April 30, 2007
Singapore Airlines Gets It Right, Second Time

For decades, it seems, I've been reading and hearing of the high culinary standards of Singapore Airlines. But dinner as we headed from San Francisco to Singapore over the weekend left us wondering what all the excitement has been about. The German riesling and the dulce de leche ice cream - not served simultaneously - were splendid, but the rest of the meal was curiously dispirited. Some sort of braised white fish, possibly cod, was tough and dry, and what the menu described as the fish's black-peppercorn sauce lacked any bite whatever. Another main-course option during the same meal, chicken with a mustard sauce, was only marginally better.

I'd just been reading in the airline's flight magazine about the company's million-dollar "simulated aircraft cabin" at its culinary center so chefs could test meals under flight conditions, and how Singapore Airlines also has recruited chefs like Georges Blanc of France, Gordon Ramsay of the United Kingdom, and Nancy Oakes and Alfred Portale of the United States to create "signature meals that would transform inflight dining into a fine dining experience." Maybe in first class and business, but clearly not economy.

Nonetheless, early Monday morning over the East China Sea, just as we neared Hong Kong, breakfast restored at least some of my confidence in Singapore Airlines. As with dinner, even passengers in economy were given a menu with three options. For me, neither the fried rice with chicken nor the chive omelet with pork sausage held much allure. The meal created primarily for the airline's Indian clientele, however, sounded intriguing.

More than that, it was wonderful. A spicy green-pea masala and what a flight attendant rather than the menu said was a potato bhaji were packed with resonating and layered flavors. And both tasted remarkably fresh, though we were 12 hours out of San Francisco. The fruity chutney was complex, the bread sturdy and wholesome, and while I ordinarily don't eat yogurt without loading it up with honey and granola, this version had a purity and depth refreshing all on its own.

Aside from that earlier dinner, everything about the trip validated the noble reputation of Singapore Airlines, from the exceptional poise and proficiency of the crew to arriving right on time in both Hong Kong and Singapore. I wouldn't hesitate to fly again on the airline, and I'd know at the outset to stick with the Indian menu.

April 27, 2007
Hot Wines a Hot Topic

Two days ago, I posted an item here about Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti's decision to no longer stock California table wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol.

Online reaction to Corti's impatience with hot table wines has been illuminating, showing the best and the worst that cyberspace can contribute to public debate. To see how Corti's decision has stirred up wine enthusiasts, visit this chat on the Web site of the esteemed wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr.

Scrolling through the comments can get tedious, with many commentators going far off point, but stick with it and you will find remarks that thoughtfully expand on the issue. Even Parker himself weighs in, calling Corti's stand "apallingly stupid, frighteningly arbitrary, and like some part of a police state's mentality to me." He is quick to note, however, that Corti Brothers is Corti's store and that Corti is free to run it as he pleases, a detail that seems to have eluded several people weighing in on the matter elsewhere in the thread.

I'm rather glad to see Corti draw this particular line, even though I've tasted several table wines that while high in alcohol, even at 17 percent, nonetheless were balanced and alluring. I could see myself enjoying them with this or that dish, though perhaps for just one glass. Corti Brothers, at any rate, long has prided itself on personally choosing its wines, looking for releases virtually guaranteed to provide shoppers with interest and value. The pleasure of shopping for wine at Corti Brothers is that the selection has a personality that while somewhat eccentric also is captivating. You sense that someone with a history and a palate has assembled the inventory, not someone who is being guided by the points given wines by a critic. As appallingly stupid and frighteningly arbitrary as that method of wine marketing is, it does seem the practice at several wine shops these days, to judge by the eagerness with which clerks talk numbers.

At any rate, Corti, it turns out, isn't the first wine merchant to take a position on the increasingly high alcohol level in table wines. Earlier this year, representatives of the United Kingdom supermarket chain Marks & Spencer, sensing consumer backlash against table wines with more alcohol than traditionally found in the genre, announced that it would start stocking more wines with 12 percent rather than 14 percent alcohol, reported this piece by the magazine Decanter. I have a feeling that this whole issue of high-alcohol wines is just starting to warm up.

April 26, 2007
Jon Rowley's Dating Service

Anytime lunch is in San Francisco and includes three dozen raw oysters - per person! - it's got to be a good day, right? And so it was yesterday, even if the lunch was "work." After all, the 13 guests also were expected to taste and rank 20 wines during the session.

Yes, Jon Rowley once again had commenced his annual search to find the best wines to go with oysters. He's a Seattle resident who makes his living promoting specialty foods, especially oysters, about which he's been extraordinarily fond since reading a lyrical Ernest Hemingway passage about eating raw oysters and drinking cold white wine.

"I love doing this," said Rowley at the outset yesterday, after his ritualistic reading of Hemingway's comments, and he doesn't even get to taste the oysters or the wines. This is the 13th year for his Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, which is much more involved than most wine judgings. It puts wine in a context, for one, in that it is paired with a food. First, he invites winemakers to submit wines they feel will best flatter oysters. All wines must be from the West Coast. A record 185 were entered this year, 132 of them from California.

Rowley kicks off the competition with a panel of food and wine experts in Seattle. Through a series of blind tastings, they narrow the field to 20 finalists. Then, on three successive days other panels in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle blind taste the 20 wines with as many Kumamoto oysters as they want. Kumamotos are chosen because they are small and easier to slurp from their shells. Rowley tabulates the scores and comes up with 10 winners. That process won't be finished until Friday.

At the end of each of the three sessions, however, judges are told the identity of the wines so they can know immediately which ones they individually thought went best with the oysters. My top three were the wonderfully fruity, spicy and refreshing Geyser Peak Winery 2006 California Sauvignon Blanc ($13), which when paired with the three or four oysters I tasted with it added up to a marriage in which each half respected the other while totaling a sum greater than either; the perfumey and persistent King Estate Winery 2005 Oregon Signature Pinot Gris ($16), a combination in which each half amplified the sweetness and minerality of the other; and the floral and smoky Dry Creek Vineyard 2005 Sonoma County Fume Blanc ($14.50), an unusually complex and meaty entry that nonetheless had the structure and lift to dance gracefully with oysters. If you have oysters on a forthcoming menu, I don't think you will go wrong by selecting one of these wines to accompany them.

April 25, 2007
Enough is Enough, Says Corti

Darrell Corti is mad as hell and he isn't taking it anymore. Table wine with more than 14.5 percent alcohol, that is. He's vowing to no longer stock them at his family's 60-year-old Sacramento grocery store, Corti Brothers.

California table wines with more than 14 percent alcohol, sometimes even exceeding 17 percent, have become not only increasingly popular but increasingly controversial, and Corti is sure to stir up the debate with his decision, quite possibly unprecedented in the world of wine.

Corti's breaking point came recently as he and his staff tasted through several wines they were thinking of adding to their inventory. Six of seven zinfandels had more than 14.5 percent alcohol, with one hitting 17 percent. "This is stupid," says Corti. "And people say they don't buy sherry because it has too much alcohol." Sherries, however, are fortified, and even then some won't have more than 15.5 percent alcohol, notes Corti.

Table wines aren't fortified, and traditionally haven't exceeded 14 percent alcohol. In recent years, however, an increasing number of winemakers have subscribed to the notion that riper grapes yield more intense flavors in their wines. But with riper fruit comes more sugar, and with more sugar comes more alcohol. Though some winemakers use methods to reduce alcohol, others don't, with the result that the alcohol content of table wines has been trending up. Some longtime students of wine believe that the more alcohol a table wine has the more likely it is to be off-balance and harsh.

What's more, questions have been raised about how well higher-alcohol table wines will age. California's first high-alcohol zinfandel, says Corti, was made in 1968 by Mayacamas Vineyards in Napa Valley. It had 16 percent alcohol, he recalls. "Today, it tastes terrible," he adds.

Corti says his decision applies to all table-wine varietals with more than 14.5 percent alcohol, not just zinfandel. "We will not taste them. If we don't taste, we don't buy," Corti says. Winemakers long have looked upon Corti Brothers as a choice outlet for their wines. Once a month or so, Corti and his crew taste through more than 100 wines that winemakers have sent him or wine sales representatives have dropped off at the store in hopes they will pass muster and be added to the market's shelves.

Corti will continue to sell any wines he already has even if they contain more than 14.5 percent alcohol. However, "once they're gone, they're gone," Corti says.

April 24, 2007
Go for Wine, Stop for Jerky

En route to Sacramento from Oregon House this afternoon after updating myself on the ways and wines of Renaissance Winery, the subject of a future Dunne on Wine column in The Bee, I stopped at the roadside Tuff Stuff Jerky Company.

This was my first visit in more than 13 years. I like jerky, but just don't get to Yuba County much. At that time, I met the owner, Jim Fletcher, and his son Brad, who was in the back tending the smoker. "There's nothing to making jerky. You just start with a big piece of meat and end with a little piece," Jim Fletcher said at the time. He founded the business in 1986.

Jim Fletcher died in 1995, and Brad was killed in a car wreck in 2001. Jim's wife, Betty, leased out the place for awhile but then got it back and not only has resumed making jerky with Jim's original recipe she's been adding all sorts of new flavors of her own creation. "Chardonnay teriyaki jerky," anyone? Or how about "sweet chipotle jerky," the newest member of her lineup? Aside from the novel flavors, she's continuing to make jerky pretty much as her husband and their son made it, without nitrates and MSG, starting with strips of lean top round and a wood-fired smoker.

While isolated - Tuff Stuff is along Marysville Road about 20 miles northeast of Marysville - it looks to be prospering, in part for all the hunters, fishers and other recreationists zipping through the area, and in part for her extended product line, which now also includes flavored nuts, marinades, jams and the like. Jerky, however, still is the main draw.

Tuff Stuff Jerky Company, 7155 Marysville Road, Browns Valley, is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Jerky and other products also can be ordered through Tuff Stuff's Web site.

April 23, 2007
Sacramento Revolution

Like a lot of people, Jason Fernandez has been trying to figure out how to beat the rising cost in fuel and time to commute to his job. He's a winemaker, so the drive to work from his Sacramento home likely would mean a trek to a rural setting where wineries generally are - the Sierra foothills, Yolo County, Lodi.

His alternative is inspired, daring and possibly unprecedented, at least since Prohibition. He and his business partner, Joe Genshlea Jr., are putting a winery smack dab in the middle of Sacramento, just a block from the city's old Buffalo Brewing Co., now the site of The Sacramento Bee.

Genshlea and Fernandez, a seasoned winemaker who has put in stints with wineries like Bonny Doon Vineyard, Chalone Vineyard and R.H. Phillips, have leased a 2800-square-foot cinder-block warehouse behind a salon at 2116 P St. (near 21st Street) and are starting to spruce up the quarters. A few wine barrels already are in the otherwise largely empty space.

In July they hope to move the wines they've already made elsewhere into the building and open a tasting room. Their brand is Revolution Wines. By the harvest this fall they expect to be unloading gondolas of grapes into presses, moving the juice into fermentation tanks and have barrels arranged in orderly rows for aging of the wine at the P Street site. Their operation will be small, with no more than 40 to 50 tons of grapes to be crushed.

So far, city authorities have supported their enterprise, says Fernandez. While West Sacramento has Harbor Winery and the unincorporated area of south Sacramento has Frasinetti's Winery, no commercial winery may have operated in the city since the old California Winery at 19th and R, closed by Prohibition.

Fernandez and Genshlea have leased space in other wineries to produce their Revolution wines over the past two years. Their current releases, which include a pinot grigio, a zinfandel and a refined blend of montepulciano, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon, are priced in the $10 to $20 range and are starting to appear at several local outlets, including Discover California, Taylors Market and Beyond Napa. "Renzo," incidentally, is the given name of Fernandez's father-in-law, an Italian native. "He's the patriarchal figure in the family, and Renzo is a little easier to pronounce than montepulciano," says Fernandez.

Fernandez grew up in Woodland, while Genshlea is a member of a longtime Sacramento family. Because they own no vineyards, they buy grapes from growers who sell to various wineries. "I have great respect for grape growers," says Fernandez. "They do that better than I do."

They chose the name Revolution Wines for the winery to represent Earth's revolving around the sun and how the progression of the seasons affects grapes and their subsequent wines.

April 23, 2007
Java City's New Buzz

Cafe Rendering.JPG As if jolted awake by one of their own double espressos, the folks of Java City have decided they aren't about to relinquish Sacramento's coffee culture to such prospering high-profile upstarts as Starbucks and Peet's.

It's time to create some new buzz of their own, they've concluded. Toward that end, they've returned to their roots to create the prototype Java City coffee house of the future.

In mid-March they closed the original Java City, opened in 1985 under a massive landmark camphor tree at 18th and Capitol, to begin a $400,000 renovation that is scheduled to be unveiled to the public next Monday.

About all that will remain of the original Java City will be its red-brick walls. From a new wood door at the entrance to a new coat of metallic orange on the espresso machine (they took it to an auto-body shop for that) the place will sparkle anew. The floor plan will remain basically the same, though divided loosely into four "soft" seating areas to encourage patrons to enjoy their coffee and snacks leisurely. Sandwiches and salads are being upgraded, "gourmet cakes" and quiches are being added to the menu, a high-speed machine to infuse whole-leaf tea into latte is being installed, Wi-Fi will be available, and Java City's roast master, Shawn Hamilton, will be putting together a series of coffee classes and tasting seminars, says Chuck Van Vleet, the company's CEO. Unlike the original Java City, however, no roasting machine will be returned to the premises.

Outside seating will be retained, but it will be cut back a bit to better safeguard the looming centerpiece camphor tree.

"This is the rebirth of Java City as a retail presence in Sacramento," says Van Vleet. "This will be our launching pad."

While Java City's profile may have slipped in Sacramento in recent years as competition has intensified, the company hasn't exactly been standing still. There are 14 Java City cafes scattered about California, along with 2,000 restaurants and retailers like supermarkets that are licensed to sell Java City's coffee and teas. It employs 325 people, roasts four million pounds of beans a year, and brews some 128 million cups of coffee annually, say officials of the privately held firm.

April 20, 2007
Prison Whine

Get thrown in the slammer in New Zealand and you can forget about seeing wine as part of eucharistic practices during religious services. The head of the country's Public Prisons Service says he has no choice but to ban communion wine from the institutions because of a Corrections Act adopted three years ago, reports New Zealand's Catholic News.

But the prohibition has stirred up politicians who see the restriction as an unnecessary restraint on religious diversity. "The last thing Parliament had in mind when passing the legislation in 2004 was banning the celebration of Mass in prisons, and it is stretching logic and common sense beyond any reasonable bounds to imply otherwise," says Peter Dunne, a New Zealand political leader.

He also was quoted as saying that denying inmates the opportunity to go to Mass is a denial of their human rights to worship, as recognized in New Zealand's Bill of Rights. He vows to appeal the matter to the country's Human Rights Commission.

In California prisons, meanwhile, the role of wine in religious observances is permitted at the discretion of individual wardens. "I believe it is common for wardens to approve it," says Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

In California, the wine is kept in a secure location inaccessible to inmates, and only the priest or chaplain consumes it during services. No wine is given inmates, notes Thornton. "Any unused portion is returned to the designated secure location. This is our way of making a reasonable religious accommodation," Thornton adds.

April 19, 2007
Chocolate Meltdown

As they have for many, many things, federal authorities have standards for what is meant by "chocolate." One of those standards now is being challenged by the Grocery Manufacturers of America. The trade group wants the requirement for cocoa butter and whole milk in various kinds of chocolate to be relaxed so cheaper ingredients - vegetable oils and milk protein concentrates - can be substituted. If the group's petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration succeeds, chocolate as we now know it could become something else.

The change, however, wouldn't be mandatory, as explained in this comprehensive look at the issue in the Los Angeles Times. Chocolate companies, if they wish, could continue to abide by existing standards.

Nevertheless, two historic California chocolate companies, Guittard and See's, are fighting the proposal. Guittard has created a Web site where it notes that if FDA officials agree to the change the 25 percent cocoa butter than now goes into fine chocolate (at a cost of $2.30 a pound) could be replaced entirely with vegetable fat (at a cost of 70 cents a pound).

The site also points out that consumers have until Wednesday to comment on the petition, and provides a link for remarks to the FDA.

April 19, 2007
Tabletop Proposal Gets Tweaked

White-tablecloth restaurateurs likely won't have to change the way they set their tables after all. As reported in an item posted here April 4, a provision in the new California Retail Food Code, to take effect July 1, would require restaurateurs to wrap, cover or invert tabletop utensils, stemware and plates to prevent their contamination before guests are seated.

However, an urgency measure now making its way through the legislature - SB744, passed unanimously by the Senate Health Committee on Wednesday - would substantially tweak that requirement, along with several other provisions of the original legislation, all of which are intended to help prevent foodborne illness.

The revision would allow restaurateurs to continue the common practice of setting tables with exposed flatware, glasses and the like. Under the new proposal, restaurateurs would have the option of either removing utensils and so forth not expected to be used by guests as they are seated or removing and cleaning them with all other table settings at the end of the meal. Basically, that's the current practice, says Alicia Enriquez, program manager in the environmental health division of the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department, responsible for food safety at dining facilities.

Sen. George C. Runner, R-Antelope Valley, introduced the revisions. He also proposed the initial regulations, backed by the California Retail Food Safety Coalition, a group of state and local environmental-health officials and representatives of the retail food trade, including restaurateurs and grocers.

How did the original tabletop proposal get as far as it did before being revoked and retooled?. "It was an oversight," says Becky Warren, spokeswoman for Sen. Runner, noting that the original bill was around 150 pages long and that it isn't uncommon for subsequent cleanup legislation to reshape regulations. She expects the legislature to pass the revisions and the governor to sign them before July 1.

April 18, 2007
A Peek Into the Kitchen

Under the provocative headline "Ten Things Your Restaurant Will Not Tell You," Christine Bockelman of Smart Money has pulled together several practices that are likely to make diners think twice before booking a table. I'm not surprised, for example, that the "Maryland crab cakes" on a menu probably refers to style rather than source, but I am startled by one study that concluded that consumers have less than a 50/50 chance of being served the variety of fish they've ordered.

Other restaurant practices sure to unsettle diners include the extent of markups, the habit of workers showing up sick, and overbooking. To read Bockelman's complete list, and comments readers have posted, visit the magazine's Web site here.

April 17, 2007
Pull, Pour, Ponder

From the folder marked "Why Didn't I Think of That?" comes Eric Asimov's brilliant and fun way to help people overcome their fear of wine. He's the wine columnist for The New York Times, where he outlined his teaching strategy last week. He's also posted it on his blog, The Pour.

Basically, his strategy involves a casually experimental approach to wine tasting whereby students at their own pace and in their own home explore a variety of wine styles. He's the first student. He asked two New York wine merchants to assemble mixed cases of wine that over the next few months he will taste, recording his impressions at The Pour. He set a budget of $250 for each case. He calls his approach The Dining Table Wine School.

The cases are fascinating. One is made up solely of European wines, except for a lone representative of the West Coast, the Sobon Estate 2005 Fiddletown Lubenko Vineyard Zinfandel ($20) from Amador County. The other case is a bit more varied, but still with an Old World orientation. And why not? Europe long has provided the grounding and the inspiration for winemaking about the world. But this is no contest. Rather, it will be a study in how one person responds to particular wines and what he learns from the experience. In the meantime, anyone can pull together his or her own similar if not identical mixed case and start his or her own study program.

April 17, 2007
Roll Out the Barrels

For a dining column that is to be in The Bee's Ticket+ this Sunday, I surveyed five chefs to find out what's new on their menus, where they have been eating lately, and so forth. In reply to a question about what beverage is selling briskly these days, two of the five said beer, a surprise to me, given the proliferation of wine bars and the fact that we aren't yet at the hot days of summer, when beer is most welcome.

Another sign that beer is having a renaissance is that Restaurant 55 Degrees on Capitol Mall, inspired in large part by wine (55 degrees is its ideal storage temperature), has launched a series of Wednesday evening beer tastings. Last week's debut tasting included a hard cider, a brown ale and a chocolate stout, all from England. The theme for this Wednesday's tasting is saison-style beers, saisons being complex and sturdy farmhouse ales traditionally brewed in the winter for consuming during the summer, says Kassidy Harris, the restaurant's wine and beer director. All three saisons are from Belgium. The cost to taste the three is $10, with the tasting to be from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Despite its new beer program, Restaurant 55 Degrees isn't abandoning wine. Thursday nights, the restaurant also is staging wine tastings. This week's theme is Rhone-style wines from California and France. The cost to taste three is $12. Same time and same place - 555 Capitol Mall.

April 17, 2007
L, for Wine and Gnudi

If Sacramento officials agree it is ready to be occupied, the city's newest wine bar - L, the Wine Lounge and Urban Kitchen - will open Friday at 18th and L, reports Andrea Lepore, a principal in the project.

Executive chef Ame Harrington, formerly of The Kitchen, is putting the final touches to a "modern Californian" menu that is to capitalize primarily on local, seasonal ingredients in plates meant to be shared. While the opening menu is to include such wine-bar staples as cured meats and a cheese plate, it also lists dishes like slow-roasted baby-back ribs, a flatiron steak, a seasonal tartine and a burger with manchego cheese and frites. L also could be the first restaurant in town to offer "gnudi," Italian for "nude," referring to dumplings that basically are naked ravioli, all compact filling without a pasta wrap.

Jonathon Klonecke, a former Los Angeles software engineer, is L's wine director, while the principal partners are Marcus and Kolea Marquez. Marcus Marquez is a former manager at The Kitchen. L will seat 110, all inside, though a back patio also eventually is to open.

L is to be open from 11 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closing likely will be at 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, midnight Fridays and Saturdays, though the hours could be extended nights that the place is busy, says Lepore.

April 16, 2007
A First: Food Critic Gets Pulitzer

The photos aren't as gripping and moving as the series that brought The Bee's Renee C. Byer the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography this afternoon, but they are notable in one respect: They show the first restaurant writer to win a Pulitzer for criticism.

That would be Jonathan Gold of LA Weekly, who Pulitzer jurors praised for his "zestful, wide ranging restaurant reviews, expressing the delight of an erudite eater." While it's rare for a restaurant critic to be photographed, this occasion is exceptional. Besides, Gold can change his appearance dramatically just by cutting off his shoulder-length hair. At any rate, go here not so much to savor the photos but to enjoy examples of Gold's blunt and entertaining style of food criticism.

April 13, 2007
Tasting This Weekend? Guide Will Help

I'm only nine pages into Sunset magazine's new guide to the state's wine regions - "California Wine Country" (Sunset, $19.95, 160 pages) - and already I'm agitated.

Napa Valley naturally is the first region the book addresses, and at the outset the text recommends a tour with stops that celebrate both art and wine. The accompanying map, however, doesn't show the suggested stops. Grrrr.

Nonetheless, I hit the accelerator and soon discover that that early shortcoming was but a minor glitch in an otherwise pleasant and smart ride, not unlike a brief traffic jam on Highway 50 when you are heading out for a day of wine tasting in the Sierra foothills.

As with other California wine regions, the manual does the foothills justice. It isn't comprehensive in its survey of the region's wineries, but it does provide intelligent and helpful if brief information on most of the area's pivotal players. The maps are detailed, instructive and accurate, and insights on where to stay, where to eat and what else there is to do in the area is largely up to date and savvy, though anyone familiar with the region could quibble about a few oversights.

The vintners of Lodi will be doing more than quibbling, I'm sure. Sunset dismisses Lodi's increasingly highly regarded vineyards and wineries with one brief aside, saying the area is "worth a stop as you head to the Sierra foothills," with no positive elaboration beyond a footnote mentioning the city's Wine and Visitor Center. Visitors haven't had to fret about getting stuck in Lodi for years, but Sunset's editors seem to be suffering some sort of flashback. Geez, even Temecula and Baja, which isn't even in the state, get their own chapters.

Overall, however, "California Wine Country" is a largely balanced and graphically appealing guide to most of the state's larger appellations. It's the right size to fit in the glove compartment, it has one of those satiny red ribbons to help mark your place, and the cover has been treated with some sort of protective material so it can't be stained with wine. Not even in Lodi.

April 12, 2007
How Italian Cookery Differs

In a talk at UC Davis this afternoon, Paolo Villoresi obliquely reminded his audience that if conversation at a dinner party lags, just start musing about which of the world's cuisines is the best.

Villoresi didn't slip into this trap himself, but in a discourse on the evolution of eating generally and Italian gastronomy in particular he did toss onto the table something sure to get the conversation moving in that direction. He ventured that French and Chinese chefs approach cooking from a decidedly different perspective than Italians. Italian, Chinese and French cooking generally are considered the epitome of the culinary arts, and debates over how they differ and which is superior can rage far into the night.

Villoresi confined himself to chatting briefly about how they differ. To his perspective, it all comes down to complication. The French and Chinese like to take many ingredients and combine them into dishes that create a flavor of their own, and in which individual ingredients don't stand out. Italians, on the other hand, prefer a simpler style of cookery, one that celebrates dishes of just a very few ingredients, but they must be very good ingredients, with flavors to be appreciated on their own and in simple combinations. Olive oil sprinkled on bread can be a very good thing, and it's very Italian, said Villoresi. "It doesn't require a craft, but the ingredients have to be good," he said of Italian cooking generally.

"The French have an exceptional cuisine, but it is very different than ours," added Villoresi, a Florentine native who also pointed out that he isn't at all chauvinistic, that he's half French and that he has lived in China.

But it's Italian food with which he is most closely identified. He's president and CEO of the Italian Culinary Institute in New York, and publisher and editor of two periodicals, The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana and Italian Cooking & Living, as well as the online subscription magazine Cibo, which he started recently in hopes of attracting a younger clientele that doesn't read print food magazines.

As the session ended, he clarified for me a matter concerning pizza. I've been encouraged lately not only by a surge of new pizza places in the Sacramento area but by their rediscovery of pizzas with thin and crackly crusts, which to me seem more Italian than the thick and doughy crusts of so much American pizza. Villoresi, however, says the crust of original Neapolitan pizza was quite thick and soft. "It was fluffy so it could be folded into four and eaten while walking," said Villoresi. Pizzas with thin and crisp crusts originated later north of Rome. What's more, pizza in Italy early on and for some time was topped only with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil. "Today, all sorts of things are on top, even in Italy," said Villoresi.

If you have a question about Italian cooking and happen to be in the midtown Sacramento restaurant Biba this evening, he will be the big and amiable guy in the blue shirt with white collar and bright pink tie, unless he's changed attire. "She's an honest chef," said Villoresi of Biba owner Biba Caggiano.

April 11, 2007
The Giguieres kick up their winemaking

Sacramentans John and Lane Giguiere are stepping up their return to the wine trade. The Giguieres, who retired to Land Park about two years ago after building up their R.H. Phillips Winery into one of the larger and more successful wineries in the country, are returning to their roots in an ambitious way.

That would be in the Dunnigan Hills of Yolo County, where the Giguieres are to expand a 73.5-acre vineyard they retained after selling R.H. Phillips and build an entirely new winery, according to an arrangement just announced by Vintage Wine Trust Inc. of San Rafael.

Under the agreement, Vintage Wine Trust is buying from the Giguieres the couple's 320-acre "Matchbook" property in the Dunnigan Hills for $2.2 million. Vintage also has earmarked an additional $3.4 million to develop more vineyards and to build a 10,000-square-foot, 60,000-case winery on the site. Construction of the winery is to start this fall, with additional vineyard development to get under way next year.

Vintage, a real-estate investment trust specializing in wineries and vineyards, owns 10 properties in California consisting of two wineries and 6,083 acres in vineyards. Veteran wine broker Joseph W. Ciatti heads up Vintage.

Since returning to the wine trade late last year, the Giguieres have started to roll out four lines of wine under the labels Matchbook, Mossback, Sawbuck and Chasing Venus. Most of the wines have been made in leased quarters in Sonoma County. They were not immediately available for comment.

Under the arrangement, the Giguieres, who again are making wines as Crew Wine Company, will lease back the holdings for 10 years.

April 11, 2007
A Pause in the Mariachi Music

EK CENTROS3235.JPGAs it nears 13, Centro Cocina Mexicana is about to get nipped and tucked. The pinata-bright restaurant at 28th and J will close Tuesday for the makeover, but it's expected to reopen about a week later, and certainly in time for its yearly Cinco de Mayo bash.

A branch of the Paragary Restaurant Group, Centro will be even sunnier as new colors are introduced, booths are reupholstered, tabletops are refinished and the backbar is restyled, says Sacramento restaurant designer Bruce Benning. More Mexican folk art is to be added, and the restaurant's signature antique motorcycles will be retained, though displayed differently.

All well and good, but will the acoustics be improved, given that Centro is one of the region's noisier restaurants? "Not really," says Benning. "We're adding some materials to soften things a bit, but because of the layout and the fact that we want a vibrant atmosphere it will be about the same. It's tough to get away from that (noise) with the bar in its location." The frequently congested bar parallels the front dining room, and the quick remodel doesn't call for a change in the floorplan. Kurt Spataro, executive chef for Centro and other Paragary restaurants, notes that a large decorative piece is to be installed between bar and dining area; perhaps that will block some of the noise. Spataro also mentioned that while he is tinkering with Centro's regional Mexican menu, it will remain largely unchanged.

Blue Cue, the pool room and lounge above Centro, will undergo a facelift of its own about three weeks after the Centro update. "Blue Cue finally is going to be blue," says Benning of the color scheme he's come up with for the bar.

April 10, 2007
Markets Prepare to Spring into Action

The produce of spring is getting ahead of Sacramento's certified farmers markets, but not by much. Locally grown strawberries, asparagus, spinach and chard are starting to arrive at the four farmers markets open year round, and likely still will be available when six additional markets make their seasonal debut the first week of May. And if they're gone, well, cherries and early nectarines, apricots and peaches should be arriving then.

The farmers-market landscape will be a little different this year. The market at Elk Grove Regional Park is moving from Thursday evenings to Wednesdays to avoid conflict with a music festival in the park each August, reports Dan Best, director of the Sacramento markets. Also, the Elk Grove market is being extended an hour. It will be from 4-8 p.m. Wednesdays instead of 4-7 p.m. Thursdays, starting May 2.

The Wednesday evening market at Natomas High School won't resume this year because not enough customers showed up, says Best.

Elsewhere, farmers markets will operate as usual. The year-round markets are 8 a.m.-noon Saturdays at Sunrise Mall in Citrus Heights, 8 a.m.-noon Saturdays at Country Club Plaza at Watt and El Camino, 8 a.m.-noon Sundays on the state parking lot at 8th and W streets, and 8 a.m.-noon Thursdays at the Florin Sears at Florin Road and 65th Street.

In addition to the Elk Grove site, other seasonal markets will be 8 a.m.-noon Sundays at Cosumnes River College starting May 6, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Tusdays at Roosevelt Park at 9th and P streets starting May 1, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays at Fremont Park at 16th and P streets starting May 1, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesdays at Chavez Plaza at 10th and J streets starting May 2, and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursdays at Downtown Plaza at 4th and K streets starting May 3.

April 9, 2007
Napa Cabernet: A Status Report

The culinary highlight of the weekend was a blind tasting of six Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons from 2002. I chose this theme because cabernet sauvignon is California's most highly regarded varietal, with the best examples coming most consistently from Napa Valley. Often, however, I just don't get the excitement - or the prices - they prompt.

This group was no exception. All were premium or super-premium releases, ranging from $40 to $115. Collectively, they were fine wines, generally concentrated with ripe cherry flavors. A couple had notes of eucalyptus and mint. Just one was peculiar - soft, sweet and abrupt. The others were balanced and vibrant, with a couple downright elegant. But I was perplexed by their overall fleeting finishes. They were what they said they were, but they didn't have the complexity, buoyancy and length that made them especially exhilarating.

The consensus favorite - six tasters were involved - was the Hartwell Vineyards 2002 Napa Valley Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon ($115), the most muscular and tannic wine in the flight. The fruit ran to ripe blackberries and cherries, and the structure was classic Stags Leap - sabre-like in combining resilence with spring. I liked its richness and ripeness, but I would have liked it even more had the tannins been mellower.

Coming in second overall was the Terra Valentine Vines 2002 Napa Valley Spring Mountain District Wurtele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($50), notable for its lush and varied berry flavors, firm yet supple structure, and note of chocolate, a frequent trait of Spring Mountain cabernets.

The best buy finished third, the Silverado Vineyards 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), which I liked for its fresh smells of cherries, berries and plums, its fruity and slightly minty flavor, its balanced tannins, and its finish, the most resonating in the flight.

All the wines were double decanted, a step I usually avoid but in this instance used because of the youth of the wines and because of what I've been reading and hearing lately of the benefits of briefly aerating relatively new releases. Double decanting involves pouring the contents of each bottle into a decanter, then returning it to its original bottle.

The 2002 growing year in the Napa Valley, incidentally, started off apprehensively, with an April frost and May rains, but summer was mild, with warm days and cold nights. At harvest, the juice was lauded for its intense color and focused flavors. Each of these wines was fairly high in alcohol - around 14.5 percent - but none was harsh with heat.

April 9, 2007
New Faces, New Dishes at Cafe Vinoteca

OB CAFE VINOTECA.JPG When spring rolls around, restaurants, like a lot of people, get a surge of energy that shows up in new personnel, new paint, new dishes and the like. Few, however, make themselves over as extensively as Cafe Vinoteca has in recent weeks.

Long a finely detailed trattoria whose spirited Italian dishes draw guests from beyond the immediate neighborhood, Cafe Vinoteca these days is boasting a new executive chef, a new pastry chef and several new dishes. Charles "Charlie" Harrison, most recently chef de cuisine at Masque Ristorante of El Dorado Hills, and formerly with David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods and the Folsom branch of Zinfandel Grille, is heading up the kitchen. Cindy Lemmon, most recently pastry chef at David Berkley, and once the owner of her own bakery in Woodland, Florence Baking Co., is overseeing breads and desserts.

In restyling the menu, owners Jim and Janie Desmond Ison, pictured at left, have retained several popular dishes (tortini di riso, spaghetti Bolognese, veal Marsala, banana cream pie) while adding selections that take greater advantage of regional and seasonal ingredients, such as a pear and endive salad with candied pecans, fried Delta asparagus with aioli, and halibut with a spring-onion emulsion.

In keeping with the restaurant's name - "vinoteca" is Italian for "wine case" or "wine library" - the wine list also has been updated and expanded, and today offers a more diverse selection of Californian and Italian labels.

In Arden Town Plaza on the northeast corner of Fair Oaks Boulevard and Watt Avenue, Cafe Vinoteca is open weekdays for lunch and dinner, Saturdays for dinner, and Sundays for brunch and dinner; (916) 487-1331.

April 5, 2007
A Trattoria Takes Root Along J Street

IMGP0922_edited.jpg If you like pizza, this is a good time to be living in the Sacramento area. Though pizza joints have been in virtually every neighborhood for decades, we're now seeing a surge of new and promising venues throughout the region.

Last night, we stopped in at one of them, the slick Gianni's Trattoria along J Street. This is Peter Torza's latest culinary adventure. Gianni's, named for his son, occupies what had been Torza's Black Pearl Oyster Bar. Torza visited Italy, rediscovered his Italian heritage, and returned home a changed man, with an appetite more for pizza, pasta, osso buco and grilled veal chop than the seafood of Black Pearl.

Torza took over an adjoining hairstyling salon, tore down the wall separating it from Black Pearl, and merged the two quarters into one airy dining room, the buoyancy of which is aided by white booths and chairs, translucent blue polymer tables, and high and wide windows that provide diners with the quintessential Sacramento scene - a big tree in spring bud, the traffic of J Street and a park across the way. Despite red-brick walls and a pea-green concrete floor, Gianni's is no rustic trattoria, but more a throwback to an unusually chic mid-20th-century diner. Contemporary urban jazz and swing play on the sound system, while what looked to be a World War II movie played on three shoulder-to-shoulder plasma screens above the bar.

Executive chef Patrick Hocking oversees an unusually diverse and industrious menu for a trattoria, ranging from appetizers like sliced veal with tonnato sauce to entrees that include sauteed sole, seared snapper and broiled pheasant. The extensive pasta list includes risotto with lobster, gnocchi in gorgonzola cream, and lasagna.

From the pizza list - "You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six" - we chose the "aquitania," a cheeseless disc notable in part for the richness of its anchovies and the fruitiness of its tomato sauce, but mostly for the crispness of its thin crust.

Prices range from $7 to $14 for appetizers and salads, generally fall around $12 for pizzas, and swing from $10 to $28 for pastas and entrees.

The wine list is downright exhilarating - adventurous, appealingly priced and sound in its selection of brands, such as Navarro for riesling, Mahoney for chardonnay, Forefathers for sauvignon blanc, Goldeneye for pinot noir, Boeger for barbera, Phelps for cabernet sauvignon and on and on.

Gianni's Trattoria, 2724 J St., serves dinner only, 5:30-11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, though the oven stays fired up to 1 a.m. for pizzas and a few baked dishes; (916) 447-1000.

April 4, 2007
Dining Out Won't be as Sparkling

The most enduring if thankless task in the restaurant kitchen is going away. The fine craft of "dishwashing" is disappearing down the drain, to be succeeded by the more embracing "warewashing." As of July 1, that's how California public-health officials are to start referring to a chore that for generations has been called dishwashing.

It's one of many minor and major changes dictated by the new California Retail Food Code (CalCode), which on July 1 is to succeed the old California Uniform Retail Food Facilities Law (CURFFL). The intent of the regulations remains the same, to prevent foodborne illnesses.

Most of the new requirements won't be apparent to restaurant guests because they address food-handling issues in the kitchen. The upshot of one new regulation, however, will be apparent immediately to diners who enjoy the exhilaration of seeing candlelight blaze on upright wine goblets, glint off polished silver tableware, and flow in silken streams across bone-china dinnerware when they walk into a restaurant. Eating out often is likened to attending the theater, in part because just the way the stage is set can fire up the audience's anticipation. Some restaurateurs, however, are liable to be fretting that this new directive will tie their hands unreasonably as they manage the stage design.

The regulation will require that tableware that is set out before guests are seated - the frequent protocol in white-tablecloth restaurants - be protected from potential contamination by being wrapped, covered or inverted. If it isn't, it is to be removed and replaced with new as patrons are seated. In other words, utensils are to be wrapped in a napkin, not arranged openly and tidily. Wine glasses are to be set upside down or maybe sealed in plastic pouches. Plates are to be inverted, or not be put out at all beforehand.

The intent of this requirement is to prevent plates, forks, glasses and the like from being contaminated via touching by other guests, explains Alicia Enriquez, program manager in the environmental-health division of Sacramento County's Environmental Management Department.

I can see the reasoning of public-health officials; I just can't recall that a contaminated bread plate ever has been implicated in any kind of foodborne disease, unlike contaminated spinach and contaminated beef.

So the appearance of table settings in several upscale restaurants in about to undergo a revision. It could be worse. A regulation could be adopted to prohibit the lighting of the candles. Global warming.

April 3, 2007
Beating Freeze to the Punch

Frost Protection Getty Villa Tessa 023.jpg Paul Bush of Madrona Vineyards on Apple Hill in El Dorado County sent down this photo as a followup to an item I posted last week (see below) on the threat that freezing spring temperatures could pose to this year's wine grapes because of an unusually early start to the growing cycle. Sure enough, the nighttime temperature on Apple Hill dipped below freezing a week ago, to 29 degrees. By the looks of this photo, young and vulnerable buds on vines were frozen stiff, and thus extensively damaged if not killed.

But appearances can be deceiving. As the temperature dropped, Bush turned on his vineyard's first line of defense against a destructive freeze, a sprinkler irrigation system. The water warms the vines and the soil underneath, helps conduct that heat through canes and buds, and encloses the young growth with a thin sheath of ice that protects it from the chilly air while trapping the plant's heat. It may look goofy, but the technique generally shields the new growth from extensive damage, as it did for the most part at Madrona Vineyards, reports Bush. "And now we wait for the next frost event," adds Bush, indicating he won't be straying far from his temperature gauges and sprinkler switches for the next several weeks.

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