May 31, 2007
Switching from Computers to Cutlery

A consortium of guys with a vision of a neighborly yet upscale restaurant specializing in "American comfort food" has taken over the former midtown Sacramento branch of Radio Shack at 2716 J St.

Friday, they kick off the permitting process, and if their plans materialize as quickly as they hope the restaurant - G.V. Hurley's - will open late this year, says Erick Johnson, who is swapping a career managing country clubs to manage the place.

The name G.V. Hurley's derives from the names and business interests of the principal partners, all developers - Brian Vail of River West Investments, Steve Goodwin of Township Nine, and Pete Geremia of St. Anton Partners and Hurley Construction.

In the restaurant business, concept to opening customarily takes much longer than six months, but Johnson says all architectural plans have been completed and that the construction backgrounds of the principals should help accelerate the remodeling.

"It will be pretty masculine, but with an edgy side," says Johnson. Plans call for a small bar inside, a patio in back, and "lots of fire and water themes." "It will be a downhome family-and-friend neighborhood restaurant. We'll have American comfort food with authentic Southern cooking, but it won't be focused on barbecue," Johnson says.

The restaurant will be next door to the new Gianni's Trattoria, and just west of Centro Cocina Mexicana and east of Harlow's, making this block of J Street one of the more restaurant rich in the city.

May 29, 2007
No Holiday for Restaurant Builders

Spent part of the Memorial Day weekend sticking my head into construction sites, peering through shadow and dust to find three restaurants taking shape:

- Progress is slow on the midtown Sacramento branch of Folsom's Chicago Fire Pizza, but it is progress. The original timetable called for a summer opening, but now the debut is looking more like this fall, said a construction worker. The size of the place could have something to do with the slow progress; it's huge. The pizza emporium will occupy a handsome brick building along the south side of J Street just west of 25th Street. A bar will be way over on one side, the dining area on the other, with a dedicated takeout area inbetween, said the construction worker. In Folsom, Chicago Fire has developed an avid following for pizzas of quality and value. The midtown pizza scene is expanding, but Chicago Fire, when it finally joins the party, could overnight become the biggest player.

- At Blue Oaks Marketplace in Rocklin, Anatolian Table will help correct the region's lack of Turkish restaurants. According to the extensive menu already posted on a front window, all the usual Turkish delights - kebabs of various persuasions, lentil soup, hummus and so forth - will be served. Look for a mid-June opening, said a construction worker.

- The old Shanghai Restaurant and Bar in Auburn's downtown historic district is being ambitiously done over into the brewpub Auburn Alehouse. The brewing tanks are in, along with a centerpiece iconic sculpture, but several finishing touches remain on the bar on one side, booths on the other. Again, a menu has been posted in the front window. Look for all the staples of the modern brewpub - pizzas, burgers, tacos - plus a few upscale surprises, such as jambalaya and rib-eye steak. When? Mid-June or thereabouts, to judge by the work that remains.

May 25, 2007
More Hope for the Hangtown Fry

More evidence has surfaced to indicate that we could be on the verge of revived diner interest in the Hangtown Fry. Though no restaurant has stepped up to announce that it is adding this Gold Rush classic to its menu, the newly published "The Hog Island Oyster Lover's Cookbook" (Ten Speed Press, $19.95, 168 pages) includes a recipe adapted from Joseph R. Conlin's book "Bacon, Beans, and Gallantines: Food and Foodways on the Western Mining Frontier."

Conlin, who wrote the book as a professor of history at California State University, Chico, has taken the most scholarly approach to trying to understand the creation of the Hangtown Fry, which basically is an oyster omelet. Much folklore surrounds the origin of the Hangtown Fry, but Conlin concluded that it probably began at Cary House, a Placerville hotel and restaurant in the days when Placerville was known as Hangtown. A prospector who just had struck gold probably asked the cook at Cary House to whip up something special for his celebratory meal. The cook surely was Chinese, concluded Conlin, for the Hangtown Fry is nothing but a rich variation of the Cantonese staple egg foo yung, and most Chinese in the diggings were from Canton.

Inspired by Conlin's research, Jairemarie Pomo, author of "The Hog Island Oyster Lover's Cookbook," came up with this sumptuous and spicy take on the Hangtown Fry, which just might inspire some local restaurant chef to add the state's most historic dish to his or her menu:

1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
12 large eggs
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 dozen 3- to 4-inch-long Pacific or Eastern oysters, shucked and drained
1/4 cup light cream or half-and-half
8 slices bacon, fried crisp and drained well
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
Sriracha sauce or other hot sauce for serving

Put the bread crumbs in a shallow dish. In another shallow dish, beat 2 of the eggs with the salt and pepper. Put the cornmeal in another shallow dish. One at a time, coat the oysters first in the bread crumbs, then the beaten eggs, then the cornmeal.

In a large saute pan or skillet, melt 1/4 cup butter over medium heat until fragrant and bubbly. Cook the oysters about 1 minute on each side, just until the coating is light golden brown and the oysters feel springy when touched. Using a slotted metal spatula, transfer the oysters to a plate.

In a medium bowl, beat the remaining 10 eggs with the cream or half-and-half, a pinch of salt, and a dash of pepper just until blended. Scrape the browned bits from the pan and add the remaining 1/4 cup butter. Melt over medium-high heat just until foamy. Reduce the heat to medium-low.

Place 2 slices of bacon side by side in the pan. Pour about 1/3 cup of the egg mixture over the bacon to cover. Spoon 1 teaspoon of the onion on top of the eggs. Place 3 oysters on top of the eggs and pour 1/3 cup of the eggs over them. Cook until the eggs are set, about 1 minute. Turn and cook another minute or so until the omelet is cooked through but not browned. Repeat to make a total of 4 omelets, keeping the cooked omelets warm in a low oven as you cook the rest. Serve immediately, with the hot sauce alongside.

Serves 4 as a main course.

May 24, 2007
Italian Importing Co. Retrenches

Luigi Velo, stung by intensified competition and facing higher rent, is closing the Folsom Boulevard branch of his Italian Importing Co. and consolidating his operations at the company's longtime J Street location. Saturday will be the last day for the store at 5030 Folsom Blvd.

Business at the Folsom Boulevard site has plunged about a third since a branch of Trader Joe's opened next door in late 2003, says Velo. Cut-rate wines like Charles "Two Buck Chuck" Shaw, carried exclusively by Trader Joe's, and traffic congestion and competition for parking in the neighborhood especially discouraged business, Velo adds. He also believes that the expanding and diversifying inventory of foods at big-box stores such as Costco and Sam's Club has hurt his business. When faced with a hike in rent as his original 10-year lease expired, Velo decided to concentrate solely on the site at 1827 J St., where the company has been headquartered since 1969. "The little guy always ends up losing," says Velo.

Italian Importing Co. traces its heritage to Giacomo Velo, who bought Mazzuchi Bros. at 622 J St. in 1945, two years before the city's other landmark Italian delicatessen, Corti Brothers, was established by brothers Frank and Gino Corti when they purchased the Meda Bros. deli. The name Italian Importing Co., however, didn't appear in city phone directories until 1953. In 1990, Luigi Velo bought Italian Importing Co. from his brother Mario, who had taken over the store from their uncle Giacomo in 1967.

Luigi Velo will relocate the Italian Importing Co.'s catering branch to 1827 J St., which he operates with business partner Larry Otten. Dick Mercer's and Lori Martin's Experience Italy, a travel advisory company operating out of the Folsom Boulevard store, also will move to the J Street site.

May 17, 2007
Rescuing a Dish Thrown Overboard

When McCormick & Schmick's opens a restaurant in a new locale, it likes to dress up the setting with local memorabilia. Thus, the first Sacramento branch of the seafood chain includes some great old local photos, posters, maps and the like.

On the menu, however, it's missing the boat. There's no Hangtown Fry, perhaps the most endearing and enduring dish to come out of the area. Yes, it's more closely identified with Placerville than Sacramento, but the provisions that go into a Hangtown Fry most likely passed through Sacramento on their way to the gold fields, and for decades restaurants here featured the dish on their menus.

McCormick & Schmick's oversight is surprising in two respects. For one, oysters not only are a principal ingredient of the Hangtown Fry, they're a key attraction on the McCormick & Schmick's menu, with a half-dozen fresh, raw strains listed daily, and fried oysters available periodically. Secondly, when McCormick & Schmick's took over and reopened the venerable Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley eight years ago it returned to the menu the Hangtown Fry.

Granted, it's gone from the Spenger's menu today, probably for the same reason it isn't at the Sacramento branch: Corporate officials likely see it as too dated for today's tastes. Though the history of the Hangtown Fry is debatable in some respects, the consensus pretty much is that it first was made during the Gold Rush at Placerville, then known as Hangtown. The dish was a simple and rustic scramble of eggs, bacon and oysters, and that's how it's been handed down through the decades.

The Hangtown Fry could be on the verge of a revival, however, if Martha Stewart remains an astute gauge of American tastes. In the new June issue of her magazine Martha Stewart Living she includes a full-page photo of a skillet-fried Hangtown Fry, looking as contemporary and inviting as any other dish in the issue. "This extravagant omelet melds the opulence of oysters with the familiar richness of bacon," coos the copy with the photo.

Once in awhile, a local restaurant will add the Hangtown Fry to its menu, but none has it right now that I know of, so we'll have to make our own until it becomes a hit elsewhere and Sacramento restaurants pick up on its popularity. Here's Martha Stewart's recipe:

Hangtown Fry
Serves 2
6 slices thick-cut bacon
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Coarse salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
12 shucked fresh oysters
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Preheat broiler with rack 8 inches from heat source. Cook bacon in a skillet over medium heat until crisp, about 8 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Keep warm.
2. Whisk together 2 eggs, 1 tablespoon cream, 1/2 teaspoon parsley, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper.
3. Combine flour and a pinch of salt and pepper. Dredge oysters in flour mixture, shake off excess, and transfer to a plate.
4. Heat 1 tablespoon butter in an 8-inch ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat until foamy. Add half the oysters, and cook, flipping once, until golden, about 3 minutes total.
5. Reduce heat to medium, and pour egg mixture over oysters in skillet. Cook until bottom is set, about 1 minute. Place skillet under broiler, and broil until top and center are just set, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Slide omelet onto a plate, and top with half the bacon. Serve immediately. Wipe out skillet, and repeat to make another omelet.

May 17, 2007
Vientiane to Rise Again

Unable to renew their lease, Susan Sisommout and her husband, Dariphone "Pon" Sisommout, closed their popular and acclaimed Laotian/Thai restaurant Vientiane along West Capitol Avenue in West Sacramento three months ago.

Since then, they've been remodeling another West Sacramento site where they hope to relocate Vientiane this summer, probably in July, says Susan Sisommout. It will be in a former consignment and antiques shop at Jefferson Square, 1001 Jefferson St., not far off Capital City Freeway, an accessibility she is hoping will help boost dinner business.

The concept, format and menu largely will be the same, though the dining area might be a little smaller than the space she had at the West Capitol Avenue site. She'll have a bigger kitchen, however.

The couple took over Vientiane last July when the original owners, Sith and Vanh Oriyavang, who had founded the restaurant nine years earlier, retired and sold the business to the Sisommouts, their cousins, who at the time owned Pothong Market in North Sacramento, which they have turned over to other family members.

May 16, 2007
With Oysters: Wine or Stout?

A reader of last week's Dunne on Wine column, devoted to a competition that tries to come up with the best wines to accompany oysters, wrote to say that by his experience the best beverage with oysters is stout. Curious, we stopped at McCormick & Schmick's for a glass of Guinness with a couple of plates of oysters. We tried the stout first with tiny Olympias, then with meatier Jorstads, and came away unpersuaded. We found an affinity, all right, but oyster and stout each tended to stand apart from the other rather than blend into a complementary composite of sunshine and sea, which is what we found most refreshing about pairing oysters and a crisp chilled white wine. Enjoyed both the oytsters and the stout on their own, but in the future I'll continue to stick to wine with oysters.

May 16, 2007
Wine Back in the Slammer

On April 20, I posted an item here about a decision in New Zealand to ban wine during religious services at prisons. Corrections officials in New Zealand now have reversed that decision, reports the online Australian news service CathNews today. You can read about it here. Note that in New Zealand both priests and inmates again are being allowed to consume communion wine. In California, prisoners are prohibited from taking wine during communion.

May 15, 2007
A French Take on Takeout

The drive-thru takeout lane at the Auburn branch of the In-N-Out burger chain is getting competition from another local culinary landmark. As unlikely as it may sound, Auburn's white-tablecloth Le Bilig French Cafe has added a drive-thru takeout lane to its small quarters along Atwood Road. Le Bilig is farther off Interstate 80 than In-N-Out, but that's where you have to go if you'd rather have takeout escargot, duck confit and creme brulee than a burger, fries and a shake.

Marc Deconinck, who with his wife Monica has owned and operated Le Bilig for 13 years, says takeout is the way to go these days for a restaurant to remain competitive with other food venues, especially grocery stores. "People want takeout," says Marc Deconinck. "They have less and less time to eat out, and they don't always want to spend $50 or $60 a head for fine dining."

The Deconincks have posted their ever-changing lunch and dinner takeout menus on their Web site and suggest that customers print it, mark what they want, specify a pick-up time, and fax the form back so the order will be ready when they want it. Customers also can just stop by on the spur of the moment to see what's available. The current menus include such items as roasted Provencal pork loin ($6), roasted duck leg ($10), ratatouille ($3) and chocolate gateau ($4).

Marc Deconinck says business has increased 30 percent since he introduced takeout dinners six months ago and added takeout lunches three months ago. He's now so busy that for the first time in the history of Le Bilig he's hired a cook to help him out in the kitchen.

"It's takeout, but it's a luxury version," Marc Deconinck says. He continues to prepare sit-down dinners at Le Bilig Wednesday through Saturday, and casual self-service lunches Tuesday through Friday. Takeout is available 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

May 15, 2007
The Big Tomato's Day in the Sun?

OK, Sacramento, here's your chance to let the rest of the world know all about the area's exciting restaurants, farmers markets, ice-cream parlors, bakeries, wine bars, butchers and the like.

Convinced that New York and San Francisco no longer have a monopoly on innovative chefs, artisan bakers, creative bartenders and so forth - they never did, of course, but news travels slowly in some circles - the editors of Food & Wine Magazine have created a Wiki site to let residents of smaller cities brag about their local food scene.

Starting with three Northeast communities to be highlighted in the magazine's June issue, editors are launching a year-long search to find the nation's emerging food cities. "'Food & Wine Across America,' which kicks off online today and in the June issue, will showcase dynamic food scenes in lesser-known cities and document how food in smaller American cities has dramatically improved in the last five years or so," says an emailed press release from the magazine.

Here's how it works: Visit the Wiki site, nominate Sacramento as your favorite food city if someone already hasn't, and then start adding your favorite local coffee houses, wine shops and so forth. Based on public participation, the magazine's editors are to profile the food scene of one of the nominated cities.

May 15, 2007
The Fiesta Resumes

The barkeeps of Centro Cocina Mexicana at 28th and J in midtown Sacramento continue to mix the best cocktails in town, and now they have a colorful new stage on which to show off their skills.

After a quick recent restyling of the place, Centro's looming backbar is given over to a sensible and inviting display of the restaurant's monumental selection of tequilas, including all three versions of my personal favorite brand, Espolon. The bartop is new and so are the barstools, which for the first time are anchored in place.

The floorplan is basically the same, but the Paragary Restaurant Group and designer Bruce Benning bulked up the partition between bar and front dining room, though it does little to shield diners from the noise of embibers. They also hung from the ceiling a veritable galaxy of metal starburst light fixtures, introduced a palette of deeper tropical colors, and devoted much of one wall to a collection of antique crosses whose random arrangement suggests a memorial shrine along a Mexican highway.

The vintage motorcycles that once gave Centro a touch of history and adventure are nowhere to be seen, though at least one eventually is to be returned to the quarters.

The bar is bright but the dining room is pretty dark, with a backwash of blue from big new neon "Centro" signs in the front windows. We didn't have dinner, but had to wonder what kind of effect the blue light, new blue upholstery, dim lighting and earthen tones will have on the customary warm and appetizing colors of Centro's food. The menu, incidentally, while now better organized, continues to run primarily to traditional regional Mexican cooking.

One thing left unchanged during the remodeling was the sculpted "Centro" plaque embedded in the sidewalk at the entrance, a tribute by artist Patrick Powers to an old Sacramento tradition. It got cracked as it was installed when the restaurant opened in 1994, and it's still cracked. Of the original Centro, that's about all that has remained untouched.

May 14, 2007
The New Old Spaghetti Factory

Prompted by intensified competition, as well as a heightened nutritional consciousness, one of the older dogs on Sacramento's midtown dining grid is learning new tricks.

Friday night, The Old Spaghetti Factory at 19th and J began to give diners the option of ordering the restaurant's signature dish, spaghetti with browned butter and mizithra cheese, with gluten-free corn corkscrew pasta rather than the traditional strands of semolina. This addition was prompted by customer requests for a pasta that could be ordered by celiacs and others intolerant to gluten.

Our server candidly warned us that the gluten-free pasta was being criticized by some customers as "mushy," but we went ahead and ordered platters of both the original and the new. The kitchen must have quickly gotten a handle on how to better cook the gluten-free corkscrews, for the pasta wasn't mushy at all. It was lighter and sweeter than the spaghetti, but went just as well with the spirited and rustic toss of browned butter and mizithra. Either way, the dish remains a bargain, with each $9.25 order including a loaf of hot bread with butter, a choice of minestrone or salad, and a choice of spumoni or ice cream.

If you haven't been to The Old Spaghetti Factory for awhile be prepared for some other menu changes, including an extensive new selection of appetizers as well as a few new entrees, including Italian meatloaf and eggplant parmigiana.

Even the placemats today are a kick, offering a wine trivia quiz and smart suggestions on pairing wine and dishes. The restaurant sure needs a fresh replacement for the weedy Chianti Classico it is pouring by the glass, however.

May 14, 2007
Warming Up for Beer Season

With summer drawing near, we felt we needed to prime our palate for hot-weather beer, so Saturday afternoon we swung by Brewfest 2007 at Raley Field, where some 30 brewers each were pouring several examples of their foamy products.

After tasting beers that evoked suggestions of dried flowers, an old mattress, lipstick, chocolate and chlorine, we came away convinced that the best brews were from brewers who have been practicing their craft the longest. They included the dry, toasty and creamy Eye of the Hawk Ale from Mendocino Brewing Co., the hoppy, smoky and caramel-touched India Pale Ale of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and the refined, refreshing and delicately citric original beer of Anchor Steam.

But we'll be keeping an eye on what to us was a new brewer, Mount Shasta Brewing Co. of Weed, whose Weed Golden Ale was one of the better structured and crisper beers of the day, and whose Mountain High India Pale Ale was almost sparkly in its bright and balanced flavor of malt and hops.

May 14, 2007
Midtown's New Hot Spot

"Interactive dining," which Korean restaurants pretty much have cornered in suburban Sacramento, is debuting at Stonegrill in midtown Sacramento. There are differences, however. Instead of cooking their dinner over a grill as at the Korean cafes, guests at Stonegrill spread ingredients across a volcanic rock heated to some 700 degrees Fahrenheit. The selling point is that the technique is healthier than frying in a pan with butter or oil.

Stonegrill also is more upscale than the usual Korean barbecue restaurant, with its cool staff snazzily attired and a spiffy upstairs lounge with a wrap-around mural of the High Sierra. Despite the sleek setting - at 21st and L, in a corner of a new retail/residential complex - it will be interesting to see how Sacramentans respond to the opportunity to cook their own dinner, especially with the lamb chops at $27, a sirloin steak at $23, ahi at $25, and scallops at $27.

The menu also lists, however, several plates prepared traditionally in the kitchen, like gnocchi in a Gorgonzola cream sauce ($12), a Cobb salad featuring lobster ($16) and a burger ($10). According to a banner in the front window, Stonegrill is a joint venture of Nishiki Sushi along 16th Street and Cornerstone Restaurant along J Street. The place is bigger than it looks from the outside, with tables running deep along the 21st Street side of the building and more accommodations upstairs.

May 11, 2007
New Oto's Debuts Tuesday

The mochi is in the freezer case, the sake on the shelves, and the seafood, produce and meat is sure to arrive by Tuesday, when the latest incarnation of Oto's Japan Foods opens at 4990 Freeport Blvd., just north of the Fruitridge and Freeport site the store has occupied since 1986.

Saturday will be the last day for the existing store. At 9,000 square feet, the new quarters will be twice the size of the existing facility, allowing the Oto family to expand every department and add new sections, such as fresh-cut flowers and wine. Because the selection of foods is diversifying, the name of the store is changing to Oto's Marketplace.

The emphasis will remain on Japanese provisions, however. In that vein, sushi chef Ray Yamamoto, owner of the sushi-catering business A Sushi Experience, will be at Oto's from Tuesday through Saturday each week to fill sushi orders as customers shop. Until late last year, Yamamoto was a partner with Sai Vongnalith in the Japanese restaurant Akebono of Granite Bay. In an odd coincidence, Vongnalith is to open a Sacramento branch of Akebono in the shopping plaza next to the new Oto's. His timetable calls for a June 15 opening; he will retain the Granite Bay original.

Oto's Marketplace will keep the store's existing hours and phone number: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays; (916) 424-2398.

May 11, 2007
A Pavilions Tradition Revived

Ruth's Chris Steak House, customarily open for dinner only, now is serving lunch, but with two qualifications: Lunch has been added to the Sacramento site only, and only on Fridays. The Sacramento branch of Ruth's occupies the site of the former Mace's Restaurant in the Pavilions shopping complex, which during its 20 years became a popular Friday afternoon hangout for local tycoons, among others, who wanted to get an early start on their weekend partying. Customer requests for Ruth's to revive that tradition led to the change in the usual corporate policy, says Tim Ruys, the restaurant's general manager.

The Friday lunch menu is a lot like the dinner menu, including appetizers like "sizzlin' blue crab cakes" and barbecued shrimp, a whole lot of salads, a few meaty entrees such as the cowboy ribeye ($41.95), and sandwiches of steak tenderloin, grilled chicken, prime hamburger and crab cake. An extensive selection of wines by the glass also is available, including the champagne Veuve Clicquot ($24), a Peter Lehmann shiraz from Australia's Barossa Valley ($12), and a Caymus cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley ($35).

Lunch is being served 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., with the lounge to remain open through the dinner hours.

May 10, 2007
Hook, Line and Stinker

Sacramentans who have been supporting a surge in the number of sushi restaurants here the past few years well might be interested in this investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times. The newspaper visited 14 restaurants in the city, bought what was described as red snapper or "Japanese red snapper" and then had the takeout fish analyzed to verify that it was what the menu said it was. "Not a single one was really red snapper," reports the paper. Nine of the 14 samples actually were less expensive tilapia. There are laws meant to prevent this sort of misrepresentation, but as the investigation also makes clear, federal authorities responsible for enforcing them aren't exactly looking for such misrepresentation. Is this kind of misbranding occurring hereabouts? Though the Sun-Times probe was limited to the Chicago area, the report concludes that "there's ample reason to believe diners around the country similarly are being taken in."

May 10, 2007
Gruner Veltliner: Spring Has Arrived

Come September, three years will have elapsed since I attended a San Francisco wine tasting where European wine importer Terry Theise said, "Three years from now we'll be asking ourselves, 'What did we used to drink before we discovered grüner veltliner?'"

It was more proclamation than prediction, Theise was so confident in the varietal's prospects. Things haven't quite worked out that way, however. Gruner veltliner, which sounds more like the name of a car that Mercedes-Benz and Chevrolet jointly designed in the 1960s than the name of a green grape, still is a largely undiscovered wine.

I was reminded of how unfortunate this is last night while tasting two new gruner veltliners from Austria, where the variety is the most extensively cultivated wine grape. Austrian gruner veltliner, while rare hereabouts, is a dry white wine worth seeking, especially in the spring, when its straight-forward fruit, lean structure and crisp acidity make it one of the more refreshing and agile whites to put on the table. In weight and intensity, it isn't far removed from pinot grigio, though it does tend to have a bit more build, spice and length.

Both wines were made by Lenz Moser, representing the fifth generation of an Austrian winemaking family. The hints of peach, apple and honeysuckle in the smell of his Laurenz und Sophie 2005 Kremstal "Singing" Gruner Veltliner ($13) suggest a delicate riesling, while the ripeness of the fruit and the sharpness of the finish tilt toward sauvignon blanc. This is an attractive starter gruner veltliner, offering a sleek introduction to the varietal at a modest price.

Moser's Laurenz V. 2005 Kamptal "Charming" Gruner Veltliner ($25) is a riper, spicier and more aromatic and citric take on the varietal. It is the fresh smell and flavor of spring, all promise and bloom.

For a new treat, look around for these wines. The Wine Consultant in Citrus Heights and Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar in Sacramento have gruner veltliners worth exploring, though they haven't acquired these new releases.

May 10, 2007
Upgrades at Local Hotels

No dining venue is more risky than the hotel restaurant. Before you take a seat you never really know whether the owners are content to exploit a captive audience with mediocre service and mundane food or whether they proudly like to provide guests with a truly special and memorable meal. It can go either way.

Lately, two Sacramento-area hotels have taken steps to help assure visitors and residents alike that their dining needs are being taken seriously.

First, the downtown Holiday Inn Sacramento Capitol Plaza Hotel, as part of a $10 million makeover, restyled its restaurant into the Cypress Grille. In addition to updating the interior design, the hotel has rewritten the menu to focus more on fresh ingredients, regional dishes and an overall "fun and flavorful" cookery, says executive chef Chrissy Lingren. The extensive menu includes appetizers like tempura-battered shrimp, Korean ribs and burger sliders; salads such as grilled duck breast with sun-dried cherries and mandarin oranges, assorted fruits with Gorgonzola, and a salmon Nicoise; and entrees from chicken and dumplings to braised lamb shank, crab-stuffed salmon to filet mignon. The hotel is at 300 J St.

And tonight, a $2-million restaurant addition to the Sacramento Marriott Rancho Cordova - Formaggio Taverna and Patio - has its grand opening. Chef de cuisine David Boswell, a graduate of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona who has put in stints aboard the Delta King in Old Sacramento and at Calistoga Ranch in Napa Valley, says his goal in assembling the Formaggio menu has been to be "local, fresh, approachable."

Starters include black mussels and cockles with pinot grigio and fresh chile peppers, a trio of cured meats, and wild-mushroom polenta. Pastas include penne with rock shrimp, caramelized cauliflower and toasted almonds, pappardelle with braised rabbit and aged goat cheese, and orecchietta with braised chicken, chickpeas and white beans. Main courses include pizzas, panini and large plates that range from the traditional (chicken cacciatore) to the modern (salmon saltimbocca).

The hotel is at 11211 Point East Drive in Rancho Cordova, near the corner of Sunrise and Folsom boulevards.

May 9, 2007
Label It Art

Only enologists, sommeliers, traders and other wine experts will judge wines in the AWC Vienna International Wine Challenge this summer, but anyone can help choose the world's most artistic wine label for 2007.

Competition representatives chose 10 finalists from 4,260 initial entries, and have posted them on the AWC Vienna Web site. The site doesn't indicate what criteria was used by judges to select the finalists, but they clearly favored the modern and abstract to the traditional and concrete. None of the labels is from the United States. Two each are from Austria, Italy and Chile, while Portugal, New Zealand, Greece and Spain are represented by one label each. Take a look; do you think maybe the label with all the ants is on a picnic wine?

Voters have until June 25 to cast their ballot. Just one vote per person is allowed.

May 9, 2007
Vegetarian Pay-Dirt

Despite the popularity of vegetarianism, the strictly vegetarian restaurant hasn't carved out a large niche for itself on the American dining scene. The Sacramento area once had at least four vegetarian restaurants, but most have disappeared. The reason is twofold: They were co-opted by mainstream restaurants that recognized the appeal of vegetarianism and began to add more meatless options to their menus. Secondly, ethnic restaurants have risen in popularity, many of which offer several vegetarian dishes.

Thus, I'm surprised to learn of an earnestly artful new vegetarian restaurant in the old Gold Rush mining camp of Murphys, Calaveras County. It's called Mineral, and it occupies the former Main Street site of the old and casual burger joint Pick 'N Shovel.

The owners are Steven Rinauro and Maya Radisich. Over the past 17 years he's put in stints with several upscale restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, but moved to the foothills to be closer to family. Radisich grew up in Murphys, moved to San Francisco to study art, got involved in managing a coffee company, then returned home first to open a bakery and now to run Mineral.

They recognize that a vegetarian restaurant in cattle country is a high-risk venture, so they're promoting not so much the meatless aspect as the novel artistry of Rinauro's cooking. The Murphys area is short on ethnic restaurants, notes Radisich, so Mineral is a way to introduce residents and visitors to combinations of flavors, textures and the like that they might expect to find at Asian, Latin and other specialty restaurants.

Their menus are indeed remarkably inventive, including dishes like a tostada salad with lime wontons, candied lotus root and a creamy vinaigrette with miso and Mexican vanilla; cocoa-crusted seitan with a Meyer-lemon fondue and guajillo-chile vinaigrette; and Thai vegetable dumplings with a lemongrass and miso broth and sweet wine-pickled cabbage.

Check out their Web site, then plan a drive into the foothills for what looks to be not only an exposure to vegetarian eating but an unusually original and modern style of cookery. Mineral is open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, dinner 5-9 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Phone: (209) 728-9743.

May 8, 2007
The Culinary Oscars

New York still is the nation's culinary capital, but other cities are shouldering their way into the limelight, to judge by the James Beard Foundation awards for outstanding achievement in the food and beverage trade, handed out last night in New York.

Chicago, for one, home to both Frontera Grill, named the outstanding restaurant of the year, and Tru, honored for outstanding service.

Other high dining awards went to Michel Richard of the restaurant Michel Richard Citronelle in Washington, D.C., for outstanding chef (his restaurant also was honored for best wine service in the country); L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon of New York as best new restaurant; David Chang of Momofuko Noodle Bar in New York as rising star chef of the year; and Michael Laskonis of Le Bernardin in New York as outstanding pastry chef.

West Coast winners were Thomas Keller of The French Laundry at Yountville in Napa Valley as outstanding restaurateur, and winemaker Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino as outstanding wine and spirits professional.

The cookbook of the year is "The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook" by Matt Lee and Ted Lee, while Mollie Katzen's "Moosewood Cookbook," published in 1977, was inducted into the foundation's Cookbook Hall of Fame.

The foundation also divides the nation into 10 regions and selects an outstanding chef for each. Winner in the Pacific region, which includes California, is Traci Des Jardins of the San Francisco restaurant Jardiniere.

Among the media awards, the San Francisco Chronicle was honored for publishing the best newspaper food section in the country the past year.

Full disclosure: I was a judge who helped elect this year's restaurant and beverage winners, but didn't vote on the cookbook and media categories.

May 3, 2007
The Taste of History is Sweet

As I understand it, a visitor can't leave Singapore without first getting his passport stamped in the Long Bar of the legendary Raffles Hotel, and then only after buying a Singapore Sling. Though we have a few more days in Singapore, we thought we'd check that obligation off the list last night and headed over to the hotel.

The Singapore Sling, also called a gin sling, is one of the world's more enduring cocktails. A Hainanese barman, Hgiam Tong Boon, invented the drink at the Raffles on a hot afternoon in 1915, so the story goes, though some say he actually was serving it a decade earlier.

I've been seeing the Singapore Sling on some cocktail menus in Sacramento, but that may be because I've been looking for them in preparation for this trip. I don't think there's a new surge in demand for the drink, though there is for cocktails generally. I tried a few of the Singapore Slings here and there in Sacramento but didn't find them especially refreshing, their big selling point, especially in a tropical setting.

I figured if any place could make a Singapore Sling that would explain its stature it would be the Long Bar at the Raffles, but I also feared that today's barmen at the hotel long ago would have become jaded by requests for the cocktail and no longer had their heart in it. As soon as we were seated, our server asked, "Singapore Sling?" She knew why most patrons had paused in the large and dark bar. Practically everyone in the place had ordered one, and then switched to beer, a margarita, a martini or some other cocktail. The $20 price, plus a 10 percent service charge and 6 percent in assorted taxes, might have had something to do with that, though not much else in the Long Bar is any less expensive. (Those are Singaporean dollars, currently trading at around $1.50 for each American dollar.)

Made largely with gin, cherry-flavored brandy, Benedictine and pineapple juice, and served in a collins glass topped with a wedge of pineapple and a maraschino cherry, it was mostly sweet, without much of the yin and yang of sweetness and sourness that has explained its appeal when it is made correctly. One guidebook dismisses the Singapore Sling as "cough syrup," but it wasn't that thick and sticky. My second beverage was a Tiger beer. For being refreshing, that was more like it.

The Long Bar, incidentally, is the one place in Singapore where you can litter without facing a hefty fine. Each table is topped with a wooden box of peanuts, and guests are urged to just toss the shells on the tiled floor. This is a tradition that apparently has persisted for most of the hotel's 120 years.

Though hemmed in by high-rises today, and no longer offering a panoramic view of the sea, the Raffles nonetheless remains a grand colonial structure, with high ceilings and wide balconies. It's always had its detractors - Herman Hesse grouched that it was "horrible accoustically and echoes like a drum in its vast corridors and stairways" - but after a brief closure and $160 million restoration in the late 1980s looks to be as busy as ever.

May 2, 2007
Chicken Rice Can Grow on You

IMGP0997_edited.jpgFor the life of me, I have yet to understand why KF Seetoh, among other Singaporean culinarians, think chicken rice should be Singapore's national dish. I tried it again today, at the Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stand at Maxwell Food Centre, which puts out a version that no less an American food explorer than Anthony Bourdain called "a light and beautiful thing...part comfort food, part Zen ritual."

He nailed it. On the surface, chicken rice looks as dull as something that would be on the bland menu at the hospital. Shreds of white boiled chicken top a mound of rice. The rice is hot, but the chicken is room temperature. Other than the rice and chicken, all the plate contains is a few slices of cucumber. Before they grab a table, diners help themselves to a couple of condiments, one a thick dark soy sauce, the other a chili sauce with ginger. It's also advisable to ask for a bit more of the broth from the can next to the cook doing the shredding of the chicken. Beyond that, you're on your own. You determine how much soy sauce and how much chili paste you want, and the amount of chicken and rice you want with each bite. The chicken is marvelous, tasting wholesome, direct and moist, but the key to the popularity of the dish apparently is that it is a relatively blank canvas that gives each diner an opportunity to express himself or herself. I'm still puzzled why in a city with so many more involved and historic dishes chicken rice is so revered, but now at least I feel I have a better understanding of its popularity. The $3 price also might have something to do with that.

On the way back to the hotel from Maxwell Food Centre, we stopped at another Singapore culinary institution, Ya Kun Kaya Toast, which since 1944 has thrived - there are 24 other outlets about the city - by serving coffee and toast. Neither is what might first leap to mind as coffee and toast, however. The beans for the coffee are roasted with butter and sugar, explained a server, while the thin, perfectly toasted slices of white bread are spread with kaya, a sweet spread of butter, eggs, sugar, coconut milk and pandan. Together, coffee and toast make for a sweet and invigorating breakfast, regardless of whether the first course was chicken rice.

May 1, 2007
Chicken Rice: Singapore's National Dish?

Most of Singapore's street-food vendors today occupy vast open-air food courts called hawker centers. Just a handful are allowed to actually remain on sidewalks, such as the two youths I encountered along Orchard Road, Singapore's answer to Rodeo Drive for all its high-rise malls and fashionable boutiques. In a scene more suggestive of London in the time of Charles Dickens than prosperous Singapore, these two are roasting chestnuts in a large wok also filled with a sand as shiny and black as obsidian.

It's so hot and humid in Singapore that my glasses fogged up as I stepped from air-conditioned cab into the heat of the afternoon, so I'm amazed by the resilience of cooks here. Even in the hawker centers scores of electric fans set at "typhoon" only stir the air, turning the cramped and crowded facilities into veritable convection ovens.

Singapore has plenty of fancy restaurants, but the small stalls occupied by food vendors are what most distinguish the city's culinary scene. By one count, there are 11,500 of them. At the National Museum of Singapore, an entire gallery is devoted to the country's gastronomic heritage, with most of the exhibits focusing on street foods like bak kut teh (a soup of pork ribs boiled in a rich herbal broth), char kway teow (fried noodles with soya sauces, Chinese sausage, fish cake and garlic), and laksa (thick rice-flour noodles in a spice-based gravy with coconut milk, shrimp paste and cockles).

Haven't had any of those yet, though dinner last night was another dish included in the gallery, chicken rice - chicken boiled in stock with garlic cloves, chicken fat, pandan leaves and ginger. KF Seetoh, who as editor of the annual comprehensive Singaporean food guide "Makansutra" is one of the country's leading culinarians, says without equivocation that chicken rice should be Singapore's national dish. "All else is fantasy, naievete and rebellion, no joke," he remarked in an e-mail as I was sketching out my Singaporean menu. The chicken rice we had last night, however, which included a fried egg on rice, really wasn't far removed from a pretty ordinary teriyaki chicken. Because of some logistical and time issues, however, we hadn't chosen one of the practitioners Seetoh recommends, so the search continues.

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