September 17, 2007
High Notes from the High Sierra

IMGP1817_edited.jpgRandom notes from this weekend's 22nd annual North Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival:

- Here's Bill Arnoff, left, chef at Pianeta Ristorante in downtown Truckee, winner of the festival's signature competition, in which restaurants and wineries team up to see who can create the best pairing of food and wine. This year, 24 teams competed. Arnoff grilled Nieman Ranch flank steak, sweetened it with a demi-glace with black currants and black pepper, and served the dish with the Pride Mountain Vineyards 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

The competition's five judges, of which I was one, were so taken with the astuteness of the marriage that no other pairing came close to challenging Arnoff's domination.

Why did it work so well? It got my highest votes for the simplicity and tender muscularity of the dish, and the fruity intensity of the wine, which just picked up the cherry/berry liveliness of the demi-glace and extended it into a long and seductive finish. Both food and wine had clearly defined flavors, and they were of similar weight and density.

When it comes to pairing food and wine, those are about all the guidelines you really need to keep in mind. The judging is conducted blind, by the way, with panelists not knowing the restaurant or the winery involved in each pairing.

- Sacramento sushi chef Chris Jackson of the Mikuni family of Japanese restaurants deserves some kind of award for keeping his composure while giving a session on making sushi rolls. The demonstration was outside, in the middle of the Village at Northstar just outside Truckee, on a day so sunny and balmy hordes of bees decided to pay the festival a visit. Jackson, filling in for an ailing Kotaro "Taro" Arai, Mikuni's executive sushi chef, gave a high-energy lesson with authority, intelligence and wit, and without losing his sense of humor, even after being stung twice by bees. "This reminds me of a joke," said Jackson after getting stung. "What did the sushi say to the bee: 'Wasabi!'" OK, so maybe you had to be there.

- Speaking of Mikuni, who knew that Sacramento's premier group of sushi restaurants also is in the pizza business? Turns out that the most popular restaurant in the Village at Northstar is Rubicon Pizza Bistro, a collaboration between Ray Villaman, owner of Fireside Pizza Co. at Squaw Valley, and the Mikuni organization. Despite the name and the Sacramento connection, the restaurant isn't related to the Sacramento brewpub Rubicon, though midtown Rubicon's IPA is on tap at the Northstar bistro.

The menu includes appetizers like bruschetta and fried calamari, along with pastas and salads, but the thin and crispy crusted pizzas looked to be the clear favorites. We liked so much the energy and comfort of the place, to say nothing of the classic 1960s and 1970s rock that plays continuously, we took two meals there, savoring pizzas like the "Blanco," creamy garlic-infused ricotta topped with broccoli, arugula, tomatoes, crisp bacon and four cheeses, everything bright, everything fresh, and the "Thai red curry," a sweet and spicy combination of Tiger prawns with yellow bell peppers, red onion, tomatoes and mascarpone zesty with lime, basil and cilantro.

- As popular as Rubicon is right now, it will get some nearby competititon in November when Mikuni opens its first Japanese restaurant beyond the greater Sacramento area. It will be directly across the ice rink from Rubicon. As popular as sushi is among skiers and snowboarders, the Mikuni group just could have another hit on their hands.

- Though the emphasis was on wine throughout the festival weekend, other beverages had their moment in the sun, one of the more welcome and refreshing being the beers of a new Truckee microbrewery, Fifty Fifty Brewing Co. Their lineup includes a Manifesto pale ale, a Rockslide India pale ale, a Donner Party porter and a Roundabout oatmeal stout, but the one that seemed to be generating the most buzz was the Trifecta, a Belgian-style tripel. It was smooth, somewhat malty and sweetened lightly with purple-sage honey.

Be forewarned, however, that as easy as the beer is to drink it packs 11 percent alcohol. Fifty Fifty, 11197 Brockway Road, Truckee, opens at 11:30 a.m. daily. A complete rundown of the brewery's beers is at their Web site.

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