March 28, 2007
No April Fool's Day Joke

After 60 years, the chicken is flying the coop. Pollardville Chicken Kitchen Restaurant & Ghost Town, a Highway 99 landmark halfway between Lodi and Stockton, will seat guests for the last time Sunday. Neil and Tracy Pollard are retiring, bringing down the curtain on a nearly 13-acre complex that lured motorists not only with fried chicken but dinner theater, train rides and tours of a veritable Mother Lode gold camp.

Anyone who drive Highway 99 couldn't miss it, principally because of an eight-foot chicken atop an 80-foot tower, wearing a black cowboy hat, hostered sidearm and vest. Another big chicken stood on the ground. The Pollards have until June 30 to get rid of everything. Thus, the complex's showboat is being converted into a temporary general store, where the town's antique furnishings and other memorabilia will be sold over the following two months.

The Pollards already have sold the 1897 brick jail from Jamestown, Tuolumne Co., and the 1928 post office from Mountain Ranch, Calaveras Co. They are to be dismantled, returned to their original communities and restored, says Neil Pollard. His father bought the wood post office, which at 6-feet-by-8-feet reputedly is the smallest post office in the country, about 1957 and had it moved to Pollardville. He did the same with the jail about 1964.

The Pollards themselves will end up at their second home in Mountain Ranch. So will one of the chickens. "My wife wants some memorabilia from the place," says Neil Pollard, unsure just where he will put the chicken. The other is being taken by the couple's daughter, who likely will move it to Lockeford, where she has one restaurant and is preparing to open another; it probably will end up at one of them, speculates her father.

"After June 30, whatever is left here will be bulldozed," says Neil Pollard, who sold the site to a developer last year. Homes are to be built on the property.

The restaurant will be open for the last time 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. The kitchen will continue to operate for another couple of months, but for take-out only.

Neil Pollard's parents, Ray and Ruth Pollard, opened the original Chicken Kitchen in 1944 in Castro Valley. They moved to Stockton in 1946 and for the next 10 years ran the restaurant on the west side of Highway 99. In late 1957 them moved to the east side. "We closed one night over there and opened the next morning here," recalls Neil Pollard.

March 28, 2007
Seder Selections

At sunset Monday, Passover commences, raising the question, What wines are to be poured during a Seder meal? Daniel Rogov, author of the annual book "Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines," has 50 kosher answers, which he provided to the magazine Reform Judaism.

Even Rogov acknowledges that as recently as a decade ago the prospect of assembling a list of 50 kosher wines worth recommending for Passover would have left him trying to stifle a giggle fit.

But kosher wines today are far different than the simple, cloying Concord-based wines of past Passovers. Most are dry, refined and capable of competing with non-kosher wines on the competition circuit.

While Rogov's list of 50 kosher wines fitting for the Passover Seder favors Israeli wines, he doesn't overlook Napa Valley's HaGafen Cellars, which placed six wines in his roundup, from a $38 cabernet sauvignon to a $17 sauvignon blanc. HaGafen is the only California winery to make the list, though Rogov chose two California wines by Herzog Wine Cellars of Oxnard, a cabernet sauvignon and a syrah, for a separate list of "12 best buys." Each of the Herzog wines sells for $13.

March 28, 2007
Hacker Buffet

Earlier this month, I posted an item here about steps that restaurants are taking to protect diners from credit-card fraud. And none too soon, to judge by what ABC News is reporting today, namely that identity theft is more likely to occur at a restaurant than at any other kind of business.

According to the report, 40 percent of all credit-card theft happens when the card holder dines out. That conclusion is based on tracking by Visa, which blames hackers and inept storage of credit-card data by restaurants for the high incidence of theft. While theft of personal information on a credit card by servers who disappear with the card isn't unprecedented, it apparently isn't near as prevalent as theft by hackers far from the premises. Visa's research indicates that large restaurant chains are especially susceptible to break-ins.

What can consumers do to better safeguard their credit-card information? Pay with cash, or keep a close eye on credit-card statements and report anything suspicious, suggests the report.

March 27, 2007
Thai Basil Sprouts a Lounge

Suleka Sun-Lindley is preparing to add a second-story lounge over the midtown Sacramento restaurant Thai Basil that her mother, Prayoon “Kay” Sununsangthong, opened in 2002. She anticipates a mid-May opening at the 25th and J location.

To be called Level UP, the addition is to include a full bar, late-night dining and a menu of "fun and exciting" Asian street foods. Inspired by the casual cooking of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, India and Korea, dishes will be served "tapa style" and likely will include skewered grilled meat or fish glazed with sweet garlic sauce, spicy fried fish with green mango salad, and the Thai-style jerky called "heavenly beef," as well as desserts, says Sun-Lindley.

March 26, 2007
Buds Bloom, but Too Early?

IMGP0907_edited.jpgBudbreak is under way in the vineyards of northern California, the tiny and bright green leaves emerging boldly from canes signalling the start of another vintage. These bursting buds are chardonnay, basking in balmy spring sunshine Saturday at Madrona Vineyards on Apple Hill in El Dorado County, about 3,000 feet up the Sierra foothills.

Budbreak is expected in spring vineyards, of course, as vines stir from their winter dormancy. Winter this year, however, has itself been balmy, pushing the buds farther along than they usually are in late March. This is risky, especially in the foothills, where warmth and sunshine one day can yield to hard rain, hail, snow or frost the next. Indeed, thunder storms are forecast in the region today and tomorrow. If they materialize, they or subsequent freezing temperatures could knock these sensitive buds from their cane perches, dashing hopes that clusters of chardonnay could continue swell into fat and juicy bunches ready for harvest this late summer or fall.

That's why Madrona's Bush family, which has been farming wine grapes on Apple Hill since 1973, might look a little antsy and tired these next few days or weeks. Through the nights they will be monitoring the weather, temperatures especially, ready to spring into action and activate frost-protection measures in hopes of saving these precious buds. Their grape-growing neighbors will be on similar alert. And here we thought their lives were just a matter of tasting wine all day and then presiding over winemaker dinners in posh restaurants at night.

March 23, 2007
A Revealing Look Back

IMGP0903_edited.jpgChik Brenneman, winemaker and cellarmaster with the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis, has been taking an inventory of the campus's vast research wine cellar to prepare for a move to new quarters. While assembling his catalog not long ago, he discovered in the cellar a long-overlooked cache of commercial wines given to the department for activities related to the department's 75th anniversary in 1984. All the wines were California cabernet sauvignons from the 1980 vintage.

Last night, Brenneman and department officials oversaw a tasting of 24 of the wines to see how they have developed over the past quarter century. (Most of the approximately 100 participants each paid $125, to be used to help defray student expenses, including a field trip to South American vineyards and wineries this summer. Students participated in the tasting by decanting the wines, which is what student Jonas Mueller is seen doing here, pouring them and cleaning up.)

The wines, which represented a wide mix of California appellations, such as Napa Valley, Calaveras County and Paso Robles, were tasted blind in four flights of six each. As a group, they showed well. The color of several had thinned and dulled, but most were bright and clear. A few basically were dead, yet several revealed surprising freshness, vitality and length.

I was impressed by how many showed the aromas and flavors that I most appreciate in cabernet sauvignon, an herbal characteristic that suggests mint, green olives and, most of all, eucalyptus. My favorite wines of the night had this trait, which winemakers today generally try to suppress in favor of flavors more suggestive of cassis, black cherries, cola and chocolate, not all of which necessarily are from the grape.

Something else different about these wines is that by today's standards they almost invariably were low in alcohol. For the most part, their alcohol was right around 12.5 percent. Only one exceeded 14 percent, a common level today as vintners seek to make ever more powerfully concentrated cabernets. Whether they will age as gracefully as last night's wines remains to be seen, but as Napa Valley winemaker Michael Martini remarked during the tasting, the attributes of a wine that stand out in its youth also tend to stand out as it ages.

As the results were unveiled, I was struck by how my favorites tended to be made by producers who still make some of my favorite cabernet sauvignons, most notably Joseph Phelps Winery and Mt. Veeder Winery. I also liked very much the Stonegate Winery cabernet sauvignon, but haven't tasted any of its more recent cabernets. Unfortunately, Devlin Wine Cellars of Santa Cruz, which used Sonoma County fruit for one of last night's favorites, no longer is making wine. The winemaker, however, Chuck Devlin, who joined last night's tasting, still is making wine, now for Ste. Chapelle Winery in Idaho. He's making cabernet there, too, and it just might be worth checking out.

March 22, 2007
Tuli to Bear Fruit

Since late last year a banner announcing the pending arrival of Tuli Bistro has been draped high across a building rising on the northwest corner of 21st and S. So far, the restaurant hasn't materialized, but the owner/chef, Adam Pechal, is sounding confident that he will have it open around the first week of May.

It will be small and cozy, but intimacy is high on Pechal's list of design criteria. To that extent, he is laying out much of the seating along the cooking line, so guests will be able to watch and chat with cooks in the style of sushi bars and oldtime diners. "I'll be right back there cooking, and customers can order direct from us or talk with us about the menu," says Pechal, a 1997 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y. Since then he's put in stints with Bistro Don Giovanni and Bouchon in Napa Valley and at such local restaurants as River City Brewing Co. and Esquire Grill. He's also been catering.

Though Tuli will be a bistro, Pechal isn't locking himself into French cookery, or any other specific cuisine, for that matter. "My cuisine will be all over the place, but without being obnoxious," he vows.

"Tuli," he notes, is a Latin verb with several meanings, including "to bear fruit, to bring to the table, to carry, to lead, to command."

March 21, 2007
Dive Right In To That Wine

The next time California has a wine glut - and given the cyclical nature of grape growing and winemaking that's virtually a certainty - Francis Ford Coppola will be ready.

As reported in today's Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Coppola is asking Sonoma County public officials if he can build two large swimming pools at the former Chateau Souverain winery at Geyserville, which he acquired not long ago. (Coppola also owns Rubicon Estate in Napa Valley, but apparently has no plans to expand his tourist attractions there.)

Coppola's inspiration for the swimming pools actually doesn't have anything to do with building a couple of back-up fermentation vats or to provide an imaginative alternative to drinking wines he might not be able to sell. He just wants to provide children who accompany their parents on wine-country treks with a chance for some fun of their own, says Coppola's spokeswoman.

There's no hurry for the kids and their parents to get new swimming outfits, however. The project isn't expected to be finished for about two years. For more on the additions, check out the story here.

March 21, 2007
Questions About Queues

Let's say you've driven 15 miles to get to a hot new restaurant. You haven't made reservations but you have a hunch that not many other diners yet have heard of this place. You're wrong. When you arrive, the hostess tells you the wait for a table will be 90 minutes.

What do you do? Stick around or leave for someplace else? What's the longest you will wait for a table? Where hereabouts have you run into the longest waits? What do you do while you wait? What kind of strategies have you come up with to avoid waits at restaurants that don't take reservations? What do you think the restaurateur should do to ease your wait? (I've just read of a no-reservations restaurant in Sydney where the owner has put in an antipasto bar to provide diners with something to nibble on while they wait.)

In case you haven't noticed, readers now can post remarks to the items posted in his blog. Just click on "comments" below and fire away. We look forward to reading of your experiences and your thoughts.

March 21, 2007
Wines that Women Love

Agi Toth.jpgJ.Perlman Photography
Agi Toth, a wine educator from Omaha, Neb.

What do women want in wine? Just what men want: Wines of character, interest and value. If you were thinking they'd prefer buttery chardonnays over linebacker zinfandels, think again.

That, at least, is my snap judgment while looking over the just-released results of the National Women's Wine Competition, the first judging in the country made up solely of female judges. The competition was held last week in Santa Rosa, and the results have taken so long to arrive I was starting to think that maybe only women wine writers would be allowed to report on the outcome. (That's a joke; most wine competitions are notoriously inept at getting out word about which wines showed well.)

At any rate, in announcing the results, Lea Pierce, the competition's director, made it clear that women - at least her women judges - don't prefer any one varietal, region or style in wine. "The winning wines span the full spectrum of varieties, tastes and styles, yet all shared the characteristics of balance and elegance." Virtually every wine judge, regardless of gender, will tell you that a medal-winning wine comes down to balance and elegance.

The big winners included a blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah from Napa Valley, a dessert wine from Virginia, a hefty zinfandel from Mendocino County and an unoaked riesling from Washington state. How's that for variety?

Pierce's panelists shared with men judges who dominate most wine competitions one notable characteristic: They love to give medals. Of the nearly 1,800 wines in the judging, half got a medal of some sort.

Whereas most wine competitions narrow the field to one sweepstakes winner, the women annointed 10 wines with sweepstakes honors. This was due in part to the competition's structure. Wines were divided into two classifications, an open class in which wines could be made by a winemaker of either gender, and a second class in which wines had to have been made by a woman vintner. Curiously, three of the four wines in the open class were made or co-made by women. (On the other hand, the winery recognized for racking up the most medals - 18 - has a male winemaker. What's it mean? Absolutely nothing.)

Incidentally, I agree wholeheartedly with the competition's longterm intent, which is to groom more women wine critics. At most competitions, women are underrepresented on judging panels, but so are younger people and members of ethnic minorities. Most judges are older white guys who got there by years of experience and passion in such fields as making wine, selling wine, researching wine and writing of wine. Yet, more perspectives and a broader range of palates at judgings would strengthen the deliberations and might even improve the credibility of wine competitions. Few competitions are trying energetically to diversify the composition of their judging panels, but perhaps the publicity given the National Women's Wine Competition and the issues it has helped raise will prompt other judgings to make a more conscientious effort at mixing up the makeup of panels.

For the record, the top overall sweepstakes winners were the Palmeri Wines 2002 Napa Valley Stagecoach Vineyard Caberent Sauvignon/Syrah in the open class, and the Veritas Winery 2005 Monticello Kenmar Traminette from Virginia in the women-winemaker class.

Winning winemakers are to get a supply of stickers proclaiming "Women Love It!" for their medal wines. A list of winners is to be posted on the competition's Web site.

March 20, 2007
Sunrise for Sturgeon, Sunsets for Owner

The Virgin Sturgeon is primed to sail into the spring and summer recreation season on the Sacramento River, but a new captain will be at the helm.

After nearly three months of sprucing up and a change in ownership, the old barge reopens for business Thursday, reports longtime owner Laurie Patching, who just sold the restaurant to one of her veteran employees, Bob Riggs.

"I'm going to start the next chapter of my life," says Patching, who has owned or co-owned the Virgin Sturgeon since it first opened on the river in 1976. After it sank two years later the business moved to Broadway and was rechristened the Sturgeon II. Patching and her crew, which included Riggs, who she'd hired as a bartender at the Sturgeon II, returned to the river in 1984. Despite occasionally high and swift waters since then the barge has remained moored in its familiar spot along the Garden Highway.

Aside from the recent refurbishing, no changes in the menu or the manner of the Virgin Sturgeon is anticipated, at least initially, says Patching. The place is to be open daily for lunch and dinner, plus breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays.

In recent years, Riggs has been a manager at the Virgin Sturgeon. "Bob knows this place backwards and forward. He knows all the regular customers. It will continue on," Patching says.

"I'm going to spend more time in Costa Rica (where she has a second home), travel, drink good red wine and watch sunsets in different places," she says. "And I'm looking into trying out for (the television reality show) 'The Amazing Race,' if they have one just for seniors."

March 20, 2007
Opportunity Knocks

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata needs a photo op so he can strike a conciliatory rather than combative pose, and the latest issue of California Restaurant Bulletin, the magazine of the California Restaurant Association, provides him with an opening.

Perata has been widely criticized and ridiculed over the past week for locking three Democratic senators out of their Capitol offices as punishment for their neighborliness with moderate Democrats over in the Assembly.

He can make amends by taking the three to lunch at Biba, Restaurant 55 Degrees or 33rd Street Bistro, which he told the magazine are his favorite Sacramento restaurants. Missing from his list is The Kitchen, where the three senators who so aroused Perata's ire had attended a fundraiser with the Assembly moderate caucus.

Incidentally, back in his home district, Perata, who once was part-owner of The City, an Italian deli in Alameda, prefers three highly regarded restaurants - Oliveto and Bay Wolf in Oakland, Plearn in Berkeley.

March 19, 2007
Restaurateurs Get Jump on Legislators

Proposals to require California restaurateurs to provide diners with analyses of the nutritional profile of dishes on their menus are plodding through the legislature, but by the time they reach the governor's desk, if they ever do, the restaurant industry itself may have resolved the matter.

Tuesday, for one, Healthy Dining, a private San Diego company that since 1990 has been working with nutritionists and restaurateurs to encourage diners to eat more healthfully, formally will launch an interactive Web site to guide guests to wholesome dishes at restaurants in their neighborhood.

Here's how it works: Go to the group's Web site, which already is up and running. Click on "search for restaurants." On the form that pops up you can type in the address of a restaurant you are thinking of visiting or the zip code of a neighborhood where you will be. You also can select a price range. Eventually, you also will be able to narrow the search by type of cuisine, though that function isn't yet working.

I typed in zip code 95816, hit the submit button and got 27 restaurants that so far have signed onto the program. For several restaurants, the nutritional profiles of their more healthful dishes haven't been done, however. But for the Old Spaghetti Factory along J Street, I could have six wholesome choices, including the spaghetti with mushroom sauce, which weighs in with 460 calories, 7 grams of fat, 6 grams of fiber and no cholesterol.

In selecting items to include on the Web site as healthful, Healthy Dining's dietitians chose dishes that feature "lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains." Entrees aren't to exceed 750 calories, 25 grams of fat and 8 grams of saturated fat, while the cut-offs for appetizers, side dishes, and desserts are 250 calories, 8 grams of fat and 3 grams of saturated fat, say Healthy Dining officials. The standards were developed in accord with the recommendations of several health organizations, including the USDA"s dietary guidelines. They don't conform, however, with the FDA's more stringent criteria for what constitutes a healthy dish.

Healthy Dining authorities developed the Web site with the National Restaurant Association and a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

March 19, 2007
Uncle Vito, Put Your Foot Down

Pulled by a sense of duty, to say nothing of a raging hunger for pizza, we dropped in Saturday night at Uncle Vito's, in its fourth day as an annex to Pronto at 16th and O in midtown Sacramento.

Both Pronto, a fast-food Italian concept, and Uncle Vito's, a casual walkup cafe specializing in pizzas by the slice, are owned by Mark Scribner and Dave Virga, who also own midtown's Paesanos Pizzeria at 18th and Capitol. You can amble directly from Pronto to adjoining Uncle Vito's, though the latter also has its own entrance facing 16th Street, in front of which were parked several fat-tire bicycles and a sign with just the sort of information that would prompt us to park our own bike, had our timing been better and one of our tires not been flat: "Happy hour, 4-6, beer and a slice of pizza $5." This offer also is repeated 11 p.m.-1 a.m., but just Thurday through Saturday.

Uncle Vito's is small, loud and spare, with the decor running to three large-screen TVs and iconic photos of old New York, from the skyline in the 1930s to Joe DiMaggio a little bit later. It's designed to appeal to a clientele eager to get in and out, but several guests lingered leisurely, perhaps drawn by continuing coverage of the NCAA basketball tournaments.

The chalkboard menu listed four kinds of pizza, though at other times a specialty fifth style also is to be available. We were delighted by the substantial size of the slices and their thin, crisp and toasty crust, but we hope eventually they push the selections beyond the predictable pepperoni, sausage and cheese.

Curiously, Scribner and Virga have announced that they probably won't be selling Uncle Vito's favorite pizza, topped with sardines. We think they're underestimating the adventurous midtown palate, especially of the cyclists and skateboarders who looked to be making the joint their second home. Ten beers on tap, a full bar and those big TVs also could have something to do with the cafe's early appeal.

The slices sell for between $3.50 and $3.75 each, and one is enough for dinner, unless you are skateboarding or cycling far.

Uncle Vito, incidentally, is Virga's 103-year-old grand uncle who arrived at Ellis Island aboard the S.S. Sofia from Sicily in 1907.

Uncle Vito's, 1501 16th St., is open 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-2 .m. Thursdays and Fridays, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays; (916) 444-5250.

March 16, 2007
Irish Eyes are Sighing

Tomorrow being St. Patrick's Day, I'll naturally pause for a shot to toast the old souls of the old sod. It likely will be the usual Jameson or Bushmills, long favored by the clans Dunne and Drew. I'm tempted to try a new Irish whiskey that has come to my attention, Michael Collins, but I question the propriety of a product that so blatantly and commercially exploits a historic figure.

Michael Collins was a patriot instrumental in the guerrilla war for Ireland's independence early in the last century. He was still at it when he was assassinated in 1922. I have no idea whether he even was a whiskey drinker. One biography says that just minutes before he was killed he'd stopped at a pub to treat his family and escort to the local brew, Clonakilty Wrastler, a porter. Don't know if it's still being brewed, but "wrastler," reputedly the local pronunciation of "wrestler," at least evokes the image of Collins, recognized for his love of and skill at wrestling.

March 16, 2007
Chef Slips, Falls, Breaks

OB FAVA BEANS 1.JPGSacramento Bee photograph/Owen Brewer

Kurt Spataro is missing in action from his eponymous downtown restaurant, as well as from other restaurants of the Paragary Restaurant Group, of which he is executive chef and partner.

Spataro is out of the kitchen and putting in desk duty following a February skiing accident in which he sustained a fractured left ankle that required surgery to install a six-inch steel plate and eight screws.

"I was making a series of wide turns, nothing fancy, when I caught an inside edge. Before I could recover my balance, I tumbled head first and ended up on my back, facing up hill, about 40 feet from where my skis came off," says Spataro, who was skiing the west bowl of Sierra-at-Tahoe at the time.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who frequently has dined at Esquire Grill, another restaurant for which Spataro is executive chef, and who had his own skiing mishap earlier this year, hasn't stepped up to offer Spataro his crutches or cane.

March 15, 2007
Carmichael Landing a Seafood Restaurant

Sacramento's surge of seafood restaurants will get another new player this summer when Morgan Song extends his Maritime Seafood & Grill concept to Carmichael.

Song, who owns or is partner in Maritime Seafood & Grill restaurants in Woodland and Redding, as well as Old Post Office Seafood & Grill in Vacaville, says he is hoping to open the Carmichael branch of Maritime Seafood & Grill in late June or early July. The restaurant will occupy the site of the former Cops Donuts at 6440 Fair Oaks Blvd.

Song, whose odyssey as a restaurateur began in 1975 in San Francisco when he took a job as a dishwasher after arriving from his native Korea, says he is spending $800,000 to remodel the structure on top of the $1.4 million it cost him.

March 15, 2007
River Cats Introduce Rookies

Just back from Raley Field, where from high in the park I looked down on spring. For the first time in seven years, the entire infield and outfield has been resodded. Just like baseball in the spring, it's bright, fresh and thick with hope.

But I wasn't there for the grass. I was grazing upstairs. Officials of Centerplate, the company that runs Raley Field's concession stands, had convened a tasting of the park's new foods, which will make their season debut two weeks from today when the River Cats play host to their parent club, the Oakland A's.

And if I'm there then, I'm getting a "Sicilian po' boy sandwich" ($7.50), to this palate the most promising player in the lineup of rookies. Thick with honeyed ham, prosciutto and spicy capicola, sweetened with roasted red peppers and a balsamic vinaigrette, it's tall, dense with flavor and refreshing, the latter being just why Centerplate's executive chef, Grant Miliate, added it to the menu. It's replacing a fat old veteran of the park, the Italian sausage. Miliate figures that in the middle of a Sacramento summer fans will go more for the cool po' boy than the hot sausage.

Other promising prospects include a husky tostada salad, a fried tortilla bowl filled with a choice of chicken or beef, refried beans, guacamole, sour cream, lettuce and salsa ($7.50); rice bowls of either teriyaki chicken or shredded pork ($6.50); and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches of grilled steak, peppers and onions, finished with nacho cheese ($7.50).

Other switches this season include a build-your-own burger, hot dog and Polish sausage stand in the far left-field corner, where the barbecued chicken and ribs formerly were available. There, spectators will start with a half-pound hunk of meat they can top with such additions as housemade chili, guacamole, pickle chips, peppers, onions and bacon ($8.25).

For the first time this year Centerplate is eliminating frying oils with trans fats, and while some foods will continue to include trans-fatty acids the company also is working with purveyors to replace those products with more healthful alternatives.

Prices will be up 25 cents for several items, in part to compensate for higher produce costs but mostly to help offset skyrocketing expenses for fuel and petroleum-based packaging, says Miliate. So far, however, the company hasn't found alternative utensils, plates, cups and so forth that meet its standards for attractiveness, durability and cost. "If it's pretty and sturdy, it's costly," Miliate says. "But we want (packaging) that is pretty and sturdy. It's all about getting people in here and making them happy."

March 14, 2007
Take a Tip from Ed's Diner

Today's emails bring word that Papa John's expects to sell 10 million pizzas during the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament, which starts tomorrow and continues through April 2. Which raises the question, do you tip the delivery person when the pizza arrives at your house? Of course. Even if delivery includes a fee, as it does with Papa John's? Then the issue gets a little murky, but I'd still say yes, given that the delivery fee goes to the company to help offset the high cost of fuel, insurance and so forth.

Nothing stirs up diners like the issue of tipping, as restaurant critic Ed Murrieta of the Tacoma News Tribune in Washington state has found in his blog, Ed's Diner. Ed - and I can call him Ed because he's a former colleague at The Sacramento Bee - asked readers to weigh in on three questions:

1. Do you (or should one) tip on the total bill? Or do you (or should one) tip only on the pre-tax subtotal?
2. What about takeout? Do you (or should one) tip when you go into a restaurant for a takeout order?
3. What about tipping delivery people?

He got a huge response, and answers were all over the place, but by my count most respondents who stayed on message base their tip on the pre-tax total, tip for takeout orders, and tip delivery people. Check out the comments, and while you are there read Ed's post about the restaurants his parents had in and about Sacramento.

March 13, 2007
What We're Drinking

My lunchtime reading today was anything but dry - The Nielsen Company's annual report on alcoholic-beverage sales and trends in grocery stores, drug stores, convenience markets and the like. Officially, it's called "Beverage Alcohol Annual Snapshot," but at 100 pages it's more than a snapshot. Here's a few of its more provocative findings:

- Don't necessarily believe what you hear of the United States becoming a wine-drinking rather than a beer-drinking nation. Though wine sales increased nine percent while beer sales edged up just two percent this past year, beer still accounts for $8.8 billion of the total $17.7 billion alcoholic-beverage market. Wine sales totaled $5.3 billion. Nonetheless, over the past decade the trend among Americans has been to spend more of their income on wine and spirits and less on beer.

- The hottest wine category is...sangria? Who knew? But sales were up 11 percent, compared with eight percent for sake, seven percent for table wine, and four percent for sparkling wine.

- Sales of California wine were up 6.8 percent last year, but the state making the biggest leap in wine sales was North Carolina, up 28 percent. Is moonshine classified as wine over there?

- Pinot noir, pinot grigio, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel all saw double-digit growth in sales the past year, but none came close to touching the 25 percent leap by riesling, and it's about time.

- Four percent of bottled wine now is closed with a screwcap, compared with 2.7 percent a year ago.

- I don't get flavored spirits, and much of the American public also looks to be conflicted about whiskey with vanilla, vodka with peach and the like. Sales of spirits with vanilla, orange, blackberry, apple, raspberry, peppermint and coffee flavors were off sharply. On the other hand, sales of spirits flavored with watermelon, grapefruit, clementine, cherry, grape, pear and lime surged.

- While sales of domestic beers rose just 1.5 percent this past year, sales of imported beers jumped nearly 12 percent, led by substantial increases in the sale of brews from Belgium, Italy, Holland and Mexico.

- Among specialty alcoholic beverages, sales of coolers plunged nearly 13 percent, but sales of ciders were up just as much.

March 13, 2007
Napa Valley on the Block

As mentioned in an item posted here Saturday (see below), Napa Valley residents are just crazy about auctions. And why not? The valley's vintners love to make specialty wines so limited in production they don't get distributed beyond the valley. Often, these wines are set aside for a local auction where their sale gives participating wineries favorable publicity while raising funds for hospitals, schools and the like. Auction Napa Valley each June is the grandest, having raised more than $65 million since its inception 26 years ago. Premiere Napa Valley, which raised more than $2 million a few weeks ago, also is gaining prominence.

But several smaller and less celebrated auctions are held through the valley each year, and for bidders they're less exclusive and less costly to join than Auction Napa Valley and Premiere Napa Valley. One is coming up Saturday, a benefit for The Young School, a private, non-denominational, Montessori-inspired school in St. Helena. To judge by the auction catalog, several valley vintners send their children to this school, or the school's board of directors is very persuasive.

In addition to wines by such prominent Napa Valley brands as Staglin Family Vineyard, Araujo Estate, Harlan Estate, Stony Hill and Pahlmeyer, the lots include several "lifestyle" packages, including lunch with wine columnist James Laube of The Wine Spectator, the Fourth of July dinner and fireworks show at Louis M. Martini Winery, dinner with Gourmet Magazine wine columnist Gerald Asher at his San Francisco home, and a 30-minute tour of San Francisco's City Hall with Mayor Gavin Newsom as the guide.

The auction, also to include food and wine tasting, is Saturday evening at Quintessa Winery. Tickets at $75 per person must be purchased in advance, though for the first time this year bidders need not attend and can bid from home. Details, including the complete catalog, are at the school's Web site.

March 12, 2007
Midtown: Construction Zone

As we ambled about midtown for Second Saturday this weekend, both the art and the wine (see below) got overshadowed by the construction or remodeling of so many restaurants.

Along J Street near 28th Street, for one, restaurateur Peter Torza and some colleagues were huddled in the back of his latest venture, taste-testing pizzas for Gianni's Trattoria, taking over space previously occupied by Torza's Black Pearl Oyster Bar, as well as adjoining quarters. From our glimpse, the restaurant, while unfinished, looks like it will be one chic joint. The sign's already up, saying "Stazietta e Mangia," Neapolitan for "shut up and eat." Patrons should be able to start doing that on or about March 31, when Torza is hoping for the grand opening.

Nearby, on the corner of 28th and J, the motorcycles that long have been fixtures in the front windows of Centro Cocina Mexicana are gone, raising the question, What's going on? Paragary Restaurant Group, whose properties include Centro, is about to launch a remodeling of the place, expected to get under way in April, says assistant manager James Buchanan. The motorcycles will be back, but likely farther back in the restaurant. As to the windows, just keep an eye on them.

Not much action yet at 2416 J St., where a Sacramento branch of Folsom's Chicago Fire Pizza is to open this summer, helping triple the opportunities for pizza along just a short stretch of the boulevard, with Original Pete's just to the west, the nascent Gianni's Trattoria just to the east.

untitled.bmpSacramento Bee/Renee C. Byer

The decorative iron fence along the 18th Street side of Zocalo at 18th and Capitol, along with the patio it enclosed, is gone, but not for long. The fence, as well as a slightly expanded patio, could be up and open as soon as this weekend, says co-owner Jim Johson. Two trees along the patio have died and are being replaced and repositioned, giving the restaurant an opportunity to straighten out and lenthen the fence, put in a few more lights, and add a couple more tables. On the Capitol Avenue side of the restaurant, in the meantime, Johnson and partner Ernest Jimenez are still deciding what to do with space they are taking over between Zocalo and Dragnonfly, but an upscale tequila bar hasn't been ruled out, especially after a recent weekend scouting mission to check out what's hot in Las Vegas.

Across Capitol Avenue from Zocalo, the original site of Java City is dark as it also is being restyled to take better advantage of midtown's increasing nightlife traffic. Details of what the project will involve weren't immediately available.

March 12, 2007
Second Saturday Wines Go Upscale

Not sure about the art, but the wine poured at galleries and boutiques that participate in Sacramento's monthly art stroll, Second Saturday, definitely is getting more complex and provocative. Not so long ago, most galleries seemed to be pouring the simple releases of Charles Shaw, aka "Two Buck Chuck." Some still are.

But this past Saturday we came across the warm and rigid Elena Winery 2005 Alexander Valley Old Vine Zinfandel at the Center for Contemporary Art ($3 per glass) and the husky Mount Eden Vineyards 2004 Edna Valley Chardonnay at Urban Hound Properties (free), among other upscale releases.

Axis Gallery at 1517 19th St. gets our blue ribbon for the two most impressive wines of the night, both being poured for a donation to be determined by the donor. They were the fresh Renwood Winery 2003 Amador County Old Vine Zinfandel, frisky with berries and spice, hardly at all showing its heady 15.5 percent alcohol, and the refreshing New Clairvaux Vineyard 2006 Tehama County St. James Block Albarino, pretty with honeysuckle in the smell, honeydew in the flavor, the perfect accompaniment not only for the light pizza and cheese sliders on the sideboard but Saturday's early spring warmth.

March 10, 2007
The Spirit of Robert Mondavi

IMGP0882_edited.jpgPhotographs/Mike Dunne

Put three Napa Valley vintners in a room and before you know it an auction breaks out. One will be the auctioneer, and the other two will spend the rest of the night trying to outbid each other.

This could explain why just four lots were on the block last night when the Culinary Institute of America celebrated the inauguration of the nation's first Vintners Hall of Fame at the school's Napa Valley campus in St. Helena.

There were many other things to attend, mainly the induction of the hall's first nine principals, most notably Robert Mondavi, the only one in the group to be recognized as a "pioneer," the narrowest of the three tiers by which the school is acknowledging contributions to the development of the nation's wine trade.

Some 160 persons occupied the old cask room of the former Christian Brothers winery, where they sat down to a dinner that included a salad of poached lobster and an entree of roast filet of beef topped with seared foie gras, interspersed with tributes to the inductees, who included two former faculty members of the department of viticultre and enology at UC Davis, Maynard Amerine and Harold Olmo.

The bidding on the four lots was brisk, with the last one drawing the most interest, a dinner for 12 to be overseen by Robert Mondavi and his wife Margrit, (above) at his eponymous Napa Valley winery. When bidding got to $16,000, spurred in part by the jovial participation of Robert Mondavi's spry 92-year-old brother, Peter Mondavi Sr. (below, right), auctioneer Fritz Hatton startled the audience by shouting, "Peter wants to have dinner with his brother. Do you believe it? It's about time." But Peter's attention got diverted, and in the end the Mondavis' fellow Napa Valley vintner, Koerner Rombauer of Rombauer Vineyards, bought the Mondavi dinner with a high bid of $20,000.

IMGP0878_edited.jpgActually, after years of estrangement stemming from a falling out over the family's Charles Krug Winery, the brothers reconciled years ago, and sat side by side throughout last night's festivities. Robert Mondavi, who is to be 94 in June, today is the old vine of the valley, revered but no longer the frisky guy in a sport jacket made of corks, constantly extolling the strengths of Napa Valley wines, rushing to embrace and kiss virtually every woman he ever met. Friday night, pushed about in his wheelchair by Margrit and his son Tim, largely motionless and mute, he was hugged by woman after woman who remember his affection and zest. They teased his thinning hair, caressed his back, straightened his tie, kissed his cheeks.

Looking a bit perplexed but with the old gleam back in his eyes, he got a standing ovation as Aaron Copland's "Fanfare tor the Common Man" boomed through the cavernous hall as he was wheeled to the stage for the unveiling of a bronze plaque with his noble profile about to taste from a wine glass.

"Bob is very aware. He knows what is going on," said Margrit. "His spirit is in every glass of wine."

March 9, 2007
Old Sac Nails a Wine Bar

blogIMGP0858_edited.jpgThe hammering continues, but Vickie Allen and John Hicklin nonetheless are putting out Riedel stemware and pulling corks from bottles at Sacramento's newest wine bar, the 114th to open so far this year in and about the city, but the first in Old Sacramento.

The hammering is on an interior stairway being built to connect Allen's street-level Discover California gift shop to subterranean quarters that long had been occupied by Hogshead Brew Pub. (While the shift from beer to wine aptly reflects the country's changing drinking habits, beer isn't being abandoned entirely in the makeover; several are on tap in Discover California's Wine Bar & Tasting Room, including three by River City Brewing Co., along with River City's root beer.)

Until the stairway is completed, expected in another week or so, access to the wine bar is available by a second stairway next to Discover California, as well as by an elevator.

What visitors find is the old Hogshead bar gleaming with a new coat of varnish and the building's red-brick walls enclosing shelves stocked with bottles of wine, tables and chairs for up to 44 guests, and a private room for parties of 20 or so.

Flights of any three of the nine to 12 wines poured daily can be purchased for $5. Visitors also have the option of selecting a three-ounce taste, a six-ounce pour or an entire bottle from a wine list of 55 selections. A pinot noir by Bogle Vineyards of Clarksburg, for example, can be sampled for $5 for three ounces, $9 for six ounces, and $24 for the bottle. Small plates of food also are available.

Vickie Allen, a fifth generation Californian, opened Discover California in 1992 to offer specialty products produced only in the Golden State, from chocolate body frosting to pickled asparagus spears. The store long has had a wine-tasting counter, but prompted by accelerating wine sales over the past two years she decided to expand the concept downstairs.

The grand opening, when a wine vine rather than the customary red ribbon is to be cut, will be at 5 p.m. April 12. In the meantime, the wine bar, 114 J St., will be open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The store is open to all ages, the wine bar to persons 21 and older.

March 9, 2007
Mondavi's In, Gallo's On Hold

This is Robert Mondavi’s day. At the Napa Valley branch of the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena this evening, he will be the first “pioneer” to be inducted into the CIA’s new Vintners Hall of Fame.

At the outset of the night’s ceremonies, however, a toast is to be proposed to Ernest Gallo, the Modesto vintner who died Tuesday at 97.

To the world’s wine drinkers, the name Gallo is more closely associated with California than the name of any other vintner, with the possible but doubtful exception of Mondavi.

So why isn’t Ernest Gallo also being inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame? Neither he nor his brother Julio, who died in 1993, even were on the ballot to be considered as “founders” or “icons,” other levels of candidates in the first class of inductees.

Tim Ryan, president of the CIA, which has its headquarters in Hyde Park, N.Y., says no slight of the Gallos was intended. The hall, however, is in Napa Valley, and that’s where Robert Mondavi made his name, as well, many people can argue, the name of the valley. “Being in the Napa Valley, we chose to focus on Robert,” says Ryan. “Everybody acknowledges that Ernest and Julio were great pioneers in the industry, and I’m sure they soon will be inducted into the Hall of Fame.”

This year, Mondavi will be the only “pioneer,” a designation for those people who have contributed most significantly to the California wine trade. Mondavi was chosen by a committee convened by CIA officials.

“Founders” to be inducted, all deceased, are Andre Tchelistcheff, Georges de Latour, Charles Krug, Agoston Haraszthy, Gustave Niebaum and Brother Timothy. The CIA defines a “founder” as someone who planted the roots of today’s industry.

“Icons” to be inducted, also deceased, are Maynard Amerine and Harold Olmo, both faculty members of the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis. An “icon” is defined as someone whose achievements contributed to the establishment and growth of the state’s wine trade.

Full disclosure: Founders and icons were chosen by 70 wine writers who were sent ballots with the names of several nominees. The CIA nominated the candidates. I was one of the 70 voters. Four of the eight I voted for are among the inductees. Maybe next year Jacob Beringer, Charles LeFranc, Pierre Pellier and Father Junipero Serra also will be inducted, along with the brothers Gallo.

March 8, 2007
Cattle Drive Stops at 18th and L

"I wish we could have had the patio open for lunch today," says John Pickerel, encouraged by early turnout at his Buckhorn Grill, which just has opened at 18th and L in midtown Sacramento. While the sidewalk seating isn't expected to be ready for a week or so, the restaurant seats 88 inside, and business in just the second day was brisk as Sacramentans indulged their pent-up hunger for the Buckhorn's signature item, the tri-tip sandwich.

Pickerel has heard, however, that Sacramento has a fair number of vegetarians, so the local branch is the first in the company to have on the menu a sandwich based on the portobello mushroom. Other items new to the Buckhorn menu include herb-roasted chicken and the "Winters green salad," made with provisions produced in and about the Yolo County community of Winters, right down to the honey in the vinaigrette. Winters is the home of the original Buckhorn Steak & Roadhouse, which John and Melanie Pickerel have owned since 1980. The Sacramento site also is the first to have an almond-fired broiler for the chicken and salmon and to start the rotisserie-finished beef.

The Sacramento Buckhorn Grill is the seventh, though the first here. As the others, it's a streamlined version of the Buckhorn Steak & Roadhouse. "It's an upscale fast-food concept," says John Pickerel of the Grills. The Sacramento branch is to be open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

March 8, 2007
Sweetening Up the Buzz

Since nothing quite perks up body and soul like a cup of coffee and a chocolate-chip cookie in the middle of the afternoon, why not combine the two in one convenient package.

That's what Carl and Carolee Weisberg of Nevada City began to think a decade ago, leading to the development of Buzz Strong's Real Coffee Cookies, available two cookies to the packet in a growing number of convenience stores and vending machines in the Sacramento area.

Two of the sweet and moist cookies pack the equivalent of a cup of coffee, says Carl Weisberg, an advertising guy who credits the cooking skills of his wife with perfecting the recipe. "I saw a similar product that was sort of coffee flavored, but it didn't taste very good," says Carl Weisberg of the inspiration for Buzz Strong's. "My wife is a Martha Stewart person who prepares gourmet cooking every night, so she came up with the recipe."

A two-cookie package customarily sells for $1 to $1.25. Each cookie weighs in at 150 calories (60 from fat), with 7 grams of total fat and 22 grams of total carbohydrate. They contain no artificial additives and no trans fats, says the Weisbergs. They've modified the recipe over the years as they've found better chocolate chips and vanilla.

Their company, Top Floor Creations LLC of Nevada City, is introducing a second kind of chocolate-chip cookie under the brand Broad Street Bakery. Marketed primarily on high-school and college campuses, this cookie was created to conform with mandated nutritional standards for schools, says Carl Weisberg. Each cookie has 210 calories, 7 grams of fat, 15 miligrams of cholesterol and 4 grams each of protein and fiber.

More information about the cookies and the company can be found at the couple's Web site.

March 7, 2007
Something to Crow About

Ernest Gallo was an intensely private man. He rarely gave interviews to the press. Functionaries often seemed to hover about him, keeping reporters at bay. If you did have a chance to chat with him briefly at a wine tasting, he could be evasive if he weren't downright gruff. In private, however, he could be engaging and entertaining, spinning yarns and telling jokes, say those who knew him well.

One is Sacramento wine merchant Darrell Corti, who Gallo often called upon for truffles, grousing while in the store that his wines should be better displayed. Corti recalled having lunch with a few other guests at Gallo's Modesto home some years ago. Gallo collected any artifact he could find with a rooster motif, "gallo" being Italian for "rooster." ("Something to Crow About" was an early Gallo advertising slogan, and the stylized roosters on the latest label for Gallo Family Vineyards are based on a pair of ceramic roosters in Gallo's personal collection.)

At any rate, at the lunch Corti asked Gallo about a tall grandfather's clock painted with roosters. Gallo said he'd seen it in the window of an antiques shop in New York City. The shop owner wanted too much for it, however, something like $600, recalled Corti. Gallo returned to the store the next day, found that a clerk rather than the owner was running the place, and struck a deal for the clock for $300. Gallo quickly took the clock with him. When he set it down at an intersection to wait for the traffic signal to change, an apparently inebriated man strolled up to him and asked, "What's the matter, you couldn't afford a wristwatch?"

The joke sounds like an old one Gallo might have heard during the height of vaudeville, but it shows a side of him he tended to conceal beyond intimates. "Ernest was quite funny. He could keep you in stitches," says Corti.

March 7, 2007
'The Henry Ford of Wine'

Word of Ernest Gallo's death yesterday caught up with me too late last night for me to contribute anything to today's coverage in The Sacramento Bee.

Several months ago, however, as word circulated that Gallo was faltering, I asked some longtime key players on the nation's wine scene to comment on Gallo's impact on the trade.

Marvin Shanken, publisher of The Wine Spectator in New York City: "Ernest, with his brother Julio, has been enormously committed to producing quality wine consistently and at a fair price...Many, many people now running other companies went to school at Gallo or worked for their distributors. Ernest set the benchmark for the sophisticated marketing and sale of wine in America. Directly or indirectly he taught all of us how to build wine sales in America...He's probably the Henry Ford of wine."

Richard Peterson of Napa Valley, a California winemaker for 50 years, including a stint with E.&J. Gallo: "Ernest was first in recognizing that if he was going to sell wine he couldn't charge too much for it. He sold on low price and quality...He started from scratch, kept the price low, and when he could he advertised. They sold to common people, like Italian immigrants, who wanted everyday wine. He never forgot that he was selling to the common person."

Bob Thompson of Napa Valley, dean of the nation's wine writers: "Robert Mondavi and Ernest Gallo were interchangeable. If Bob had been born into commodity winemaking he'd be Ernest Gallo. If Ernest had been born in the Napa Valley he would be into luxury winemaking. But Ernest has been much more single-mindedly a competitor. He very much wanted to win. He was relentlessly curious, willing to experiment, and a driven participant in whatever he did. He felt that the next wine to come out would be the most important of all. He never lost that drive, he was always moving forward."

March 6, 2007
Red-Wine Boom Accelerates

For the first time in the 18 years that Wine & Spirits magazine has been tracking wine consumption in the nation's restaurants, cabernet sauvignon is the most popular varietal among diners, knocking chardonnay from the top spot it has held since the survey began.

What's more, chardonnay has slipped all the way to third, with pinot noir moving into second place.

Cabernet sauvignon accounted for 17.5 percent of restaurant wine sales in the last quarter of 2006, followed by pinot noir at 15.2 percent and chardonnay at 14.8 percent. Collectively, three styles of white wines generally lighter and crisper than chardonnay - sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and riesling - accounted for 15 percent of wine sales in restaurants. Merlot has plunged to 5.5 percent of sales, its smallest share since the start of the red wine boom in 1991. The findings are based on a poll of sommeliers at top restaurants across the county as determined by the Zagat Survey.

The poll also found that Italian wines are more popular in restaurants than French wines (15.2 percent to 14.7 percent), and that sales of Spanish wines and sparkling wines have registered strong increases, up 2.8 percent and 2.9 percent respectively over the past five years.

The three most popular brands in restaurant sales are Jordan Vineyard & Winery, Cakebread Cellars and Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards.

Complete results of the survey are to be in the magazine's April issue, to be at newsstands and bookstores next Tuesday.

March 5, 2007
Restaurants Take On Scams

I've been lucky. In 18 years of reviewing restaurants, I've never been a victim of credit-card fraud, and not just because in the early days I customarily paid with cash. No problem simply has arisen, though at times I've had qualms about handing over a credit card to a perfect stranger who then disappears with it for several minutes. The credit cards I now use when dining out for a review are in names other than my own, incidentally. But this raises another concern. Hardly ever does a server ask for identification. Once, when one did, I uneasily produced my driver's license just to see what would happen. She looked at it, looked at the credit card with another name, looked at the license again, and then said, "OK."

Now restaurateurs are getting proactive about safeguarding guests from credit-card fraud. According to an article in today's USA Today, chains like Ruby Tuesday and Hooters are installing purportedly safer credit-card systems to reassure their clientele. Be sure to also read the comments that follow the article.

March 2, 2007
Parking Woes, Chapter Two

ACW RANDY PARAGARY MUG.JPGSacramento Bee photogrpah/Anne Chafwick Williams

Randy Paragary has weighed in on midtown Sacramento's growth pains, noting that his restaurants at and about 28th and Capitol, like Biba (see item below), also are taking a hit because of Sutter Medical Center's expansion.

Business at his Cafe Bernardo at 28th and Capitol is off 20 percent, not so much at Paragary's Bar & Oven at 28th and N, where valet parking is available for $3.

"It's very disruptive, but all knew it was coming. Sutter has done an outstanding job of reaching out to us to let us know what they were doing," Paragary says.

And like Biba Caggiano, Paragary is confident the new medical facilities ultimately will benefit restaurants in the neighborhood. And some of those benefits could start to materialize in less than a year. He notes that restaurants in the area lost a large parking area at 28th and N when the project got under way, but rising on that site is an 1,100-vehicle parking garage, scheduled to be completed next February. "It's going to be good in the long run, we just have to suffer in the meantime," Paragary says.

But he isn't suffering too much in the meantime. Business at his Spataro Restaurant & Bar and Esquire Grill, both downtown, is up 25 percent so far this quarter over the same period a year ago, he says. He credits in large part gatherings at the Sacramento Convention Center and activities surrounding the inauguration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

March 2, 2007
Biba Rattled, But Still Open

KG BIBA PLATE.JPGSacramento Bee Photograph/Kevin German

Even in the best of times, managing a restaurant is a dicey balancing act. Biba Caggiano knows the feeling from 20 years of running her eponymous midtown restaurant. But today, she's literally doing a blancing act. Deconstruction of the parking garage next to Biba is under way, sending tremors through the restaurant. "The kitchen is shaking a little, glasses are rattling," says Caggiano with a chuckle.

The tearing down of the garage is one phase of an industrious expansion of Sutter Medical Center. The loss of the garage is complicating an already competitive parking scene about 28th and Capitol for residents and visitors alike, including patrons of restaurants. Caggiano has responded by adding valet parking ($5). Her lunch business slumped 40 to 50 percent when the project got under way several months ago, but has rebounded lately. "It looks bad," said Caggiano of the construction zone, "but strangely enough business is not bad." It remains fairly strong at night, when work on the medical facilities ends, she adds.

Still, customer counts can fluctuate dramatically from one day to the next, and she frets about Biba being overlooked for all the big-rig traffic, construction fencing and the like in the area. In addition to adding valet parking, she's launched an advertising campaign to alert diners that Biba is remaining open during construction, not expected to be finished until 2010. "We are still here, and we are not going anyplace," Caggiano says.

March 2, 2007
Regionale Docks in Granite Bay

This is Andru Moshe, in her new produce market Regionale at Quarry Pond Town Center along Douglas Boulevard in Granite Bay. For 10 years, she was the produce buyer for Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Then she left for Market Hall Foods in Oakland. After a year there, she returned to the Sacramento area, and in December opened Regionale, where everything, from the asparagus to the chocolate bars, is organically produced. Most of her produce is from small family-owned farms in California.

Currently, she stocks a half-dozen varieties of apples, perhaps as many varieties of citrus and mushrooms, baby artichokes, Meyer lemons, asparagus, kumquats and numerous other fresh fruits and vegetables. She has an organic salad bar, breads by Acme Bakery of Berkeley, and pastries from Filaki Farms in the foothills between Grass Valley and Marysville.

"People are very educated about food up here," Moshe has found. "They're very into cooking, and they's willing to spend money on quality foods." With her asparagus at $8.99 a pound, they'd better be.

Douglas Boulevard is lined with all sorts of shopping plazas, but Quarry Pond differs from others in its emphasis on individually owned businesses, a disproportionate number of which have culinary themes. In addition to Regionale, there's the restaurant Pizza Antica (see below) and the wine shop WineStyle. Today, Vande Rose Farms Meat & Fish opens, and coming up is the restaurant Hawks, Peet's Coffee & Tea, Sammy Sausage, and Toast, a breakfast cafe. Also notable is that Quarry Pond has persuaded midtown Sacramento boutiques Dora Denim and Shoefly to open branches in Granite Bay.

The center is at 5550 Douglas Blvd. Regionale is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; (916) 797-8333.

March 1, 2007
Pizza Scene Perks Up

In The Sacramento Bee's Travel section this Sunday, I'll have an article about Cactus League dining in Scottsdale and Phoenix. In it, I say I haven't had better pizza than the ones I've had at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, and I'm sticking to that. After lunch today at the new Pizza Antica in Granite Bay, however, I recognize that we don't have to go all the way to Arizona for truly first-rate pizza.

To me, the first measure of a great pizza is the crust, and the thinner, smokier, crispier and more fresh and flavorful it tastes, the better. And that's just how it was at Pizza Antica, one of the first businesses to open at Quarry Pond Town Center, which is to play host to so many food businesses it's bound to become known as the Sacramento region's answer to San Francisco's Ferry Building.

Pizza Antica looks more like sunny Parisian bistro than dark Florentine trattoria, with a floor of small black-and-white tiles, a ceiling that looks like pressed tin, bentwood chairs, ceiling fans and a staff in black t-shirts and long white aprons. The open kitchen is tiled in gleaming white, flames flare in the pizza ovens, lively music plays in the background, and the walls are hung with wry landscape photos (a VW bug rusting on rangeland; an old water tank in Rio Linda).

As to the pizza, I had the No. 7, a spirited and wholesome spread of grilled radicchio, goat cheese, pancetta and pesto, each ingredient fulfilling the restaurant's vow to emphasize fresh and regional ingredients ($9.95 the small, $15.50 the large).

This is the fourth Pizza Antica. The others are in Mill Valley, Lafayette and San Jose. They are the inspiration of Tim Stannard, Brannin Beal and executive chef Gordon Drysdale, who played an instrumental role in restaurants like Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley and Gordon's House of Fine Eats in San Francisco.

Pizza Antica, 5540 Douglas Blvd., is open daily, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; (916) 786-0400.

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