June 29, 2007
A Falling Out in Carmichael

Joshua Ramirez called a short time ago to say he no longer is the chef at Serritella's, the landmark Italian restaurant in Carmichael. His last day was Thursday, and word of his departure arrived too late for me to note the change in a review of Seritella's in this Sunday's preprinted Ticket+.

Ramirez said he's been the restaurant's chef "off and on" for about eight years, working for three different owners. He and the current owner, however, Robert Contreras, had an unspecified falling out. "I can’t be a part of it (the restaurant), and don’t want anyone to think I am," said Ramirez.

In confirming that Ramirez has left, Contreras said he doesn't expect any change in the restaurant's style of food, noting that he and his wife are actively involved in the kitchen and that at least one other veteran Serritella's chef remains aboard.

June 29, 2007
The Top of the Top Chardonnay

You know what I first like about the Charles Shaw 2005 California Chardonnay, which judges at the California State Fair commercial wine competition declared the best chardonnay in the state?

It's the little tab at the top of each bottle. You tug it and the top of the neck wrap peels off easily and cleanly. There's no need for a foil slicer or knife, and no struggle to remove the cap gracefully and neatly. Pretty classy.

The wine? It's pretty classy, too, to judge by the two bottles I opened and tasted last night. Hey, I'm a big spender. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that this chardonnay is from Bronco Wine Co.'s line of "Two-Buck-Chuck" wines that sell for $2 each at Trader Joe's stores. (We got ours at the Sacramento branch along Folsom Boulevard.)

As chardonnays go, it's serviceable - clean, typical, balanced and quite pleasantly drinkable. Its fresh fruitiness runs to hints of apples and pears. It's a little sweet, but that's common in chardonnays nowadays, and not at all cloying. The finish is short, but the bite is more sharp than dull, and more refreshing than tiresome. I've had livelier, spicier and more complex chardonnays, but not at $2 a bottle. It isn't epic, but you won't have to feel embarassed if you pour it at your Fourth of July block party.

June 28, 2007
Things Turn Stale at Bakery

Display cases still are filled with cookies and cakes, but the door is locked, the "closed" sign is hanging in a front window, and Cindy Philipp has called it a day for her Philipp's Bakery at 3300 Folsom Blvd.

Today's abrupt afternoon closing ends at least temporarily the saga of Philipp's Bakery, a Sacramento landmark since 1925.

Business has been fine, says Cindy Philipp, but she decided to close the bakery when she couldn't renegotiate a more favorable lease with her landlords - her husband Harry and his three sisters. "It was time for me to lock the door and go," says Cindy Philipp.

Julius Philipp, her husband's father, operated the business from 1946 until he retired and sold the bakery in 1982. It closed in December 2003, but was resurrected the following year by a partnership that included Harry and Cindy Philipp. In September 2004 she took over the bakery on her own.

She's uncertain of her plans beyond a backlog of wedding cakes she is obligated to fill. "I have a year's worth of wedding cakes on the calendar that I'm working through." Some she will bake and decorate at Philipp's until her lease soon expires, others she likely will prepare at other commercial kitchens. "I'm not sure my life in this business is over, but it's over in this piece of property."

She had 10 employees who also are plotting new futures.

June 28, 2007
New Blog Starts with a Simmer

A blog by a public-relations firm seems a high-risk venture, with its potential to both offend existing clients and scare off possible clients, so it will be fun to see how Sacramento's newest food blog develops. How candid will its contributors be? How self serving? At the outset, Sac FHoodies is personal and gentle, amounting to an interview with Kira O'Donnell, owner of The Real Pie Company at 12th and F, a few recipes, and brief profiles of the blog's 10 contributors, all with the Sacramento office of the public-relations firm Fleishman-Hillard. It's light, but as we say, it's just getting started.

June 28, 2007
Your Seat is Ready


Here's a bit of Sacramento history free for the taking. The old wooden booths from the Rosemount Grill - in more recent years Andiamo - have been removed from the landmark restaurant and are lined up in the parking lot for anyone who wants them.

They are complete with thoughtful hat hooks from the days before baseball caps became fashion statements that stay on throughout a meal. The booths are believed to date from 1945, when the Rosemount moved from 9th Street to Folsom Boulevard and 32nd Street.

"It broke my heart to take them out," says Barbara Mikacich, who converted the site into Andiamo after the Rosemount closed. She's been trying to sell the site since closing Andiamo last year after a 16-year run, and now has teamed up with caterer Judy Haeling, owner of Event Architects, to turn it into a facility for weddings and other special occasions. New carpeting has been installed over the floor where the booths once stood. "They were very sturdy, hard to get out," she says. "The room is open now so it can be set up any way anyone wants it."

As Andiamo Events Center, the reborn facility is to be ready July 1. Their first formal event is to be July 21. It's a memorial service.

June 28, 2007
Pocketbook-Friendly Wines Win Big

The major winners at this year's California State Fair wine competition won't be announced formally until July 12, but wineries are being notified of their awards and the results include some surprises.

For one, the best chardonnay in the state - selected from a field of 351 candidates - is the Charles Shaw Winery 2005 California Chardonnay, which sells for $1.99 a bottle at Trader Joe's stores.

For another, the best cabernet sauvignon in the state, chosen from a field of 398 candidates, the largest class in the judging, sells for just $10. It's the Five Rivers Winery 2005 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon.

Both wines should be easy to find. Charles Shaw, a brand of Bronco Wine Co. of Ceres, sells 5 million cases of wine a year, at least a third of which likely is chardonnay, though company officials won't reveal specific figures for its varietals. Nearly 143,000 gallons of the Five Rivers cabernet sauvignon were made.

Local wineries that scored well in the varietal and style awards were Wilderotter Vineyard of Plymouth for its 2005 Amador County Barbera ($26), best barbera in the state; Michael-David Winery of Lodi for its 2005 Lodi Incognito ($20), which tied with the Hop Kiln Winery 2005 California Syrah/Grenache ($22) for best Rhone-style wine; and Ursa Vineyards of Camino in El Dorado County for its 2004 California Petite Sirah ($16), which tied with Guenoc Winery 2005 Lake County Petite Sirah ($16) for best petite sirah.

The State Fair also divides California into 11 regions and chooses a best red wine and best white wine for each. Local wines to be declared best of region were the Bogle Vineyards 2006 Clarksburg Muscato ($18), Cooper Vineyards 2006 Amador County Sauvignon Blanc ($15), Jeff Runquist Wines 2005 Clarksburg Salmon Vineyard Petite Sirah ($26), Michael-David Winery 2006 Lodi "7 Heavenly" Chardonnay ($17), Peltier Station 2005 Lodi Petite Sirah ($18), and Wilderotter Vineyard 2005 Amador County Barbera ($26).

The State Fair's best-of-show red and best-of-show white, to be announced July 12, are chosen from among the regional winners.

June 27, 2007
Wine-Bar Scene Getting a Twist

A winery tasting room in downtown Sacramento? It could happen late this fall, if Renwood Winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley doesn't run into any delays during the city's permit process.

Renwood is planning to move into space at 10th and L streets vacated not long ago by The Avid Reader Bookstore, says Danica Artkovich, the winery's director of marketing. Under a provision of California's alcoholic-beverage laws, wineries can have two tasting rooms, one at the winery itself, which Renwood does, and one elsewhere.

Renwood would use the Sacramento site primarily to promote its expanding line of wines under its Santino label, though Renwood releases also would be available for tasting and purchase, says Artkovich. The site also will be something of a cafe, offering visitors light plates, she adds.

June 27, 2007
'When It Rains It Pours'

As soon as he finishes repairing a plumbing leak this morning, Evan Williams has to start calling the 25 parties that have reservations at his restaurant tonight to tell them it won't be open.

"When it rains it pours," said Williams a short time ago. He owns the finest restaurant at South Lake Tahoe, Evan's American Gourmet Cafe, along Emerald Bay Road, just off Highway 89, which remains closed because of the large and unpredictable Angora fire.

The restaurant so far has escaped damage, though Williams has removed its more significant appointments. He's hoping winds abate, the blaze subsides and Highway 89 reopens before next week's economically crucial Fourth of July summer break. Though Evan's customarily is closed on the holiday itself, Williams also owns the nearby Cantina Bar & Grill, which stays open on the Fourth, though it now also is closed and endangered by the fire.

"We're hanging in there. We're still standing but we're not open," said Williams a short time ago from the restaurant. The fire yesterday burned to within 500 and 1,000 yards of Evan's, he estimated. "We're still concerned. Those capricious winds make for great sailing but they're not so good fire weather."

June 26, 2007
A More Healthy Corn Dog?

Indiana, not California, has the distinction of having what is believed to be the first State Fair in the country to require that all its deep fryers be filled with cooking oils free of trans fats, implicated in heart disease and strokes.

Officials of the Indiana State Fair made the boast today, but Norb Bartosik, CEO and general manager of the California State Fair, is unruffled by the one-upmanship.

Two of every three conessionaires who fry foods at the California State Fair already use oils free of trans fats, says Bartosik. It's too late to require concessionaires to switch entirely to trans-fat-free oils for this year's California State Fair, adds Bartosik, but he wouldn't be surprised to see all Cal Expo food stands free of trans fats during next year's run. Concessionaires, aware of consumer concern about trans fats, voluntarily are moving in that direction. In January, at a meeting of officials of the Western Fairs Association, concessionaires reported that they are studying how to make the switch to cooking oils free of trans fats for all foods that are fried.

The Indiana State Fair easily could mandate the change because it requires concessionaires to buy supplies from a central commissary, something not required at the California State Fair, Bartosik says.

In the meantime, the California State Fair has taken steps to encourage fitness and wholesome eating, such as a "health walk" and the addition of more salads, says Bartosik. "You don’t have to eat everything on a stick from a deep-fat fryer."

The California State Fair will run Aug. 17 to Sept. 3. The Indiana State Fair will be Aug. 8-19.

June 26, 2007
A Wine To Go With "Ratatouille"

As Friday's debut of "Ratatouille" draws near, Pravda - Pravda, of all news sources - is reporting that the Walt Disney Co. is branching into the marketing of furniture, linens and even wine to attract more adults.

The wine, according to the article from Dow Jones Newswires, will be a $13 chardonnay from the Burgundy region of France and will be marketed under the label "Ratatouille," an animated movie about the rat Remy, who aspires to be a chef in a gourmet Parisian restaurant, preparing fine food rather than eating garbage. The date for release of the wine seems uncertain; it isn't yet listed on Disney's shopping Web site.

June 26, 2007
Papa Don't Preach, He Makes Wine

"Don’t let the fruit rot under the vine/Fill up your cup and let’s drink the wine," sings Madonna in the track "Like it Or Not" from her 2005 album "Confessions on a Dance Floor."

Her father's been singing that song since 1995, when he founded Ciccone Vineyard & Winery at Suttons Bay on Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula. After more than a decade of releasing wines under the Ciccone label, Silvio "Tony" Ciccone has added a line bearing the name of his celebrated daughter.

Five varietal wines are in the Madonna line, including a gewurztraminer, chardonnay and pinot noir. All are made from Michigan grapes, which are rising in stature. Each label features a different photo of Madonna. They aren't cheap - $35 a bottle. Though they likely won't be stocked in local wine shops, California is one of just two states - the other is Oregon - where Ciccone can ship his wines. To learn more of the wines, visit the winery's Web site.

June 25, 2007
A Proposal for Dining at Tahoe

IMGP1393_edited.jpgYes, the bride was lovely, too, but this is a blog about culinary matters so you get a photo of the wedding cake. The sunset ceremony, uniting Amber Marie Schmidtmann and Alexander Barrett, of Lake Tahoe, was Saturday at Sand Harbor along the lake's east shore.

The reception followed at nearby Big Water Grille of Incline Village. I'm not about to judge a restaurant on the basis of a wedding reception, but the setting, the staff and the menu whetted my appetite for a return visit for dinner sometime this summer. (By the way, when will a restaurant at Lake Tahoe provide showers and a change room for guests who want to end a day of hiking with a nice meal before they drive home?)

At any rate, spacious Big Water Grille perches precariously on the slopes of Diamond Peak, providing continually diverting views of the lake and the surrounding Sierra, tough competition for the cake in grabbing the attention of guests.

Executive chef Jay Veregge oversees an Asian-influenced take on New American cuisine. The wedding menu, for example, included pan-seared ahi with a ginger ponzu sauce, and braised tofu with a Thai curry.

I wasn't all that crazy about the New York steak with grilled asparagus and buttermilk mashed potatoes I'd ordered - the beef was a bit tough - but I sure liked the wine they poured, the complex, supple and lush Columbia Crest Winery 2003 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which customarily sells for $13 and still is a bargain on the Big Water Grille wine list at $30.

Big Water Grille, incidentally, is a regular competitor at the annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival, which for the first time this year will be at the new Village at Northstar. Up to now it's been in Squaw Valley. The program also is being changed to include a cooking camp for children, a farmers market, and an art show in addition to the usual demonstrations, tastings and culinary competitions. The dates are Sept. 14-16. Tickets go on sale July 1. For more information, keep an eye on North Tahoe's Web site.

June 21, 2007
Suddenly, Fewer Pastries in Folsom

After five years, the Folsom branch of Ettore's European Bakery & Restaurant has closed. Owner Ettore Ravazzolo says he was trying to sell the business and didn't want to lock himself into another longterm lease, but when negotiations with his landlord for a shorter agreement collapsed he opted to close the store.

"I wanted to downsize and go back to my original roots on Fair Oaks Boulevard (in Sacramento)," Ravazzolo says. "It was a life choice more than anything else. I've remarried, we have a little bundle on the way (in January), and I want to concentrate more on the original store."

Business at the Fair Oaks Boulevard bakery and restaurant, which he opened in March 1985 and twice has expanded, remains brisk, in part because he recently expanded his breakfast menu.

He left his equipment at the Folsom site and is willing to sell it to anyone interested in opening a bakery on the premises.

June 21, 2007
On Tap: Auburn Alehouse

Just in time for the start of summer, also known as the beer-drinking season, Auburn Alehouse Brewery and Restaurant makes its formal debut today. A year's worth of restoration went into the landmark building that long housed the Shanghai Restaurant and Bar in Auburn's downtown historic district to prepare it for the brewpub.

Brian Ford, former longtime brewmaster at Beermann's Beerwerks Brewery Company of Lincoln and Roseville, and more recently of Stonehouse Brewery in Nevada City, has pulled together the project and is overseeing the brewing. He's prepared five beers for the premiere.

Executive chef Luis Gomez, formerly of Rio City Cafe in Old Sacramento and Cafe Via d' Oro in Sutter Creek, has assembled an unusually ambitious and varied brewpub menu, which is to include a "martini" of poached tiger prawns, a tri-tip chili, roasted pork tacos, grilled swordfish, and grilled stuffed peppers.

Auburn Alehouse, 289 Washington St., Auburn, is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays and Saturdays; (530) 885-2537.

June 21, 2007
Zinfandel Marks End of an Era

The first day of summer is an odd time to write of zinfandel. It's a fall and winter wine, best left corked until the end of daylight savings time. But burgers were on the grill last night and I had a hunch that a zinfandel would be just the match for the richness of the meat and the sweetness and spice of the sauce I'd whipped up.

The wine was the Stevenot Winery 2005 Calaveras County Block No. 23/7 Gran Reserva Zinfandel ($45), which is just about to be formally released. That's a mouthful of a name for a mouthful of a wine, a lush zinfandel packed with fresh ripe boysenberries, oak and spice. It's complex aromatics and flavor never faltered throughout the meal. It's high in alcohol - 15.5 percent - but tastes neither hot nor harsh. The tannins also are rigid, but they weren't obvious until after the burger was gone.

Overall, the flavor was bittersweet, but in an emotional rather than aesthetic sense. That particular zinfandel marks the end of an era. A few days ago, Chuck Hovey called to say that as of July 6 he'd be resigning as Stevenot's winemaker after 24 years in the position. He'll be taking a sabbatical and then plans to stay in Murphys as a consulting winemaker. A winemaker admired for his integrity, dedication and skills - and remarkably humble for all the praise he's drawn - he'll be in demand. For more than two decades he was the guy responsible for making Stevenot one of the more reliable brands to come out of the Sierra foothills. You could walk into a store or scan a restaurant wine list and if you chose a Stevenot wine you could be assured you were getting a varietal or blend true to form, balanced, refreshing and of high value.

About a year and a half ago, Barden Stevenot sold the vineyards and winery he founded on a century-old cattle ranch just outside Murphys in 1974, thereby helping launch the modern Calaveras County wine industry. Jack Munari and his son Al, members of a farming family in San Luis Obispo County, bought the property and have retained the Stevenot label while recently introducing a new brand, Red Rover. A new winemaker has been hired but his or her identity hasn't yet been released.

June 20, 2007
A Starring Role for Dinner

After 25 years as a venue recognized more for its theater than its dinners, Garbeau's Dinner Theatre is swinging into a new era. Under the direction of new owners Mark Ferreira and Andrea Castel, Garbeau's now is serving dinner Tuesday through Thursday as well as before performances Friday through Sunday. Up to now, dinner was served weekends only.

Ferreira also is introducing an extensively revised and expanded menu, which runs largely to Mediterranean and New American dishes but also with touches of New Orleans, such as shrimp Creole ($18) and jambalaya ($16). Other entrees include pecan-crusted halibut ($33), horseradish-crusted prime rib ($26), and filet mignon with sauteed bay shrimp ($28).

Ferreira, a graduate of UC Davis in psychology and music, is hoping to create on weeknights the cabaret feel of the former Max's Opera Cafe in Sacramento, where he played piano, which he also does at Garbeau's.

Garbeau's, 12401 Folsom Blvd., Rancho Cordova, now is open for dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (shows at 8 p.m.). Sundays, brunch is being served at 12:30 p.m., followed by a 2:30 p.m. show. The current production is "The All Night Strut," a tribute to swing and jazz. More information: (916) 985-6361.

June 19, 2007
New Chef, New Menus at The Firehouse

With lunch Wednesday and dinner Thursday, The Firehouse in Old Sacramento is to introduce new menus, the first under the direction of newly named executive chef Deneb Williams.

Some dishes will be makeovers of longtime Firehouse staples, such as the Sonoma Valley foie gras, now to be accompanied with a confiture (confection) of black mission figs and prosciutto instead of the previous braised apple compote.

Others will be new, reflecting Williams's grounding in the French culinary arts and his experience and interest in Mediterranean, Italian, Pacific Rim and New American cuisines. The dinner menu, for example, will include a tea-smoked, pan-seared duck breast with a sweet-potato confit, as well as a thick-cut, pan-roasted pork t-bone with a caramelized onion and pear compote.

"My techniques are simple. I'm not a flashy, showy chef, but my approach is creative and I will have some signature dishes," says Williams, who grew up at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in Puget Sound. "I want to bring this culinary program back to life."

He's been working in restaurants for more than two decades, starting when he was 12. He's put in stints and drawn praise at such outposts as Medicine Bow Brewing Company in Cheyenne, Wyo., MacKenzie's Chop House in Colorado Springs, and the Cliff House at Pikes Peak.

He most recently was executive chef and director of food and beverage for the boutique Resort at Port Ludlow on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. He wasn't expecting to leave, but he heard about the opening at The Firehouse and liked what he saw when he visited Sacramento for a job interview, especially the restaurant's extensive wine cellar. "The wine list really caught my eye. It's indicative of a commitment to excellence. If they're willing to invest that kind of time, energy and money in their wines, they must be willing to invest the same time, energy and money in their food program," Williams recalls thinking.

June 18, 2007
Finesse Wins at Cal Expo

The 2007 edition of the California State Fair wine competition wrapped up Sunday afternoon. The judges' final assignment was to select a best-of-show white and a best-of-show red.

The decisions were made, but we won't know the identity of the wines until July 12, when State Fair officials play host to their 11th annual Grape & Gourmet, a Cal Expo tasting that is to feature some 600 medal-winning wines from the competition.

We do know this much. The best-of-show white wine was No. 3330 on our score sheets. It's a sparkling wine. This is pretty remarkable, given the strength of the 10 other white wines on the final ballot, including three sauvignon blancs, two gewurztraminers and a chardonnay. Also, a sparkling wine rarely wins such a high honor at any competition, given that sparkling wines are delicate, and the other contenders customarily are pretty husky (chardonnay, viognier), pretty racy (sauvignon blanc) or pretty exotic (muscat, semillon).

A brut-style sparkling wine, No. 3330 had a smell that suggested a mound of freshly kneaded bread dough rising on a marble slab on the kitchen counter in wintry sunshine. I voted for it on the strength of its dryness, crispness and elegance, and noted even before the results were announced that it would be just the bubbly I'd like to have to celebrate our wedding anniversary tomorrow.

Just as remarkable, maybe even more so, was wine No. 2317, an elegantly polished barbera. It was declared the State Fair's best-of-show red. Barberas just don't often win sweepstakes honors, for basically the same reasons that sparkling wines don't - they tend to be more lightly styled than much of the competition, which in yesterday's final balloting included two cabernet sauvignons, two petite sirahs and two zinfandels. I'm especially eager to learn whose barbera it is because even though we don't know the identity of the producer we do know it is from the Sierra foothills, the epicenter of barbera production in California. Just last Wednesday, my wine column in The Sacramento Bee focused on barberas from the foothills.

Now I'm eager to learn whether the best-of-show barbera at the State Fair was one of those that showed well at the recent El Dorado and Amador county fairs, finished out of the running, or just has shown up on the competition circuit.

Tickets for Grape & Gourmet - $50 per person - can be purchased through the State Fair's Web site or by calling the Cal Expo box office at (916) 263-3049. At the door the price will be $75 per person.

June 15, 2007
What's With Syrah?

IMGP1365_edited.jpgThe first day of the California State Fair's 2007 commercial wine competition is wrapping up at Cal Expo. A record-high 3,029 wines, all from California, have been entered, meaning each of the 16 panels will judge around 100 wines the first two days of the competition. (Sunday, the last day of the competition, will be devoted pretty much to picking the best varietals, best regional wines and the overall best-of-show wines, candidates for which will already have won gold medals.)

Our four-man panel spent most of its time judging 80 syrahs, all from the 2004 vintage. I like syrah, but after this exercise I can see why it is having trouble generating much enthusiasm among consumers. We ended up awarding six gold medals. Only one was a double-gold, meaning all four judges agreed it warranted a gold medal. Given the excitement that syrah was generating among winemakers just a few years ago, several of whom were convinced it would be California's next great varietal, I expected a stronger showing from the wine.

A high proportion of the syrahs we judged, however, just weren't enthralling. Many failed to make a strong statement that they were even syrah; they were just pleasant red wines, unflawed for the most part but one dimensional and short. At least we didn't draw the viogniers, another varietal attempting with marginal success to set down firm roots in the California soil; a member of the panel that did judge viogniers said they didn't give any of the 60 entries a gold medal.

Things could turn around Saturday. Our panel then is to judge 84 more syrahs, but these will be from the 2005 vintage, perhaps a year more favorable to the varietal.

June 14, 2007
More Consumers Thinking Pink

I've been seeing more bottles of pink wine show up on the shelves of supermarkets and wine shops, and now comes confirmation that rosé wines are hot. And with 100-degree days already here and summer just around the bend, their refreshing drinkability is likely to make them even more popular, at least in the near term.

According to figures released today by The Nielsen Company, sales of premium-priced rosé wines have jumped 45 percent the past year. (A premium-priced rosé is one that costs $6 or more.)

"It used to be that pink wine meant white zinfandel or generic jug wines," said Brian Lechner, director of client service, Nielsen Beverage Alcohol. "That is rapidly changing. The phenomenal growth in higher-priced rosé wine over the past year tells us that this segment is finding a sophisticated new audience."

Overall, table-wine sales increased 8 percent the past year. Sales of sparkling rosé wines also were up sharply - 40 percent compared with an increase of 4 percent for all sparkling wine.

Last year, 28 new brands of premium rosé wine were introduced in the United States, compared with 15 that were launched in 2005, says Nielsen. Of the 10 top-selling rosés, six are from France, two are from the United States, and one each is from South Africa and Spain.

June 13, 2007
"Spider" Woman

In cooking terminology, a "spider" isn't something you'd rather not find in your pancake, but a heavy, long-handled skillet with metal legs so the pan could stand over an open flame or coals, freeing the cook’s hands for other chores. With today's ranges and flat-bottomed frying pans you just don't find spiders anymore, but they were popular a century ago. I learned this not from one of the contemporary food dictionaries on my desk but from a new blog called

It's a spinoff of the Web site, where Eddie Edwards, of Reno, has collected and sells some 15,000 out-of-print, vintage and rare cookbooks. She likes to thumb through them, so she started the blog to share tidbits she discovers, such as arcane recipes and outdated terms. "Spider" showed up in the circa 1918 "The Jewish Cook Book" and the 1902 "Woman's Favorite Cook Book." In addition to commentaries on the latest old cookbook she's read, the blog includes a forum on lost cookbooks, old recipes (oatmeal jam jams with fig filling), and the glossary, all in their infancy.

June 12, 2007
Toasting Local Restaurants, Wineries

As a prelude to the "Grape Escape" wine tasting on June 23 at Raley Field, 21 local restaurants and area wineries are teaming up for series of special prix-fixe menus in Sacramento's first "Wine & Dine Week."

The promotion starts Sunday at some restaurants, Monday at others, and continues through June 22.

The intent is to showcase the Sacramento area's growing restaurant scene and regional wineries, say representatives of the coordinating Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Here's how it is to work: Diners drop into any participating restaurant that intrigues them, order from the special prix-fixe menu, and sit back to enjoy the pairing of each course with a wine chosen for that particular dish. Menus are to include three or four courses and a different wine with each. Prices vary from $35 to $50 per person.

At 4th Street Grille in downtown Sacramento, for example, guests are to start with a salad of baby spinach, roasted beets, candied pecans, boiled eggs and blue cheese with a smoky Dijon vinaigrette; choose from one of three entrees - New York steak with a peppercorn sauce, house-smoked pork loin chop with Granny Smith apples, or risotto with sea scallops and tiger prawns - and finish with one of three desserts. The wines, still being chosen, will be by Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi Winery.

Other participating restaurants include Brew It Up Brewery & Grill, Gaylord India Restaurant, Sofia Restaurant and Frank Fat's. A complete list is at the Grape Escape Web site.

More than 100 local wineries and restaurants are to participate in the fifth annual Grape Escape, which is to start at 4 p.m. June 23. A 7:30 p.m. performance by Michael McDonald, formerly of the Doobie Brothers, is included in the $47.50 ticket price.

June 12, 2007
A Salute to Salumi

When restaurateurs like to brag about the source of their provisions they put the name of rancher, farmer, grower and the like on their menu. Several of these names are fairly familiar hereabouts, like Bledsoe Natural Pork, Del Rio Botanicals and Niman Ranch.

Lately, however, a brand that's new to me has started to show up on Sacramento restaurant menus - Fra'Mani, generally in association with this or that kind of salumi, or cured meat. Thanks to the June issue of Berkeley wine merchant Kermit Lynch's newsletter, I now know that Fra'Mani is a line of handcrafted salumi by Paul Bertolli, former chef of the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse and the Oakland restaurant Oliveto. In the newsletter, Lynch announced that he and Bertolli are teaming up for a sausage-and-wine party from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Saturday in the parking lot of Lynch's store at 1605 San Pablo Ave.

If you can't make it there, Fra'Mani meats are being carried locally by David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods, Corti Brothers and Taylors Market in Sacramento, Tucos Wine Market and Cafe in Davis, Fosco's Fine Italian Market in Granite Bay, Back Porch Market in Grass Valley, Dedrick's Main Street Cheese in Placerville, Andrae's Bakery in Amador City, and branches of Whole Foods Market, according to the company's Web site, where salumi also can be ordered online.

June 11, 2007
Chill Out

IMGP1352_edited.jpgThe beer buzz in midtown Sacramento over the weekend was that today would be the day that Miller Brewing Company formally would introduce its latest product, Chill, a light beer flavored with lime and salt. No press kit yet has arrived, however.

Nonetheless, I got a preview over the weekend, first at Mosaic Midtown Salon & Spa, where models were presiding over icy tubs of the stuff and handing out tiny samples during Second Saturday, then up J Street at Centro Cocina Mexicana, where a few early cases were being cracked open.

Miller Chill looks to be the brewing industry's latest attempt to tap into the nation's growing Latino population and the popularity of Mexican culture hereabouts. It's been tried before. Remember Anheuser-Busch's Tequiza and Brasserie Fischer's Desperados? Introduced in early 1999, both were beers infused with citrus juices and tequila, intended to mimic the Old West practice of alternating sips of tequila with quaffs of beer, often accompanied with a ritualistic dash of lime and pinch of salt. Both eventually rode off into the sunset.

Miller Chill similarly tries to shortcut a current popular custom, the squeezing of a wedge of lime into a bottle of Pacifico, Tecate or other Mexican beer. This practice variously has been seen as either a way to add zest to generally listless brews or a carryover of a means to cut the metallic flavor lingering from cans in which early Mexican beers were packaged.

The Miller Chill label says the beer is made "Chelada Style," indicating that brewers were inspired by a drink popular in Mexico but not often found around here, the michelada. I have on my desk a coaster on which bartender Richard Bracamonte jotted down the recipe for the michelada he serves at JBar, the lounge of the restaurant Janos in Tucson, Ariz. It calls for a bottle of Corona beer with 3 ounces of Clamato juice and 3 splashes of Worcestershire sauce in a chilled pint glass with ice and a salted rim; garnish with a lime. Other versions I've seen are even more involved, calling for black pepper, Tabasco and soy sauce.

Why didn't Miller call Chill "Michelada Style?" Truth in advertising, perhaps. Chill only has lime juice and salt, not any of the other ingredients that go into a michelada. "Michelada" on the label also could cause consumer confusion, given that at first glance it looks a lot like Michelob, made by rival Anheuser-Busch.

While refreshingly tangy, Miller Chill also is too soft and too sweet for my palate. Not much salt essence, either. It certainly isn't as compelling as a michelada. We tasted Chill alongside a Pacifico with a wedge of lime punched down the neck of the bottle. It's more effort, but the flavor of the Pacifico was drier and sharper than the Chill.

June 8, 2007
Drumming Up Wine Sales

QUIET CONCERT.jpgAssociated Press photo

Mick Fleetwood, drummer and founding member of Fleetwood Mac, is touring again, but this time the venues he is playing are Costco stores and the playlist is all about wine.

Fleetwood has scheduled four appearances in the Sacramento area next Friday and Saturday, June 15 and 16, to promote his new Mick Fleetwood Private Cellar selection of wines, five of which are being stocked by Costco.

Fleetwood's local schedule calls for him to appear noon-3 p.m. Friday at the Costco just off Exposition Boulevard near Cal Expo, 4-7 p.m. Friday at the south Sacramento store, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday in Rancho Cordova, and 3-6 p.m. in Citrus Heights.

June 7, 2007
Biba Caggiano Joins All-Star Lineup

KG BIBA 6.JPGSacramento Bee photograph/Kevin German

Biba Caggiano is about to return to national TV. The nation, however, is Canada, at least at the outset. Caggiano is one of 13 high-profile food celebrities - and the only one from California - to be chosen by Food Network Canada to be profiled for a new biographical series called "At The Table With..." Each episode will focus on one of the 13 and will run 30 minutes.

Other culinary figures to be featured include New York City chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Marcus Samuelsson and Daniel Bouley, cookbook authors Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, Madhur Jaffrey and Sara Moulton, and Chicago restaurateur Charlie Trotter, says Mary Luz Mejia, associate producer with Fir Valley Productions in Toronto, an independent production company preparing the series for Food Network Canada.

"She's a legend in the world of Italian food," says Mejia in discussing the selection of Caggiano for the series. "I grew up in Canada, and watcher her (cooking) show when I was in my late teens and early 20s. She was approachable and down to earth, and her food made my mouth water. If I could have eaten through the TV I would have."

A production company is to visit Sacramento in mid-July, and plans to film Caggiano at her midtown Sacramento restaurant Biba, at her home and at a cooking class she will be giving. "We want to show what makes them as great as they are," says Mejia of the subjects.

The series is to start airing in October in Canada. Ultimately, it may be shown in the United States as well because Food Network Canada is affililated with the Food Network in New York City.

June 6, 2007
Mikuni Rolls the...Sushi

Las Vegas, aspiring to be the nation's culinary epicenter, has attracted its first Sacramento restaurant. Officials of Mikuni Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar just announced that they have signed a lease to open a branch at The Village at Queensridge, an $850-million upscale retail, restaurant and entertainment complex in the Las Vegas suburb Summerlin, 11 miles northwest of the Strip.

The 7,200-square-foot restaurant, modeled after Taro's By Mikuni at Arden Fair, is to open late next year, says Jeanne Mabry, Mikuni's director of communications. This will be the seventh Mikuni's, and the first in Nevada. Five others are in the Sacramento area, and the sixth, originally scheduled to open this past winter at Northstar At Tahoe between Truckee and the north shore of Lake Tahoe, now is slated to debut later this year.

June 6, 2007
Randy Paragary Grabs a Bite

The first job for nearly three out of 10 Americans is in food service. About half the nation's population is working or has worked in the restaurant business. Inspired by figures like that, Sacramento restaurateur Randy Paragary and two partners concluded it's time for all these people to form an electronic community.

They're doing it with The Bite Club, a Web site modeled on immensely popular YouTube, but targeted at people who work in or are interested in the food trade. "It's a social network for the restaurant business," says Paragary. "It's a way for people to express themselves, to network, to job search."

At The Bite Club, where anyone can join at no cost, members can post photos, videos, blogs and resumes, join chats concerning industry issues, recommend restaurants, search for jobs and the like. Paragary himself posted an early essay in which he suggests that his Paragary's Bar and Oven, which he opened in 1983, is the oldest restaurant in the state with a wood-fired pizza oven other than Tomasso's in San Francisco and Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

The Web site still is being tested and tweaked, with Paragary hoping it will be ready to launch officially Friday. His partners in the venture, which they figure will draw an international audience, are Sacramento native Sonny Mayugba, marketing director for Paragary Restaurant Group, and Mark Braden of Corona del Mar, a computer specialist. Mayugba's uncle David, incidentally, was the original chef at Paragary's very first restaurant, The Arbor, which he opened in 1974.

June 6, 2007
A Cure for Tainted Corks?

When the expected happens, it isn't generally news. But at two wine competitions this past weekend, the expected happened, and if not news it's at least provocative. Could it be that the world's cork producers finally have gotten on top of a fungal problem that's been tainting perhaps five percent of all bottled wine the past couple of decades?

First in Placerville on Friday, then at Plymouth on Saturday, I sat on panels at wine competitions. Our panels tasted 84 wines the first day, 68 the next. Out of all those wines, we found just two that we suspected of being killed by a tainted cork, a surprisingly low incidence. (In such instances, new samples are poured from a new bottle.)

I didn't think much of it at the time - after all, corks are supposed to protect wine, and almost invariably they were - but the competitions and their few cork problems came back to mind a short time ago as I read an online version of an article about tainted corks in today's International Herald Tribune. The upshot of the article, reported by Blomberg News, is that Portuguese and French cork producers are claiming they have come up with methods to get rid of "cork taint," thus hopefully restoring consumer confidence in corks, which have lost market share to screwcaps and other alternative closures in recent years. Our experience at the El Dorado and Amador wine judgings seems to back up their confidence. Surely, not that many winemakers in the foothills have switched to screwcaps.

June 5, 2007
Help for Wine Buyers

1869Amador Zin B.jpgLongtime Northern California winemaker Scott Harvey is stepping up with a way to give consumers a better idea of the style of wine they are thinking of buying when they pick a bottle from the shelf and start to read the front and back labels.

For all the verbiage on most wine labels today, they don't provide much insight into whether a wine is light or heavy, dense or supple, and so forth. The alcohol content on most labels will give a clue, if you can find it and read it. But poetry and jokes are more prevalent than helpful information concerning a wine's style.

With the release of his latest round of wines under the Scott Harvey and Jana brands, however, Harvey is adding to his back labels a graphic scale to show whether a wine is stylistically heavier or lighter. One end of the scale reads "100 Point Judging Style" to indicate that the wine is big. The other end says "European Style" to indicate that the wine is lighter and more refined. Harvey's emblem of a griffin will settle somewhere between the two extremes, depending on the style of the wine.

On one of the first wines to bear the scale, the Scott Harvey 2005 Amador County "Vineyard 1869" Zinfandel, the griffin is pretty close to the right or "European Style" end of the scale, indicating that grapes that produced the wine were harvested before they got overly ripe and that pH and alcohol levels are restrained. Had the griffin been closer to the left or "100 Point Judging Style," the wine would be higher in alcohol and jammier in flavor, says Harvey.

The inspiration for the scale grew out of Harvey's three decades of making wine in the Sierra foothills and Napa Valley and his equally long tenure on the wine-judging circuit. "As a judge I know what it's like to judge 100 wines a day, and I know that the overpowering wines get the best-of-show awards, but they aren't the wines that go best with food," says Harvey.

Thus, he will slide the griffin toward the "100 Point Judging Style" side of the scale when he makes a heavily extracted and high-alcohol showcase wine, and toward the "European Style" end when the wine is more lithe and friendlier with food. Think of the former as the modern style of winemaking, the latter as the "yesteryear" style, says Harvey. He notes that he'd be delighted to see other wineries adopt the scale for their own labels.

June 5, 2007
Gru-V in California

In the Dunne on Wine column in the Taste section of last Wednesday's Sacramento Bee, I wrote about gruner veltliner, a white wine that is starting to draw consumer interest for its refreshing crispness, adaptability at the table and alluring smells and flavors. Almost all gruner veltliner available in the United States is imported, generally from Austria, where it accounts for a third of the country's wine-grape vineyards.

In the column, I remarked, "If anyone is making gruner veltliner in California they are keeping it a well-guarded secret."

Not anymore. I just got off the phone with Rudy von Strasser, whose Von Strasser Winery is on Diamond Mountain just outside Calistoga in the Napa Valley. Diamond Mountain is where von Strasser about three years ago planted a third of an acre to gruner veltliner. He got a small crop this past fall, not enough for a commercial release of gruner veltliner. This fall's crop should be bigger, and by the end of the year he could be releasing the first gruner veltliner to come from California, at least in the modern era.

A couple of factors inspired von Strasser to take a fling with gruner veltliner. For one, he primarily makes cabernet sauvignon, and he wanted a white wine in his portfolio for winemaker dinners and to welcome guests to the winery. He also likes the wine, and despite the upper Napa Valley's reputation for torrid weather he figured he'd found an ideally cool microclimate on the mountain where gruner veltliner would flourish. And then there's his Austrian heritage. He's a native New Yorker, but his mother is Hungarian, his father Austrian, and his parents live in Austria, where he will visit them later this week.

"It's a quirky little project," says von Strasser, but he's been encouraged by interest shown in his experiment among sommeliers who appreciate the wine's food friendliness. "I can't justify taking out cabernet sauvignon for gruner, but we'll see what the demand is."

June 4, 2007
Prepare to Brake: Food Ahead

Pine Grove is a wide spot along Highway 88 about eight miles east of Jackson in Amador County. For anyone heading to the High Sierra to ski at Kirkwood, fish at Silver Lake or hike about Carson Pass, Pine Grove is well placed for grabbing a bite, regardless of whether you are heading uphill or down. We spent much of the weekend camped at Pine Grove. We weren't doing any cooking, so we wandered into the settlement to bring outselves up to date on some local culinary landmarks.

The hit was Giant 88 Burgers, a tiny oldtime diner on the north side of the highway smack dab in the middle of the hamlet. Hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, shakes, malts and a root-beer float is about all they do at Giant 88 Burgers, and they do each well. The burger is a simple thing, a thick round of fresh meat fried patiently on the Imperial griddle, then stuck into an ordinary bun with a slice of fresh sweet onion, tomato, lettuce, mustard and mayo. It's big, juicy and honest, the perfect combo of protein and carbohydrates for reviving the emergy after a few hours of sealing a cabin deck. The fries are pretty standard, and badly needed salt and ketchup, but both staff and clientele tend to be relaxed and joshing.

Henry's is a donut shop on the other side of the highway and just a bit to the east. They serve Java City coffee and offer the usual array of fried dough products. The old-fashioned, usually my favorite style, was a letdown, lacking interest, while the glazed, a genre I'm customarily not crazy about, was the best I've had. Both were wonderfully fresh, the lady behind the counter was solicitous, and the oldtimers who looked and sounded as if they gather there virtually every morning were spinning yarns that made you want to hang around and eavesdrop instead of getting back to that deck.

Giannini's, a hulking two-story Italian roadhouse next to Giant 88 Burgers, mystifies me. The Giannini family has been running the restaurant for 30 years now, but it just never has generated the buzz of Amador County's other Italian restaurants, though readers of a Jackson newspaper not long ago declared it the best of the lot. Still, you drive up and you often can't tell if it's open or closed. I was sure the neon sign was lit as I parked out front Saturday night. But it apparently was switched off between the time I pulled on the handbrake and the time I pulled open the restaurant's door. And it was only 9 p.m. There were still several guests inside, and we were welcomed warmly even though they seemed about ready to close.

Partitioned into a cocktail lounge with an old mahogany bar and a pressed-tin ceiling, and three spacious dining rooms, Giannini's is a throwback to the 1940s. Its walls look like logs, its roomy booths are upholstered with diamond-tucked red leatherette material, and its tables are covered with sheets of sturdy green fabric. Lighting is low, music a whisper.

One wall is given over to historic photos of the Giannini family, which has been in the restaurant business for 70 years. Several of them include that grand gentleman of Muscle Beach, Jack LaLanne. He's an old family friend who at 92 still pops in periodically, as recently as last week, said the hostess. He ordered fish, she said. I wish I'd known that before rather than after our meal.

Instead, I'd ordered one of the night's specials, polenta with Italian sausage. Polenta is a signature item at Giannini's, and as usual it was warm, flavorful and comforting, but the sausage was weird, with an unappetizing smell and a coarse, listless flavor. Another entree, gnocchi with a creamy pesto sauce, was fresher and better balanced. While the sausage was a letdown, I'd like to go back. I like the feel of the place, its history and its cordial staff. But next time I'll order one of those fish dishes - Jack LaLanne never steered me wrong - or maybe the pasta carbonara or clam linguini or chicken liver saute or eggplant parmigiana. The thought alone tempts me to get right back in the car and return to Pine Grove.

June 4, 2007
A Rose That's Pure Gold

Northern California's extraordinarily balmy spring - day after day of weather that insists that everything else be shelved in favor of a picnic - may have had something to do with it, but Saturday's Amador County Fair wine competition in Plymouth produced an extraordinay result: The classic picnic wine, a rose, won the sweepstakes.

This was the Bray Vineyards 2006 Shenandoah Valley Barbera Rosato ($16), an unusually deeply colored and weighty interpretation of the style, yet dry and refreshing in its bright acidity and cherry/berry fruitiness. While roses are gaining in popularity, they still aren't taken very seriously among many wine consumers, who tend to look upon them as just one notch in interest above sissified and candied white zinfandels. The Bray win, however, could give the entire genre a welcome boost.

The win for the rose upset conventional wisdom in another respect. The sweepstakes winner at a wine competition almost always is a blockbuster wine - a densely colored red with concentrated fruit, rigid tannins, high alcohol and enough oak to build Noah's Ark. The sweepstakes round at Amador, however, was refreshingly free of that sort of wine, perhaps an indication that judges are starting to monitor themselves more closely to guard against being overwhelmed by the showier wines, of which the foothills has many.

The three other sweepstakes candidates were the Sierra Vista Vineyards and Winery 2006 Sierra Foothills Fume Blanc ($14), which just the day before also was a sweepstakes candidate at the El Dorado County Fair's wine competition; the C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery 2005 Shenandoah Valley Primitivo ($20); and the Madrona Vineyards 2005 Sierra Foothills New World Port ($25).

And for the second straight day, I was on a panel that primarily judged barbera. Of the 34 barberas we judged at Amador, 10 got gold medals, a really high percentage. I don't think we were overly generous, I just think that barbera is one of the region's unheralded jewels, though winemakers seem to be discovering it; I can't remember either competition previously having so many barberas. At El Dorado, 23 barberas were entered, of which five got gold medals. I'll be writing more about barbera in a future Dunne on Wine column in The Sacramento Bee.

June 1, 2007
Sierra Vista's Strong Showing

Sierra Vista Vineyards and Winery didn't win the sweepstakes at today's annual El Dorado County Fair wine competition in Placerville, but it turned in the most impressive overall performance. It's even conceivable that it defeated itself by having so many wines in contention for the fair's highest honor.

Of the 21 wines vying for sweepstakes, three were by Sierra Vista, an unusually consistent and perhaps unprecedented showing. Each of the 21 was a double-gold wine. Double-gold medals are given only those wines that panels unanimously agree deserve a gold medal during the competition's early rounds. Some 570 wines were in the judging.

Sierra Vista's sweepstakes nominees were the zippy 2006 Sierra Foothills Fume Blanc ($14), the delicate 2006 Unoaked El Dorado Chardonnay ($14), and the spicy and complex 2005 El Dorado Fleur de Montagne, a blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre and cinsault, grape varieties commonly associated with France's Rhone Valley.

While Sierra Vista is a longtime winery just outside Placerville, the sweepstakes win went to a newcomer, Auriga Cellars of Camino, for its 2005 El Dorado Zinfandel, the price of which wasn't available immediately.

Three wineries each had two wines vying for sweepstakes - Monetvina for its 2006 California Pinot Grigio and its non-vintage Amador County Zinfandel Port; Toogood Estate for its 2005 El Dorado Cabernet Franc and its 2005 California Tempranillo; and Iverson for its 2005 El Dorado Barbera and its 2005 El Dorado Cabernet Franc.

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