November 30, 2006
Piatti and Pelosi

After I recently updated my reviews of the two local branches of Ristorante Piatti, a couple of readers asked why I hadn't mentioned that House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi is a part-owner of the chain. Well, I didn't know she was, and even if I did I'm not convinced her stake in the restaurants would be relevant to a review.

As it turns out, Pelosi specifically isn't a partner in the Piatti chain, though her husband, Paul Pelosi, owns "less than 10 percent" of the group, says Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for the congresswoman.

Paul Pelosi also is part owner of the posh Napa Valley resort Auberge du Soleil, says Crider. She knew less of the Pelosis' other property interest in the Napa Valley, a seven-acre vineyard that has prompted conservative commentators online and elsewhere to question why Rep. Pelosi, a longtime supporter of union causes and recipient of union funds, doesn't employ unionized farm laborers for her wine-grape operation. The matter looks to be much ado about nothing much, to judge by the most lucid and balanced report I've seen on the issue, telecast by KGO TV of San Francisco, which can be found here.

November 29, 2006
Olive Oil: Tomorrow's Wine

Ten small blue cups, each holding a different olive oil, were arranged before each of the eight participants in a tasting at the home of Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti. Four of the oils were pressed from the same batch of olives, but by four different mills, showing the dramatic impact that assorted technology can have on the final product.

Each of the other six oils was made from a different variety of olive, all processed by a revolutionary new mill that's been installed at Apollo Olive Oil of Oregon House. One goal of the new mill is to help retain more of the healthful polyphenols - antioxidants - found in olive oil and credited for its rising popularity.

What struck me, however, was how varied in flavor, texture and weight each of the six Apollo oils were. The oil from the olive variety pendolino was leafy and floral in smell, complex and smooth on the palate. The moraiolo was fresh, spicy and complex. The oil from the Spanish variety picual appeared to be the overall favorite, smelling and tasting fruity, pungent and kind of limey. All were experiments, not yet intended to be marketed.

Most olive oils are blends of two or more varieties of olives, but that's changing, with more varietal oils showing up on grocery-store shelves. Another participant in the tasting, Florentine olive-oil expert Marco Mugelli, who was instrumental in developing the new mill at Apollo, one of just four in the world, said that in the future all great olive oils will be mono-varietals. What's more, two principals of Apollo, Steven Dambeck and Gianni Stefanini, said they expect to start releasing small-batch varietal olive oils from either their current harvest or the next.

You can see where olive oil is headed. It will be tomorrow's wine. Critics will start grading it on a 100-point scale. Consumers will start debating the merits of this varietal and that, eventually settling on one as their favorite. Hosts will be throwing olive-oil tasting parties. Vintages will be crucial. And culinary magazines will be running articles suggesting that one kind of olive oil be showered on salad, another on fish.

We'll weigh in first: The pendolino was superb with the pasta, perking it up with just the right note of fresh fruitiness. Both the moraiolo and the picual were splendid with the swordfish. I'm not sure what the future will hold for California olive oil, but it looks like it will be fun.

November 28, 2006
No Fire Sale at The Firehouse

In a front-page article last month, the New York Times reported that the $40 entree is moving beyond a few four-star restaurants in New York and Las Vegas to the hinterland, like Fort Lauderdale, Philadelphia and Denver.

Sacramento wasn't mentioned, but it could be today, we discovered while having dinner the other evening at The Firehouse. One of the specials was the "Delmonico steak," 14 ounces of prime rib meat with deep-fried onion rings, mashed potatoes, asparagus and demi-glace. The price? $43.

We didn't try it, but Vincent Paul Alexander, The Firehouse executive chef, says it's "very popular," with up to 30 sold each night it is available. Also popular, he adds, is a signature dish he brought with him from his former restaurant in Folsom, Alexander's Meritage. It's the "black and white," a broiled six-ounce filet and poached Maine lobster topped with a spicy bechamel. It sells for $55, and it's selling well, 35 to 40 orders a week, reports Alexander.

Several factors explain why more restaurants are shattering the $40 per-plate ceiling, including rising rents, elaborate interior designs and the escalating cost of premium ingredients, especially those bearing the name of cherished purveyors, according to the Times.

The report also notes, however, that more restaurateurs are adding dishes that cost $40 or more because they make anything priced less look relatively inexpensive. "A new breed of menu 'engingeers' have proved that highly priced entrees increase revenue even if no one orders them. A $43 entree makes a $36 one look like a deal," says the article.

In that respect, The Firehouse menu won't disappoint the frugal diner. The filet mignon is $39, the rack of lamb $38, the beef Wellington $39 and the grilled buffalo rib-eye steak $39.

November 27, 2006
A Hedonist Avoids Lodi

Lodi didn't make the cut. Jay McInerney apparently didn't have an ephiphany as he tasted through a bunch of Lodi wines Lodi vintners brought him in San Francisco four years ago.

At the time, McInerney was best known as a successful New York novelist, but he'd also been writing a wine column for House & Garden magazine. The intent of his visit to San Francisco was to promote a book of those columns, "Bacchus & Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar." Unable or unwilling to visit Lodi, Lodi went to him.

"Bacchus & Me" was well received, McInerney continued to write the column, and now he's out with a new collection of his wine writings, "A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine" (Knopf, $24, 243 pages), covering the past five years.

I was at the San Francisco tasting for McInerney, and remember that he was loose with his praise for several of the wines. "This reminds me of a Tahitian-period Gaugin," he said of a Lodi viognier. "It's more a Kate Moss style than Pamela Anderson," he said of a Lodi chardonnay, and that was a compliment. He said he liked Lodi's zinfandels, and appreciated the restrained prices of Lodi wines generally. In all, it seemed a positive and informative exchange.

But if McInerney wrote anything of Lodi wines in his column, it didn't get into "A Hedonist in the Cellar." Lodi's winemaking community might be irked by the snub, but nonetheless there's a lot to like in the compilation. In his wine research, McInerney goes to the right sources, he keeps an open and inquisitive mind, and he remains his own person about what he likes and doesn't like. His essays are concise and focused, they move along briskly, and he brings to the craft the novelist's knack for fresh metaphors and telling anecdotes.

McInerney gets around, so his collection is eclectic, moving from California chardonnay to Italian Soave to French Cote-Rotie to Argentine malbec. The personalities he focuses on are as diverse and expressive - Willy Frank from New York's Finger Lakes region, Berkeley wine merchant Kermit Lynch, Charlie and Stu Smith of the Napa Valley winery Smith-Madrone, Randal Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. His writing is current, helpful and honest. Anyone looking for a broad and entertaining survey of the modern world wine scene will benefit from "A Hedonist in the Cellar."

Lodi's vintners might think otherwise, however.

November 24, 2006
Lingering Flavors

More than one new Thanksgiving tradition may have begun at the Dunne household yesterday. The first-ever fresh, organic, honey-brined turkey I picked up Wednesday at Swingle Meat Co. of Jackson was a hit, coming to the table moist, herbal and delicately sweet. I finally came up with a pumpkin pie I liked and see myself making again. Even the crust came out pretty good. Most of the credit goes to Rick Rodgers, who provided the recipe for this Berkshire pumpkin pie in his book "Thanksgiving 101." That was the same source for the stuffing, an herbal, colorful and substantial Mediterranean version spicy with Italian sausage and rich with Parmesan.

But the dishes that generated the most excited comment were provided by my sister, Pixie, the first person I've met who actually prepared the two cranberry dishes that Susan Stamberg talks about every Thanksgiving on NPR. Her "Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish" truly was Pepto-Bismol pink, the sweetness of its fruitiness offset by the bite of horseradish. Susan Stamberg likes her cranberries spicy, as also shown by the second side dish, "garlicky cranberry chutney," from Madhur Jaffrey's cookbook "East/West Menus for Family and Friends." In this version, the heat is provided by fresh ginger and cayenne and black peppers, which only add to the refreshing flavor of the cranberries rather than distract from it. Both recipes can be found here.

As to the wines, we began with Domaine Chandon's brassy and austere Etoile Rose, found that the Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars 2005 Finger Lakes Semi-Dry Riesling had the sort of refreshing apricot fruit and balanced build to sip seamlessly with both the turkey and the relish, and finished with the lush and spicy Dry Creek Vineyard 2003 Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel, the blackberry equivalent of the cranberry chutney.

In all, a Thanksgiving that left us thankful, right down to that last slice of pumpkin pie I had for breakfast a short time ago.

November 22, 2006
Tradition in Transition

In 24 hours, I expect to know if a new Thanksgiving tradition has taken hold in our family or if I've only had a nice ride in the country. Shortly after dawn this morning I set out to get the holiday turkey, heading into the Sierra foothills feeling like a hunter on the prowl. I paused at Rancho Murieta, remembering the flock of wild turkeys I'd seen there a year or so ago, but pressed on to Jackson.

There, at Swingle Meat Co., I found the turkey for our table tomorrow. Swingle Meat Co., which puts up scores of specialty meats, from all kinds of seasoned steaks and ribs to housemade sausages and housecured bacon, is a candy store for carnivores. I didn't get out of the place without also buying some bacon, jerky and frozen ravioli, quite possibly the only vegetarian item in the place. During a stop there a few weeks ago a persuasive clerk sold us on ordering our Thanksgiving turkey, a fresh, organic bird already brined and stuffed.

This shortcut way to prepare the year's grandest meal is a trend I suspect is here to stay. This year more than in the past I've seen all sorts of articles and ads aimed at helping cooks cut down on the time they spend cooking the Thanksgiving dinner. On the drive to Jackson I heard on NPR's Morning Report several more ways to speed up the cooking and serving of the banquet, including a way to butterfly the turkey and even a no-bake pumpkin pie, the recipe for which you can find here.

I have some qualms about all this, fretting that prepared supermarket side dishes and butcher-shop turkeys already gussied up for the oven could diminish the skill and affection associated with the traditional Thanksgiving meal. On the other hand, if cooks are less stressed, able to focus more keenly on a signature dish or two, and get to the table in a more relaxed and convivial mood, the holiday actually could be better for it. At any rate, I'm sure looking forward to that turkey, and not feeling at all guilty about not doing the usual brining myself.

November 21, 2006
Two Chardonnays to Praise

I've an odd feeling this morning, and it could be because I suspect I might be on the verge of becoming a chardonnay fan. This isn't like me at all. I wonder if I'm coming down with something. Until recently - like last night and the night before - my white wine of choice with dinner almost invariably has been sauvignon blanc, for its forward fruit, honed acidity, lean structure and overall liveliness that makes it such a refreshing presence at the table.

In contrast, too many chardonnays have been a letdown. If not thin and watery, with so little fruit you can't recognize the varietal, they've tended to be overly ripe, unbalanced, dense with oak, noticeably sweet, and warm with alcohol. They don't go with food, though they might be fine for launching ships.

But the past two nights have been a happy revelation. On Sunday, we opened the Mahoney Vineyards 2005 Gavin Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay ($20) with roast chicken and pasta with pesto. It's deceivingly light in color, just a pale shade of straw, but its tropical-fruit flavor, most notably pineapple, was fresh and distinct. The wine was barrel fermented, and half of it went through malolactic fermentation, but the oak is evident as only a touch of smoke, the secondary fermentation in its silkiness, not a softening that dulls the sharp acidity. The wine tastes of sweet fruit, not sugar. It brings a teasing mineral element to the mouth that invites you back for one more sip, then another. Chardonnays this elegant don't come along often, especially at just $20 a bottle. The "Mahoney" label, incidentally, is new, but the owner, Francis Mahoney, has been around since founding Carneros Creek Winery in 1972, which became celebrated largely for spectacular pinot noirs. He sold the Carneros Creek brand two years ago, but now is teamed up with seasoned winemaker Ken Foster to made wines under the Mahoney brand. They're again specializing in pinot noir, but don't overlook this gorgeous chardonnay.

Inspired by my luck with the Mahoney chardonnay, I last night opened another new Carneros chardonnay, the Robert Mondavi Winery 2004 Carneros Napa Valley Reserve Chardonnay ($35). While brighter in color and richer in flavor than the Mahoney, it's also a chardonnay to enjoy for its fresh fruit flavors - citrus and apples, principally - and its exquisite balance and long, exhilarating finish, which includes toastiness from the Burgundian oak in which most of the juice was fermented, and a refreshing prickly spiciness. I liked its complexity. Our son Justin, visiting from Bangkok for Thanksgiving, isn't often moved to praise a wine, but even he said this was a chardonnay he really, really liked.

I don't know how well either of these chardonnays would work on the Thanksgiving table, and I wouldn't recommend them for a meal that heavy and robust, but as a hostess present or as a gift during the year-end holidays I can't imagine a chardonnay enthusiast not appreciating either of these versions.

November 20, 2006
Peter Mayle's Best Years

The film version of Peter Mayle's "A Good Year" is being treated like a contaminated wine by many of the nation's movie critics, but Mayle nonetheless is doing his darnedest to stir up interest in it.

Over the weekend, an essay by Mayle on the pretentious and often fatuous rituals surrounding wine appreciation appeared in The Observer in the United Kingdom. The affectations and jargon of supercilious wine enthusiasts is an easy target that has been ridiculed before and no doubt will be again, and a glib Mayle has entertaining fun with the subject, though he doesn't bring any really fresh insight to the topic.

At the end of the piece, however, he tacks on a list of his 10 most memorable wines, with a brief comment on each that however oblique makes for more provocative reading than the essay itself.

November 17, 2006
France Strong, But Italy Tops

France turned in the most impressive performance as the Wine Spectator today unveiled its list of the top 10 wines of 2006. Three of them are French.

California and Tuscany, however, each placed two wines in the ranking. The California wines are the Kongsgaard 2003 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($75) at No. 8 and the Kosta Browne 2004 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($38) at No. 7.

The top spot was taken by an Italian wine, the Casanova di Neri 2001 Tenuta Nuova Brunello di Montalcino ($70). A Washington state wine, the Quilceda Creek 2003 Washington Cabernet Sauvignon ($85), finished second, while a second-growth from Bordeaux, the Chateau Leoville Barton 2003 St.-Julien ($75), finished third.

The tenth ranked wine is the Two Hands Wines 2004 Barossa Valley Bella's Garden Shiraz ($50). Two Hands Wines is to be the subject of the Dunne on Wine column in The Sacramento Bee's Taste section this coming Wednesday.

The Wine Spectator's full list of the top 100 wines for 2006 is to be released Monday. For the report on the top 10 wines, visit the magazine's Web site.

November 16, 2006
Tex About to Ride into Town

Guy1.JPGGuy Fieri's burgeoning celebrity on the Food Network has him running from his home in Santa Rosa to New York to film this show and that, but he hasn't abandoned plans to open a Sacramento restaurant, reports his business partner, Steve Gruber.

Their Tex Wasabi's now is expected to open around mid-December. Staff is being hired and training is to start right after Thanksgiving, says Gruber. Fieri and Gruber had hoped to have the place open by now, but construction issues more than Fieri's filming itinerary have delayed the debut.

The two began to plan a Tex Wasabi's in the Arden Arcade neighborhood just as Fieri won the reality show "The Next Food Network Star," which led to his own show, "Guy's Big Bite." He's in New York filming 13 new episodes of the show, which are to begin appearing just after the start of the new year. He also was the host of the Food Network special "Diner, Drive-Ins and Dives."

Gruber says Fieri is pitching the Food Network to do a live cooking show at one of the Tex Wasabi's, either the original in Santa Rosa or the Sacramento branch. Tex Wasabi is a fictional chef whose culinary style runs to "rock 'n roll sushi" and Southern barbecue. In addition to smoked pork ribs and Cajun catfish, the menu is to include such sushi rolls as the "kemosabe," tapioca rice paper filled with brisket, onions, french fries and a garlic and chile pepper mayonnaise.

The Sacramento Tex Wasabi's, along Arden Way just east of Howe Avenue, is to seat nearly 300 inside, another 80 outside, says Gruber. "It's a monster," he adds.

November 15, 2006
Sakura Blooms Along J Street

Sushi is fine anytime, but when the weather turns cool and damp I gravitate to foods darker, warmer and meatier. That doesn't rule out dining at a Japanese restaurant, however, especially if it's the new Sakura Sushi & Teppan Grill along lower J Street.

I stopped in for lunch today and found sleek quarters, an engaging staff, and an extensive menu that while deep with sashimi and sushi also offers several hefty teppanyaki and hibachi dishes, the former stir-fried on a steel griddle, the latter grilled. Both include various cuts of beef, chicken, scallops, salmon and shrimp, either on their own or in various combinations.

From the hibachi list, I ordered the "chef's special" ($10.50), which included a salad of mostly iceberg lettuce topped with a miso dressing, a small bowl of steamed rice, adequate portions of tender and attentively cooked teriyaki beef, hibachi chicken, and zucchini, mushrooms and white onion, and two dipping sauces, one ginger, the other cream with soy sauce and mustard. Japanese hot green tea is free with everything. It was one of the more expensive lunch items. Dinner patrons can spend much more, up to $29.50 for a teppanyaki platter of shrimp, scallops and lobster.

Charlie Huynh, a veteran chef and manager with the Benihana chain of restaurants, opened Sakura about six weeks ago on the ground floor of the U.S. Bank building at 980 Ninth St. He's hoping it will be the first in an eventual chain, says manager Cindy Huynh, no relation.

Sakura, the Japanese name of an ornamental cherry tree, is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday; (916) 444-1030.

November 15, 2006
Enjoying Wine Responsibly

Andy Perdue, editor of Wine Press Northwest in Washington state, got stopped first by a state trooper and then by a city policeman within five minutes of each other after leaving a wine dinner in Kennewick the other night. What caught the attention of officers wasn't his driving but the headlight that was burned out on his car. Nonetheless, he was given a field-sobriety test. He passed.

Andy, a friend and colleague - Wine Press Northwest is a publication of the Tri-City Herald, also owned by The McClatchy Company - has blogged an item on the incident. With the year-end party scene upon us, his report should be of interest and help to anyone who expects to have a drink and then drive during the holiday season, for he outlines his strategy for enjoying himself responsibly at dinner parties and the like. You can benefit by his advice here.

November 14, 2006
A 1982 and a 1990 for 007

BOLLGAnnee-97_Bottle_med.jpgJames Bond's palate is about to expand beyond the martinis and Champagne he customarily savors. In his latest movie, "Casino Royale," opening in cinemas Friday, he'll also be a claret man, reports the English wine magazine Decanter.

According to the magazine, Bond will be enjoying a bottle of the 1982 Chateau Angelus while crossing Montenegro in a railway dining car. Chateau Angelus is a premier grand cru classe from St-Emilion in Bordeaux. (When Decanter posted the article on its Web site, readers weighed in with several comments, noting, among other things, that one critic a decade ago panned the '82 as "diffuse and flabby," while another correspondent warned that serving such a wine in a dining car isn't a good idea, especially on the rough tracks of Montenegro.)

Despite Bond's appreciation for Bordeaux in "Casino Royale," he isn't giving up his cherished Champagne Bollinger, which he has sipped in 10 films, starting with "Moonraker" in 1979. Bollinger, founded in 1829 and celebrated for its distinctively dry and toasty style, makes three kinds of Champagne. Bond apparently likes them all. In the past, he's favored the Bollinger R.D. (Recently Disgorged), the Special Cuvee and various vintages of La Grand Annee, the most prestigious release in the lineup. In "Casino Royale," he'll be drinking the Bollinger La Grand Annee 1990, a wine currently selling for $100 to $150 a bottle if you can find it. (The most recent release is the La Grand Annee 1997, generally selling for about $90 a bottle.)

William Terlato, president and chief executive officer of Paterno Wines International, the exclusive importer of Champagne Bollinger, believes that the collaboration between Bond and Bollinger "is the longest-running brand marketing partnership in film industry history."

Nonetheless, in book and film Bond has shown an affinity for other Champagnes, notably the 1943 Taittinger Brut Blanc de Blanc, the 1953 Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot. This time around, however, Bollinger again has his number.

November 13, 2006
Real Butter, Real Fruit, Real Pie

Kira O'Donnell, a former pastry specialist at such restaurants as Auberge du Soleil in the Napa Valley, Original Joe's in San Francisco and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, is opening The Real Pie Company in Sacramento.

As the name suggests, she primarily will turn out fresh, seasonal, butter-crust pies capitalizing principally on local produce from small family farms. But she also will make galettes, crostatas, cobblers, crisps and tarts, as well as some savory pastries like chicken pot pie.

She hopes to open The Real Pie Company, to be in a historic building at 12th and F in the Alkali Flat neighborhood, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but concedes that that timetable may not be realistic.

Why pies? "I have had a lifelong love affair with pies - there's just something special about them. And they make people happy," says O'Donnell, who for the past 10 years has been a food writer for Sacramento Magazine.

She learned her pastry skills on the job, starting at Auberge du Soleil while she was earning a degree in winemaking at UC Davis. Her experience at Chez Panisse, however, most influenced her pastry style. "The style of desserts I made there are exactly what I want to make at The Real Pie Company - seasonal, produce-focused, rustic, honest and made
with first-rate baking ingredients."

November 13, 2006
What's in a Name? It's a Toss-Up

Everywhere, Caesar salad. Nowhere, Alex salad. Where's justice in the culinary world? Well, if Carla Cardini isn't upset about this - and she isn't - I guess I won't be, either.

Carla Cardini, sommelier at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, was a fellow judge at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition this weekend. She's the granddaughter of Alex Cardini, who with his brother Caesar landed in Tijuana from their native Piemonte in northern Italy not long after World War I.

During a break in the judging, she briefed me on some family history. Caesar Cardini generally is recognized as the creater of the Caesar salad, which he is widely believed to have tossed for the first over the Fourth of July weekend in 1924 in Tijuana. That date, however, long as been questioned. At least one culinary historian has said the first Caesar salad wasn't made until more than a decade later. The late Julia Child, on the other hand, swore she had a Caesar salad made by Caesar himself when she visited his restaurant in Tijuana "in 1925 or 1926."

Carla Cardini isn't sure when the salad first was tossed, but she's convinced it was the inspiration of her grandfather Alex, not Caesar. The two had neighboring and competing restaurants in Tijuana, but when Alex's Fior d' Italia burned down he went to work at Caesar's Place and Hotel, and there introduced the salad.

According to her version of the salad's history, it wasn't conceived to entertain at tableside Hollywood celebrities who flocked to Tijuana to drink and party during Prohibition. Alex Cardini actually first tossed the heady blend of romaine, garlic, olive oil, Parmigiano, Worcestershire sauce, coddled eggs and anchovies for a group of hungover military pilots from Rockwell Field at San Diego. "He called it the 'aviator salad'," said Carla Cardini. She figures that name didn't stick because visitors to Tijuana got in the habit of saying, "Let's go to Caesar's and have that salad." Thus, the name of the restaurant rather than the aviators became closely identified with the salad.

Subsequently, when Alex Cardini moved to Mexico City, where he opened three restaurants, the salad was listed on his menu as "the original Alex Cardini Caesar salad."

Carla Cardini would like the record set straight on a couple of other misconceptions concerning the salad. For one, the salad originally included anchovies, but they were pulverized into a paste that was used to coat the croutons. Secondly, lime juice rather than lemon juice originally was used in the dressing of the salad, though most recipes today customarily call for lemons.

So, should every restaurant that offers a "Caesar salad" rewrite its menu to "Alex salad?" Carla Cardini has another suggestion: Why not call the salad by its original name, "aviator salad?"

November 11, 2006
Houston, We Have Absolutely No Problem

The first day of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition just ended. When I mention to people that I’ll be in Houston to judge wine, they almost invariably ask one of two questions, and sometimes both:

They make wine in Texas? Yes, they do. Texas wines make up just a fraction of the wines we are judging, however. At the most, 5 percent, I’d guess. California wines probably account for around 80 percent of the entries.

How can you judge wine with all those cattle and horses around? Ahhh, Texans not only are friendly and generous, they’re smart, though we all probably can think of an exception or two. No, the wine competition is now, when the Reliant Center is vacant but for hip-hop concerts and motorcycle exhibits. The livestock and rodeo won’t be until next spring. They have the wine competition now so organizers will have time to tool the saddles, stitch the chaps, forge the spurs and cast the belt buckles that will be awarded the champion wines. For the judges, that means we don’t have to deal with any barnyardy smells except for the French wines in the competition.

The five-person panel on which I sat judged 120 wines, 67 of which were chardonnay. We don’t know the vintages, appellations or producers of any of them. Judges given chardonnay habitually complain about their assignment, but we didn’t really have much to grouse about. As a group, the wines showed why chardonnay is the country’s most popular wine: It’s made in so many styles that just about everyone is apt to find one to his or her liking. We thought so much of 34 of them that we’ll retaste them tomorrow in the medal round, and most likely will get some sort of medal. The lesson I’m taking from the chardonnay class is that winemakers seem to be tempering their use of oak with the varietal, producing chardonnays of more balance and more refreshing fruit.

We also judged 41 “Rhone-style red blends,” and this was the most exciting and encouraging class of the day. Americans are notoriously reluctant to embrace blended wines, having been brought up on varietals like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Americans look to be loosening up, however, to judge by the rise in proprietary blends in the marketplace. I don’t know what’s behind this new acceptance of blended wines, but it could be a sign that Americans are becoming more confident in their own tastes, and are willing to seek out wines they truly appreciate for their flavor and mystery rather than wines expected to fit a fixed frame of reference. We won’t know the identities of medal-winning wines until a week or so after the competition, but I’m especially eager to learn who produced several of the Rhone-style reds.

We had a pretty cohesive panel, and when differences of opinion on a particular wine were expressed the exchange was cordial and enlightening. Everyone else on the panel is from Houston. They were panel chairman Guy Stout, director of beverage education for Glazer’s, one of the country’s larger wine distributors, concentrated primarily in the Midwest and South; Rich Ogle, a retired environmental consultant who now teaches technical writing at the University of Houston; Robert Paine, a former wine distributor who now is an insurance broker when he isn’t collecting wines to add to his cellar; and Robert Gilroy, who sells Kendall-Jackson wines in Louisiana and Texas.

Our last class was petite sirah, wines so inky and tannic I don’t know whether I will be able to scrub all the stains from my teeth before I return to the office Monday, so I’d better get to brushing right now.

November 10, 2006
The Parade Starts at Jacques-Imo's

IMGP0499_edited.jpgI’ve had some good meals in New Orleans, and certainly several dishes whose novelty reminded me of why the city is such a culinary treasure. Not until last night, however, did I find a place that grasped so comprehensively the city’s spirit, or what an outsider might expect the city’s spirit to be - eccentric, mysterious, chaotic, joyous.

They all came together under the roof of the Uptown neighborhood restaurant Jacques-Imo’s, which from the outside is a deceptively small and wobbly Victorian house. Inside, beyond a chaos that suggests no one is in control, is a tightly run ship, with proud and smart personnel, a gregarious and unassuming hands-on proprietor (Jacques Leonardi), and a style of cooking that defies classification, though it does include many of the staples of New Orleans cuisine - fried green tomatoes, crawfish etouffee, fried chicken, jambalaya, gumbo.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” said one of our servers when I asked him about the style of the food. Beyond that, it takes those familiar staples of the South and transforms them into imaginative new interpretations, some as bold and bizarre as Mardi Gras costumes we saw earlier in the day at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. We proceeded through an appetizer “cheesecake” of shrimp and alligator sausage, unusually light by Southern standards but with, yes, plenty of bite from its spicy meat; eggplant Jacques-Imo with oyster dressing and a wild-mushroom sauce, which seized precisely the essence of eggplant; tangy fried-green tomatoes topped with heads-on shrimp in a deep and refined remoulade; fried mirliton - a kind of squash, our server explained - topped with fried oysters and a silken hollandaise of oysters and tasso; a robust chicken pontalba with roasted potatoes, mushrooms, Bearnaise and a sweet glaze; and grilled mahi adroitly handled and evocatively smoky. I haven’t had many fresh greens while in New Orleans, but Jacques-Imo’s helps correct that by including a large salad dressed with a lively plum vinaigrette with each entree. Of course, it’s topped with a single perfectly fried oyster.

Jacques-Imo’s is loud and it’s popular. We showed up about 9 p.m., and people still were standing on Oak Street out front. A steady procession of taxis dropped off and picked up customers, a sign that the restaurant’s reputation stretches beyond the immediate neighborhood - and that people recognize they’d likely be drinking a couple of the local splendid Abita beers during their hour or so wait.

Inside, Jacques-Imo’s has the feel of a remodeling job that got out of control and couldn’t be corrected - the garage as voodoo den. It’s all afterthought and “why not” tack on. Guests must pass directly through the kitchen to get to the dining areas. “Watch your step” cautions the hostess as we head through the kitchen, down a slight slope, down a flight of stairs, and to a table in the midst of all the action. I’m facing another dining room that looks as if it was a narrow alley between the restaurant and the house next door not too long ago. There’s just one unisex restroom in the whole joint, and to get to it you have to retrace your steps back through the kitchen; it’s so small the washbasin is in the hallway by the bar. And it’s so noisy you can barely hear Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles on the sound system.

Some 30,000 real-estate agents are in town for a convention. You can spot many of them by their bright blue T-shirts with a stylized hurricane and the word “Rebuild” on the front, which is exactly what they are doing, working with Habitat for Humanity to provide housing between convention sessions. If Jacques-Imo’s were to go on the market, I wonder how they’d list it, as fixer-upper or historic landmark?

Leonardi has had the place just shy of 11 years. That’s Leonardi next to the paint-splattered truck parked permanently in front of the restaurant. He doesn’t look like he’s going anyplace, and for anyone heading to this balmy and once again vigorous city that’s more good news.

November 9, 2006
Cajun Cooking Updated

Before Hurricane Katrina, greater New Orleans had 3,414 restaurants. Today, the total is slightly less than half that.

But here’s the most amazing statistic from Tom Weatherly of the Louisiana Restaurant Association: 398 new restaurants have opened in New Orleans since the wind, rain and flood. A few of them may be relocations, but by and large the number represents entirely new restaurants.

“We’ve been kind of surprised by the number of new openings,” says Weatherly. “A lot of them had been planning to open (before Katrina), then the storm hit, but then they went ahead and went through with it.”

One is Cochon, in the Warehouse District not far from the French Quarter. It opened in April, in a high-ceilinged red-brick building lightened with an industrious use of poplar. It’s in slats all across one long wall, and in tables and chairs that in their clean and practical lines suggest a modern update of Ozark furnishings. Brett Anderson, restaurant critic of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, thinks Cochon is the best new restaurant to open in the city in some time.

A tall yellow sign out front says “Cajun Southern Cooking.” Sounds kind of redundant, and I’m not even going to venture into the tricky waters of trying to define Cajun cookery. Donald Link, the New Orleans chef who has earned some celebrity beyond the South with his other restaurant in the city, Herbsaint, co-owns Cochon with fellow chef Stephen Stryjewski.

Here’s how “Cajun Southern Cooking” is defined by their menu at Cochon: Spicy grilled pork ribs with watermelon pickle, smoked ham hocks with braised greens, sausage with stoneground grits and peppers, fried boudin with pickled peppers, rabbit and dumplings.

For the most part, our dinner was deftly handled. The oysters of the “wood-fired oyster roast” were fiery with the slap of chile sauce; the fried chicken livers looked like McNuggets but had a dark, earthy flavor lifted by the sweetness and heat of pepper jelly; the black-eyed-pea and pork gumbo resonated with richness and heat; and the smoked beef brisket was tender and rich, with a wonderfully sweet and lingering finish.

On the other hand, the shrimp and crabmeat pie was listless, and the “Louisiana cochon” - shredded pork formed into a round not unlike a crabcake - was woefully oversalted, though I loved the cabbage, turnips, peaches and cracklins that accompanied it.

According to our server, Cochon is the only restaurant in Louisiana to serve moonshine. I’m not sure how they get away with that, but I also have been surprised to see people still smoking in restaurants throughout New Orleans, though I understand that is about to change with tighter restrictions. The best of the four kinds of moonshine they serve, she said, is the Catdaddy Carolina from North Carolina. It’s like Italian grappa, she said, but it isn’t. It arrived in a tiny glass, looking and smelling like a votive candle scented with Christmas spices. Tasted like it, too, with nutmeg the most distinctive flavor. It was warm with alcohol, but also surprisingly smooth and sweet. Grappa is potent and bracing, forcing you to take it cautiously. Catdaddy Carolina went down easily. Must be what they mean when they talk around here about the New South.

November 9, 2006
Food Fight! Food Fight!

IMGP0457.jpg Every delicious food fight needs an impartial referee. Upon arriving in New Orleans, that’s the role I’ve given myself. The Brawl in the Big Easy involves two of the country’s more highly regarded food critics, Alan Richman of GQ, Brett Anderson of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Richman started the fight with several stinging jabs at New Orleans in the magazine’s November issue. He writes that while touring the city in July he found the restaurant scene neither authentic enough nor inventive enough. He suggests the city’s restaurateurs have gone soft and lazy, that too many places are stuck in the grim eddy of “French-hotel food of the ‘50s,” and that the city’s reputation for fine dining has been exaggerated because the people singing its praises likely were too drunk to really know what they were eating.

He asks what the city is trying to cherish and preserve. He frets that the answer is “Creole theme park.”

In one curious aside he says he saw just one person helping tidy up the town. He should have spent more time in the French Quarter, which he really doesn’t like, dismissing its entertainment venues as “only marginally superior to those of Tijuana.” True, the French Quarter can be a sorry spectacle corrosive to the spirit, but only if you ignore its antiques shops, art galleries and jazz clubs. Though the district escaped much of the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina, it was bruised, physically and financially. But today the sprucing up and revitalization of the district is proceeding at such a pace that construction Dumpsters line the streets like Mardi Gras floats.

What seems to have irked Anderson the most is Richman’s broad, cavalier and mean spirited painting of the town as “a festival of narcissism, indolence, and corruption.” The piece is replete with cheap shots. Anderson also criticizes Richman for inaccuracies, vague conclusions and shallow reporting; given the length and display of the GQ article, he expected more substance and thought.

And, yet, in rereading the piece I was struck by the number of restaurants that Richman found to his liking, including Vaughan’s Lounge, Liuzza’s by the Track, Parkway Bakery, Galatoire’s, Lilette, Upperline and August.

Oh, and historic Café du Monde, celebrated for its coffee, beignets and Southern hospitality. It was my first stop. The last time I sat in that café was in the spring of 1970, when Moon Landrieu was about to be inaugurated mayor. A monument to Landrieu is nearby, along the walkway besides the Mississippi River. It quotes his inaugural address: “Let us create a city where neither the choice of religion nor the accident of color is an obstacle to opportunity and advancement, nor a substitute for effort and ability.” By all the jackhammers I’ve been hearing and the paint brushes I’ve been seeing, Hurricane Katrina didn’t blow away “effort and ability” in New Orleans, and I have a hunch that next time Richman visits the city he will be writing a more upbeat assessment of the restaurants.

November 7, 2006
Divac Sidelined, Webber Returns

In the culinary division of the NBA, a major trade is developing, Vlade Divac for Chris Webber. L'Image French Bistro, the Pavilions restaurant in which Divac was a principal, has closed, confirms his sister-in-law, Jelica Orbovic, who has been running the place since Divac and his wife Ana left town.

Webber, meanwhile, returns to Sacramento next Tuesday for the invitation-only grand opening of his Natomas restaurant Center Court with C-Webb. The restaurant, at 3600 North Freeway Blvd. in the Promenade at Natomas Shopping Center, is to open to the public the next day.

The Divacs and Orbovic remain partners in the casual Old Sacramento nightspot Tunel 21. Orbovic said she decided to close the bistro because "it wasn't doing that great" and because she wants to do "some different things." She will continue to operate L'Image Boutique right next to the restaurant. "I just didn't want to do that any longer," said Orbovic of the bistro. "It's a really gorgeous place, and maybe somebody else can make it successful. I'll be the best customer."

November 6, 2006
Food Bloggers Out of the Pantry

Within the expanding blogosphere is a small but growing galaxy of Sacramento food bloggers. Saturday, about a dozen of them gathered in the clubhouse of a Davis apartment complex for a potluck lunch. The food was terrific - no surprise there, given that food bloggers tend to be serious and impassioned students of their favorite subject. But just as much fun was the chance to meet the personalities behind the blogs and to get a better sense of the diversity and energy involved in food blogging in the Sacramento area.

Garrett McCord was the host. He's also the host of the blog Vanilla Garlic, where he posts frequently, offering candid insights on cookbooks and restaurants and his latest cupcake recipe. Everyone seemed disappointed that he hadn't brought his tomato-soup cupcakes, but no one complained of the Earl Grey and Murcott cupcakes he did bring. Other participating food bloggers were:

Elise Bauer, believed to be Sacramento's first food blogger. Her blog Simply Recipes is exactly what it says it is, an electronic cookbook of home cooking with photography so fine you'll be in the kitchen in minutes testing her latest post.

Kristy DeVaney, another frequent poster and keen photographer who already has posted photos of every dish at the event at her spirited blog Cake Grrl.

Jennifer Cliff, whose Web site Sacatomato is current and wide ranging in both geography and topics.

Melody Elliott-Koontz of Sacramento Food Forum, a new site whose goal is to engage food enthusiasts in lively discussions of various culinary topics.

Madeline Miller, whose blog Everything Rachael Ray generated the most conversation at the party, with the consensus seeming to be that regardless of whether you admire or abhor Rachael Ray she is getting people to cook. The site, incidentally, isn't affiliated with Ray's growing franchise.

Kim Rutledge, whose fresh and witty blog TV Dinners is about both television and food.

Fernanda Guimaraes Rosa, whose blog Chucrute com Salsicha is almost entirely in Portuguese.

Brendon, a Davis guy whose last name I failed to get, is another astute food photographer whose shots, recipes and essays are aptly summed up in the name of his blog, Something in Season.

Fethiye, another participant whose last name I didn't get, tends the blog Yogurtland, devoted largely to Turkish cookery.

Check 'em out.

November 6, 2006
The Next Secretary of Agriculture?

You can tell a prospective presidential candidate is being taken seriously when people start to speculate on who will be appointed to positions in her administration. There was a lot of that going on Friday night in Lodi. Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, was the subject of the speculation. He was in town to get the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission's ninth-annual Wine Industry Integrity Award. Speakers had a lot of nice things to say of Trezise, who for nearly 25 years has been instrumental in building up New York's wine trade into the largest and fastest growing industry in the state, generating $3.4 billion in revenues per year.

In recent years he's developed a close working relationship with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Thus, should she be elected president Trezise presumably would be at the top of her list of potential appointees. One speaker suggested "wine czar." I don't think so. Another suggested press secretary. Closer, but Trezise is too proactive for that role. He probably could be named ambassador to France, but that would take him too far from his beloved Finger Lakes in west-central New York. He did, however, spend three years in France before becoming involved in the wine trade, doing the sorts of things that all American ambassadors to the country should do - learning the language, studying pottery, waiting tables, teaching English to Air France pilots, and writing a book on the French and British reaction to Watergate. This was some time ago, but it shows his well-rounded background.

No, I think Secretary of Agriculture would be more in line with his more recent experience. The guy simply loves farmers, and the affection is returned, according to several of them. He understands them, they respect him. Both have a can-do spirit that is just virtually unstoppable.

Speakers Friday night saluted Trezise for all sorts of accomplishments, and they couldn't resist his penchant for coming up with catchy phrases that stick in the mind, though he sometimes apologizes for his poetry: "The product is a pleasure, the people a treasure," he says of wine and the people responsible for it. "Diversity is our strength, unity our power," he says of what independent-minded farmers can accomplish when they share a vision. And let's not forget "Uncork New York," the song he has been singing for years to get people to discover New York wine.

On his flight back to New York he well may have been dreaming up a campaign slogan for Sen. Clinton.

November 3, 2006
Vino Volo Readied for Takeoff

Barring any delays - something not exactly unprecedented at Sacramento International Airport - year-end holiday travelers should be able to enjoy a flight before their flight. That is, Vino Volo, a wine bar where travelers can kick back with a flight of wine and a small bite, could open sometime between Dec. 15 and 22. At least, that's the hope of company officials, says Carla Wytmar of Vino Volo.

Construction of the wine bar and retail shop, to be on the second level of Terminal A, is under way. The Sacramento outlet would be the third in the ambitious group, whose investors include W. Reed Foster, founder of Ravenswood Winery; Paul Clayton, CEO of Jamba Juice; and John Scharffenberger, founder of both Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker and Scharffenberger Cellars. The first opened last year at Dulles International Aiport in Washington, D.C., the second last month at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Each Vino Volo - derived from the Italian for "wine flight" - is to include a lounge, cafe, tasting bar and retail area. Patrons are to be able to order wine by the glass, bottle or themed flight of two or three pours each. Travelers will be able to order wines to take with them or have shipped.

One themed flight in each Vino Volo will highlight a wine region not far from the airport. The Sacramento wing is to open with a flight focusing on wines from the Sierra foothills - two zinfandels from Amador County and a barbera from El Dorado County. Prices are to range from $6 to $14 per glass or flight, except for wines in a flight to feature rare high-end wines.

The small plates are to run to dishes like a duck and lentil salad, beef tenderloin skewers and smoked salmon rolls.

November 3, 2006
Pho Comes to Midtown

One of the principles of dining out - the cheaper the meal, the faster you're entitled to eat it - breaks down when it comes to pho. Which leaves me wondering: If the United States really is a fast-food nation, why is pho becoming so popular?

This thought nagged at me last night as I spooned my way through a bowl of pho in an unlikely location - midtown Sacramento. Until Tamarind opened at 25th and J a week or so ago, pho pretty much was limited to Vietnamese restaurants along Broadway and Stockton Boulevard. Its presence along increasingly fashionable J Street must mean something, like pho is going mainstream.

As at other cafes specializing in the dish, aromatic and bracing pho at Tamarind is a great buy, with bowls about as big as hottubs selling for around $6. As the saying goes, they are meals in themselves. They aren't, however, intended to be eaten fast. The broth, customarily made with beef bones that have been long simmered with roasted ginger, onion, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and cloves, invites study, as well as cautious eating, given its heat. The mixed meats in the broth also invite deliberation, and the rice noodles over which broth and meat are served can be tricky. Then there's the accompanying plate of greens and herbs - often Thai basil, bean sprouts, saw-leaf herb, cilantro, chilies - that can be added to the bowl. Finally, the table is apt to be set with assorted condiments - eight at Tamarind, including pickled jalapeno chile peppers, plum sauce, bean paste, fish sauce - that also are meant to increase the complexity of the dish, according to personal whim. All this takes time, sort of demolishing the notion that inexpensive food can be eaten fast.

Tamarind offers 11 kinds of pho, along with several other sorts of noodle and rice plates. I found myself wishing that the varied meats of the signature pho were more tender, and that the accompanying produce included more than bean sprouts, Thai basil and lime, but Tamarind is young and still breaking itself in. It's a small but attractive addition to midtown, and if your server is the personable and informative Nai you won't quibble about the meat being a little chewy.

Tamarind, 2502 J St., is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; (916) 442-8880 is to be the number, but it isn't yet working.

November 2, 2006
A Curious Discovery

Just as we suspected, sauvignon blanc from New Zealand has something in it to set it apart from examples of the varietal made elsewhere. But it isn't gooseberries, grapefruit, pimiento, grass, lime or even cat pee, common descriptors in notes from any tasting involving New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

Just what it is remains a mystery. A six-year, nearly $17 million research project aimed at defining New Zealand sauvignon blanc uncovered the compound and is continuing to attempt to pin it down. Oddly, it's odorless, but it may possess properties that bring other compounds together in the wine to explain why the aroma of New Zealand sauvignon blanc is so distinctive, according to this report from The Marlborough Express.

November 1, 2006
Birthday Plans Shaping Up

Before lunch today, I hadn't given much thought to how a banquet menu materializes. I suppose I thought you went to a caterer, told them how much you'd like to spend, and be shown a catalog of potential dishes and their costs, and from that you'd assemble your menu.

In some instances, that indeed may be how it's done. In other cases, however, hosts actually want to taste beforehand dishes that might be served. Thus, the chefs of Classique Catering this lunch hour spread out for a few members of The McClatchy Company 11 dishes under consideration for a soiree the corporation will throw at Memorial Auditorium in February to celebrate the company's 150th birthday.

I sat in hoping to weigh in on the wine options, but no wine was poured, other than a splash of Champagne on the two sorbets and one granite vying to be the intermezzo between the starter and the entree. I don't want to ruin the surprises that await the 500 or so invited guests, but I think it safe to say they can expect the icy and tangy grapefruit granite to refresh their palates between the courses. The sorbets were too sweet and creamy, coating the palate rather than prepping it for the heavier entree to follow.

I think the group settled on a menu representative of the freshness of California Cuisine while being fittingly robust for what could be a chilly and foggy night. It will be more conservative than liberal, with foie gras getting the hook early and lobster also failing to make the cut. On the other hand, a warm and gooey chocolate cake with "decadent" in the name looks like it will be dessert, but with more fruit than the caterers originally proposed.

The entree will be fowl, but it won't be the quail or the squab, which pretty much means chicken, though several details still need to be resolved as concepts and details were taken from this and that proposed dish and combined. (Chicken for this sort of event isn't without precedent. When The Sacramento Bee celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1882, all 51 members of the staff sat down to a dinner than included chicken fricassee.)

The wines also have yet to be determined. I put in a pitch for the two most versatile wines at the table, riesling and pinot noir, not a single example of which, oddly, was on the Classique Catering wine list. The McClatchy Company could be facing a $10 per bottle corkage fee to bring in their own wine. As a stockholder, I may have to revise my recommendation to chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.

November 1, 2006
Getting a Jump on the Season of Bubbles

Thank you, Kathe McDonald and your dozen accomplices. You did the heavy lifting so we could reap the benefits. Of course, your hard work wasn't all that hard, given that it amounted to blind tasting 24 sparkling wines. But your timing is great, the results coming on the eve of the year-end holiday season, when most sparkling wine is sold and consumed.

McDonald, a fulltime health educator and part-time wine educator, arranged the tasting as part of a class she taught over the weekend. To judge by her class outline, the session was thoughtfully structured, with the chosen wines first rate and the accompanying foods just the kind of stuff you'd expect at a holiday soiree - smoked salmon, savory shortbread, shellfish, caviar. The 24 sparkling wines were broken into three flights, based principally on price. A winner was chosen for each flight. All the wines were purchased locally except for an entry from New Zealand.

Here are the results by flight (prices are what McDonald paid at such local outlets as Beverages & More, Valley Wine Shop and Costco, as well as the online wine merchant K&L):

Flight 1: Almost too close to call, with the Piper Heidsieck non-vintage Brut from Champagne ($26) narrowly edging the Domaine Chandon non-vintage Brut from California ($13).

Flight 2: The clear favorite was the Roederer Estate non-vintage Brut from Mendocino County's Anderson Valley ($39 for a magnum), though the J non-vintage Brut Rose from the Russian River Valley ($26) and the Comte Audoin de Dampierre non-vintage Brut from Champagne ($15, though it regularly sells for $29) had their partisans.

Flight 3: The easy winner was the Moet Chandon 1992 Cuvee Dom Perignon Brut from Champagne ($100), upsetting the highly regarded Krug non-vintage Grand Cuvee Brut, also from Champagne ($160).

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