system is designed to protect olive polyphenols from oxidation during processing, thereby preserving flavor, freshness and antioxidants, says Dambeck.

The Apollo 2006 Sierra, about two-thirds of which is made with the traditional California mission olive, is a somewhat spicer and more floral version of Apollo's other signature olive oil, the 2006 Mistral, made with five varieties of Provencal olives. The 2006 Mistral has a rounder build and more buttery texture and more green-fruit flavor than the Sierra, but both have the sort of fresh and distinct flavors that suggest the new mill is working well. Both sell for around $23 per 500-milliliter bottle. Locally, the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Corti Brothers, Nugget Markets and Taylors Market stock Apollo olive oils.

July 5, 2006
Pork Power

Of course I had a hot dog on the Fourth of July. It wouldn’t have been the Fourth without one. In fact, I grilled and started eating the dogs the night before. So, the dog on the Fourth was a leftover. Didn’t matter, it still was dandy, even without mustard, relish and bun. It was a true Fourth of July popper, with plenty of snap to its natural casing. The surroundings only enhanced the pleasure.

But first the backstory:

Where you going? asked the attendant in the reception cabin at Carson Pass, 100 miles up the Sierra from Sacramento.

It’s the Fourth of July, so Fourth of July Lake is our destination, I answered.

He came out from behind the counter, took a look and asked, Dressed like that?
I looked to make sure I hadn’t forgotten to put on shoes and shorts.

No poles? he asked.


No crampons?


I suspect he next wanted to ask, No sense? But he was a gentleman, just eager to be helpful.

No one’s made it to Fourth of July Lake yet this season without poles and crampons, he explained. Too much snow.

Nevertheless, we set out.

For years, this was a family tradition, hiking into Fourth of July Lake in the Mokelumne Wilderness on the Fourth of July. For various reasons, this was our first trip back this century.

It’s five miles from Carson Pass to the lake, on the far side of a wind-blown saddle, down a slim switchback trail.

We pass Frog Lake, Elephant’s Back and Winnemucca Lake before the snowfields become truly wide, steep and slippery.

But foot traffic is light, the day is glorious and we march on, without poles, without crampons.

We skirt Round Top, cross the saddle, pass Round Top Lake and then see Fourth of July Lake far below us. It looks close, but the descent takes forever, and I start to wonder how we’ll get out.

Three and a half hours after we started, we arrive. Lacy white waterfalls more numerous and powerful than any I can recall at the lake spill down walls of gray granite. It’s hot, but a welcome breeze blows across the lake. A long slim snake with yellow stripes glides along the water’s edge at our feet.

About that hot dog: It was a “natural pork hotdog” from Bledsoe Natural Pork of Woodland.

John Bledsoe and his son Dan run 300 hogs in Dunnigan, raising them without growth hormones and antibiotics.

The business is only five years old. It started when Dan’s high school FFA project got out of hand.

At the Sunday farmers market in Sacramento and the Saturday farmers market in Davis, they sell just about any pork product you could want – baby back ribs, boneless pork loin, pork chops, hot dogs, bacon and so forth.

Corti Brothers carries some of their products, and Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, Centro Cocina Mexicana and Spataro use some on their menus.

That one hot dog, along with a nectarine and a plum, trail mix, water and a fistful of Ibuprofen was all I needed for the hike out. Somehow, it took us just three hours on the return trip. Must have been because of that pure pork protein.

July 5, 2006
Supercook Returns

As I watched the flashback opening sequence of “Superman Returns” over the holiday weekend I tried to figure out what era was being represented.

The architecture and the vintage truck of the Midwestern farm where Superman first landed on Earth suggested the 1930s or 1940s.

Then I noticed a small detail in the kitchen scene that told me it had to be 1947 or later, only I didn’t know that until I got home and checked our set of “Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking.”

In “Superman Returns,” a glimpse of the two-volume set is caught on a kitchen counter.

It was a neat detail, recognizing a cookbook author widely recognized in her day but virtually forgotten now, though her encyclopedia is as relevant and helpful as the higher profile “Joy of Cooking.”

The first printing of the Given’s encyclopedia was in February 1947.

“Every homemaker, whether her family numbers two or ten, needs a cook book that is complete – one that will assist her with any type of meal-making problem,” says Elvera Rest to open the book’s foreword. (Rest was Given’s assistant, and, like Given, a home economist.)

For about 2,000 pages, Given then provides the home cook with all sorts of advice that remains valuable today, from “stretching the food dollar” to taking advantage of just about any ingredient you are apt to run across at market.

It’s complete, all right, and remains the go-to set in our kitchen whenever we need good basic guidance or help in interpreting an old family recipe. Look for it at garage sales, used-book stores or Web sites specializing in rare volumes, such as

July 3, 2006
Harold P. Olmo Dies

Word arrived this afternoon of the death of Harold P. Olmo, who as a longtime grape geneticist at UC Davis was credited for helping lay the foundation for California's thriving wine trade.

He retired nearly 30 years ago, but he kept on researching grape vines virtually up to his death at 96 on Friday in Davis.

Over the nearly half a century he was at UC Davis he developed some 30 varieties of grapes, initiated research to show how some clones of a specific variety were superior to others, and accumulated grape genetic material from throughout the world to assure the preservation and propagation of rare and endangered grapes.

At various times he was called "the Luther Burbank of viticulture," "the Johnny Appleseed of viticulture" and "the Indiana Jones of viticulutre," the later prompted in part by his harrowing 1948 adventure through Afghanistan, Iran and India in search of the world's original grape vines.

An obituary on Harold Olmo was published July 4 in The Sacramento Bee.

July 3, 2006
World Tri-Tip Cup, Round 2

In our summer-long attempt to find the best wine to accompany tri-tip, we fired up the Weber last night and threw another thick slab of beef on the grill. As it cooked, we opened four bottles of young Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.

By the end of the evening we were pretty well convinced that cabernet sauvignon just might be the best varietal to pour when tri-tip is on the menu, though we need to qualify that hasty judgment by noting that the zinfandel and pinot noir rounds are still to come.

These cabernet sauvignons, however, all had the lush cherry fruit, solid spine and reviving acidity to complement the richness and sweetness of the meat and to cut through its fat. Where they differed was in weight. The lightest was the youthful, lively and most approachable Hess Collection 2003 Mount Veeder Napa Valley Mountain Cuvee ($36), which while mostly cabernet sauvignon (69 percent) also includes syrah, merlot, malbec and cabernet franc.

The heaviest and most concentrated of the four was the Spring Mountain Vineyard 2002 Napa Valley Estate Elivette ($90). On its own, the wine was just too hard, but the protein and fat of the tri-tip smoothed out its chunky tannins. Also when tasted with the meat, the wine's notes of chocolate and mint seemed more pronounced. While the Elivette was a favorite with the tri-tip, it won't be officially released until mid-September.

In the meantime, look around for the Goldschmidt Vineyard 2002 Oakville Game Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon ($65), the most elegant wine in this latest round. Gentle tannins, bright fruit, stimulating acidity and subtly complex flavors that ranged from cabernet's signature herbalness to an earthiness that suggested porcini mushroom added up to a wine perfectly at home with tri-tip.

The winner? We have to call this round a tie between the Spring Mountain and the Goldschmidt.

To recap, we now have three wines we feel confident would go well with a moderately seasoned tri-tip, the third being the winner of the first round, the Charles Spinetta Winery 2004 Amador County Barbera ($18).

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