September 26, 2007
Cider Season is Here

The apples of fall can be enjoyed raw or after they've been baked in turnovers, tarts, pies and the like. Cider is another option, including hard cider, fermented apple juice with the bite of alcohol. For most Americans, however, hard cider isn't the first apple treat that autumn evokes. No one ever called anything "as American as hard cider."

Yet, commercial hard cider is being made hereabouts. Under the brand Fox Barrel Cider Company, Sean Deorsey and Bruce Nissen have been making hard cider in Colfax for the past three years. Their ciders have won awards from the State Fair in California to the Great Lakes Olde World Syder Competition in Michigan, where Fox Barrel was the first cider house west of the Mississippi to win a gold medal, says Nissen.

They make three ciders - a light and refreshing hard cider with 6 percent alcohol; a richer, rounder and sweeter pear cider with 4.5 percent alcohol; and a coppery and fruity black currant cider with 5.5 percent alcohol. The hard cider is akin to beer in its weight and dryness, the pear is suggestive of a soft drink in its sweetness and carbonation, and the black currant evokes a rose wine in its delicate fruit and wiry structure.

Deorsey's professional background is in accounting, Nissen's is in sales and marketing. They've long been fond of hard cider, but initially looked into getting into the beverage trade by brewing beer or making wine. Their timing and finances were off, however, so they turned to hard cider. "The big question has been, Is there a market for hard cider? The answer is, Maybe," says Nissen.

They're up against the common misperception that all cider is sweet. Though their pear cider has some residual sugar, making it a bit sweet, the others are virtually dry, and none are sticky. "People think our ciders will be cloyingly sweet, but that's exactly what we are trying to not be. We want them clean and crisp, with some level of dryness. When you finish one of our ciders, you don't feel like you have consumed so much sugar you are afraid to open another," Nissen says.

When they started, they brought over cider consultant Peter Mitchell from England and have followed the process he set up. "We wanted to make our ciders in the English style. We weren't happy with the sweeter and simpler domestic styles," says Nissen.

Their customers tend to be people keen on English and Australian ciders, or who appreciate artisan beers and wines.

Their current ciders are "session ciders," light enough in alcohol that they can be consumed like beer. After the first of the year they are to introduce a more complex "toasting cider" with an anticipated alcohol level of about 8 percent. The apples to go into it will be from their own young orchard and will be traditional cider varieties - Kingston Black, Foxwhelp and Nehouh. (They also will be harvesting fruit for the toasting cider from a Dutch Flat orchard owned by Bill Newsom, father of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.)

In about two weeks, Deorsey and Nissen are to open a tasting room at their micro-cidery at 1213 S. Auburn St. in Colfax; (530) 346-9699. In the meantime, local outlets that carry Fox Barrel ciders include the Sacramento and Davis natural-food markets, Whole Foods Market, Nugget Markets, Corti Brothers, Raley's and Bevmo.

September 24, 2007
Sacramento, The Invisible City

The 2008 edition of the Zagat guide to "San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants" ($14.95) just landed on my desk. At 332 pages, it seems thicker than ever. Finally, I fleetingly and foolishly thought, they've made room for Sacramento restaurants. But when I flipped through the "East of San Francisco" section I couldn't find a single Sacramento restaurant in the listings. Most of the restaurants in this section understandably are in the East Bay, but then the Zagat editors ignore the Central Valley and the Sierra Foothills altogether, skipping up to Lake Tahoe, which is well represented by such fine restaurants as Evan's American Gourmet Cafe in South Lake Tahoe, Wolfdale's at Tahoe City and Pianeta in Truckee, among several others.

Sacramento's prospering dining scene might as well be invisible. Maybe Zagat's editors think Sacramento is west of San Francisco. There's no word whatever about such Sacramento restaurants as The Waterboy, Lemon Grass, Biba, Kru and countless others just as creative and assured as many of those in the book. Maybe it's a blessing, at least for Sacramento diners, who without the Zagat spotlight being shined on local restaurants don't have to fret any more than they already do about finding a seat.

September 24, 2007
Chocolate-Dipped Grapes

Shari Fitzpatrick, who began to popularize chocolate-dipped strawberries with her Shari's Berries 18 years ago, now is hoping for the same success with grapes, but with a twist. The grapes have been pressed and fermented into wine, then bottled, and it's the bottles being dipped in chocolate.

Fitzpatrick, who lives in Somerset, El Dorado County, has teamed up with Perry Creek Winery in nearby Fair Play to produce her first wine, Shari's 2005 Sierra Foothills Grand Reserve Zinfandel. Without the chocolate draped from the shoulders of the bottle, the wine sells for $32. With the chocolate, it's $42. The wine is zinfandel, but the bottles are dipped in milk, dark or white chocolate.

If you're going to have wine with chocolate, I long have felt, make it Port. Table wines just don't do it for me. Nonetheless, over the weekend we tried a sample bottle of Shari's Grand Reserve Zinfandel, this one wrapped with milk chocolate. We finished the fine sweet chocolate long before we finished the wine, which just had been released and appeared to be suffering "bottle shock," a temporary tightening of its components. With time, it bloomed into a rich and fat interpretation of foothill zinfandel, its ripe fruitiness running to blackberries sweetened with a dash of vanilla from the oak barrels in which it was aged. Be forewarned that the wine's alcohol content is 16.8 percent, which just about qualifies it to be Port. As fine as both chocolate and zinfandel were, however, I still feel that Port would be the better companion, given its typically more robust structure and deeper complexity.

The chocolate-dipped bottles, incidentally, are wrapped with cellophane. They also come with a red ribbon zipper to be tugged down the side of the bottle to release the chocolate. It was a bit of a struggle to get it going, but once we did the chocolate folded off into neat halves.

Fitzpatrick initially is releasing 100 cases of the wine, with another 100 cases to follow in December. It's at her four Shari's Berries stores in the Sacramento area as well as on her Berry Factory Web site.

September 20, 2007
Napa Valley's Patron Saint?

That big bronze sculpture of a grapecrusher that greets visitors entering Napa Valley on Highway 29 from the south isn't modeled on Fred Franzia, though the way he tells it he's doing as much for the country's best-known wine appellation as anyone.

Franzia, the colorful if cantankerous president and CEO of Bronco Wine Co. in Ceres, responsible for the Charles Shaw brand of wines, also known as "Two Buck Chuck," says his company is second only to the British beverage conglomerate Diageo in making Napa Valley wine. (Diageo's California brands include Beaulieu Vineyard, Sterling Vineyards and Blossom Hill.)

Franzia made his comment Friday when appearing on the KQED radio program Forum in San Francisco. I missed the original broadcast, but the program, moderated by Spencer Michaels, is archived here for anyone who wants more insight into the philosophy and drive behind California's most controversial vintner.

The program, which also includes wine writer Leslie Sbrocco and Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Flynn Siler, addresses several wine topics, but Franzia is the most provocative guest, saying the language of wine writers stems from an "inferiority complex," suggesting he can make wine from grapes grown on asphalt, claiming that "90 percent" of the wine bottled in Napa Valley isn't from Napa Valley grapes, and arguing that "two thirds" of the wine made in Napa Valley is sold in bulk out the back door rather than through the front door under the labels of the area's wineries. I suspect he exaggerates at least a bit, but there could be some fodder for contemplation in what he says.

September 19, 2007
No Safe Port In This Storm

I've never been keen on wine "futures," the practice of paying for a wine months or years before it is bottled and delivered. I can see doing it if I've been smitten vintage after vintage by a particular wine, have confidence in the continuity of the vineyard and the stewardship of the winery, and want to be assured of a steady supply, especially if the wine is rising in stature and popularity. But, for the most part, I don't want to put out money for a wine I haven't tasted, or if I've only tasted a barrel sample that may or may not represent the final blend.

Now a reader has sent me an e-mail that gives me another reason to avoid wine futures, and provides wine enthusiasts generally with a cautionary tale. According to the reader, she and her husband a year ago paid for a case of California "port." When they recently picked up the wine they expected it to be in 750-milliliter bottles, the standard for table wines and often but not always used for dessert wines like port. The buyers say they based this belief on the size of the bottle the winery customarily used for its port.

When they took delivery of the port, however, they discovered it was bottled in 375-milliliter bottles, a fairly common size for ports. They say that when they paid for the port a year ago they were assured it would be in 750-milliliter bottles, but they concede they have nothing in writing concerning the size of the bottles.

What happened here? An honest misunderstanding? A lack of communication? A winemaker who belatedly realized the popularity of his port and subsequently stretched supply by reducing the size of the bottle?

The buyers acknowledge that the vintner offered to buy back the port for the price they paid, and indicated that if he sold it at a higher price he'd donate the difference to charity, but they balked because they wanted the wine and they wanted it in 750-milliliter bottles.

I'm not sure what their recourse is at this point, other than to enjoy the wine and to remember the incident the next time they are tempted to buy futures. It isn't always possible to envision every contingency in a business deal, but any wine enthusiast investing in a style of wine frequently bottled in more than one format henceforth will want to get the size specified in the contract.

September 18, 2007
Another Shakeup at Masque

Masque Ristorante in El Dorado Hills still will be Masque Ristorante next week, but guests who drop in might think they are in the downtown Sacramento branch of Il Fornaio. Ezio Gamba, chef-partner at Il Fornaio since the spring of 2006, on Tuesday is to become the new executive chef at Masque. He will be joined by Daniel Shinaut, the general manager at Il Fornaio, who is assuming the same role at Masque.

Gamba succeeds Jonathan Kerksieck, who has been in the Masque kitchen since the restaurant opened in the spring of 2004. He became the restauarnt's executive chef shortly after the original executive chef, Angelo Auriana, left early last year.

Both Auriana and Kerksieck practiced a refined, creative and seasonal interpretation of regional Italian cuisine. Gamba will retain some of the tone of the menu and several signature dishes while adding more mainstream and recognizable plates, such as pizza and lasagna, says Nancy Mallory, the restaurant's spokeswoman. Gamba also will be expected to build up the restaurant's banquet and catering operations, which have been underutilized, Mallory says.

The change in chefs extends an uncanny parallel between the careers of Auriana and Gamba. Both grew up in the northern Italian town of Bergamo, studied at the San Pellegrino Culinary Academy in Italy and worked at the highly regarded Santa Monica restaurant Valentino. They've been pals, and when Auriana was executive chef at Valentino, Gamba was sous chef at Valentino's Las Vegas branch. Today, Auriana again is executive chef at Valentino.

Kerksieck, whose last day at Masque is to be Monday, will join Matt and Fred Haines at their Sacramento restaurant Bistro 33 Midtown following a vacation on Maui. The change will be good for him, says Kerksieck, for it will put him closer to his home and family and simplify his training for triathlons, which he took up not long ago. Masque is on a course to be more "family friendly," and while he no longer figures in those plans he left without any regrets or hard feelings, though he was "a little disappointed in way things have transpired."

September 18, 2007
A Hof Brau Revival Brewing?

BB HOF BRAU DETAIL.JPGSacramento Bee file photograph/Brian Baer

The deal closed in May, but word is just starting to get around that one of Sacramento's more venerable restaurants has changed hands. That would be Plaza Hof Brau, founded as Sam's Hof Brau along Watt Avenue in 1959 by legendary restaurateur Sam Gordon, who died in 1998 at 91.

Over the past 48 years, the restaurant has changed little, adhering to the principles of the traditional German hof brau - big portions of hearty fare at value prices in a practical and comfortable setting. That formula won't change significantly, vows Derrick Fong, who heads up Hof Brau Restaurant Group. Fong is the CEO of the thriving and growing group of Mikuni restaurants, and while several of the "seven or eight" partners who brought the hof brau also are with Mikuni this investment is separate from Mikuni's operations, says Fong.

"If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," says Fong, repeating a longstanding canon of the way Plaza Hof Brau has been run since Gordon founded the restaurant. In 1992, Gordon sold the restaurant to Pete and Mary Lennarz, who in turn sold it this spring to Hof Brau Restaurant Group. Pete Lennarz began working for Gordon as a teenager.

Fong says his group has been sprucing up the building, installing some new equipment, increasing the efficiency of its takeout program and experimenting with dishes that may be added to the menu. The restaurant recently ran a special on ribs, for example, and though the crew thought they had stocked enough to last from the Thursday to the Saturday of the promotion they ran out on Friday, says Fong.

The restaurnt is averaging about 1,200 meals a day, and while its clientele tends to be older, Fong is seeing a shift to a younger customer. That's got him to thinking that the hof-brau concept may be in for a revival, and he's already talking of additional restaurants, the first possibly in Rocklin and Reno. "The concept has a lot of potential," says Fong. "It's great value."

September 17, 2007
High Notes from the High Sierra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 14, 2007
The Verdict: Guilty of Overindulging

The next time you hear someone complain of jury duty, just ask, "Yeah, but who else gets 90 minutes for lunch?" At least that's the way it was in Department 1 at the Sacramento County Courthouse this week. Wednesday was the best, because that's when the noontime farmers market was under way at nearby Cesar Chavez Plaza.

Still, there's only so much time you can kill wandering among the vendors. I wasn't in the mood for any of the dishes being sold by concessionaires, so I drifted over to the branch of La Bou at the Central Library. The green-curry chicken was just dandy, but the dish that really blew me away was the big, moist and fresh apple cake, loaded with walnuts and with so much fruit it saved me the annual trek to Apple Hill, and at only $2.80 the piece.

I ordinarily don't eat dessert at lunch, but when you have 90 minutes to fill you might as well enjoy it lingering over cake and coffee. The next time some scholar looks for reasons behind the nation's "obesity epidemic," they might want to consider jury duty.

September 14, 2007
Vintage Martha Stewart

Resurgent Martha Stewart struggled to make zucchini fritters alongside an uncooperative David Letterman last night, but she's back under a more flattering spotlight this morning as officials of E. & J. Gallo Winery of Modesto announce a new line of wines bearing the label "Martha Stewart Vintage."

But don't dash out to the supermarket in hopes of grabbing a bottle. Just 15,000 cases of the three varietals in the initial rollout will be available, and they will be distributed in only six markets, none of which is in the Sacramento area. (They're Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and Charlotte, N.C. Those cities were chosen because "each represents a good geographical cross section of the country," says Gallo spokesman John Segale.

The $15 wines are a 2006 chardonnay, a 2006 merlot, and a 2005 cabernet sauvignon, all with a Sonoma County appellation. Martha Stewart didn't stomp the grapes herself, but she worked with Gallo winemakers to come up with a style meant for entertaining meals, whether they be simple or special, say Gallo representatives.

"As a former caterer and a lifelong hostess, I understand the important role wine can play at a gathering. The wines were crafted with great care and attention to every detail. This venture is a natural outgrowth of the friendship I've enjoyed with the Gallo family based on our mutual passion for food, wine and entertaining," said Stewart in a prepared statement.

Here, incidentally, is her recipe for zucchini fritters from last night's show:
Zucchini Fritters
Serves 4
1 pound zucchini (about 2 medium)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest (1 lemon)
10 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley, stems removed and leaves finely chopped, plus more sprigs for garnish (optional)
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Using the large holes of a box grater, grate zucchini into a medium bowl. Add salt, lemon zest, chopped parsley, garlic, pepper, and eggs. Mix well to combine. Slowly add flour, stirring so no lumps form.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high meat until oil sizzles when you drop a small amount of zucchini mixture into the pan. Carefully drop about 2 tablespoons zucchini mixture into pan; repeat, spacing fritters a few inches apart.
Cook fritters until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Turn fritters, and continue cooking until golden, 2 to 3 minutes more. Transfer fritters to a plate; set aside in a warm place. Cook remaining zucchini mixture, adding more oil to pan if necessary. Garnish with parsley sprigs and lemon wedges, if desired. Serve. Bon appetit.

September 14, 2007
Surge of New Restaurants Continues

September typically is a busy month for new restaurants as restaurateurs line up their ducks to capitalize on the year-end holiday season, but this fall could be unprecedented in the number of debuts in the Sacramento area.

Already open are such ambitious restaurants as Three Monkeys in downtown Sacramento, Hawks in Granite Bay, Sheepherders Inn in Rancho Cordova, and Maritime Seafood & Grill in Carmichael.

Coming up next week will be the grand opening of UFood Grill in Roseville on Sept. 18, the grand opening of a second branch of Orangevale's refined Japanese restaurant Blue Nami in Roseville on Sept. 20, and the premiere of the Selland family's Ella in downtown Sacramento on Sept. 22.

UFood Grill, which boasts "healthy fast food" - all dishes are baked, grilled or steamed, not fried - will be open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday as members of the Rotary Club of Roseville act as "celebrity waiters" to gather the day's proceeds for a program to help children and at-risk families. UFood Grill is at 721 Pleasant Grove Blvd., in a shopping center that also includes Nugget Market.

For five years, the husband-and-wife team of Joon and Yoon Cho have been operating Blue Nami Sushi & Sake House along Greenback Lane in Orangevale. Their new restaurant, simply named Blue Nami, is at 1465 Eureka Road, Roseville. The menu at the Roseville site will be similar, though somewhat upgraded, says Yuji Yokoyama, a partner in the new place. The Chos have been celebrated for the extent and novelty of their sushi rolls.

September 14, 2007
Second Cupcake Bakery Blooming

October wouldn't be National Cupcake Month, would it? Sure seems that way around here. Two weeks ago, longtime Sacramento chef and culinary instructor Teresa Urkofsky confirmed plans to open Babycakes Bakery in east Sacramento in October. Now, Christee Owens, a longtime resident of the Rocklin/Loomis area, has announced plans to open a cupcake shop, Icing on the Cupcake, in Rocklin, also in October.

For Owens, whose professional background involves working in human resources, advertising and marketing, commercial cooking will be a new venture. But baking always has been her first love, starting with an Easy-Bake Oven when she was a youngster.

Icing on the Cupcake will be at 5065 Pacific St. in a section of Rocklin undergoing redevelopment. She's planning for it to be the prototype of an anticipated group of cupcake bakeries. Her partners are her mother, Shirley Nagasawa, also a longtime home baker, and a friend, Chuck Meridith, a graphics designer and marketing specialist.

"We will be a boutique-style cupcakery specializing in gourmet cupcakes," says Owens. "We'll use select ingredients such as locally grown seasonal produce, Madagascar bourbon vanilla and imported Belgian chocolate." Flavors will include creamsicle, red velvet, chai spcie, lavender and honey, chocolate espresso, and bananas Foster.

Like Urkofsky, Owens is aiming to have the shop open by mid-October. When it does open, hours will be 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. More information is available at Icing on the Cupcake's developing Web site.

September 13, 2007
Sticking to the Formulas

Mike Adams is sinking his roots deeper into El Dorado County. Nearly 10 years after founding his Stone's Throw Vineyard & Winery on Apple Hill just outside of Placerville, he's become an increasingly active El Dorado County restaurateur. In January, he took over the German-oriented St. Pauli Inn along Highway 50 east of Pollock Pines, and in April he acquired the even more legendary Poor Red's in El Dorado.

Other than upgrading and expanding the menu at both establishments, including the addition of a New York steak at St. Pauli Inn and rib-eyes at Poor Red's, he's not tinkering much with the formulas that have made them landmark stops.

"The place is an icon. It's been around since 1948, and we want to continue the tradition," says Adams of Poor Red's. The emphasis on ribs remains, the staff is the same (including a cook that's been there 14 years and a bartender 36), and the Gold Cadillac remains the roadhouse's signature cocktail.

Changes at Poor Red's have been largely cosmetic, though Adams has added music on Sunday nights and now serves lunch at the bar.

September 12, 2007
Bistro 33 Heads for the Hills

EK RIVERSIDE CLUBHOUSE.JPGMatt & Fred Haines, in front of another of their restaurants, Riverside Clubhouse.
Sacramento Bee file/Erhardt Krause

Officially, Bistro 33 El Dorado Hills won't open until Sept. 24, but anyone in the neighborhood Saturday night can get a preview. The restaurant will be the fifth by Sacramento brothers Matt and Fred Haines since the debut of their 33rd Street Bistro in east Sacramento nearly 12 years ago.

About 60 percent of the menu at the new place will replicate the contemporary Pacific Northwest cuisine that the brothers introduced at 33rd Street Bistro, with the balance to be new dishes that nonetheless also represent the overall "casual fun food with spunk" style that the brothers strive to provide guests, says Fred Haines, executive chef for the group. Specific dishes on the opening menu are to include Guinness-braised short ribs, Wagyu-beef carpaccio, king-crab risotto, and buffalo Bolognese. Lisa Marie Murtagh is the chef de cuisine, Fidel Lopez the sous chef.

Sacramento designer Bruce Benning, responsible for the brothers Riverside Clubhouse and Bistro 33 Midtown, has come up with a "completely different" setting for the new place, says Matt Haines. It includes a river-rock bar, a two-story dome, and a birch-tree motif.

Bistro 33 El Dorado Hills is at 4364 Town Center Blvd. in El Dorado Hills Town Center. As of Sept. 24, the restaurant is to be open for lunch weekdays, dinner nightly starting at 5 p.m., continuing to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday; the phone number is (916) 358-3733.

September 11, 2007
An Agave Blooms Along 20th Street

Enough with all the wine bars in midtown Sacramento. Let's talk tequila bar. The Ulloa brothers - Jose and Carlos - hope to do that on or about Dec. 1. That's when they aim to open their Azul Mexican Food and Tequila Bar in the MARRS building (for Midtown Arts, Retail, Restaurant Scene) along 20th Street between J and K. Construction is to start next week, says family spokeswoman Raquel Gomez.

The Ulloa brothers come from a dairy-farming family in the Mexican state of Jalisco, home to the best tequilas. Azul will be their first restaurant and bar. The restaurant, to seat about 45, will be designed as a taqueria, says Gomez. Several of the dishes will be based on traditional family recipes.

Azul could mean that Sacramentans will have one more place to savor the paloma, which in Jalisco is the tequila-based cocktail of choice, not the margarita. A paloma generally is made by filling a tall tumbler with ice, adding 2 ounces of silver tequila (also called blanco), putting in a pinch of salt, squeezing in an ounce of lime juice, tossing in a wedge of lime, and filling the glass with around 6 ounces of a citrus soda, usually Fresca or Squirt, though sometimes grapefruit juice is used. In contrast to the typically sweet and slushy margarita, with a paloma you actually can taste the tequila. The only other Mexican restaurant in Sacramento where I've been able to find a paloma is Centro Cocina Mexicana.

September 10, 2007
A New Site with History

I went for the pizza, stayed for the cookie. Luigi's Slice, a branch of the landmark Luigi's Pizza Parlor along Stockton Boulevard, has opened in the MARRS building (for Midtown Arts, Retail, Restaurant Scene) along 20th Street between J and K in midtown Sacramento.

To judge by a wide slice of the pepperoni and sausage ($3.50), the pizza has traveled well from the original location to the new, but that shouldn't surprise anyone who has ordered takeout from Luigi's Pizza Parlor. (The midtown pizzas are baked at the new site, but it will take 53 years for the ovens to get as seasoned as the ovens along Stockton Boulevard.)

The midtown quarters are sleek and chic, but the standout design feature is a wall of handsomely displayed photos that trace the history of the Brida family from Italy to Sacramento. The only drawback to the display is the lack of information to identify the principals, a shortcoming the family is looking into correcting, says Linda Brida, the wife of Greg Brida, the son of Sergio Brida, who with his brother Celso has owned Luigi's since 1965.

A more subtle Sacramento connection to Sacramento's culinary history is on the counter near the cash register - jars of fresh cookies, including a delightfully spicy, complex and moist gingersnap ($1.25). They're from Joe Bickie's Baked Goods, but there is no Joe Bickie. That's the nom de plume of baker Amy Alfaro, the sister of Greta Garverick, who for years ran the popular Greta's Cafe in midtown. Garverick does catering these days, and Alfaro helps her out with desserts, for which Greta's Cafe was celebrated.

Luigi's Slice is the only outlet so far for Alfaro's cookies, which also include snickerdoodles, buttermilk and a flaxseed wheatgerm, as well as brownies. Alfaro's dream is to open a cookies-and-milk shop, and the way the midtown culinary scene is developing that would seem a distinct possibility. As for the name Joe Bickie, she says she came up with Joe for coffee and Bickie's for cookies. "I just like the mystery of it all," Alfaro says.

Luigi's Slice, 1050 20th St., is open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2:30 a.m. Thursday through Saturday; (916) 447-1255.

September 10, 2007
Midtown Chocolaterie On Tap

Sacramento Bee/Kevin German

On a cold and foggy winter day in Sacramento nothing is quite as fortifying and soothing as a cup of hot chocolate. This winter, chocolate master Ginger Elizabeth Powers will come to our rescue with no fewer than four kinds of hot chocolate.

She hopes to start serving the hot chocolates, along with assorted hand-crafted chocolates, a couple of chocolate cakes, and the best chocolate-chip cookie she can whip up, around Dec. 1 in tiny quarters she just leased in the 1800 block of L Street in midtown Sacramento. Her chocolaterie, Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, will be next to L Wine Lounge and Urban Kitchen.

The four hot chocolates that Powers is to make include a traditional European, a classic American, and a Oaxacan, the latter infused with chile-pepper flakes, fresh ginger, vanilla bean and cinnamon.

Her specialty chocolates are to include such flavors as salty caramel dark chocolate, fresh peppermint, hazelnut praline, orange jasmine and creme brulee.

Until about three weeks ago, Powers was pastry chef at Masque Ristorante in El Dorado Hills. She also owns Courture Chocolates by Ginger Elizabth, which wholesales artisan chocolates to the restaurant Mulvaney's Building & Loan and the wine bar 59 Degrees & Holding Co. She also has been doing favors for weddings. (Her own wedding is Oct. 14, when she marries Tom Hahn, her partner in the new business. Hahn also is a cook, having studied at Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School in northern Thailand and worked at the celebrated restaurants French Laundry in Napa Valley and Manresa in Los Gatos.)

Whether the shop will have seating is uncertain. It's small, but Powers plans to have it built so customers will be able to see the chocolate makers in action in the kitchen.

September 10, 2007
Margarita at 8,800 Feet

IMGP1754_edited.jpgAt noon Friday, I stood atop Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and had a margarita.

The margarita wasn't the surprise. That I still could stand was. From our tent cabin in Curry Village, we'd hiked a good eight miles to Yosemite's most scenic overlook. The day couldn't have been more perfect - warm but not wilting, no threat of lightning, a soothing breeze, the trail more in moonlight and shadow than sunshine. We started at 5:30 a.m., got to the top of Half Dome at 11:30 a.m. From the top, Yosemite Valley itself is a surprisingly narrow and dark slash in the landscape far, far below.

At any rate, it was time for a celebratory margarita, which in this instance, given how hot, tired and thirsty I was, wasn't the usual slushy and tangy cocktail, but an "organic energy chew" by Clif Bar & Co., the Berkeley firm celebrated for its inventive line of energy bars. The margarita is one of the company's "Shot Bloks," small cubes with a texture akin to Jell-O, packed with carbohydrates and electrolytes. No alcohol is involved, though they sure replicated the refreshingly salty flavor of a margarita.

I'm sure there's a science behind energy bars, and that they do what they claim to do, but I just wish they were more appetizing. I took seven with me, and still had six and a half after getting back to camp, even though I'd chosen several of my favorite flavors - peanut butter, pecan pie, carrot cake, chocolate, lemon. But when I was hot, dusty and bushed, none of them sounded appetizing or invigorating.

Afterwards, I asked my hiking companions what foods they carried that they found to be most satisfying during the trek. For one, it was dried tropical fruits. For another, fresh blueberries. For another, the packaged meat sticks Slim Jim. And for me, the teriyaki-flavored beef jerky I'd picked up at Trader Joe's. Ordinarily, I'm not a big jerky fan, but on this day the sweetness, smokiness, spiciness, tenderness and moistness of the jerky hit the spot one stop after another. Altitude and exertion do strange things to a person's appetite, I'm convinced, and I look forward to reading a dissertation on the topic some day.

One other culinary note: I hadn't stayed at Curry Village for years, and remember it as a concessionaire's dream - a captive audience on holiday, tolerant of apathetic service, limited choices and exorbitant prices. Several visitors apparently were put out by all that, however, and they must have complained. The dining options in and about Curry Village have improved remarkably. We had friendly, attentive service, a couple of first-rate pizzas, a wide range of other dining options, plenty of cold Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and prices in line with what we pay in Northern California restaurants and markets not nearly as remote and isolated.

I look forward to returning, and hope by then the folks at Curry Village are firing up the coffee makers before 7 a.m. When you want to set out for Half Dome at 5:30 a.m. it helps to have a jolt of java, though we somehow managed without it.

September 5, 2007
Ella Nears Debut

The patio isn't likely to be ready, but that isn't stopping the Randall Selland family from opening Ella on Sept. 22. Everything else is expected to be in place by then, says family member Josh Nelson.

One of Sacramento's more eagerly anticipated restaurants this fall, Ella will be at 12th and K, bringing to downtown an upscale hybrid offshoot of the family's two successful operations, the restaurant The Kitchen and the deli and wine shop Selland's Market Cafe.

Nelson says Ella is about set to start accepting reservations, (916) 443-3772.

September 5, 2007
Downtown To Get Some Soul

Before the end of the month, Ray Smith hopes to start building out a restaurant to bring his busy and broad style of Southern cooking to downtown Sacramento.

Smith is co-owner and chef of Table 260 in Elk Grove. The restaurant's name was inspired by his suite number at the shopping complex Harbour Point. He will keep basically the same name - Table 260 Downtown - when he comes to Sacramento, though he'll be at 800 J St., on the ground floor of a loft high-rise.

"It will be a little more upscale," says Smith of the Sacramento restaurant. The restaurant is to include an urban lounge with blues and jazz, a more extensive wine list, a higher-end menu, and a private VIP room capable of seating 15 to 20 guests.

Ideally, Smith would like to open the new place by the year-end holidays. He will continue to run the Elk Grove restaurant after the Sacramento site opens.

September 5, 2007
New Bakery on the Rise

The "mother dough" is to arrive Thursday, but it will be another week before the Sacramento branch of San Francisco's historic Boudin Bakery opens at Loehmann's Plaza, Fair Oaks Boulevard and Munroe Street.

First cultured in San Francisco in 1849 by French immigrant Isidore Boudin, the "mother dough" is the sourdough starter credited with giving each loaf of Boudin bread its golden crust, soft texture and tangy flavor. As each Boudin bakery is opened, some of the starter is handed over from the master baker based in San Francisco to the head baker of the new branch.

Boudin SF at Loehmann's Plaza is the fourth such branch since company officials launched the concept last year. The others are at Costa Mesa, Corte Madera and Irvine. Each includes a demonstration bakery and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Menu items include sourdough French toast, scrambled eggs with bacon and peppers, clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, and hand-stretched sourdough pizzas.

The Sacramento store is to open at 9 a.m. Sept. 13. Thereafter it is to be open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

September 4, 2007
Mopping Up

The risk in doing a comprehensive roundup feature is that it will turn out not to be as comprehensive as you'd like. In the Taste section of The Sacramento Bee last Wednesday I wrote an article and compiled a list about brewpubs in the area. After the pieces had gone to press and been posted online, however, I learned I'd overlooked Placerville Brewing Co. in Placerville. So here's an attempt to make amends, outlining what Placerville Brewing Co. has to offer beer enthusiasts, in the same format used for the other brewpubs:

Placerville Brewing Co.
Opened: Originally Hangtown Brewery, dating from the early 1990s; it became Placerville Brewing Co. in November 2005
Brewmaster: Steve Meylor, who joined Hangtown Brewery in 2001, then acquired the business with his fiance, Niki Norwood, and two other partners, Mitch Hastings and Carol Meylor-Hastings, to create Placerville Brewing Co.
Monthly production: About 30 barrels
Number of beers brewed: 15, with around 10 on tap at any given time
Most popular: Strong Blonde, a slightly sweet malt beer with a touch of hops to give it a note of bitterness (8 percent alcohol)
Most unusual: Whiskey Barrel Ale, which can be almost any style of beer that Meylor has aged for up to a month in Tennessee bourbon barrels, giving it added complexity
Summer beer: Wheat and Rye, a somewhat sweet beer that finishes with a sensation of dryness due to the rye
What sets it apart: Placerville Brewing Co. is celebrated for its fish and chips, Texas barbecue and down-home family atmosphere
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily except Tuesday for food and beer, two additional hours Fridays and Saturdays for beer only
Address: 155 Placerville Drive, Placerville
Phone: (530) 295-9166

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