October 31, 2007
Before The Treat, A Trick

IMGP1962_edited.jpgNot even the California Energy Commission is immune from a problem that can mess up any homeowner's holiday soiree - plug in too many electrical appliances all at once and you are apt to blow a circuit breaker. It happened today at the California Energy Commission's headquarters in downtown Sacramento just as the staff's annual chili cookoff was getting under way. Some 30 hot pots of various sizes and shapes were lined up on tables awaiting the appraisal of the competition's eight judges when someone realized the plugged-in pots weren't staying as hot as they should be. "The power is out. It sounds like a bad joke," said one cook.

As representatives of the State Department of General Services tried to trace the source of the problem and restore power, the judges pressed on undaunted, hoping to finish their assignments before the pots of chili turned cold.

Chilis were divided into three classes - vegetarian, traditional and gourmet, the latter the group to which I was assigned as a judge. The gourmet class included traditional Cincinnati chili, smelling and tasting strongly of cinnamon, a soupy Thai chicken chili sweet with coconut milk, and a turkey chili. The interpretation of "gourmet" was left to the competitors, most of whom seemed to think it meant chili considerably milder and simpler than the traditional bowl of red.

My favorite was entry No. 303 - "This Ain't No Girly-Man Chili" - which although in the gourmet division was more along the lines of a traditional chili because of its resonating meatiness, spiciness and sweetness. No. 303 also turned out to be not only the overall favorite of all the judges but the winner of the peoples' choice award, determined by commission staffers (who each paid $3 for a bowl they could refill as often as they liked until the pots were empty). In the four years of the competition, this was the first time that judges and voters agreed on the most deserving chili, which was made by Liz Shirakh, a commission analyst specializing in energy efficiency.

The best traditional chili was made by Kathy Hennigan, while the best vegetarian chili was made by Harriet Kallemeyn, also both commission emplyees.

Proceeds from the event - $800 was raised this year - go to two charitable programs, the commission's Gifts from the Heart, which provides year-end holiday gifts to the impoverished, and Loaves & Fishes' Sleeping Warm Project, which provides sleeping bags, plastic tarps, knit caps and ponchos for the homeless.

Power in the building, incidentally, was restored in time to provide employees with appropriately hot chili. "I could say that it left egg on our face, or maybe I should say chili," said the commission's information officer, Adam Gottlieb. Well, it was Halloween.

October 29, 2007
A Letdown, Then Jubilation

The 500th posting to a blog, which this is, calls for something especially notable, but all I have to offer is this little note of disappointment.

I've just returned from L Wine Lounge and Urban Kitchen at 18th and L in midtown Sacramento, where representatives of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant of Berkeley were introducing to buyers for local restaurants and retail wine shops their current lineup of wines.

I went hoping that Kermit Lynch himself, who has been importing wine for 35 years, would be on hand to answer a few questions, like what rock band he played for back around the Summer of Love, how he gets the esteemed novelist and poet Jim Harrison to contribute essays to his wine shop's newsletter, and how California wines based on grape varieties most closely identified with France's Rhone Valley compare with wines from the Rhone Valley, from which he draws many of his wines and which was the topic of his first book. Alas, those questions, among others, will have to wait for another day.

Thus, I had to fall back on Plan B, which was to taste through many of the more than 60 wines Lynch's associates brought with them. All of them were from Europe, mostly France. As a group, they showed why California vintners fret about the slow but steady rise that imported wines are grabbing of the domestic market.

The principal attribute that stood out about the wines was their individuality, though drinkability was a close second. Each wine had a distinctive character, and each tasted and felt as if it had a story to tell about the person who made the wine, about the site where the grapes were grown, and about the history of the appellation. They weren't "international wines," which is to say wines of a similar fruitiness, fleshiness and oakiness, regardless of region of origin. Instead, they drew you in by their singular but not bombastic personality, though they could be eccentric, in a charming more than threatening way.

Big local retail supporters of Kermit Lynch wines are David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods and Taylor's Market. Each had representatives at the tasting, and if their palates were aligned with mine they will be stocking up on the wonderfully aromatic Domaine Comtesse Bernard de Cherisey 2004 Meursault-Blagny "La Genelotte," an exceptionally creamy, minerally and citric white Burgundy ($76); the full-blown and multi-layered Domaine de La Grange des Peres 2004 Vin de Pays de L'Herault, a luscious blend principally of syrah and mourvedre ($75); the exuberant Domaine de Terrebrune 2004 Bandol Rouge ($30); and the amazingly inky, bacony, smoky and floral Domaine Gramenon 2006 "Sierra du Sudd" Cotes-du Rhone ($30). And if local merchants don't order them, there's always Lynch's shop at 1605 San Pablo Blvd. in Berkeley.

October 29, 2007
Sleek New Model at Capitol Garage

What's wrong with this picture: Sunday brunch at Capitol Garage, the most luxurious of meals at the grungiest of restaurants? Or so it would seem to anyone who remembers the original Capitol Garage at 15th and L, a dark and laid-back spot favored by police officers and skateboarders in search of a quick and casual bite.

Three years ago, however, business partners Jerry Mitchell and John Lopez moved to nearby new digs at 15th and K, then brought chef Jonathan Clemons into the mix to retool the menu.

Today, Capitol Garage retains the youthful mood and bold grafiti graphics of its original incarnation, most notably the large, round and battered old Signal Gasoline sign now mounted on the back wall.

The menu, however, is much expanded and much more diverse and ambitious, and is available from early breakfast through late-night dinners, when the joint also converts into an entertainment venue.

Clemons got his culinary training in Oregon, and several of his brunch dishes reflect the Pacific Northwest's affinity for hearty dishes bright and abundant with regional ingredients - chopped hazelnuts and fresh raspberries with the buttermilk pancakes, French toast filled with creamed cheese and topped with a warm peach compote, an omelet of smoked salmon with sun-dried tomatoes and a black-pepper parmesan hollandaise.

Capitol Garage had a 15th birthday party last week, which we missed, but we stopped in for brunch yesterday, where we opted for two signature dishes, the "garage gourmet," a large toasted croissant filled richly with bacon, scrambled eggs, Cheddar and hollandaise, with fried potatoes on the side, just the sort of substantial meal you should have when you're combining breakfast and lunch at one sitting. Hours later, we still were so full we skipped dinner except for some popcorn during the final World Series game.

The other was the "garage omelet," hot and fluffy eggs enclosing portobello mushrooms, tomatoes astonishingly flavorful for this late in the season, sausage, havarti cheese and a pesto cream sauce that tasted as if it almost certainly had been made from scratch with fresh basil. Two unexpected delights with the omelet were the small old-fashioned packets of grape jelly with the thick and wholesome toast and the quality of the fresh fruit on the platter - strawberries, pineapple and orange chosen and displayed with the same care given the rest of the plate.

Service was gracious, attentive and upbeat, but it took more time than usual for our dishes to emerge from the kitchen, which I suspect is fairly small given the size of the rest of the quarters. The crush of the crowd also likely contributed to the slow pacing (expect a 30-minute wait if you show up around noon). The wait was allayed by three TVs tuned to football games and stiff Bloddy Marys with pickled green beans and pimiento-stuffed olives, not only a bargain at $2 but a refreshing departure from the exorbitant prices other restaurants charge for this relatively cheap libation.

Assorted burgers, an Italian meatball sandwich, a crab-cake sandwich, a grilled steak sandwich, several pastas, jambalaya, beef tamales and quiche are just a few of the other selections for lunch and dinner dining.

The place is getting so fancy that the next thing you know Clemons will add wine dinners to the program, and sure enough they are commencing.

Capitol Garage, 15th and K, is open daily 6:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; (916) 444-3633.

October 26, 2007
On The Eve Of Halloween, Treats

IMGP1952_edited.jpgMmmm-mmmm, just one red-velvet cupcake with vanilla-bean icing was left a short time ago when I stopped by Babycakes Bakery in east Sacramento. The place won't open until Tuesday, but today's promotional preview gave neighbors an inkling of what's to come.

Veteran Sacramento chef and cooking instructor Teresa Urkovsky is opening Babycakes with her husband Gerald Collins and their business partner Kristine Bertram. While the display cases are waiting to be filled, the menu board is ready for customers, listing cupcakes such as pumpkin pecan, coconut lime, banana split, lemon meringue and caramel apple.

The threesome plans to offer four or five types a day, about 400 total if sales are as strong as anticipated. They'll sell for between $2 and $2.50 each.

Babycakes also will be selling a smoked chicken salad and roast beef, turkey and ham sandwiches. At 3675 J St., it's to be open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily except Monday.

October 26, 2007
This Harvest Misses An Icon

Northern California's wine-grape harvest is winding down, but for the first time in 35 years the dean of the Sacramento area's commercial winemakers isn't joining the fun.

Charles Myers, who made his first wine at his Harbor Winery of West Sacramento in 1972, is sitting out this crush. "I'm feeling the wear and tear," says Myers, who retired more than a decade ago after teaching English at Sacramento City College for 38 years. "I'm absolutely not thinking of selling the winery," he makes clear.

Though Myers is on the sidelines this harvest, winemaking continues at Harbor. Myers has a custom-crush agreement with longtime Sacramento home winemaker Mateo Munoz, an attorney with the State Department of Justice who is going commercial with his label Vina Dos Rios, but he won't have any wines to release until after they've aged in barrel for two years. Munoz and his winemaking partner, Martin Giampaoli, crushed and fermented a ton each of syrah, sangiovese and tempranillo at Harbor this fall.

In addition, Myers has wines in barrel yet to be bottled and released. One of them is his signature dessert wine Mission del Sol, made with the state's historic mission grape. Grapes for the wine were picked in 1986, and the wine has been aging in barrel ever since. "I’m in no particular hurry to bottle that wine, it's only getting better, it's not getting woody," Myers says. (The 1984 version of the wine still is available at Corti Brothers.)

The future of Harbor Winery is uncertain, but Myers cherishes the citrus and walnut trees and the vegetable garden he tends out back and isn't about to give it up. "Nobody in my family is interested in taking this over," Myers says of the winery. "I don’t want to sell the place, but the obstacles to making wine myself are huge."

October 25, 2007
Wine Bar With A View

En route to Cameron Park this afternoon I swung off Highway 50 at El Dorado Hills to grab a bite and to see what's new at Town Center, the community's commercial village. My timing was off by about four hours.

At 5 p.m. today, the Sacramento region's newest wine bar is to open. It's Wine Konnection, and it's right next to the new El Dorado Hills branch of the restaurant Bistro 33.

When I came across it, manager Patrick Seymour hurriedly but calmly was filling shelves with bottles of wine while chef Dani Luzzatti was putting her potato chips through one last trial run. The place just may be the region's largest wine bar and shop, occupying a 3,500-square-foot space overlooking the shopping complex's pond. Seymour will be pouring 68 wines by the glass, and coordinating 20 flights of three wines each for guests to compare producers and styles. The wine inventory runs to 280 different releases, including high-profile brands like Col Solare, Dominus, Sea Smoke, Siduri and Ramey.

Luzzatti's small-plate menu draws inspiration from Latin America (empanadas filled with pork-belly confit and roasted peppers), Southeast Asia (cakes of Dungeness crab and skate wing seasoned with Thai spices and accompanied by a red curry coconut dipping sauce), the Mediterranean (barolo-braised lamb shank on creamy polenta) and California (wild salmon poached in olive oil and served with a navel-orange confit).

Intel executives and wine enthusiasts Bill Ramsey and Chuck Welsh are the principal partners, said Seymour.

After today, Wine Konnection, 4364 Town Center Blvd., El Dorado Hills, is to be open 10 a.m.-midnight Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays; (916) 941-1555.

October 24, 2007
A Bright Outlook For Black

Caviar a health food? Not likely, though according to an article in today's Chicago Tribune, black foods could be the next culinary item to grab the palate of Americans who put healthfulness high on their list of dietary preferences.

Foods like black soy milk, black vinegar and black rice already have developed an enthusiastic following in Japan, ostensibly because their anti-inflammatory properties may offer protection against heart disease and cancer.

No mention is made of licorice, but we always can hope that studies eventually will show that we should be eating more of it than we already do.

October 23, 2007
A Nation In Love With White Wine

When Americans go out to eat, what wines do they drink? White, by a striking 2:1 margin, according to the latest annual survey of restaurant wine sales by the magazine Restaurant Wine, as just reported by Wine Business Insider.

Aren't steakhouses booming? And isn't red wine the beverage of choice with beef? Yes and yes, but you wouldn't know it by the figures tabulated by Restaurant Wine publisher Ronn Wiegand of Napa, who bases his yearly calcuations on interviews with numerous restaurateurs, distributors, importers and wineries.

All top 10 wines sold in U.S. restaurants during 2006 were white, at least in name (technically, three of the 10 were pink, though they're called "white zinfandel").

The single best selling wine in the nation's restaurants last year was the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. Rounding out the top 10 were the Beringer Vineyards White Zinfandel, the Cavit Pinot Grigio (from Italy), the Sutter Home White Zinfandel, the Woodbridge Chardonnay, the Inglenook Chablis (from California, despite its name), the Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio (from Italy), the Yellow Tail Chardonnay (from Australia), the Almaden Mountain Chablis and the Franzia Winetaps Vintner Select White Zinfandel.

The most popular red wine, placing 11th on the list, was the Yellow Tail Shiraz (from Australia).

Overall, chardonnay easily was the most popular varietal at restaurants, accounting for nearly 43 percent of sales, and 41 of the 105 wines in the magazine's complete list. Pinot grigio looks to be the wine rising most dramatically in popularity, accounting for 10 of the 105 wines, eight of them from Italy.

October 23, 2007
Pick, Then Shovel

My wine column in the Taste section of tomorrow's Sacramento Bee will be on Rich and Siri Gilpin and their Calaveras County winery Lavender Ridge Vineyard. But their wines weren't the only treat when I visited Murphys the other day.

The progressive and artful vegetarian restaurant Mineral, which like Lavender Ridge's tasting room is along Main Street in Murphys, just recently added a lunch menu. The menu runs strictly to burgers, albeit novel burgers. The patties are as red as raw beef, but they're strictly meatless. Executive chef and co-owner Steven Rinauro caramelizes vegetables like carrots, onions and beets, then blends and shapes them with wheat gluten, olive oil, oat bran and spices to form the bright, moist and wholsome patties. The look and texture take some getting used to, but the flavors were forthright and complementary, not at all sacrificed for wholesomeness.

Six styles of burger are available, including one with French feta cheese, red pear chutney, micro greens and herb aioli ($10). A spicy Cajun version includes shaved run onion, green olive remoulade and Southern spices ($10). And a third is enriched with triple-cream Brie and herb aioli ($12). They're served in a focaccia burger bun baked at the local Rustica Bakery, and come with sides of Caesar salad and housemade potato chips seasoned with Chinese five spice.

Murphys is an old Mother Lode gold camp, but Mineral provides an exceptionally modern take on vegetarian cookery. Three chef's tasting menus as well as an a la carte menu are available for dinner, with such dishes like an empanada with red-sugar pickled black plums, gochu jang (a miso chile sauce), toasted coriander seed oil, and jalapeno "dust;" a soup with a lemongrass ginger broth, smoked tofu, tapioca pearls and chive oil; and olive-oil ice cream with a white balsamic consomme and buttered pound bread.

The burgers are available 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, the dinner menu 5-9 p.m. Wednesday trough Sunday. Mineral is at 419 Main St., site of the former burger joint Pick 'N Shovel, Murphys; (209) 728-9743. More information about the principals and their menu is at their Web site.

October 22, 2007
French Laundry Still In Class Of Its Own

For the second straight year, just one Northern California restaurant has received a coveted three-star rating from Michelin Guides.

That again would be The French Laundry at Yountville in Napa Valley, where Thomas Keller practices an intricate version of modern American cookery inspired by French traditionalism. Three stars means "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey."

Four restaurants anointed with two stars a year ago are hanging on to them - Aqua and Michael Mina in San Francisco, Manresa in Los Gatos, and Cyrus in Healdsburg. Two other restaurants picked up two stars for the first time - Chez TJ in Mountain View and Meadowood, The Restaurant, at St. Helena in Napa Valley. Chez TJ was upgraded from one star a year ago. Meadowood is the year's most dramatic story, moving from no stars last year to two this year. Two stars means "excellent cooking, worth a detour."

This year, 27 restaurants got one star - "a very good restaurant in its category." Most of them were repeats from a year ago. The newcomers are Ame, Coi, Cortez and One Market in San Francisco, Madrona Manor in Healdsburg, Martini House in St. Helena, and Redd in Yountville.

Certain to stir comment in dining circles throughout the North State were the only two restaurants to lose their star, Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg and Bushi-Tei in San Francisco.

The 2008 guide includes 384 restaurants, up from 356 in last year's debut edition. The 2006 version is to go on sale Wednesday for $16.95.

October 22, 2007
Acorn Day Weathers a Crisis


As anyone who lately has strolled the paths about Sutter's Fort State Historic Park in midtown Sacramento knows, a bumper crop of acorns is littering the grounds. That wasn't the case last fall, when acorns, a staple of early Native American diets in Northern California, were in short supply.

Even though acorns best are dried for a year before they can be processed into meal for use in mush, baked goods and other foods, the shortage didn't jeopardize the annual Acorn Day this past Saturday at the State Indian Museum on the fort's grounds.

Here, Diana Almendariz of Sacramento, a Maidu/Wintun Native American active at the Maidu Interpretive Center in Roseville, uses a basket to winnow acorn meat after it has been removed from its hard shell, a painstaking and precise step involving cracking the shell with a couple of rocks. "It's the perfect container," says Almendariz of an acorn's shell. "It's like Tupperware."

The winnowing is to remove the thin red papery wrapping about the acorn meat. If not all the paper is removed, the resulting flour will be speckled with red, a sign of laziness "in the old days," notes Almendariz. A potential suitor surely wouldn't be interested in a woman who couldn't assure him there wouldn't be an red shreds in his meal, she adds.

Using mortar and pestle, youngsters Saturday pulverized the acorns into a fine powder, which then was leached of its bitter tannins with water poured through a mound of the flour arranged atop a cone of sand. The resulting cooked mush was pretty bland and could have used some wild grapes or manzanita berries that Native Americans early on to give it more color and flavor.

Almendariz last year had gathered enough black-oak acorns in Placer County to assure she'd have enough on hand for Saturday's demonstrations. Other participants who had baked loaves of a dark and sweet acorn bread weren't so fortunate. They had to shop for the acorn meal to combine with baking powder, sugar, milk, egg and the like. Thy found it at a Korean market in Rancho Cordova.

October 19, 2007
Chefs on the Move

Two high-profile restaurants in the Sacramento area have new chefs and new menus:

At Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar in North Sacramento, new chef Anthony Brenes is retaining the restaurant's focus on seasonal Mediterranean and California cuisines while adding his own personal touches. One appetizer, for example, is "fries with eyes" - smelt dipped in a batter made with pale ale, fried and served with a lemon aioli. A new entree he singles out as representative of his style is "duck two ways" - roasted duck breast with a warm spinach and arugula salad, and a tamale of duck confit with a pumpkin-seed mole, goat cheese and pomegrante glaze. Brenes, who grew up in West Covina and graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 2000, has put in stints at restaurants in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Barnard, Vermont, where he spent two years at the posh resort Twin Farms. He moved to Lincoln in January to be closer to family already in the area and because he wanted out of Los Angeles, where he most recently had been cooking.

At the Placerville restaurant Sequoia, housed in the landmarrk Bee-Bennett Victorian on a wooded slope overlooking an historic cemetery, Enotria's former executive chef, Christian Sieck, has retooled the menu to give it more of his own Mediterranean, Latin and Asian sensibility. The new Sequoia menu includes the signature paella he popularized at Enotria, along with wild-mushroom ravioli, basil-encrusted salmon, skirt steak marinated in a housemade Chinese barbecue sauce, a seared ahi salad, and sauteed sweetbreads. After 10 years, Sieck left Enotria this summer, initially to help open the restaurant Toast in Granite Bay.

October 17, 2007
Getting a Fix for Cupcake Craving

IMGP1900_edited.jpgAfter posting several items here concerning Sacramento's nascent cupcake boom, I naturally got a cupcake craving, so that's where I headed. Cupcake Craving, next to Fish Planet in the Howe 'Bout Arden shopping complex, is the first of three or four cupcake bakeries planned for the Sacramento area.

Three partners - Michael "Jake" Jacobsen (shown here), David "Gordy" Cisneros, and Eileen Peebles - opened Cupcake Craving last week in hopes of making the varied and colorful treats "a happy little habit," the store's slogan.

Already, production is up to between 600 and 700 cupcakes a day, says Jacobsen. On any given day, 16 or 17 varieties will be out of the oven, decorated and lined up on trays in the display case that welcomes visitors to the tiny shop. The flavors include "mocha madness," "chocolate fix," "s'mores galore," "mint meltdown" and "lemon boost."

Cupcake Craving is open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays; (916) 923-5995.

October 16, 2007
Where There's Fire, There's Still Ribs

Directors of the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District next week will consider adopting a rule to ban the use of fireplaces and wood stoves on "no-burn days."

The public's health is the impetus. Air-pollution authorities fret that particles in wood smoke curling from chimneys aggravate and harm respiratory systems. The rule would restrict Sacramento County residents from burning wood in their fireplaces only during the 25 to 30 days a year when particulate pollution is most severe.

As a health measure, the proposed rule also potentially could help relieve the nation's obesity epidemic, but air-pollution authorities aren't going that far. Pizza parlors with wood-fired ovens, barbecue joints with wood-fired smokers and any other cooking device that relies on wood for fuel would be exempt from the restriction, says Christina Ragsdale, spokeswomen for the district.

And what of those few people who on occasion may use their home fireplace to grill some chops, which while unusual here isn't unheard of in France? The district board didn't anticipate that possibility and didn't address it in the proposal, says Ragsdale. She suspects, however, that it wouldn't be allowed because the fireplace likely hadn't been built primarily for cooking. "If they had no other means to cook, that might be allowed, but it's unlikely. They may have to be approached on a case by case basis," she added.

The district's directors are to take up the proposed rule at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 25, in the chambers of the Sacramento County board of supervisors, room 1450 of the county's administration building, 700 H St.

October 16, 2007
Pack It Up, Pack

Road rage. Gym rage. So why do we hear only rarely of restaurant rage? The question arose the other evening as we dined in one of the Sacramento area's finer restaurants. Three tables away, a group of four men apparently thought they were on a boat in the middle of the Sacramento River. They talked loudly, profanely and repetitively, oblivious to everyone else in the restaurant. The gist of their animated conversation had to do with the competency and cost of various tax consultants and divorce attorneys. I didn't hear enough to know why they needed the former, but I had a pretty clear understanding of why the latter might be coming in handy.

From what I could see, neither manager nor server was any more aware of the obnoxious behavior than the boors themselves. The foursome dawdled, finished their meal, and reconvened in the bar, where their boasts and woes weren't nearly as intrusive upon the dining room.

What was up with management? I can only speculate. For one, it was early evening. Only a few other tables were occupied. Managers may have concluded that the offending four would finish their meal and their discussion and move on before the place got really busy. Secondly, the four could be regular guests, and their body language did suggest that they were as comfortable as if they were in their home den. Thus, managers and servers may have been reluctant to tell them to pipe down for fear of losing their support.

So, what's the tactful and effective way for restaurant managers and other guests to deal with behavior that disrupts an otherwise elegant and peaceful dinner?

First, if managers are so dense that don't recognize a disruptive party, other guests should bring it to their attention. "If the room was too cold, wouldn't you say something?" asks former restaurateur Adam Busby, now director of education at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America.

There is the possibility that the loud foursome was unaware that their exuberance was interfering with the civilized meal other guests were trying to enjoy, and that a polite request by a manager could have resolved the issue immediately, though I didn't see that any such effort was made.

"The smooth way to do it would be to figure out who is the leader of the group. There's always going to be an alpha dog there. A manager could go up to him and say, 'Excuse me, you have a phone call.' Get him away from the table. Tell him that you love him to death, but that his party is getting a little loud. You have to deal one on one, you can't deal with the whole table," advises Washington state restaurant consultant Bill Martin, author of "Restaurant Basics: Why Guests Don't Come Back...And What You Can Do About It."

If the restaurant has a private and unoccupied dining room, or a secluded nook somewhat removed from other patrons, the manager could suggest displomatically that the group move there. Entice them with a round of drinks, suggests Martin. "You also don't want to spoil their good time."

But if space is a problem, and if the offensive party responds like jerks to a managerial request to tone down, the restuarant has no option but to present the group its check and ask it to leave, says Martin. "You have to do what is right for the business, not what is right for you that night, and throw them out. You can't alienate the whole dining room."

Busby concurs, even if the offending guests are regulars who arrive often and spend generously. " Just because they are spending money doesn't give them the right to ruin other diners' moment. You might save a table of four (by not intervening), but you could alienate a dining room of 40, others who subsequently wouldn't go back," Busby says. "Most of us have the grace, manners and upbringing to know what is acceptable behavior and what isn't."

Others need nannies, who in this instance shied from doing right by the rest of the diners.

October 15, 2007
New Rider on the Cupcake Carousel

It's official: Cupcakes are trendy in the Sacramento area. This conclusion is based on the old journalistic principle that whenever three thematically related businesses spring up within a relatively short time you have a trend on your hands and headline writers are alerted.

While strolling about midtown and downtown Sacramento during Second Saturday we stopped by Old Soul Co., the coffee roaster and bakery in the alley connecting 17th and 18th streets between Capitol Avenue and L Street. A new baker has joined the Old Soul team, Shellie Nast, and her specialty is cupcakes, made entirely with organically produced ingredients.

Unfortunately, we arrived too late either to meet Ms. Nast or to sample any of her cupcakes. She'd put out some 300, but they were gone long before we arrived. A few of her business cards remained, however.

I later caught up with her by phone to try to pin down why cupcakes suddenly are so popular in and about Sacramento. Her brand, Capital Cupcakes, is the third specialty line to come to my attention lately. The two others, Babycakes Bakery in East Sacramento, and Icing on the Cupcake in Rocklin, hope to open sometime this month.

At any rate, Nast, who described herself as a hobbyist baker when she wasn't working professionally in such fields as healthcare financing and downtown development, said she decided to take up cupcake baking for several reasons, ranging from the creative diversity they offer to the instant joy that cupcakes seem to bring people.

"Cupcakes tend to make people very happy as soon as they see them and eat them. They transform them back to their childhood," says Nast. "Also, you can have all these individual cakes to please everyone's palate rather than one big cake with just one flavor if you are having a party."

She names each cupcake after a family member or friend who is especially keen on a particular flavor. Her cupcakes include the Stella (carrot cake with toasted walnuts and crushed pineapple with a cream-cheese frosting), the Sofia (vanilla cupcake with a cinnamon cream cheese frosting), and the Lucy (lemon cupcake filled with lemon curd and topped with a toasted meringue frosting). Her signature cupcake is the Capital, an orange cupcake with an icing based on an old family recipe.

She sells the cupcakes direct for $24 a dozen. They sell individually for $3 at Old Soul Co., $2.50 at Beantree Coffee Cafe, 925 L St. At any one time, six or so varieties will be available at each location.

October 15, 2007
Second Saturday's Culinary Arts

IMGP1886_edited.jpg Sacramento's Second Saturday art walk is a great way to get introduced to the city's robust visual and performing arts community, or it would be if only the culinary arts wouldn't keep butting in. As we strolled on and about J Street this weekend we got diverted from one gallery after another by...

- The crowd at the new Chicago Fire Pizza, 2416 J St., between 24th and 25th streets. Unfortunately, all we could do is stand on the sidewalk out front and peer through the windows at the celebrants having fun inside. It was a private party to mark the completion of the restaurant on the eve of its opening to the public. That's to be tomorrow, according to a cardboard sign taped to the front door. That sign looked to be the only cheap thing about the place. The structure has been so handsomely and affectionately restored it's bound to be in line to win some design awards, to judge by what we could see from the outside.

We also liked the looks of the menu and the wine list posted inside a cherrywood box on the brick front of the building. The food runs mostly to thin-crust, deep-dish and stuffed pizzas, but there's also several salads and appetizers, including "Greek fries" prepared with garlic, oregano, olive oil and Parmesan. Desserts include a chocolate-chip pizza, while the wine list runs to high-value regional releases such as the Bogle Winery petite sirah, Oakstone Winery's Slug Gulch Red, and Boeger Winery's barbera.

The overall feel early on was that Eric and Tami Schnetz are going to have another hit on their hands, following up on their original and popular Chicago Fire Pizza in Folsom. The Sacramento branch will be open daily starting at 4 p.m., continuing to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; (916) 443-0440.

- The cute black-and-white cat on the counter of Miss Kitty's, a new coffeehouse on the north end of what has been the restaurant Head Hunters Video Lounge & Grill, 20th and K. The rest of the place still is Head Hunters, but owner Terry Sidie has turned over operation of the restaurant - he's still running the bar - to Frank Smith and Bill Waters, who also have added Miss Kitty's, says general manager Melody Allmond. Head Hunters has a new menu and new hours, the former still contemporary American fare in tone but featuring more fresh dishes. The new hours include lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and a brunch buffet 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays.

Miss Kitty's, meanwhile, features a bracing cup of Fogcutter coffee, hefty muffins baked on the premises, and Miss Kitty. She's not a real cat, but curled on the counter she sure fools visitors as her sides expand and contract and her fur ripples, thanks to battery-powered lungs. Miss Kitty 2.0 no doubt also will purr.

- The fabulous stonework of the large dining room at Azukar Cocina & Lounge, 1616 J St., the former site of Twisted 88s, a dueling piano bar that went away earlier this year. Azukar has been taking shape as restaurant and nightclub ever since, and now is drawing huge dance crowds late at night, a scattering of diners earlier in the evening. The theme is Latin, so I wasn't stunned that Christian the bartender could mix a fine paloma with a fine tequila (Espolon) without first having to be told how to make the drink, the usual custom hereabouts. Azukar is known more now for its mariachi music and salsa dancing, but that could change if its chiles rellenos, arrachera and carnitas are prepared with the same care and substance that went into the nachos with which we savored our drinks.

October 12, 2007
Hear That Bell? It's Cheese Time

California's farmstead cheese movement has moved into the Sierra foothills. French native Caroline Hoël, trained in cheesemaking in the Alps, and her winemaker husband, Hank Beckmeyer, bought 10 acres of scrubland at Somerset in El Dorado County six years ago and have been tending grapes and goats ever since.

Now, after expanding their herd, mastering regulatory permits, and building their milking and processing plant, they've started to release their first cheese under the proprietary name "Sierra Mountain Tomme."

Tomme, pronounced "tum," generally is a cows' milk cheese identified with the Savoie region on the west slopes of the Italian Alps. In his book "Cheese Primer," Steven Jenkins calls it an "honest, unpretentious cheese...completely unrefined and perfectly delicious." In Europe, it commonly has a thick rind and is packed like motion-picture wheels in wooden crates.

Hoël, however, takes a somewhat different approach, starting with goat milk rather than cow or sheep. Her tomme, therefore, isn't as rich as French versions, though the flavor is pronounced. "Sierra Mountain Tomme" is firm and white, with a chalky texture and flavors somewhat herbal and nutty. The thin tan rind is edible.

The couple's 16-head herd, which bears names inspired by wine grapes (Grenache, Syrah and the like) and weather patterns (Rainy Day, Foggy and so forth), roams biodynamically farmed pastures "full of native herbs" that give their milk and cheese its distinctive flavor. No antibiotics, hormones or synthetic medications are given the goats, say the two. They call the farm La Clarine, after the bells French herders tie to their livestock, each one possessing a distinctive ring for each producer.

Their production is seasonal, starting in the spring and ending about Christmas, says Hoël. The cheese goes on sale after it's been aged a couple of months. It sells for around $25 a pound and is available locally at David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods and Taylors Market in Sacramento, Dedrick's Cheese in Placerville, and Allez! at El Dorado.

Hoël likes to slice the cheese and put it on bread, cut it into cubes for an appetizer, grate it on pasta, and soak small squares in olive oil and herbs to add to salads. While it doesn't melt as easily as cow-milk cheese, it nonetheless can be sliced atop pizza near the end of its baking. It's also durable, holding up on long hikes without getting mushy, she has found.

More information is available at the couple's Web site.

October 10, 2007
Dinky Diner Alert

IMGP1879_edited.jpgFans of Dinky Diner, be aware: You have only about a month left to savor the diner's signature Clarksburger. As is their custom, Carl and Viki Clayton plan to shut and haul off the wood-shingled trailer a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. They don't plan to reopen for their ninth year until the first Wednesday in March, "unless they win the lottery," according to a regular strolling up to the order window.

From spring to fall, Dinky Diner is parked on a wide gravel apron at the Clarksburg Marina between South River Road and the Sacramento River at Clarksburg. Guests take their burgers, hot dogs or other sandwiches to shaded tables flanked by tidy flower beds high up, moored boats down below.

The Clarksburger ($3.99) is classic diner fare - hunky, juicy and unfussy, with the usual optional decorations, including ketchup, mustard, pickles and onions. Also on the menu board are a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, a chicken saute sandwich, a mushroom cheeseburger (perhaps the top seller), and a couple of daily specials, such as the occasional corned-beef sandwich. Milkshakes and floats? Of course. Breakfast choices include bacon and eggs, French toast and pancakes.

Bundle up, be patient (everything is made to order by the three-person crew, which can barely squeeze in to the quarters), and enjoy the river's dwindling fisher traffic as the days get shorter and chillier.

Dinky Diner, 36339 Riverview Drive, Clarksburg (about 20 minutes from downtown Sacramento), is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; breakfast is served to 10:30 a.m..

October 10, 2007
Hang Time

IMGP1872_edited.jpgHmmmm. I'm not sure what these grapes are. Could be cabernet sauvignon. Could be petite sirah. No harvest crew was around when I stopped along Road 141 just outside Clarksburg in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta a short time ago to loiter in the sunshine before returning to the office.

Northern California winemakers agree on two aspects of the vintage of 2007. For one, it's crazy; a warm and dry day will be followed by a cool and damp day, and then that pattern will continue, and nobody knows for how long. Secondly, vintners are high on the quality of juice this harvest is yielding. That's common in California, where the growing years don't often vary much, unlike in Europe. Vintage charts don't mean a whole heck of a lot in California. This year, however, there's more excitement in their tone than usual. Whether the electric fruit flavors they've been sampling hold up in the long run remains to be seen, but it's exciting to see so many winemakers upbeat about the quality in this year's bins and vats.

Most grapes are in, with some growers saying yields are down from a year ago. In a few vineyards, it's off as much as 20 to 30 percent (remember last spring's cold snap?), but others say it's down just 10 percent or so. These grapes likely won't hang for long, unless there's a repeat of last night's showers before they have a chance to dry out and field crews can resume picking. I just may have to get out of the office again at that time to pin down just what variety this is.

October 8, 2007
Thanksgiving Centerpiece

We started our Thanksgiving shopping this weekend. The November feast at our table traditionally includes a bottle of zinfandel, most often from the vineyards of the Sierra foothills, the focus of our weekend outing.

In our periodic visits to the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County we hadn't concentrated almost solely on zinfandel for some time, and this excursion was a revelation. Amador long has been celebrated largely for bruiser zinfandels - saturated color, ripe fruit flavors, high alcohol - but most of those we tasted and liked were lighter, brighter and more refreshing, but without sacrificing the varietal's raspberry and blackberry highlights. They showed that zinfandel doesn't have to be inky to be characteristically fruity, and that the varietal can be balanced, spirited and even elegant.

Here are some of the better buys we found:

- The Amador Foothill Winery 2004 Shendoah Valley Esola Vineyard Zifnandel ($17) has 15 percent alcohol, but don't hold that against it. The Esola was the most expressive and complex zinfandel we tasted all day, as well as the best buy.

- At Sobon Estate, my favorite vineyard-designated zinfandel seems to shift from vintage to vintage. One year it's Cougar Hill, the next Rocky Top. We tasted the 2005s from both, with the nod this time going to Cougar Hill ($18) for its structure and its dash of white pepper on its bowl full of blackberries and raspberries.

- Dick Cooper's "Due Cugini" zinfandel - that's Italian for "two cousins" - is another perennial favorite, and the Cooper Vineyards 2005 Amador County Due Cugini Zinfandel ($23) doesn't disappoint. The sweetness and juiciness of its raspberry and blackerry flavors make it downright delicious.

- The Renwood Winery 2004 Jack Rabbit Flat Zinfandel ($30) is a nicely cleaned up version of classic foothill zinfandel. It comes in at 16 percent alcohol but the heat doesn't overwhelm the wine's lively and spicy flavors.

- The Vino Noceto 2004 Ferrero Ranch Zinfandel ($20) shows that zinfandel, just like pinot noir, need not be densely colored to deliver zingy fruit flavors.

- Karly Wines was pouring four zinfandels, but the 2004 Warrior Fires ($26) was our favorite for its lush and persistent blackberry flavor.

- The Charles Spinetta Winery 2004 Amador County Zinfandel ($18) is a throwback to the area's early way with the varietal in that it is broad and burly, but at the same time it has its manners down, with the fruit ripe yet fresh and its alcohol coming in at a modest 13.8 percent.

- The C.G. Di Arie 2005 Amador County Zinfandel ($18) provided the day's spunkiest flavors and most silken texture. A lot is going on with this wine, with its juicy berry flavor accentuated with oak, herbs and a touch of licorice.

Despite all that, I'm still not sure which one will end up on the Thanksgiving table. We may need to do more research.

October 5, 2007
Calling Carlo

During Sacramento's Second Saturday art walk, I see a lot of Charles Shaw wine being poured, but I can't recall ever seeing a gallery owner unscrew the cap on a jug of Carlo Rossi. This is odd, given not only the long relationship between struggling artists and cheap wine, but the cozy relationship between artists and Carlo Rossi's marketing geniuses.

About a year and a half ago, Seattle artist Jay Blazek teamed up with Carlo Rossi to base a line of whimsical furniture on the wine's iconic glass jug. He built furnishings like a "chardonnay chandelier" and a "cabernet couch," then took his "Jug Simple Furniture Collection" on the road for exhibits about the country.

Now three other artists have found inspiration in the Carlo Rossi jug. Glass blower Joe Cariati created a series of colorful wine decanters that mimic the jug's design, including its ring handle; designer Jason Miller stuck an ornate crystal wine glass in the jug; and jewelry designer Jules Kim created a gold necklace with a mold of her lips in red garnet, reputedly inspired as she sipped a glass of Carlo Rossi merlot.

The limited-edition works are being displayed and sold in four shops about the country, including the furniture and accessory store Propeller at 555 Hayes St. in San Francisco. Cariati's decanters sell for $225, Miller's jug of crystal for $225, and Kim's chain for $200. None are in Sacramento, but maybe when the next Second Saturday rolls around Oct. 14 we'll at least find some Carlo Rossi wine.

October 5, 2007
Expect a Crush This Weekend

Weather forecasts for the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento this weekend are a bit dodgy, with one predicting sunny skies and balmy temperatures, another seeing a chance of continued showers and relatively cool highs. Whatever develops, throngs are expected to head up that way, some to take advantage of El Dorado County's Apple Hill at its prime (see today's page one article in The Bee), others to catch up on the progress of this year's challenging wine-grape harvest in neighboring Amador County.

There are wine grapes and wineries in El Dorado County, too, but this is the weekend for Amador County's Big Crush, when 29 wineries pull the corks on new releases, spread out signature foods, invite visitors to join harvest chores, and recruit enough bands for a music festival. There is to be blues at Amador Foothill Winery on Saturday, zydeco on Sunday; punching down of fermenting grapes at Avio Vineyards; sausages glazed with a jam of ancho chile peppers at Deaver Vineyards; and grape stomping at Renwood Winery, among numerous other draws.

The event is expected to sell out, though around 1500 tickets are still available for $35 per person Saturday, $30 Sunday. Wineries to have tickets are listed on the Web site of Amador County Vintners.

October 4, 2007
A Cook, Not a Seamstress, Needed Here

Anyone seen a "Sechuan button" around here? It's a furry little yellow/green nub that's generating buzz in culinary circles along the Atlantic seaboard, but if it's being used in the Sacramento area I haven't run across it. If any cooks or bartenders here are using it, please get in touch. Though the name and effect is similar to the Szechuan pepper, the two aren't related and aren't to be confused, said The Washington Post in a feature article published yesterday.

The "Sechuan button," wrote The Post's Bonnie S. Benwick, is used in South American, North African and Asian dishes, from salads to stews, and is celebrated for its jolt. One taster likened it to "licking a nine-volt battery." "There's a grassy start, then a rush into Pop-Rocks territory as a tingling-slight numbing combo hits the back of the soft palate," wrote Benwick.

Despite its novelty in the United States, it long has been used elsewhere in part for its purported medicinal properties, particularly with respect to stammering, toothaches and stomach distress, according to Nicolas Mazard, manager of the U.S. branch of Koppert Cress BV, a Holland-based company growing the bud on Long Island.

If you call up the article, be sure to click on the adjoining video of four Washington Post writers giving the "Sechuan button" a taste test. One of them is former Bee colleague J. Freedom du Lac, now the Post's pop music critic.

October 3, 2007
The Holy Trinity, A Blessed Wine

Unless they're from Bordeaux, or a Super-Tuscan from Italy, blended proprietary wines usually are approached cautiously by Americans. Wine merchants and sommeliers often say that Americans prefer their wines to be solely or largely varietal - chardonnay, pinot noir, zinfandel and the like.

Thus, most of the wines at yesterday's annual trade tasting sponsored by the wine and spirits distributor Young's Market Company at the Sacramento Hyatt Regency were varietals. As I made my rounds, however, I spotted the latest version of an old friend, a wine with the proprietary name The Holy Trinity, by Grant Burge, a fifth-generation vigneron in Australia's Barossa Valley.

Burge makes all sorts of highly regarded wines, most of them varietals such as riesling, merlot and shiraz. But The Holy Trinity is a blend of grenache, shiraz and mourvedre. Those grapes, however, aren't necessarily the father, the son and the holy spirit, though some wine enthusiasts think they could be. Rather, the wine takes its name from Holy Trinity church at Lyndoch in the southern reaches of Barossa Valley, built in the 1850s by Anglican settlers to resemble the church they left in Wiltshire, England. The church is adjacent to Burge's 50-acre Holy Trinity Vineyard.

As a wine, the 2002 vintage of The Holy Trinity is a wonderfully lithe and lively representative of the rising class of "GSM" wines; that is, wines based on grenache, shiraz and mourvedre, a mix that emulates the sort of blending that goes on in the wine region most closely identified with the grape varieties, France's Rhone Valley. The 2002 The Holy Trinity is 39 percent grenache, 36 percent shiraz, 25 percent mourvedre. The smell suggests rose petals, dried fruits and freshly polished hardwood furniture, while the flavor is floral, fruity and complex, with notes of dried herbs spices. The texture is supple, the finish long. Grenache, shiraz and mourvedre, especially as grown in Australia, can produce dense and weighty wines, but The Holy Trinity is immediately accessible and finely balanced. It isn't too heavy and rich for roasted chicken with a fruity salsa, or too light for rib-eye steak. It comes in at 14.5 percent alcohol and sells for about $34. I'm not sure where the latest vintage can be found in the Sacramento area, though I believe I've seen earlier releases at Corti Brothers and Nugget Markets, and Rod Farley of the wine shop Beyond Napa along Fair Oaks Boulevard indicated he'd be getting in the 2002 before long.

I have a hunch that GSM wines, however resistant the market has been to unfamiliar blended proprietary releases, could accelerate in popularity, especially when they are crafted with as much character as The Hold Trinity. It's a category that warrants exploration.

October 1, 2007
Old Soul Kicks Up Its Menu

LS OLD SOUL ALLEY 1.JPGSacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling

Shucks, I just finished lunch when an email popped up to announce that Old Soul Company has expanded its lunch menu starting today. The bakery and coffee roaster, tucked into a utilitarian warehouse in the alley connecting 17th and 18th streets between Capitol Avenue and L Street, not long ago began to serve lunchtime pizza by the slice. As of today, a soup and a sandwich have been added to the menu. Today's choices are a potato and leek soup ($3), a sandwich of slow-roasted pork with a coconut barbecue sauce ($5), and a slice of pizza topped with grilled peaches, arugula and eggplant ($3).

Since it was founded a little more than a year ago primarily as a wholesale bakery and coffee roaster, Old Soul Company has become quite a success story. On Second Saturdays it's a popular setting for art shows, food tastings, baked goods and coffee. The rest of the time, the breads and coffees of owners Jason Griest and Tim Jordan are showing up in more restaurants and specialty food stores throughout the area.

Lunch is available 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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