December 29, 2006
Can't Wait for Spring Break

This is my 240th posting here, and I have absolutely nothing to say about restaurants, food or wine, which have been the subjects of the online version of The Bee's Appetizers column since this experiment got under way in early May. (You really don't want to hear about the thin and caustic New Zealand pinot noir we had with dinner last night.)

Other than to wish readers a prosperous, entertaining and healthy new year, I just want to use this space today to alert you that this blog is going on hiatus for the next three weeks. I return to work just in time for the nation's largest gathering of winemakers and grape growers, the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium at the Sacramento Convention Center Jan. 23-25. If the program runs true to form, it will generate at least a few postings here. See you then.

December 28, 2006
Stampede Expected at 18th and L

The seventh Buckhorn Grill - but the first for Sacramento - now is expected to open in early March. John Pickerel, who with his wife Melanie has owned Buckhorn Steak & Roadhouse in Winters since 1980, says the couple expects to take possession of the 18th and L site in mid-February.

After applying the finishing touches, including the training of staff and the testing of equipment, they expect to open within two or three weeks of moving in.

The Buckhorn Grills are a streamlined version of their fullscale Winters steakhouse. They opened the first grill in San Francisco in 1999, and since then have opened additional outlets in Napa, Walnut Creek, Emeryville and two more in San Francisco, including the most recent in October at Bloomingdale's department store along Market Street.

The grills are best known for their tri-tip sandwiches, made with certified Angus beef that has been aged 21 days, marinated, rubbed, grilled and finished in a pecan-fired oven.

December 28, 2006
Table Talk

Indulge me, please, while I send this brief message to family members and friends around the globe who periodically check out this here blog. Because they were working Tuesday afternoon or otherwise out of radio range, they no doubt missed my appearance on Jeffrey Callison's program Insight on Capital Public Radio.

On the broadcast, Kate Washington, restaurant critic and food writer for the Sacramento News & Review, and I bantered about the local dining scene for the year just ending while also looking toward anticipated developments in 2007. I'm not saying this to butter him up in hopes he will invite me back, but Callison is someone who clearly prepares for his shows and is adept at popping the surprise question. That's one explanation for all my halting responses. You can hear them here.

December 27, 2006
No Longer Selling, Just Buying

After 37 years of selling groceries, Kevin Schell this weekend ends his tenure as the last of the original family members to own Taylors Market along Freeport Boulevard, which has been accommodating residents of Curtis Park and Land Park since 1962.

As of Jan. 1, Danny and Kathaleen Johnson will be the sole owners. Danny Johnson joined the store as an apprentice butcher in 1983. In 1987, Roy Taylor, who established the market with Ed Schell, sold his interest to Johnson, Schell and Schell's son, Kevin.

Now Johnson and his wife are buying out the Schells. Johnson says he has no plans to change anything about the store other than to start selling wine more aggressively and to possibly expand that department. Toward that end, he's hired Richard Ebert, a broker with Select Wine Marketing, to oversee the market's wine department.

Kevin Schell was 12 when he began to work at the store in 1969, cleaning up the meat department. He has no immediate plans other than to relax a while. "I'm going to take a deep breath and take some time off from the rigors of a seven-day retail business," says Schell. "My dad and I feel we've accomplished what we set out to do - bring fine food and beverage to Sacramento. We're not moving. We'll still be in here. We have a longterm contract to shop here."

December 26, 2006
Touches of Spring in Winter

I ate so much beef this year I decided to pass up the traditional roast over Christmas weekend for baked chicken with a Moroccan lilt - cumin, lemon, saffron, chickpeas, green and black olives.

This also meant bypassing the traditional cabernet sauvignon. No problem there, since I'd just received two of the more popular wines made by Vino Noceto in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley.

Both are full of character, vivid with fruit and great values, and I suspected their fruitiness would flatter the spirited and diverse flavors of the chicken. They did.

I also need to note that they aren't your typical winter wines. Both, in fact, are spring and summer wines, naturals for a garden party. If I put off writing about them until spring, however, that wouldn't do anybody any good because they typically are sold out by then.

Therefore, consider this a public service: The pink, floral and lean Vino Noceto 2006 Shenandoah Valley Rosato di Sangiovese ($13), a wine with refreshingly snappy strawberry fruit, and the sweet, floral and lightly spritzy Vino Noceto 2006 Shenandoah Valley Frivolo Moscato Bianco ($13) just have been released.

Even if you don't like to drink spring wines in the winter, grab them now and hang on to them until warmer weather - if you can. Actually, the unusual Frivolo is a perfectly fitting wine for New Year's Eve, not only for its gentle effervesence and low alcohol (7.5 percent) but for its body and sweetness, making it fitting as either aperitif before dinner, dessert after dinner, or accompaniment to assorted appetizers at the outset.

The Gullets are sangiovese specialists, so the rosato is a natural fit in their lineup. On the other hand, the Frivolo - Italian for "frivolous" - is a blend of underappreciated muscats that has such an enthusiastic following that the road to Plymouth is likely to be pretty busy this year-end week.

December 22, 2006
Sushi Keeps On Rollin'

Though the last half of 2006 was relatively quiet for the debut of restaurants in the Sacramento area, the first quarter of 2007 is shaping up as another story.

Among the restaurants on track to open early in the new year is Ju Hachi, at 18th and S in midtown. Expected to open in February "at the earliest," Ju Hachi will mark the return to the site of Taka Watanabe, who opened Taka's Sushi on the corner eight years ago. He sold the place three years ago.

Watanabe will continue to operate another branch of Taka's Sushi in Fair Oaks. He's also a partner in the midtown Japanese restaurant Kru along J Street. Ju Hachi - a westernized version of the number 18 in Japanese - is to be a traditional neighborhood restaurant along the lines of the original Taka's Sushi rather than a more modern version like Kru, says Watanabe's wife, Susan.

December 20, 2006
Fast-Food Wine?

Imagine taking a seat at a Carl's Jr. or some other fast-food restaurant and finding on the table one of those tents promoting the latest sandwich or dessert, only this one suggests that one kind of burger be paired with a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and that another be enjoyed with an Italian barbera.

The people at Carl's Jr. sent me just such a tent, and my immediate thought was: Wow, is a fast-food chain really going to offer diners wine as well as shakes and colas with their meals? The concept is old-hat in Europe. But when fast-food chains have suggested that they offer customers wine in the United States, they've quickly retreated in the face of complaints from neoprohibitionists who see McDonald's, Burger King, Carl's Jr. and the like as "family restaurants" incompatible with wine service.

I'm not going to predict that some fast-food chain again will try to add wine to its menu board in 2007, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were to happen. Wine is becoming increasingly accepted and accessible in American culture, and people who worry about the well-being of the dining public have shifted their prohibitionist impulses to other targets - for example, foie gras in Chicago and trans fats in New York, both banned this year. What will it be next year? Lard in Sacramento?

The Carl's Jr. table tent is a mock up for a special event, a tasting of various burgers and other sandwiches in conjunction with wines chosen by Wally's Wine & Spirits in Los Angeles. While Carl's Jr. "has no immediate plans to offer wine in the restaurants, we definitely encourage our patrons (of legal age, of course) to enjoy burgers and wine at home," said a spokeswoman for the company. A first step, perhaps.

December 20, 2006
A Marital Tremor in Wine Country


In one of those wine-world developments that drop jaws and defy comment, the old straight-laced farmer from Napa Valley is getting hitched to the hip young Sonoma County gal with purple hair, a nose stud and tattoes on every inch of exposed skin.

In today's Santa Rosa Press Democrat, staff writer Kevin McCallum is breaking the news that Napa's venerated Silver Oak Cellars has wooed and won the heart of upstart and irreverent Roshambo, a Russian River Valley winery celebrated for its annual rock-paper-scissors tournament, edgy contemporary art exhibits, drag-queen brunch and other marketing schemes meant to bring diversity and levity to the generally uptight world of wine. On the side, Roshambo also makes first-rate, value-oriented wine, which likely is what appealed to officials of Silver Oak more than the rubber chicken on the tasting counter and the techno-rock music playing energetically in the background.

What's it all mean? Will the farmer loosen up, maybe even put out a wine with a screw cap? Will Roshambo calm down and become just one more staid Northern California winery with quilts rather than abstract art on the walls? Get the early story here and then start to add your own predictions on where this odd marriage will lead.

December 18, 2006
Mendocino's Magical Mystery Tour

ZIGZAGZIN_WINE.JPGTime to start drawing up New Year's resolutions. Near the top of my list, largely because it should be relatively easy to fulfill, is to become reacquainted with the wines of Mendocino County.

Recent evidence suggests something strange is going on up there in wine marketing that deserves a closer look. This isn't exactly breaking news, however. In recent years, Mendocino's vintners have released wines named for a racehorse (Seabiscuit, whose storied career ended in retirement on a Mendocino ranch), a beetle (Lady Bug, for its role in helping control spider mites, aphids and other vineyard pests) and even an election (Recall Red, the California gubernatorial referendum three years ago).

Now come a couple of other creatively named wines to generate buzz. One is the Mendocino Wine Co.'s 2004 Mendocino County Zig Zag Zin Zinfandel ($18). It's a very appealing, nicely constructed zinfandel, with fresh raspberry fruit, a lean but athletic build, and the tingle of spice and the creaminess of oak light and balanced. But what's apt to raise eyebrows is the name "Zig Zag," which even in the color and font of its type suggests the "Zig-Zag" papers that have been used for decades to roll joints made with another Mendocino County agricultural product.

On the wine's back label, however, the company's partners play it straight, saying the name of the wine was inspired by the zig and zag of Mendocino County's mountain roads. There is that, to be sure. What's more, they recommend the wine be enjoyed with grilled steak, cold pizza, good friends and great music, and nothing more.

The other involves two wines of Cole Bailey Vineyards in Mendocino County's Redwood Valley. Both bear the proprietary name Sesquipedalian, pronounced ses-kwi-pi-dey-lee-uhn, which refers to the use of long and ponderous words, generally by "a poser who uses fancy-pants words when simple ones would do," says the winery's own Web site. The labels are full of so much gibberish that the usual purple prose of wine appreciation sounds downright lucid by comparison. Even the corks get into the act, proclaiming in tiny type: "Sure to leave your physiognomy contorting in a paroxysm of orgiastic bliss." I'm not sure of the point or the inspiration, though one of the winery's principals, Jennifer Malloy Anderson, is said to be obsessed with playing online Scrabble.

As to the wines, they're made by one of my favorite winemakers, Jill Davis, known for her devotion to capturing with finesse a varietal's core character. The Cole Bailey Vineyards 2004 Mendocino Sesquipelalian Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) is young and robust, seizing the herbal, green-olive side of the varietal while not ignoring cherry and berry highlights; it's a wine best cellared for three to five years. The Cole Bailey Vineyards 2005 Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc ($18) is lean, dry and fine, its clearcut grassy and fruity flavors not at all undermined by the gentle introduction of oak. I just hope they have some left when I get to Mendocino County next year.

December 15, 2006
Winemaker Cleared

The trade group New Zealand Winegrowers has cleared Brent Marris of any intentional wrongdoing in submitting to judges a wine that was different than an identically labeled wine on store shelves.

The wine is the Wither Hills 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, made by Marris. Tests showed that a version of the wine not widely available to consumers had been provided the New Zealand food magazine Cuisine for a judging of the country's sauvignon blancs. When the differences were revealed, Cuisine stripped the wine of the five-star rating it had been awarded.

An audit by New Zealand Winegrowers concluded that "Wither Hills has not been systematically creating small batches of wine specifically for entry into wine competitions and reviews." The difference in the wines, said the group, was due to the number of bottling runs needed to fill orders.

Nevertheless, the incident, reported in a Dunne on Wine column in The Sacramento Bee last week, continues to have other repercussions. The winery has withdrawn the wine from all other domestic and international competitions, reports the New Zealand broadcasting company TVNZ. Marris has resigned as chief judge of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards. The country's wine trade has begun a sober assessment of the role and conduct of wine competitions. And Wither Hills is offering a $5 discount on bottles of its 2006 sauvignon blanc, which customarily sells for $17. That offer, which expires Sunday, is only good in New Zealand.

December 14, 2006
Unfiltered News

UnfilteredChardonnaylabel.jpgIn my continuing attempt to rekindle affection for chardonnay - and it's working - I opened, poured and tasted some of the Newton Vineyard 2004 Napa Valley Unfiltered Chardonnay ($55) last night. It went fine with potato chips dusted with aged white Cheddar cheese, but that wasn't what provoked my interest in the wine.

Rather, it's the prominence given "Unfiltered" on the label, in the same red and font as "Chardonnay," the key bit of information on the bottle. In their packaging, wineries usually play up appellation, not one of the techniques of winemaking, or in this case non-techniques. What's more, "Unfiltered" is repeated on the label in large bas-relief script, another costly way to make a point.

And the point is twofold. For one, Newton Vineyard, which the luxury-goods company LVMH bought a year ago from winery founders Peter and Su Hua Newton, is sticking to its three-decade principle of minimal interference in transforming grapes into wine. An unfiltered wine means it hasn't been pushed through some sort of fine membrane to screen out micro-organisms and sediment that could spoil or turn it murky. Some winemakers, however, fret that filtering also screens out some of a wine's color, complexity and capacity to age. "The less the touch to the wine, the better for the wine," says Newton's winemaker, Stephen Carrier, who only joined the winery early this year but plans to continue to not filter the Napa Valley estate's chardonnay.

Secondly, the winery's marketing branch clearly sees "unfiltered" wines as appealing to consumers keenly interested in wines subjected to little manipulation. Some consumers, and their numbers could be increasing, see such wines as being closer to the earth, more natural. Indeed, wines that haven't been filtered or fined - a similar process for cleaning them up - generally are suitable for vegetarians and vegans. (Fining agents come from a variety of sources, including such animal products as fish bladders, egg whites and milk, though others are clay, silica and charcoal.)

Without a bottle of the Newton chardonnay that had been fined and filtered, I couldn't tell what difference the lack of filtering means in this instance. The unfiltered chardonnay, however, was deep in color, rich in smell, viscous in body and complex in fruit flavors, most of them representing the kind of fresh citric and tropical tones typical of the Carneros district at the southern reaches of the Napa Valley, which is where the fruit that went into the wine was grown. It's a good-sized chardonnay, but not without grace. The oak in which it was aged was well modulated. In its roundness and ripeness, it's a traditional Napa Valley chardonnay, but with layers and verve not often found in the genre.

I can't say I'd recommend it with potato chips, though it wasn't all that bad. The winery's recommendations, however, make more sense - braised pork with apples, salmon with tarragon aioli, broiled monkfish.

December 13, 2006
Sacramento's Wine-Bar Boom

Three Sacramento wine bars are vying to be the first to take flight. Fittingly, it likely will be Vino Volo, nearing completion on the upper concourse of Terminal A at Sacramento International Airport. Carla Wytmar, spokeswoman for Vino Volo, says the tasting bar and retail shop is expected to open on or about Christmas, just in time for travelers to pick up a last-minute gift. Of course, a hitch as unpredictable as Sacramento Valley fog could develop, postponing the debut.

In that case, Reda Bellarbi's tiny wine bar The Grand could be the first of the three to open. "Definitely before New Year's Eve," says Bellarbi of The Grand's premiere. If not the first of the three, it definitely will be the smallest, occupying a 305-square-foot nook of a state parking garage at 16th and L. The space originally was intended to house pay machines for parkers, but then the concept changed, they weren't installed and the space became available. Bellarbi took one look and thought, "Wine barrel!" Or maybe cork.

The third wine bar - L, the Wine Lounge and Urban Kitchen - is expected to open in early or mid-February as part of a new residential and retail complex at 18th and L in midtown. Marcus and Kolea Marquez - he's a former manager at The Kitchen - are the principals. Ame Harrington, also formerly of The Kitchen, as well as Selland's Market Cafe & Bakery and Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar, will be executive chef, reports Andrea Lepore, spokeswoman for the project as well as a principal. L's wine director will be Jonathon Klonecke, a Los Angeles software engineer whose love for wine is prompting this career switch, starting with the certified wine professional program at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley.

Lepore also is involved in helping bring Fabrizio Cercatore to town from the northern Italian fishing town of La Spezia, where he runs a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast inn. In midtown Sacramento - the specific location hasn't been chosen - he will operate a pizza cafe, says Lepore. A spring opening is anticipated. No name yet has been chosen.

December 12, 2006
Wake up and taste the wine

While reading through Jennifer Rosen's "The Cork Jester's Guide to Wine" yesterday to prepare for a column on this season's new wine books, I ran across her sharp description of today's livelier style of sauvignon blanc, popular for its crystalline citric fruit and razory acidity: "The sting makes you want to slap your cheeks and go 'Ah!' like guys in aftershave commercials." Precisely.

Though sauvignon blanc is a chilled white wine most closely identified with the lighter foods and the heat of summer, she urges wine enthusiasts to go ahead and drink some even during a winter rain.

Encouraged by her brashness, I unscrewed the cap of a bottle of the Matua Valley Winery 2006 Marlborough Paretai Sauvignon Blanc ($17) last night to pour with a chicken entree intense with garlic, ginger and other rather robust Asian seasonings.

"Paretai," incidentally is Maori for "river bank," and was chosen to designate the wine because the fruit is from a specificlly prized lot along the northern bank of the Wairau River on the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand.

Matua's new winemaker, Peter Munro, just had arrived as harvest was getting under way (he'd been working in his native Australia), but he sized up the fruit astutely, adapted to New Zealand winemaking quickly, and has made a sauvignon blanc richly representative of the style responsible for the country's high standing with the varietal. It's zesty, shot through with the fresh and revitalizing flavors of tropical and citric fruits - grapefruit and lime, mostly - and has the backbone and structure to dance right along with poultry and seafood dishes no matter how assertively seasoned they may be. And, yes, I suspect it would get Jennifer Rosen's stamp of approval for the way it slaps, stings and makes you feel like you've just shaved and are ready to take on the day.

The Sacramento wine shop Beyond Napa is to get a load of the wine Wednesday.

December 12, 2006
The New World of Wine - Brave or Silly?

Australia's Hardy Wine Company, instrumental in popularizing boxed wine, is test marketing a concept aimed at making wine even more accessible to the masses - single-serve plastic bottles sealed with a cap that doubles as a drinking cup.

When the containers, called "the Shuttle," were tried out during performances of Cirque de Soleil as it toured Australia, wine sales jumped 160 percent over the troupe's previous tour, reports The West Australian.

The invention sounds great for wine sales, but for wine appreciation? Only if you cling to the belief that wine is best savored and deliberated during a dinner that doesn't involve clowns.

Half the globe away, meanwhile, the United Kingdom supermarket chain Sainsbury's has come up with its own clever scheme to enhance the appeal of wine, at least to mice. Prompted by a recent Harvard Medical School study that found that the polyphenol resveratrol in red wine helped obese middle-aged male mice live better and longer, Sainsbury's is introducing a red wine with 32 percent more resveratrol than commonly found in red wines, reports Beverage Daily. A blend of caberent sauvignon and petit verdot, the wine is named "Red Heart." Given humans' perpetual search for the Fountain of Youth, the wine likely will sell well, although even a nearly one-third increase in resveratrol in wine still adds up to a very small fraction of the doses given the mice in the study. Resveratrol in wine typically can range from .2 milligrams per litre to 5.8 milligrams per litre.

December 11, 2006
Learning New Tricks in the Kitchen

Last night's recipe called for mincing shallot and ginger, deveining shrimp and squeezing tangerine juice. These are the kinds of tasks that home and commercial cooks perform routinely. They become second nature, old habits that don't require much thought.

A few days ago, however, a thick but compact cooking manual landed on my desk, which I took home to consult to see if I could learn any new moves, even for such everyday chores as mincing ginger. Sure enough, I did. I'd never before skinned a knob of ginger with a spoon. I'd heard of the technique but dismissed it on the grounds that if a knife worked fine why not just continue to use it? As I quickly discovered, the edge of a teaspoon not only is faster, less of the ginger flesh gets discarded. By following the book's three steps to mince ginger I also learned this chore could go much faster: 1) Slice the peeled knob of ginger into thin rounds; 2) Fan the rounds out and cut them into thin matchstick-like strips; 3) Chop the matchsticks crosswise into a fine mince. By following this advice and a few other time-saving manuevers from the book I was ready to start searing the shrimp in nothing flat.

The book, which would be a dandy holiday gift, especially for college students just out on their own and starting to learn to cook, is "834 Kitchen Quick Tips: Techniques and Shortcuts for the Curious Cook" by the editors of the magazine Cook's Illustrated (America's Test Kitchen, $16.95, 585 pages). Each tip is accompanied by John Burgoyne's helpful fine-line drawings.

You can pop open the book to virtually any page and find something enlightening: To protect your fingers from getting burned while grabbing a hot lid, wedge a wine cork under the handle before you start to cook; the cork will stay cool. To prevent dribbles from a pitcher containing a cold beverage, smear a small dab of butter on the inside and outside edges of the spout. Concerned that the filling of the grinder you are building will spill out? Before you start, scoop out some of the interior crumb from the top and bottom halves of the roll.

If there's a shortcoming to the book it's that not one of its 834 tips tells you how to prop it open on the kitchen counter for quick and easy reference. Maybe that will be in the next edition.

December 7, 2006
Best Wines of 2006, Round Two

The Wine Spectator weighed in earlier with its top 100 wines for 2006, and now it's The Wine Enthusiast's turn, which puts California wines atop the list, the DeLoach 2004 Russian River Valley 30th Anniversary Cuvee Pinot Noir ($45) at the very top, the Chateau St. Jean 2003 Sonoma County Reserve Chardonnay ($45) right behind it.

No local wine made The Wine Enthusiast's top 100 list, but four local wines qualified for the magazine's top 100 best buys, defined as wines costing less than $15: No. 29, Sobon Estate 2003 Amador County Cabernet Sauvignon ($15); No. 35, Sierra Vista 2005 Sierra Foothills Fume Blanc ($13); No. 46, Karly 2003 Amador County Pokerville Zinfandel ($12); and No. 93, Delicato 2004 California Pinot Grigio ($7).

December 6, 2006
Party Planning

News to me: America Online has a sommelier. She's Katie Griesbeck, and she teamed up with some AOL colleagues to taste through 34 wines priced at $5.99 or less, a niche that appeals to hosts planning a big holiday soiree. The wines, which weren't tasted blind, were bought at various stores in and around New York City.

The five the panel liked best were:

Trader Joe's Coastal 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($4.99), recommended to accompnay steaks and beef tenderloin or a cheese tray of brie, aged cheddar and gorgonzola.

Amaicha 2005 Torrontes ($4.99), an Argentine white evocative of gewurztraminer or viognier, recommended with spicy foods, Asian flavors, shrimp, a mild Swiss or a smoked gouda.

Banrock Station 2004 Shiraz ($5.99), a South Eastern Australia shiraz softer and sweeter than other shirazes on the market, with lush cherry and plum notes and a hint of peppery spice that make it fine for dishes like rack of lamb or grilled meats, says Griesbeck.

Barefoot Cellars Non-Vintage Merlot ($5.99), which while enjoyable on its own also will complement roast pork loin, spaghetti Bolognese or even a chocolate dessert.

Barefoot Cellars Non-Vintage Chardonnay ($5.99), a lighter style chardonnay but with the structure, acidity and complexity to accompany crab cakes or roast chicken, as well as rich cream sauces that often grace the holiday buffet table.

Though AOL sells wines on its Web site, these releases are widely available in supermarkets and grocery stores.

December 6, 2006
A Growing Thai Kingdom

Vitoon "Vic" Assavarungnirund, one of the true pioneers in bringing Thai cooking to Sacramento - he opened Thai Cottage along Fulton Avenue in 1991 - is about to introduce local diners to a more polished take on the cooking of Thailand.

His venue for this will be Tuk-Tuk, his Thai restaurant nearing completion in North Natomas. A tuk-tuk is a motorized three-wheel rickshaw common on the streets of Bangkok and other Southeast Asian cities.

Assavarungnirund had hoped to open Tuk-Tuk the middle of this month, but now is delaying the start-up until early in the new year to give his staff more time to train.

At Tuk-Tuk, he is to provide dishes that represent both a modern take on Thai cooking as well as introduce older styles not commonly found here.

Tuk-Tuk will have a full liquor license, and Assavarungnirund is looking into a lineup of cocktails that take advantage of indigenous Thai ingredients, like lemongrass and chile peppers. Tuk-Tuk also will be one of the city's few Thai restaurants to open for breakfast. It will be at 4630 Natomas Blvd., near Bella Bru Cafe.

This has been a busy year for Assavarungnirund. In May, he relocated Thai Cottage to the site of the former Thai Palms along Howe Avenue.

December 4, 2006
Cathy Corison Does a Reality Check

Good news for wine enthusiasts who collect cabernet sauvignons made by Napa Valley winemaker Cathy Corison, whose wines are released under her eponymous brand Corison Winery: They age beautifully. Wines of clarity, balance and finesse upon release, they become even more expressive at 12 to 15 years old, maintaining a bright core of distinctive cherry fruit on a frame more whippet than bulldog.

This conclusion is based on a tasting today of eight older vintages of Corison's cabernet sauvignons in the loft of the Victorian-style barn she and her husband, designer William Martin, built in 1999 on their 10-acre spread along the west side of Highway 29 just south of St. Helena. The barn houses her winery, and Corison invited a few media types over to see how her older wines were progressing. The upshot is that if you have vintages 1991 through 1995 in your cellar, dig them out and start to enjoy them. They'll live for several more years, but to this palate they're at their peak right now.

There are hundreds of cabernet sauvignons coming out of Napa Valley; why go all that way to focus on the releases of Cathy Corison? I'll be writing of Corison in The Sacramento Bee down the road, so for now I'll give just a few reasons why wine enthusiasts may want to consider picking up a bottle of her cabernet sauvignon next time they see one in a wine shop, even if currently available vintages generally sell for between $60 and $70.

For one, she's been making wine in Napa Valley for 31 years. She's gotten to know the growers and the land. She's kept her production small, customarily making only around 2,500 cases a year. And she's been focused on perfecting one consistent style of cabernet sauvignon since she founded her own brand in 1987, and she's stuck to it. She wants her wines to be aromatic, fitting for the table, and capable of continuing to develop in the bottle. Mostly, she wants them to strike a balance between power and elegance. While several cabernet-sauvignon specialists in Napa Valley have gone in for ever bigger interpretations of the varietal - riper fruit, higher alcohol, more oak - she has remained true to an ethos that emphasizes restraint and finesse, but without sacrificing the character that makes Napa Valley and cabernet sauvignon such a marvelous match.

December 4, 2006
Pricey Panettone

I walked into the produce department of Corti Brothers on Saturday to pick up some onions and basil and burst out laughing. I'd almost run the shopping cart into a rack of holiday cakes, but that wasn't what was so amusing. The cakes included the biggest panettone I'd ever seen, a 10-kilo monster that sells for $379.99. If you've been stumped about what to get for the centerpiece of your holiday dessert buffet, your problem has been solved.

I've come to think of "panettone" as Italian for "fruit cake," only panettone is lighter and its contents are more diverse. And now, bigger. Corti's mammoth panettone is by the bakery Dolciaria Loison in Italy's Veneto region. The panettone that couldn't help but catch my eye has a name that is a mouthful in itself - Magnum Panettone Classico Cappelliera. "Cappelliera" is Italian for "hatbox," which is how the cake is packaged, in a big round hatbox that itself is witty and entertaining. I don't know what you will find in this particular panettone, but it could be bits of the almond nougat torrone or the candied sour cherries amarene or raisins plumped with the wine torcolato. They are gifts within a gift. Smaller sizes also are available.

December 4, 2006
Cow Punchers Ride a Parisian Range

The lights of Roxy were on Friday evening and the place looked fairly busy, even though we'd heard it wouldn't open until sometime this week, so we pulled off Fair Oaks Boulevard to see what was up.

What we found was a training session at a nascent restaurant that just might put the gourmet back into Sacramento's Gourmet Gulch, but with touches unaffected and even charming. Investors in the restaurant and other guests who would be understandably patient with a staff developing its moves had been invited to test drive this latest addition to the local dining scene. We were interlopers who just had eaten down the street and hung around only long enough to sample the large, fresh and delightfully flavorful Dr Pepper chocolate cupcake with buttermilk anglaise and candied pecans ($7). (The menu has it Dr. Pepper, but as we say, the place just is being broken in.)

Dr Pepper, buttermilk and pecans suggest that Roxy has a western theme. Indeed, the owners, Ron and Terri Gilliland, who also own midtown's Lucca, say their intent is to bring to Sacramento a restaurant best summed up as "Paris meets the ranch." The place, though unfinished Friday - bar stools had yet to arrive, a large drapery had yet to be hung - carries off the theme with more taste than kitsch. The handsome early 20th-century backbar the Gillilands found in St. Louis is fronted with a modern curving cherrywood bar. A large and sparkly chandelier dominates the dining room, where tiered tables and booths are arranged in a subtle horseshoe pattern. Some of the booths are dressed with cowhide from Brazil, others with a golden brocade. The balance of curves and straight lines throughout the place suggests the fencelines and rivers of Wyoming.

The menu, which blends French aesthetics with western traditions, also avoids joke and cliche. It also introduces a passle of relatively new players - chef Jeff Ivaska, sous chefs Daniel Origel and Jess Milbourne, pastry chefs Kristina Etchieson and Mathias Masera.

The food looks as if it will be fun, with hot sauce and a jalapeno chile pepper aioli spicing up the calamari, braised beef and a smoky tomato sauce filling roasted piquillo chile peppers, an avocado salsa attending the roasted chicken, and an El Toro Beer barbecue sauce and smoked-Cheddar macaroni and cheese accompanying the Bledsoe pork chop. Terri Gilliland is especially excited about the desserts, which in addition to the cupcake include a lemon buttermilk cream cheese tart with huckleberry meringue, a citrus panna cotta with pomegranate gelee, and a s'mores pie.

When it comes to inventive new restaurants in Sacramento, 2006 hasn't been an especially interesting year, but Roxy looks like it could put excitement back into the dining scene all on its own. If all the furnishings are in, it should be open Tuesday. It's at 2381 Fair Oaks Blvd.; the phone number is (916) 489-2000.

December 1, 2006
Maloofs on a Budget

From left, Phil Maloof, Joe Maloof, Gavin Maloof, Carl's Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder, and Barry Bonds. (Photo/Carl's Jr., Susan Goldman)

Those Maloof brothers, they're just regular guys, despite that TV commercial that shows them devouring a Carl's Jr. burger with a nearly $6,000 bottle of Bordeaux, a combo available only at their Palms hotel casino in Las Vegas.

Last night, the brothers, with pals Barry Bonds and rapper Xzibit, gathered at Wally's Wine & Spirits in Los Angeles to see how less expensive wines match up with the burger, as well as other Carl's Jr. sandwiches.

Christian Navarro, who owns Wally's with Steve Wallace, came up with the recommended pairings, including the Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) with the "original six dollar burger," the D'Arenberg Footbolt Shiraz ($18) with the "guacamole bacon six dollar burger," the Vietti Barbera d'Asti Tre Vigne ($20) with the "western bacon six dollar burger," and the Newton Red Label Chardonnay ($24) with the "charbroiled chicken club sandwich." Vintages were unspecified, and the prices presumably are what the wines sell for at Wally's. Whether the pairings lead to a regular series of burger-and-wine commercials for the Maloofs remains to be seen.

Before the night was over, the Maloofs reverted to their old Vegas selves, overseeing the pouring of a $26,000 bottle of 1949 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.

The wine paired with the burger at the Palms is the 1982 Chateau Petrus, which, coincidentally, is the same wine highlighted by Wine Enthusiast magazine in an article concerning the laissez faire attitude of French winemakers in the face of speculation that counterfeit French wines are on the rise. I pictured myself as someone about to spend the weekend in Las Vegas, naturally stopping by the Palms for the $6,000 combo, but now nervous that the '82 Petrus might be a fake. I called the Palms to find out what steps they are taking to assure that the Petrus with the burger is genuine. They have yet to respond. Should have said I was Barry Bonds.

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