Appetizers
September 30, 2006
Peak Experiences

Journalists aren't supposed to applaud or cheer when they cover sporting events, speeches and the like. Has something to do with being objective, or it is objectionable? I'm up here at Lake Tahoe, without my dictionary, and without it just can't keep those two words straight.

Nonetheless, I applauded today when Kim Caffrey finished her presentation during one of a series of culinary seminars and workshops that help make up the North Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival. She's a wine educator whose talk touched on several approaches to wine understanding and appreciation, from the American penchant for serving white wines too cold and red wines too warm to the most illuminating ways to smell and taste wine. "Remember to stop swirling the glass before sniffing the wine. Snorting wine can be quite painful," she remarked at one point. OK, so it wasn't her funniest line, but as a former stand-up comic her presentation was spiced with one one-liner after another, the cumulative impact of which not only was to entertain the people who signed up for her session but to educate them effectively. Thus, the collective and infectious appreciation of her audience.

Kim, however, didn't find the most amusing and ironic incidents of her presentation at all hilarious. Twice, her power-point projector shut down because of overheating during her slide show, the screen going dark as petite sirah. Did I mention who she was representing? Francis Ford Coppola Presents.

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Earlier, we sat in on Lars Kronmark's session on Asian grilling, presented on a deck of the Resort at Squaw Creek, with Sierra peaks providing his backdrop and a cool breeze giving him an exhaust fan unlike any at his home station, which is the Napa Valley branch of the Culinary Institute of America, where he is a chef instructor. (He's also a former chef at the Del Paso Country Club in Sacramento.)

Passionate, curious and smart, Lars clearly hasn't let his Danish heritage impede his grasp of Asian cookery. His presentation also reminded me that no matter how many cooking classes you attend or TV cooking shows you watch, you almost always can learn something new. In this case, Lars offered a simple solution for an old problem dealing with grilling something on a bamboo skewer. Often, the exposed butt of the skewer either gets too hot to handle or burns, making it useless to help turn or remove the skewers. His solution: Tear off a strip of aluminum foil and tuck it under the ends of the skewers, therby protecting them from the heat of the coals. But he didn't have any aluminum foil. He improvised by resting the ends against an iron grilling platter. A cookie sheet also would work as well.


September 30, 2006
Lake Tahoe to Annex Sacramento?

Lake Tahoe looks to be its usual glorious size, but the Lake Tahoe basin looks to be growing. I'm up here for the 21st annual North Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival, a weekend of seminars and workshops on a variety of culinary topics, such as party appetizers, Asian grilling and oysters.

The highlight is Sunday's Grand Tasting and Culinary Competition at the Resort at Squaw Creek. Despite my long-standing skepticism regarding the pairing of food and wine, I'm again one of the judges for the culinary competition, which involves teaming up restaurants with wineries so they can try to come up with an ideal matching of food and wine. I have to confess, some pairings are marvelous; at least, we've always been able to come up with a winner.

During the competition, which generally involves some 20 teams of restaurants and wineries, the judges don't know the identity of either. We're given a brief description of the dish and we're told the varietal or style of wine, but only after we have some fun first trying to figure out what it is.

The festival's Web site, however, lists the teams. Several Lake Tahoe restaurants that compete each year are back, including Sunnyside Resort, Mamasake Sushi, PlumpJack Cafe and Wolfdale's. But there also are some players I don't recall seeing here before, and two teams are far from what I usually consider the Tahoe basin, the area that has provided competing restaurants in the past. From Nevada City, for example, the restaurant Five Mile House will team up with Lucchesi Vineyards, a Nevada City winery. And from Auburn, Monkey Cat Restaurant and Mt. Vernon Winery will team up.

I don't know what explains this participation by restaurants from outside the basin, but if the trend continues I expect to see a Sacramento restaurant or two up here next year. Any suggestions out there for which restaurant should represent Sacramento in the competition, and which dish and wine it should enter?

September 28, 2006
Hidden Kitchen Surfaces

Dennis Kercher likes to cook and to entertain, but dinner parties can get expensive. This past spring he and his wife Mary also had an itch to expand their social circle. How were they to square these conflicting impulses?

Enter the Web. They created the Web site The Hidden Kitchen, a means to invite strangers into their Land Park home, cook them dinner, join their conversation, and have them help with the cost and the cleanup.

While they were inspired by news reports of underground chefs who set up de facto restaurants that skirt the usual regulations governing businesses, Kercher says he didn't establish The Hidden Kitchen as a commercial venture.

"It's not a restaurant. It's not a capital venture. It's about people coming together to have good food and great conversation in an intimate environment," says Kercher, whose day job involves frequent travel as a sales representative for "a large graphics company."

He comes from a baking family in Pennsylvania, but that kind of cooking didn't appeal to him. "I got out of that as quick as I could; it's brutal work."

Other kinds of cooking, however, he loves. He's taken cooking classes here and in Europe, but he's mostly self-taught. "I eat out a lot," he adds.

His culinary style isn't limited to any one cuisine, though he is somewhat keen on California and Italian kinds of cookery. At the Web site, his preliminary menu for upcoming dinners mentions tea-smoked duck breasts with plum applesauce and veal osso buco.

The site also suggests that diners contribute $40 toward the cost of the food, and bring their own beverage.

The couple's dinner parties, which they generally stage once or twice a month, haven't raised the ire of neighbors, says Kercher, probably because they usually involve just 8 or 10 people, probably because on any given Saturday night all sorts of other parties are under way in the neighborhood. "It’s a dinner party. We’re adults, we don’t hoot and howl," says Kercher.

It also probably hasn't hurt that residents of the immediate neighborhood also have signed on for the parties. "A few know each other but they don't all know each other," he says of the typical makeup of his guestlist.

Much as Kercher likes restaurants, he finds conversation in many of them thwarted by the ambient noise, thus another impetus to take matters into his own hands. "In half the restaurants today you can't hear yourself think. At the parties, conversation is so lively it's amazing," says Kercher.

September 27, 2006
Big Changes at The Sub Shack

The Sub Shack is no longer easy to overlook as you zip down Folsom Boulevard, and not just for its bright new coat of paint. The place, while popularly perceived as an oldtime sandwich shop, has been generating buzz for its novel Thursday night "wine nights."

Alas, they're about to be suspended, but only for the rest of the year while owners Gary and Jen Seppy continue their renovation of the old joint. Only two more dinners will be staged until next year - this Thursday night and next.

Gary Seppy learned his cooking smarts in the early 1990s at Sacramento's LeederWulff Culinary Academy, which he first put into practice at various restaurants about town. He and his wife took over The Sub Shack about a year and a half ago, and they've been focused on making it a lively, fun neighborhood hangout ever since.

Last fall they added the Thursday "wine nights." Seppy prepares and puts out a themed spread. The theme changes weekly, and often he doesn't know what it's going to be until the day of the dinner. Tonight, for example, he expects to be researching Korean barbecue for tomorrow night's dinner. Other themes have been Ethiopian, Jamaican, Argentine, Spanish, German, Greek and Thai. One night, everything was on a stick, from corndogs to coconut shrimp. "I like to do things that people can associate with, but of good quality," said Seppy.

Last Thursday's theme looked to be "fall" - bacon-wrapped pork with risotto, toasts topped with slices of Bosc pear and blue cheese, and a green salad. Everything is put out buffet style, with guests helping themselves. The cost is a mere $15. A band usually is on hand, but not last week.

The Sub Shack still offers Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap, but in line with the upgraded food Seppy has been expanding his wine cellar, and has featured up to 40 adventurous choices by the glass. While he's cut back his inventory lately as he prepares for the makeover, the selection still is notable for its variety and value.

Seppy said the Thursday dinners grew out of his love of wine with food. "I love wine, and I think food and wine are two things that really bring people together. I've always wanted to open a restaurant that gets neighbors together," he remarked. "Evey neighborhood needs a cool, fun gathering place, just as every neighborhood needs parks."

"I want to make food and wine accessible to people. I want to take the mystery out of it and help people enjoy it," he added.

After this weekend, Seppy also will suspend breakfast for a couple of months. During the remodeling, lunch will continue to be served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. The Sub Shack is at 5201 Folsom Blvd.; (916) 457-5997.

September 25, 2006
Future Uncertain, but Hope Prevails

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Traffic through the old Gold Rush camp of Sutter Creek this weekend again was bumper to bumper, slow and loud, but that's because Main Street doubles as Highway 49, the main thoroughfare through the Mother Lode.

Relief is en route, however. This fall, a nearly four-mile bypass just west of town is to open. It's expected to take much of the truck traffic that now lumbers through the hamlet, as well as motorists heading elsewhere.

Downtown merchants are antsy about the impact the bypass will have on the city's tourist trade, but to judge by the new businesses we saw and the tasteful refurbishment of several older places their attitude is more optimistic than pessimistic. After all, with much of the vehicle traffic expected to be diverted, the town should become calmer and more pedestrian friendly.

Two longtime restaurants that look ready to capitalize on an influx of visitors are the Chatterbox Cafe, a Main Street institution that opened in 1946, and Caffe Via d'Oro.

The Chatterbox was closed and for sale when we last spent a weekend in Sutter Creek in June, but a new partnership took it over and reopened the joint last week. One of them is Joe Silva, left above, (along with partner Joe Rohda) who sold the cafe about a year ago after running it six years. He's now back, helping crank out the restaurant's celebrated cinnamon rolls, fruit pies, biscuits and the like.

One jarring addition, however, but another sign that locals believe a new wave of prosperity is just around the corner, is a stack of pagers on a back counter at the Chatterbox. Business at the cafe generally has been brisk over the decades, but the new group apparently thinks demand is going to be so high that they need big-city pagers to give diners so they can be alerted that their table or counter seat is ready as they wait on the walk out front. The cafe also is being expanded into adjoining quarters previously occupied by a custom jewelry shop, and the owners are talking of landscaping the back yard for outdoor dining. A brief flirtation with prix-fixe dinners at the restaurant also may be revived at some point.

In the meantime, Chatterbox Cafe, 39 Main St., Sutter Creek, is open for breakfast 8-11 a.m. and lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; (209) 267-5935.

In another culinary change, Caffe Via d'Oro, which opened about a decade ago as a kind of foothill offshoot of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, has undergone a transformation into an upscale steakhouse with appetizers like grilled quail with pomegranate molasses and oysters on the half shell, and entrees such as grilled duck breast with a nectarine "chili" chutney and braised chicken with applewood-smoked bacon.

While the weather was balmy in Sutter Creek this weekend, there was just enough suggestion of fall in the golden light that I felt obligated to resume my cool-weather quest for the perfect rib-eye steak. Not sure Caffe Via d'Oro's massive version was perfect, but I couldn't find any flaws in the succulent and juicy steak ($24). It was one massive prime-grade cut, grilled precisely as requested (medium rare). Thin, crispy fried onion rings topped the dark and crusty beef, while an even sweeter side of barbecued beans added to the overall brawn of the plate. This is just the sort of entree for which the robust red wines of the foothills are made, and the wine list is loaded with them.

Caffe Via d'Oro, 36 Main St., Sutter Creek, serves dinner starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; (209) 267-0535.

September 22, 2006
A New Kind of Papal Blessing

As if Joseph Ratzinger didn't have enough responsibility as Pope Benedict XVI - or enough heavy garb to wear - now he's been made an honorary sommelier and been given the traditional emblem of that rank, a silver tastevin, to drape around his neck. In light of recent controversial comments by the Pope, don't expect to hear him suggest any radical food and wine pairings, such as red wine with fish; but you never know. For more, visit the Web site of the British wine magazine Decanter.

September 21, 2006
Richard "Tim" Spencer

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My last visit with Richard "Tim" Spencer must have been three years ago, maybe four. We'd stopped by his St. Amant Winery in Lodi to taste through his latest releases during one of those weekend festivals wine districts use as marketing tools.

I'd long admired his wines, and I'm sure I enjoyed those he poured that day, but what I remember most of that visit was when he briefly excused himself, darted into his lab, and returned with a tiny bottle of what looked to be ink. With just one or two drops of the stuff, he turned a glass of clear water into petite sirah, or at least a reasonable facsimile of California's most color saturated red wine.

The bottle contained what he said was a salesman's sample of "mega purple," a concentrated grape juice that vintners had started to use to add intensity to wines they felt were a bit shy of color. It's a perfectly legal product, if more than a little out of the mainstream of traditional winemaking.

Tim made it clear that he didn't think much of the practice. He brought it out because he was one of the more candid, forthcoming winemakers I've ever met, and just wanted to make sure he was doing his part to bring a wine writer up to speed on the kind of new-age high-tech tactics some winemakers were using to secure their niche in the marketplace.

I'm using the past tense because I learned late today that Tim died last week, following a two-year struggle with lymphoma. His funeral was Monday. I missed it, and I'll miss Tim, one of the true joys of the California wine trade whenever you ran into him.

I could go on with other anecdotes to illustrate Tim's integrity, his commitment to honest winemaking, which is to say that he believed the winemaker should interfere as little as possible between the grapes he plucks from the vine and the wine he pours his guests. One, however, stands out:

Six years ago, judges of the California State Fair in Sacramento named his St. Amant Winery 1999 Amador County Roussanne the best example of the varietal to come from the Sierra foothills.

Coincidental with the competition, Tim had learned that the grapes that went into the wine may have been viognier, not roussanne. In a move believed unprecedented in California wine history, he recalled the wine from restaurateurs and retailers, and even tried to reach authorities at the State Fair to have it pulled from the competition, to no avail.

Ordinarily the most jovial of guys, Tim was downright distressed about this turn of events. It wasn't so much that he feared that authorities would crack down on him for misrepresentation as it was that he just hated to mislead wine consumers, though he was innocent from the start of any sort of duplication.

The saga was drawn out and complicated, leading to charges, counter-charges and litigation about the sale of viognier vines thought to be roussanne, with Tim caught in the middle of it all. Eventually, authorities let him sell the wine, and because of the notoriety surrounding it it sold out maybe faster than any other wine he made, which is saying something, given the popularity of his tempranillos, zinfandels, barberas and ports.

During that incident, Tim probably could have sued any number of people, but he just wanted to get back to making wine with whatever grape he turned out to have. "At my age" - he was 62 at the time - "you've got to devote your energy to more positive things," he said.

Tim was a positive influence on the California wine trade, leaving a legacy well worth emulating.

September 21, 2006
No Baloney

Sacramento is about to lose a dining institution. On Oct. 14, Tony Recchia will make his last sandwich at the last branch of his Tony Baloney group of sub shops. And the last sandwich no doubt will be his pepper steak sub with pan-fried onions and green peppers, the sandwich that he figures accounts for between 50 percent and 60 percent of his sales.

"We're just starting our 44th year. I bet we've sold three million sandwiches," says Recchia, who opened his first Tony Baloney along Del Paso Boulevard in 1963.

He says several factors contributed to his decision to close the last and most profitable of his string of sub shops, at 5059 College Oak Drive. They include the difficulty of finding employees to help run the place; the desire to devote more time to his line of bottled salad dressings; and an online horse-racing wager that won him $170,000 last month.

"I've been trying to close for a year, and then I got lucky," says Recchia, a Massachusetts native who began to make sandwiches for colleagues at Aerojet when he couldn't find any East Coast-style submarines to his liking here. Pending layoffs at Aerojet then prompted Recchia, an engineer, to go into the restaurant business so he could share his sandwich-building talents with a wider audience.

"It's time for me and Dorothy to close up," says Recchia, referring to his wife. They also have two daughters involved in the business. "I've been wanting to push the dressings more, but I haven't been able to get away from the restaurant," says Recchia of a line of salad dressings he began to bottle commercially in the 1990s. "Now I hope to expand that."

Before he gets involved in that I hope he remembers to send me the recipe for his pepper steak sub.

September 20, 2006
Another Toast to Red Wine

Something in red wine appears to help prevent Alzheimer's disease, at least signs of it in mice that have been drinking California cabernet sauvignon. Scientists involved in the study say it's too soon to draw any conclusion between drinking wine and preventing Alzheimer's in humans, and they aren't urging people concerned about the disease to start pulling corks on bottles. For more about their methods and findings, check out this report at the Web site WebMD.

September 19, 2006
Sushi's Big and Diverse World

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Last night's SushiMasters competition at Memorial Auditorium no doubt was a learning experience for all 700 or so persons who attended.

The sponsoring California Rice Commission, for one, learned that if it is going to do this again - and the early sell out at $50 a head indicates the young competition already has generated enough interest to continue - it's going to need more than 2400 pieces of sushi to feed the crowd (it all looked to have been consumed by the end of the first of the three hours).

Attendees, or at least those who could get close enough to the action - the nine competing sushi chefs worked at a series of tables across the floor of Memorial Auditorium - learned that sushi chefs can be amazingly fast and intense, and their creations much more intricate and grandiose than rolls customarily found in sushi bars. Was that really gold flakes on one roll? It was.

I learned that Japanese sushi chefs are much more admiring of California's free-styling approach to sushi than I suspected, at least if Fumitoshi Inose, above, represents their views generally. Inose owns the restaurant Natural Sense in the prefecture Ibaraki just outside of Tokyo. He was at SushiMasters because he'd won a similar competition involving 605 sushi chefs at Tokyo in July.

At SushiMasters he recreated his winning entry, three long thin wheat crepes filled with tuna, shisho and salmon eggs, standing upright like totems in a bowl of sesame seeds. Compared with the elaborate forms of sushi that last night's competing chefs were creating not far from his display, his approach to sushi is simple and light.

"The beauty is hidden in my sushi," said Inose through an interpreter, Keiko Nakagawa. "It's something covered. It's not very expressive, like American-style sushi. It's not traditional Japanese sushi, it's not California sushi, it's my own expression."

The world of sushi, he added, is big enough to embrace all sorts of cultures and to encourage all sorts of voices. "Japan and California are two different cultures. That's the starting point. The way it looks and the way it tastes will be different," said Inose.

California-style sushi, he noted, is gaining popularity in Japan, including the iconic California roll, a creamy blend of crab, avocado and cucumber. "A lot of people think it's great," said Inose. "It's a wonderful thing to happen."

For the record, last night's overall winner was Shinji Nakamura of Sanraku Japanese Restaurant in San Francisco's Union Square neighborhood.


September 18, 2006
The Little Old Winemaker: You

Wine enthusiasts who think they can make better stuff than the plonk they just opened have another chance to validate their confidence. For the 71st year, the folks of Delicato Family Vineyards at Manteca are getting ready to start selling grape juice to aspiring home winemakers.

"Juice Days," as the custom has been called since Delicato founder Gaspare Indelicato began the practice in 1935, starts Saturday and continues until Oct. 3. From 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, home winemakers can pull up to the winery and buy either white juice or red juice. The varietal is likely to change daily, with home winemakers not knowing their options until they pull up to the winery.

The juice this year will cost $2.95 per gallon, regardless of color or varietal. Participants are required to buy a minimum five gallons, and can't buy more than 200 gallons. Containers can be purchased at Delicato, along with winemaking equipment and supplies, textbooks and the like.

Delicato is along Highway 99 about 50 miles south of Sacramento. For more information, call the winery at (209) 824-3501 or e-mail wine@delicato.com.

September 18, 2006
Equal Opportunity Dining

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's dining-out practices in Sacramento have been documented here and elsewhere, but what about his Democratic opponent in November's gubernatorial election, State Treasurer Phil Angelides?

Here's what Angelides says in the latest issue of the California Restaurant Bulletin when he is asked, "What is your favorite restaurant or cuisine?"

"My favorite cuisines," says Angelides, "are American and Japanese, especially when they are infused with the flavors of California produce. My family and I are freqeunt patrons of Hana Tsubaki (in Sacramento)."

You've got to admire that little campaign speech.

September 15, 2006
Pronto's a Quick Hit

Pronto, which has succeeded Hukilau Island Grill at 16th and O in midtown Sacramento, is casual, modern, urban and spare.

But it does have live entertainment. This is provided by guests themselves, startled into shrieks of surprise when the pager on their table starts to jiggle and flash. At other restaurants, such pagers commonly are handed diners when they sign up at the hostess stand for a table. Guests clutch them and aren't likely to forget their presence as they hang around waiting for a table to become available. At Pronto, however, patrons are given a pager when they place their order at the front counter, and still have it with them as they take their seats. As they sip their wine and chat they're apt to forget about it altogether until it suddenly lights up, flashes and vibrates. This is the signal for guests to proceed to the pick-up counter to retrieve their meal, and where they are apt to encounter a giggling counterman who just has been amused by the show. "I've been telling them they need to turn those things down," said one last night.

I don't know that that's necessary. While surprising, the electronic gadgets aren't irritating. And there is an appealing tradeoff: Without servers, Pronto is able to offer guests some fairly high-value food. Aside from a whole chicken to go ($11.95), the most expensive item in the place is the bacon-wrapped meatloaf ($9.25).

We passed on that, but found virtually everything we did order so generous in portion it was almost too much to eat. Mindful that patrons just might discover that they've ordered more than they consume, Pronto provides stacks of clamshell boxes and handled paper bags at the pick-up counter. These we used for the leftover half of a prosciutto panini with sauteed spinach, roasted red peppers and pesto aioli on excellent "artisan Vienna bread" ($6.75), and what was left of the "Palermo beef ragu," a homey and rich stew over a bowlful of polenta ($7.25). We polished off the "grilled bread salad," a wholesome if mild version of the classic Italian tomato salad panzanella ($7.25 for the large, $4.50 for the small, which really is big enough to share or to order as an entree), and the polenta fries, sticks of fried cornmeal to be dipped in a sweet, spicy and garlicky "balsamic ketchup" ($4.25). The fries were tasty, but could be the only overpriced thing in the place.

Pronto's motto is "Real Italian Real Fast." Aside from a couple of aberrations like the Buffalo-chicken salad and the grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich, most of the menu is a light, modern interpretation of Italian cookery. And the food does come out fairly fast. Without servers, guests pretty much are on their own, though counter personnel, manager and busboy last night were friendly and eager to guide.

Pronto wasn't full last night, but it was doing a brisk take-out business, indicating that the neighborhood's increasing number of residents already has found the place to their liking.

Pronto, 1501 16th St., opens at 11 a.m. weekdays, noon weekends; (916) 444-5850. A downloadable menu is at the cafe's Web site.

September 14, 2006
Big Ass Briefs

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Raymond Horwath not only has a Big Ass family, after years of acrimony it's a happy family. In 1995, Horwath, a principal in the Jack Russell Brewing Co. at Camino in El Dorado County, filed for a trademark to the brand name "Big Ass," which he felt would be reflective and catchy for bolder style of beers coming out of Jack Russell. "It's a slang term I'd heard, and thought it would apply really well to adult beverages," says Horwath, a Fairfield businessmen. Others did, too.

After Horwath was granted the trademark in 1998 he licensed its use to Milano Family Winery in Mendocino County for a blended table wine called "Big Ass Red" whose entertaining and striking label easily catches the eye on cluttered wine shelves.

At around the same time, however, Adler Fels Winery in Sonoma County began to release its own line of "Big Ass" varietal wines, with equally amusing and alluring labels.

Naturally, this led to a series of suits and countersuits, details of which are chronicled by Kevin McCallum in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. As McCallum notes, the issue now has been resolved in a way that allows all parties involved "to continue producing their cheeky wine labels."

Beer labels, too. At Jack Russell, the line of beers that Horwath and his partners produce include a Big Ass Hefeweizen (an unfiltered wheat beer) and a Big Ass Weizen Bock (a wheat beer with a high alcohol content). (Locally, they're stocked at Beverages & More and Corti Brothers.)

"It's an effective compromise, with everyone giving a little bit," says Horwath. "Everyone's agreed that they won't step on each other's toes." Horwath will get licensing fees from the wineries, but under the terms of the agreement he can't divulge what they are.

The Big Ass brews, he notes, have helped promote Jack Russell into the 69th largest microbrewery in the country.

At 2380 Larson Drive just north of Camino, Jack Russell is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, though hours are being expanded an hour or two during the current Apple Hill harvest season; (530) 644-4722.

September 13, 2006
Food on a Stick by the Gross

Memo to directors of the California State Fair: This year's exposition may be history, but in planning for next summer's show you may want to take a culinary cue from the Minnesota State Fair. Food on a stick there goes way beyond cotton candy and corndogs to include pancake and sausage, teriyaki ostrich, frozen grapes, catfish, lamb and even spaghetti, among many other menu choices. Check out this video posted on YouTube and apparently filmed by the Web site www.bellydujour.com.

September 12, 2006
Ad Hoc to Debut

He's running a couple of months behind on his timetable, but Napa Valley and New York uber-chef Thomas Keller finally will open his newest restaurant Saturday.

It's Ad Hoc - "for this purpose" - and it will be at the Yountville site most recently occupied by Wine Garden Restaurant, and years ago by the celebrated Diner.

Keller, owner/chef of the Yountville restaurants The French Laundry and Bouchon, as well as Per Se in New York, will operate Ad Hoc only through this winter. Beyond that, he's uncertain what he will do with the property, though he's talked of converting it into a burger joint.

Ad Hoc is to be much more casual than The French Laundry and probably as informal as Bouchon. (Corkage fee at The French Laundry is $50 per bottle; at Ad Hoc it will be $20, unless the wine is on the restaurant's wine list; then guests must buy it from the list.) A blackboard four-course prix-fixe menu will change daily, focusing on comfort foods that Keller enjoyed while growing up, such as fried chicken, beef stroganoff and pot roast. The price is expected to average $45.

(Trivia note: Keller, perhaps the country's most celebrated chef these days, spent part of his time growing up in Sacramento. While his father was stationed at McClellan Air Force Base in the early 1960s, the younger Keller played first base for the Giants, a Little League team in North Highlands.)

At any rate, Keller and his executive chef at Bouchon, Jeffrey Cerciello, will oversee the Ad Hoc menu.

Ad Hoc, 6476 Washington St., Yountville, will not accept reservations, walk-in's only. However, larger parties (10-25 guests) can reserve a space, and the restaurant also is apt to be taken over entirely by big groups (up to 70 people), so it's advisable to call before to confirm that the place is open: (707) 944-2487. Ad Hoc's hours are to be 5-9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 5-8 p.m. Sundays.

September 12, 2006
Sacramento's Food-Safety Oscars

As different as they may be in concept and clientele, the Sacramento restaurants Mamma Susanna’s Italian Pizzeria, Marrakech Moroccan Restaurant, Nationwide Freezer Meats, Green Papaya and Hooters all share one thing in common today: They are among nearly 600 businesses to get an Award of Excellence in Food Safety from the County of Sacramento's Environmental Management Department.

The awards mean the 596 honored businesses have gone at least two years without being cited for any major violation of food-safety regulations. They represent around 12 percent of the county's food-preparation sites, which are inspected routinely at least twice a year.

Award recipients are divided into several different classifications, such as restaurants like the Elk Grove branch of In-N-Out Burgers and the fancy French Fair Oaks restaurant La Boheme; bars like the Torch Club in midtown Sacramento and Rumors along Stockton Boulevard; and bakeries like Shelton's Wedding Cake Designs in Sacramento, as well as the bakeries at several branches of supermarket chains in the area.

In interpreting the awards, Mel Knight, director of the county's Environmental Management Department, said they recognize businesses that have shown a consistent pattern of using the best public-health practices. "If people are concerned (about the safety of restaurants and other food-preparation sites), the awards could be used as a guide," said Knight.

Toward that end, award-winning businesses are listed both alphabetically and by zip code and street address at the department's Web site.

September 11, 2006
A Body Builder's Kind of Salad

In today's Sacramento Bee, the political column The Buzz notes that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lately has been favoring Lucca Restaurant & Bar over his original favorite Sacramento dining destination, Esquire Grill. This could be because Randy Paragary, whose restaurant empire includes Esquire Grill, threw a big-check shindig at his house for his old pal Phil Angelides, the governor's Democratic opponent in this fall's gubernatorial election, speculates The Buzz.

Here's another possible explanation for the governor's change of heart, or stomach, involving greens of a different sort: The Lucca lunch menu includes "the governor's special salad," a heady mix of applewood-smoked bacon, spicy sausage, cherry tomatoes and mixed greens tossed with a Gorgonzola vinaigrette ($10.95). Talk about a bipartisan mix of richness and wholesomeness.

The governor's salad is a hybrid spin-off of two other Lucca dishes Schwarzenegger grew fond of over the past couple of years - the restaurant's version of the classic Cobb salad and a pasta dish of mushroom papperdelle with spicy sausage. After Schwarzenegger asked owner Terri Gilliland if he could have some of the sausage on the Cobb salad, she and the restaurant's cooks went to work on creating a salad that featured the sausage along with a few of the governor's other favorite items.

There's nothing like it on the menu at Esquire Grill, but there may be one of these days.

In other news at Lucca, Gene Moana, who'd been the restaurant's executive chef since the place opened more than three years ago, has resigned to return to Monterey. Ian MacBride, most recently a sous chef at Spataro Restaurant & Bar, is Lucca's new executive chef.

September 11, 2006
Corner Pocket

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Looks like the third time again could be the charm. At least the tone was upbeat, the crowd was convivial, and the redesign was light and bright when the Paragary Restaurant Group quietly unveiled its latest venture Friday night.

Two restaurants to occupy the big and blocky former Perfection Baking Co. at 15th and R streets in midtown Sacramento have stumbled, first the pan-Asian restaurant Sammy Chu's, then the New American bistro Icon.

Now the company is going with two proven concepts, Cafe Bernardo for the back dining room, Monkey Bar for the up-front tavern, only it isn't being called Monkey Bar, but R15.

Randy Paragary says he sees R15 as a neighborhood bar, but it clearly has the potential to draw a clientele from beyond the immediate zip code. For one, it's big; in addition to the central bar, one of the former dining rooms has been converted into a pool hall with four tables, and the intimate dining nooks along one side of that room have become semi-private game rooms. The place is appointed with 13 large plasma screens, to be tuned to sports early in the evening, music videos later on, and Paragary and his partners have assembled an extensive library of selections to keep the crowd entertained right up to last call.

Kurt Spataro, the group's executive chef, pretty much has retained the menu of the other Cafe Bernardos in such signature dishes as the Thai noodle salad, grilled salmon BLT and carrot cake. At the same time, however, the menu looks a bit more extensive and ambitious. At least I can't recall other branches of Cafe Bernardo with pizzettas of grilled eggplant and cherry tomatoes, or entrees like the grilled flatiron steak and spaghettini with shrimp and basil.

In the most striking design departure from the past, designer Bruce Benning gave the building a fresh coat of bright raspberry paint to help it stand out on the corner, and softened the hard industrial look of the back room with a floating frame of crown molding and a series of whimsical chandeliers of various styles and heights.

This time, the concept has the look and feel of being a better fit for building, neighborhood and potential clientele.

September 8, 2006
Gianni's to Succeed Black Pearl

It's been some time since we've heard from J Street restaurateur Peter Torza, but when he has something to say he has something to say, and the word is that he will be closing his Black Pearl Oyster Bar in October to remodel and expand the quarters into Gianni's Trattoria.

Pizza will be the specialty, with his 19-year-old son Gianni overseeing the oven. Gianni Torza now tends the pizza oven Friday and Saturday nights just down J Street at Harlow's, another restaurant and bar in the Torza family.

After running Black Pearl for three and a half years, Peter Torza says he's tired of the late hours. He also wants to rekindle his Italian culinary heritage. He was inspired to start thinking trattoria when he visited Italy a couple of months ago.

Plans call for Torza to take over an adjoining hair-styling salon and knock down the wall separating the two businesses so Gianni's can have a more traditional dining room than now is in Black Pearl.

Torza hopes to have Gianni's open by Thanksgiving.

September 7, 2006
Truckee Chef Joins Iowa Trek

Each year, Northern California rancher Bill Niman of the high-profile Niman Ranch brand of meats rounds up about half a dozen restaurant chefs from around the country and takes them to Iowa, where they team up with local colleagues to put on a multi-course all-pork dinner in appreciation of his scores of hog farmers.

This Saturday's dinner in Des Moines will be the eighth annual. In all that time, I can't recall a Sacramento chef who has been invited to join the pilgrimage. Niman is getting close, however. This year's crew includes executive chef Mark Estee of the fine Truckee restaurant Moody's Bistro & Lounge.

Other California chefs making the trek are Guy Frenette of Oliveto in Oakland, John Jackson of the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco and Charles Phan of The Slanted Door in San Francisco.

September 7, 2006
How About a Cabernet with that Burger?

The aptly named Squeeze Inn, famous for squeezing in only about a dozen diners at a time, is on an expansion kick. The small Fruitridge Road site, however, won't be changed. Instead, owner Travis Hausauer has two additional locations in the works, one in the Napa Valley, the other in Galt.

Hausauer says he's striking a deal with a Napa resident who basically will be the Squeeze Inn's first franchisee. He's not sure of the location, but thinks it is along Highway 29 in the city of Napa. The place is expected to open in a month or two.

The Galt branch of the Squeeze Inn is to be at Pringle Avenue and Industrial Drive just west of Highway 99. Hausauer hopes to open that site in February. It will be considerably larger than the Fruitridge facility, and will serve breakfast as well as lunch. His son will operate the Galt location. He's staying put at Fruitridge, where the Squeeze Inn has been for about 25 of its nearly 30 years. Hausauer has owned the cafe about five years.

Why the sudden blooming of Squeeze Inns across the Northern California landscape? "I just have an interest in trying to market the product we have, especially now that my son is old enough to take the one in Galt," says Hausauer. The Napa business associate was impressed with the Squeeze Inn's following and is confident the concept will fly in the Napa Valley.

September 6, 2006
Michel Richard on American Barbecue

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When you're a judge at the Best in the West Rib Cook-Off over Labor Day weekend in Sparks, Nev., you aren't to eat any ribs before the competition. Not that there isn't plenty of non-competing food to tempt your palate, including grilled corn on the cob, funnel cakes and berry cobblers. There's also other diversions, from several musical venues to the Game Zone, where people competed in various entertaining sporting challenges involving hulahoops, basketballs and footballs.

This year, for the first time, the sideline shows also included the set for a new television reality program, "Barbecue Championship Series," nine one-hour episodes to appear this fall on Outdoor Life Network, soon to become Versus. Visitors to the cook-off could take their ribs onto bleachers to watch the filming and possibly become part of the show as the audience.

The series, to be spread over nine one-hour episodes, will pit 18 barbecue cooks against each other in challenges that involve cooking several types of meat, poultry and seafood. The 18 were recruited from throughout the country, 12 of them professional barbecue cookers, six of them backyard cooking enthusiasts who were found through open casting, said the creater of the show, Chris Lilly, owner of two Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q restaurants in Decatur, Ala.

Between segments, I caught up with one of the three judges, Michel Richard, resplendent in pineapple-yellow Tommy Bahama shirt and snazzy straw fedora, drawing on a cigar under a marquee behind the set. Richard, a native of Champagne who immigrated to the United States in 1974 and has owned several restaurants on both coasts, now is best known as the owner of Michel Richard Citronelle in Washington, D.C.

So, what's a French chef learning of American barbecue as he helps retain and eliminate contestants? "It's so sweet, and so delicious," answers Richard. "The way they cook is so gentle, so very tender, but sometimes they add too much sweetness. Other than that, it's perfect."

The series is helping broaden his perspective on American cooking as he prepares to open his next restaurant, Central, also to be in Washington, D.C. The menu will be largely American - "but with a French accent," he notes.

The other judges are former NBA player Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins and Los Angeles actress Megyn Price.

September 5, 2006
Winning Ribs from Minnesota? Believe It

For one of the few times in my life, I've voted for a winner. This rarity happened over the weekend at the 18th annual Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off at John Ascuaga's Nugget in Sparks, Nev.

A team of ribbers from the Plymouth, Minn., branch of Famous Dave's Barbecue won the cook-off, which drew cookers from 24 restaurants about the country.

When we were sequestered in one of the hotel-casino's meeting rooms, we 18 judges didn't know the identity of any of the teams represented by racks of ribs in the metal pans before us. Each was identified only by a number, and No. 117, it turned out, was the entry from Famous Dave's, a fast-growing chain with about 140 restaurants scattered about the country. (None is in Sacramento. The closest is in Gilroy, but one is pending in Fresno.)

Out of 40 possible points, No. 117 got 35 on my scoresheet, the highest of any of the 10 racks in the final round. I liked the ribs best for their balance of sweetness and spice, the juiciness of the meat, and distinct notes of pork and smoke. I gave 34 points to No. 118, which turned out to be the ribs prepared by the Sweet Meat Cooking Team of Euless, Texas, which had the longest finish of any meat in the round; Sweet Meat finished third in the contest. I gave 32 points to No. 108, the ribs of B.J.'s Barbecue of Sparks, which had the purest pork flavor of the day, the veritable definition of sweet meat; B.J.'s finished second.

Jim Heywood, nearing retirement after 37 years as an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., was the chief judge, and set down the criteria for what we were to look for in award-winning ribs. Up to 10 points could be awarded for appearance, which included even coloring of a rack from one end to the other, very little char or signs of burning, and nothing at all to indicate dryness, such as meat fibers spreading apart. Up to 10 points could be awarded for texture, meaning the meat wasn't to be tough and stringy, it should fall apart easily but not so easily that it fell from the bone without some resiliency, and that it should be juicy and slightly fatty. Up to 20 points could be awarded for flavor, which he defined as "balanced salt intensity," "no overpowering acidity," "not too much smoke intensity" and an impression overall that is well-rounded and lasting. Frankly, I found several ribs way too salty, and marked them down accordingly.

Judges couldn't talk at all during their deliberations, and beforehand they weren't even to eat any ribs out on "the street," where each team was selling hundreds of pounds of ribs to the event's estimated 400,000 visitors. Afterwards, however, we could eat all the ribs we wanted, but after tasting each entry at least once, who really wanted to? Let me tell you, those ribs generally were so good I even had some more that night.

September 2, 2006
Tapped Out

The latest novelty foods tend to get the press during the annual run of the California State Fair, but what fairgoers look to be eating most enthusiastically are the old standbys - cinnamon rolls, funnel cakes, corndogs and tacos.

French fries, too, especially when they're the hot, salty and pungent garlic fries of Gordon Biersch. A basket of the crisp and creamy garlic fries, along with one of the brewery's cold pilsners, is all body and soul really needs during a break from the animals and art.

The ambience doesn't hurt. The Gordon Biersch stand is near the center of Cal Expo, close to the wine garden, which, incidentally, looks more popular than ever, and also provides the best people watching on the grounds.

At any rate, you take your fries and your beer and grab a table in a small grove of towering redwoods, just down slope from Smokey's Ranger Station. In the hustle of the fair, it's an isolated and calming retreat, with the splash of a nearby fountain and a soft breeze about all the action you will hear and feel.

Also nearby is the micro-brew stand, where you can get a cup of a classic like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Rolling Rock, or a more limited production beer, such as the Firestone Double Barrel Ale. That's a different beer than the one that topped the Men's Journal tasting mentioned below, but it's from the same brewery. If you try the Double Barrel you might as well step back over to the neighboring Gordon Biersch stand and have another round of fries; the fair's only going to be here through Monday.

September 1, 2006
Ale, Ale, The Gang's All Here

Just in time for Labor Day weekend parties, Men's Journal is releasing its third-annual roundup of the 25 best beers made in the United States, and California brewers did well in the tasting, with three of the top 10 from the Golden State.

Firestone Walker Pale Ale, brewed in Paso Robles, tops the list, praised for combining "the subtlety of a British ale with the fragrant bite that Americans weaned on microbrews have come to expect."

Russian River Temptation Ale, brewed in Santa Rosa, "a Belgian-style blond ale aged in cardonnay barrels for a year and infused with a touch of brettanomyces bacteria," ranked fourth.

Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale, brewed in Boonville, Mendocino County, placed sixth for its "round, full, sweet-malt body that doesn't show a trace of the rotten-fruit sourness that can taint lesser amber ales."

The two other California beers to make the list are Lost Abbey Avant Garde from San Marcos (20th) and Alesmith Speedway Stout from San Diego (24th).

The list is to be in the next issue of the magazine, expected on newsstands Tuesday.

September 1, 2006
This Just In

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On a flight to New York not long ago I asked an attendant, "What kind of wine are you serving?"

"It's just wine," I heard her say.

"Who makes it?" I asked.

"It's just wine," she repeated.

This exchange could have gone on clear across Nevada if she didn't then explain that that's the name of the company providing the wine - Just Wine. "Maybe it's because we promote ourselves as 'just an airline,'" she added.

About a year ago, JetBlue Airways Corp. named Joshua Wesson of Best Cellars, a chain of East Coast wine shops, the airline industry's first "low-fare sommelier." It's his task to select a couple of new wines for JetBlue every six months or so, and he didn't pick Just Wine because JetBlue is "just an airline."

Just Wines is a brand of French wine negociant Paul Sapin of Beaujolais. Eastbound, I had a bottle (187 mililiters, screwcap) of his pleasantly dry, lean and citric sauvignon blanc. Westbound, I tried the dark and ripe merlot, more fruity than herbal, with a dash of spice. Both wines are from the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France. Even in plastic cups, and even up against pretty salty snacks, their flavors held up. JetBlue sells each small bottle for $5.

Later, I called Joshua Wesson to ask how he goes about selecting the wines served aboard JetBlue. He said he's free to choose whatever varietals from whatever regions he'd like. Because the aromatic properties of wine tend to evaporate more quickly in a pressurized cabin at 30,000 feet than at sea level he's compelled to find wines that aren't exactly shy.

"If the wines are modest aromatically or in their flavor profile, they will taste somewhat diminished (at 30,000 feet). So I look for wines that are fairly extroverted and dramatic in their presentation of flavors, so they don't end up dumb and dull," explains Wesson.

As to coming up with wines able to weather the high flavors of the snacks aboard JetBlue, he says, "I try to find Boutros Boutros-Ghali wines, able to make peace with a wide range of foods. The wines have to be broad in their ability to please the palate, whether the food be a sandwich or a snack."

Next month he will introduce two California wines on JetBlue flights, a chardonnay and a merlot from 3 Blind Moose Cellars of Lodi.

September 1, 2006
Music To His...Palate

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I'm sitting here writing a review of The Kitchen, scheduled to be in The Bee's Sunday Ticket on Sept. 10. Colleague Chris Macias isn't at his computer adding to his blog because he's in the Napa Valley picking up a bottle of the Shafer Vineyards 2002 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon ($190), a magnificent wine that seems to grow in stature with each vintage. As a measure of that esteem, as well as a reflection of the vigor of the economy despite high gas prices and a slumping housing market, about 100 people began to line up at 6:30 this morning for the first-day release of the wine, reports Chris. What's more, the winery limits each person to two bottles. Winery owner John Shafer and longtime winemaker Elias Fernandez were on hand to sign bottles. You might see Chris on his drive back to Sacramento. He's the guy with the bright-yellow sign in the back window warning other drivers that he has "Wine On Board."



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