Appetizers
April 30, 2008
Searching for Falafel

A Lincoln reader just back from France says he found the best falafel ever in Paris. Falafel isn't a dish I associate with France, but given the country's shifting demographics it makes perfect sense that an outstanding falafel should be found in the city that still reigns as the capital of fine cuisine.

His appetite whetted, he wants to know where he can find a fine falafel around here. His question reminded me that many years ago the falafel was one of my favorite foods. Basically, a falafel is patties of mashed garbanzo beans mixed with herbs and various Middle Eastern spices, then fried and served with a tahini sauce. The patties, both wholesome and intense, can be served on their own or slipped into pita bread, which is the way I customarily have preferred them. In recent years, that's how we have prepared them at home, and only rarely have I gone out looking for falafel.

With my curiosity newly aroused, however, I've started a search for notable cafe falafels, and need your help. So far, I've sampled the falafel at Maalouf's Taste of Lebanon along Fulton Avenue (big, hot, fresh, rustic and about as salty as they were spicy) and at Cafe Morocco along Alhambra (rich, coarse, grainy, a bit dry). Both were fine, but I suspect better may be out there, and would appreciate some guidance.

Based on those visits, two things about the falafel sandwich seems to have changed over the years. For one, they're much bigger than they used to be. Secondly, the pita hasn't appreciably improved, and in fact seems to have exchanged some of its character and flavor for its more substantial size.

At any rate, if you have a favorite falafel, or have heard of someplace celebrated for the dish, please let me know.

April 30, 2008
Sacramento's Restaurant Inspections Applauded

The County of Sacramento's traffic-signal method of alerting diners about the health status of restaurants is being acknowledged with one of the nation's more prestigious honors in consumerism.

Officials of the county's Environmental Management Department announced this morning that the agency is receiving the 2008 Samuel J. Crumbine Consumer Protection Award for Excellence in Food Protection.

The agency is being singled out specifically for a program it began last year involving green, yellow and red placards at the entrance of restaurants to notify guests how the businesses measured up during their latest public-health inspection. A green sign indicates no major health issues were found, a yellow sign indicates violations were uncovered and corrections are pending, and a red sign indicates that violations were so severe the restaurant is closed. Last summer, public-health authorities reported that about 88 percent of the county's food establishments, which include grocery stores and school cafeterias as well as restaurants, were getting green cards; just one percent were being hit with a red card.

The award's 12 judges, all public-health practitioners, were impressed with how local officials brought the local food industry aboard in introducing the program, food-safety classes they started to help restaurant workers avoid health issues, and the publication of inspection guidelines in several languages, among other provisions of the effort.

"The County of Sacramento has demonstrated leadership, innovation and a commitment to food safety that transcends the boundaries of their county. It is a guiding light for local food-safety programs throughout the nation," said Gary Erbeck of the County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health, chair of the award jury.

Named for one of the country's more celebrated public-health sanitarians, the Crumbine award has been handed out over the past 53 years. It will be presented local officials at the annual Educational Conference of the National Environmental Health Association in June in Tucson.

April 29, 2008
In the Works: An Heir for Pava's

Twenty years ago, a charming little restaurant occupied a converted Victorian at 24th and K streets in midtown Sacramento. It was called Pava's, a name that still resonates with oldtimers not just for its grilled lamb chops, housemade ravioli, fruit cobblers and hearty breakfasts but for its loyal following, which ranged from the powerful to people who still were being called hippies.

When fire destroyed Pava's in 1990 after a 14-year-run, a Bee editorial lamented its loss and fretted that both the initiative and homeyness it represented also would be lost. The editorial was prescient, for the lot that Pava's occupied has stood largely vacant for nearly 18 years.

Now, however, Sacramento developer Thomas Allan Roth and Bay Area restaurateur Matthew Engelhart are drawing up plans for a restaurant to revive the individualistic spirit if not the name and culinary style of Pava's. Both have confirmed that they've signed a letter of intent to bring a branch of Engelhart's Cafe Gratitude to 24th and K.

Engelhart opened his first Cafe Gratitude in San Francisco in 2004 and now is up to four branches in the Bay Area, with a fifth to open this summer in Healdsburg. "It's a school of transformation disguised as a vegan organic restaurant," says Engelhart of the restaurant's concept.

He says he is being drawn to Sacramento in part because of its proximity to Vacaville, where he has bought a farm to help keep his restaurants supplied with the seasonal, sustainable, organically grown ingredients on which his menus are based.

Lots of restaurants these days boast of seasonal, sustainable, organically grown provisions, but Cafe Gratitude takes the commitment a step further by using the ingredients in solely vegan dishes. The Cafe Gratitude menu is a study in positive vibes, with each dish bearing a name meant to be self-affirming: "I Am Present" is an appetizer of buckwheat flatbread with mushroom herb confit and cashew mozzarella, while "I Am Terrific" is the restaurant's version of pad thai - vegetable noodles with kale, cucumber, tomato, sprouts, teriyaki almonds and a Thai almond-butter sauce. Desserts include "I Am Amazing," lemon meringue pie in macadamia-nut crust.

"The restaurant's décor is derived from a board game developed by the owners and built into each table. It encourages diners to express gratitude for one another and for the bounty the universe has bestowed upon anyone likely to walk in the door. After seating us, the hostess looked in our eyes and asked, 'What's great about today?'” wrote Gregory Dicum in the New York Times last fall after visiting the Mission District branch of Cafe Gratitude.

Roth gives three reasons for wanting a Cafe Gratitude on his lot: His own vegan diet, his memory of Pava's as "a wonderful place to go," and Engelhart's style of cooking, which he has found "delicious" and "consistent." "Pava's was busy most of the time, so this seems like it would be a perfect fit," adds Roth.

He owns buildings housing two other restaurants in the neighborhood - Rick's Dessert Diner and True Love Coffee House - as well as a three-story 1926 structure on the northeast corner of 21st and L he is looking to convert into a restaurant. Though prospective operators have toured the building with the thought of putting a "high end" restaurant in the structure, the shaky economy has cooled their enthusiasm. In the meantime, he's moving ahead with hopes of opening a restaurant on the old site of the revered Pava's within a year.

April 28, 2008
Pull Up a Winner

Working with only the wire cage, label, foil and cork from no more than two Champagne bottles, artists created more than 500 miniature chairs for this year's Champagne Chair Contest sponsored by the home-decor chain Design Within Reach.

Now, the 50 winning chairs are on a national tour, which pulls into Sacramento May 6. From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., a reception for the exhibit will be at Design Within Reach's Sacramento studio, 1020 16th St. And, yes, Champagne will be served. Seating, however, could be a challenge.

To see a few of the winning entries, visit the Design Within Reach Web site.

April 28, 2008
Didn't the Nut Tree Start This Way?

Davis Ranch in Sloughhouse isn't expected to start harvesting its sweet corn until mid-June or thereabouts, and when it does there's to be something new at the popular roadside stand along Highway 16 - barbecued beef and pork ribs, tri-tip roasts, chicken and hot dogs.

Tom and Pam Krumbholz, who own Incahoots BBQ Pizza and Grill in Plymouth, will bring their mobile kitchen to Davis Ranch this summer to help round out the produce stand's menu. The unit is expected to be in place on weekends from late June or early July through the harvest, says Pam Krumbholz. In addition to the meats, the Krumbholzs will be experimenting with grilled produce, raising the possibility that hot corn on the cob will be available.

In recent years, Davis Ranch has been expanding its range of produce beyond the corn that first brought celebrity to the spot. In addition to beets, grapes, artichokes and a whole bunch of other fruits and vegetables, the current lineup includes Sloughhouse asparagus. The stand is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, though when the corn starts to come in the schedule will be 6 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, says store manager Jim Ayers.

April 28, 2008
Following the Scent to Amador City

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As I ambled along backroads about Murphys in Calaveras County and Sutter Creek and Amador City in Amador County the past few days, I couldn't recall a splashier show of spring poppies in the foothills. Hardly hill or hollow was without a bright patch of the golden blooms.

The display made me thankful for at least two reasons: One, that the legislature in 1903 had the good sense to name the golden poppy California's state flower. Second, that Gov. Schwarzenegger wasn't in office way back then. I suspect he would have caved in to the lily, lilac and lupine lobbyists and vetoed the measure, just as he buckled to cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay partisans a couple of years ago when legislators voted to declare zinfandel the state's "historic" wine grape.

Yeah, I hold a grudge, but that isn't the culinary point of this item. Andrae's Bakery in Amador City is. No matter how many times we stop at the shop, the Andraes seem to be stocking their already crowded display cases with something new. This time around it was a zesty pistachio and orange brioche. We resisted the oatmeal cookies and Basque cake, but not that or the brownies and the cranberry-and-walnut sourdough bread.

If you stop, be prepared for a long line and claustrophobia. The shop, which also has extensive selections of cheese and housemade sandwiches, is small and almost invariably crowded. But that's going to change. The Andraes are drawing up plans for roomier new quarters in neighboring Sutter Creek. The new bakery could be open as soon as this fall, though they may hold off on the debut until after the busy year-end baking season. Whenever it's open, we'll be back, looking for poppyseed cake.

April 25, 2008
Two Wineries Jump for Joy

The celebrated jumping frogs of Calaveras County won't be jumping for fame until the third weekend of May, but preparations for the annual jubilee were in full swing with the fair's 27th annual wine competition.

The judging drew 274 wines from throughout the Sierra foothills, and when the final votes were tabulated the best-of-show red wine was the mouth-filling, peppery and warm Latcham Vineyards 2005 El Dorado Zinfandel ($20), while the best-of-show white wine was the sweet, floral and viscous Ironstone Vineyards 2007 California Obsession Symphony ($8).

I'll be writing more of the competition for a future Dunne on Wine column in The Bee.

April 24, 2008
The Greenhouse, The Firehouse

A couple of notes about what's new on the Sacramento area restaurant scene:

- Earth Day 2008 has come and gone, but Cory Holbrook and Roderick Williams used the occasion to launch what they intend to be a longterm commitment to "sustainable," "organic" and "green" values. In February, Holbrook closed his restaurant Town Lounge in Roseville, redesigned the quarters, redrew the menu, and on Earth Day reopened it as The Greenhouse. He says 95 percent of the produce is organic, all of the seafood is sustainably caught, and all the meats are free of steroids, antibiotics and added hormones. Ideally, the restaurant would like to be 100 percent organic, but occasionally chef Roderick Williams has to use conventionally grown habanero chile peppers, parsnip greens and the like if organically grown can't be found. Coffees and teas are free trade, takeout containers are biodegradable, and the new carpet is made of recycled soda bottles, say Holbrook and Williams. The New American menu includes starters like Five Dot Ranch beef sliders (two for $8) and a salad of panko-crusted ahi and arugula with a wasabi caramel vinaigrette ($11), and entrees such as a small plate of seared sea scallops with agave-glazed baby turnips ($13) and a large plate of rib-eye steak with a leek, potato and morel-mushroom ragout ($29). The Greenhouse, 1595 Eureka Road, Roseville, is open for dinner Monday through Saturday, with lunch to be added Monday.

- Anthony Laub, most recently executive chef at the Folsom branch of Malabar, has moved to The Firehouse in Old Sacramento as chef de cuisine, where he will be working with executive chef Deneb Williams. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Laub also has put in stints with Horseshoe Bend Country Club and Cherokee Town and Country Club, both in Georgia.

April 24, 2008
Beyond the Shells, Surprises

Results of the 14th Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition won't be compiled and released until Monday - the judging is spread over three days in three cities - but yesterday's round at the restaurant Sutro's of the Cliff House in San Francisco provided a few surprises:

- The Kumamoto oysters - more consistently firm, fresh, sweet and salty than they have been at the competition in recent years - weren't from the Pacific Northwest or even California, but Mexico. They again were provided by the competition's sponsor, Taylor Shellfish Farms of Shelton, Wash., which has expanded its operations to include a new aquafarm on the Pacific Ocean side of Baja California. Kumamotos, explained Jon Rowley, coordinator of the competition, thrive best in relatively warm water, thus the switch. Why Kumamotos for the judging? They're small, thus easy to slurp, chew and follow with a sip of wine to see how the pairing shapes up. I'm not sure if it was their size or their intensely briny flavor, but I had to eat four dozen to do the wines justice.

- Per usual, 20 white wines were in the finals. We didn't know the varietal or the producer of each until after the judging. For the first time in around six years, none of the 20 was either the Geyser Peak sauvignin blanc or the Dry Creek Vineyard chenin blanc, the latter made with grapes from Clarksburg. Both have finished regularly in the top 10 in recent years. Though I haven't tasted the latest vintage of either wine, I've a hunch that their absence from the finals says more of the intensified competition than any slip in their quality. This year's competition drew a record 200 wines. The final 20 are chosen during a marathon series of tastings in Seattle, then sent to panels in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. Rowley takes pains to assure that both the wines and the oysters are served at nearly identical temperatures in each venue.

- Regardless of producer or appellation, you likely will be on fairly secure ground if you order a sauvignon blanc or a pinot grigio/pinot gris when you're about to dive into a platter of raw oysters. Of the 20 finalists, 14 were sauvignon blanc, three were pinot grigio/pinot gris.

- Seven of the finalists are out of the Pacific Northwest, the rest from California, including two local representatives, the Lange Twins 2006 Lodi Sauvignon Blanc ($13) and the Lucchesi Vineyards & Winery 2007 Sierra Foothills Sauvignon Blanc ($16). (Lucchesi is in Grass Valley.)

April 23, 2008
Aw, Shucks, It's All in a Day's Work

I'll soon shove off for San Francisco and the 14th annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, one of the more enlightening and entertaining judgings of the year. And filling. That's because the wines will be judged in a natural context, which is with food, a logistical impossibility for most competitions.

For this judging, however, coordinator Jon Rowley limits the wines to one style - cold, dry, crisp and, by my experience, white - and one kind of food, Kumamoto oysters. You eat an oyster, then taste a wine, looking for what Rowley calls the "bliss factor" - a clean finish and a crisp taste that doesn't get in the way of the flavor of the next oyster.

A record 200 wines were entered in this year's competition, but we'll be tasting just the 20 finalists. Earlier, five judges at Rowley's home base in Seattle spent a week tasting all 200 candidates with oysters, gradually narrowing the field to the final 20.

This week, individual panels in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco will taste the wines with oysters, after which Rowley will tabulate all the scores to determine 10 equal winners of the 2008 "Oyster Award." Fellow panelists in San Francisco are to include KCBS Radio food and wine editor Narsai David, San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonne, Wine Spectator editor-at-large Harvey Steiman, veteran wine writers Bob Thompson of Napa Valley and Millie Howie of Sonoma County, and John Finger, president of Hog Island Oyster Co. of Point Reyes Station.

If Rowley follows his usual pattern, he will kick off the competition by reading the passage that inspired the exercise, a poetic tribute to the savoring of oysters and wine, from Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast."

April 22, 2008
Le Petit Paris Getting a Little Bigger

Tassina Nicole Placencia is in Paris right now, but her husband Ruben still is in Sacramento, working to add a coffee and tea salon to their 19th Street fashion and decor shop Le Petit Paris.

"We're trying to bring back community," he says of the project, which he hopes to have finished in time for crowds at the city's next Second Saturday, May 10. "We want a friendly place where people can sit and chat," he adds. "The coffee will get the chattering going."

At least at first, the salon will serve just cofee, tea and pastries. Eventually, the menu could expand to also include sandwiches and salads.

April 22, 2008
Bubble Time

Thirty Champagnes by the glass? What is Ali Mackani thinking? Big, again. Mackani, who in the fall of 2005 opened the electric Restaurant 55 Degrees along Capitol Mall, is close to launching his next ambitious project, Lounge on 20, where the beverage menu is to include 30 Champagnes by the glass.

Lounge on 20, which Mackani hopes to open in early June, and possibly as soon as late May, will occupy the southeast portion of the MARRS building at 20th and K in midtown Sacramento. MARRS - Midtown Art Retail Restaurant Scene - already is home to the Solomon Dubnick Gallery, restaurants Luigi's Slice and Azul, and shops DV8 and Newsbeat.

Lounge on 20 is to be a hybrid restaurant and wine bar where the focus will be on socialization. "If you know the Redroom Room of the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, that's the kind of interaction we want," says Mackani. The conviviality will be fueled by the Champagnes, an equally extensive list of wines by the glass, creative cocktails, community tables, and a New American menu whereby dishes can be ordered in three sizes - "a taste, a small plate or a shared tray for three or four people," says Mackani. "We want to promote socializing over food and drink."

The place will be big, seating up to 170 inside, another 80 on the deck. Mackani is being assisted in putting together Lounge on 20 by two key principals of Restaurant 55 Degrees, executive chef Luc Dendievel and manager Kassidy Harris. Mackani hopes to finalize the hiring of a chef de cuisine for the new place this week. The opening of Lounge on 20 will mean no change for Restaurant 55 Degrees, he adds.

April 21, 2008
Mr. Citizen, Meet Mr. Hilton

As reported here a week ago, the high-rise boutique-hotel The Citizen going in to the former Cal Western Life building at 10th and J in downtown Sacramento will include a large and stylish restaurant that the hotel's operators, Joie de Vivre Hospitality of San Francisco, hope will appeal to Sacramentans as much as to out-of-town visitors.

And as we also reported, we couldn't say much else about the restaurant because the folks of Joie de Vivre said they wouldn't release the name of the restaurant and its operator until later. What they should have said was that they wouldn't release the name of the restaurant to The Bee until later. They were quick to tell the Sacramento Business Journal that the name would be Grange, meant to suggest rural grange halls and to evoke images of local farmers and ranchers, which Joie de Vivre intends to use for its take on California Cuisine. (The Citizen's restaurant, says Joie de Vivre publicist Dawn Shalhoup, was almost named Tavern, but cooler corporate heads apparently concluded that that spoke more of old cowtown Sacramento than the fashionable new city.)

If anyone at Joie de Vivre was aware that Grange also is the name of the restaurant at the Hilton Hotel in Adelaide, they apparently didn't give it much heed, indicates Shalhoup. In all likelihood, the Australian Grange is named after Penfolds Grange, Australia's most noble and revered wine, not the homey symbol of the American West.

Either way, Joie de Vivre could have a problem on its hands. Given how quick so many corporations are to prevent what they see as trademark infringement, I have to wonder whether the Hilton honchos will simply look the other way while a competing hotel chain appropriates for one of its own restaurants a name they proudly adopted long ago. Nothing like a little citizen vs. citizen litigation to stir up publicity.

April 18, 2008
Expanding, Not Contracting

Monica Deconinck, who with her husband Marc runs the fine French restaurant Le Bilig in Auburn, has weighed in on a Washington Port article for which a link was posted here earlier this week.

The story tells how restaurateurs are coping with rising operating costs just as diners are cutting back on their own expenses during these tremulous economic times. A common maneuver among restaurateurs, the article notes, is to reduce portion sizes.

The Deconincks will have none of that. "We have never measured or weighed ingredients, and although it may be a poor business practice, it is not in our mentality to 'calculate' how much of something will go into a dish to make it financially rewarding. Cooking is and always will be about generosity for us," says Monica Deconinck in an email.

In acknowledging that restaurateurs are facing more challenges in trying to stay afloat financially, the Deconincks are taking approaches other than reducing portion sizes, raising prices and the like. They've expanded their hours, started to open on Tuesdays, introduced a fixed price ($22) dinner Tuesday through Thursday, more aggressively marketed their catering and takeout, and stepped up their slate of cooking classes and entertainment. Monica Deconinck long has taught Saturday morning cooking classes for children, while Marc Deconinck now is teaching "men only" and "bistro classics" cooking classes a few times each month. Their entertainment schedule includes a Spanish flamenco night May 16, with guitar music, student dancers, tapas and wine.

"No change in quality or quantity. We're just working more hours and being more available for our customers. (And never stopping to calculate our hourly wage!)," she concludes.

April 18, 2008
Discoveries on the Wine Trail

Let's end the week with a couple of hopefully helpful notes for fellow wine enthusiasts:

- If you still have a bottle of the Shafer Vineyards 1986 Napa Valley Hillside Select in your cellar, this might be the weekend to pull it out and polish it off. To judge by one we tasted Wednesday night, it's showing well and isn't likely to improve. The fruit is more austere than concentrated, but it has wonderful aromatics and has hung on to its fine form. When the wine was released 20 years ago, critic Robert Parker Jr. predicted that "it should age nicely for up to a decade." It's lasted longer than that, and isn't showing signs of falling apart imminently, but in the future probably won't provide any more impact than it is right now. Decant and serve with lighter cuisine. The tasting included several other Shafer cabernet sauvignons, though no other Hillside Selects. The favorite in the rest of the field looked to be the 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, largely for its fleshier blackberry and cherry fruit and softer tannins, though a current release, the 2005 Napa Valley Stags Leap District One Point Five, also had its partisans for the youthfulness and juiciness of its fruit, its complexity and its finish, the freshest and longest of the night. Though the alcohol levels of the wines rose over the years, from 13.5 percent for the 1986 Hillside Select to 14.9 for the 2005 One Point Five, Shafer remains a Napa Valley brand that still can be counted on for grasping with balance and style a sense of place and personality, which is the sunshine of Stags Leap and the focus and commitment of the Shafer family.

- I'm about convinced that the "Sideways" effect - a boost in the popularity of pinot noir at the expense of merlot, so lacerated in the movie - actually has been benefical for merlot. The film's dismissal of the varietal, coupled with other subsequent criticism and a slump in the wine's popularity, apparently has rattled vintners into paying more attention to merlot. At least, I've been more impressed by younger merlots I've been tasting this year. The latest evidence arrived last night during a dinner touting the wines of the Napa Valley's Beringer Vineyards at the Sutter Club. Not that Beringer ever has taken merlot lightly. Its Howell Mountain merlot long has been one of the valley's truly iconic wines. It, however, wasn't poured last night. But the Beringer Vineyards 2004 Knight's Valley Alluvium Red was. A blend of 74 percent merlot, 23 percent cabernet sauvignon and dashes of malbec and cabernet franc, the Alluvium was alluring in smell and captivating in flavor - fat with suggestions of plums, sprightly with refreshing acidity, and round and supple in feel. It had the structure and fruit to go with the challenging dish with which it was poured - spears of asparagus wrapped with strips of smoked duck prosciutto - but it also had the assertiveness and depth to stand up to rack of lamb crusted with black sea salt and pepper and accompanied with dried apricots and cherries. Indeed, the Alluvium went better with the lamb, I felt, than the wine chosen specifically to accompany the meat, the Beringer 2004 Napa Valley Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. That's no slam on the bright cabernet, generous with oak, just that the Alluvium was a more compelling companion for the busy huskiness of the lamb. The Alluvium, incidentally, generally is selling for between $18 and $22 in the Sacramento area.

April 17, 2008
Quiet Sutter Creek Even Quieter

Disquieting news out of Sutter Creek today: The convivial and homey Chatterbox Cafe again is quiet. "The cook quit abruptly yesterday, there's no replacement on the horizon, and I have other work commitments. It would be a great little business for an owner operator," said co-owner Joe Rohde in a brief email.

The Chatterbox has gone through rough patches in the past, though for the most part it's been a community landmark for more than 60 years, celebrated for its cinnamon rolls, burgers and pies, among other draws.

This closure also looks like it will be brief. I just got another email from Rohde, who says he's making progress in lining up a replacement cook and could have the place reopened as soon as tomorrow. Nonetheless, he and his partners are ready to give up the cafe's demanding hours and hope they can find an owner/operator to continue the Chatterbox tradition. That willingness and about $85,000 should get the job done. For more information, contact Rohde at jrohde@thinksmartinc.com.

April 16, 2008
Jack vs. The Bull

With The Bee's cafe closed for the day, I headed out to weigh in on the latest raging battle in the burger wars. I only had to go as far as Broadway, home to both a Jack in the Box and a Carl's Jr.

The folks of Carl's Jr. are accusing Jack of ripping off their enduring Western Bacon Cheeseburger by introducing an almost identical BBQ Bacon Sirloin Burger. Naturally, I had to try them both.

Basically, each is a burger sandwiched with orange cheese, bacon strips, onion rings and barbecue sauce. And frankly, my palate had difficulty deciding which is the best. Jack's clearly has the superior patty, a thick cut of rich ground sirloin seasoned with just the right doses of salt and pepper. The onion rings were big, hot and sweet, the bacon thin but almost crisp. The Carl's Jr. by far tasted smokier and saltier, with a sturdier and more flavorful bun. The bacon also was thin, and limp. In both cases, the cheese was forgettable.

I began to ponder other factors to help me decide. The Jack in the Box has more parking. Carl's Jr. has a napkin dispenser on each table. The Jack in the Box burger costs $5.09 before taxes, $5.48 after. The Carl's Jr. costs $2.99 before taxes, $3.22 after.

Nutritionally, they're virtually in a dead heat. The Jack in the Box has 1,120 calories, 24 grams of saturated fat, 190 milligrams of cholesterol, and 2,520 milligrams of sodium. The Carl's Jr. has 1,130 calories, 28 grams of saturated fat, 150 milligrams of cholesterol, and 2,540 milligrams of sodium. No, I didn't run into anyone from the Center for Science in the Public Interest at either venue.

Carl's Jr., however, gets the nod for environmental consciousness. Its Western Bacon Cheeseburger comes wrapped in paper, and that's it. At Jack in the Box, the BBQ Bacon Sirloin Burger not only was wrapped in paper, it was in a box in a bag. (At both places I said I'd be eating on the premises.)

I'm not convinced that these occasional dustups between competing burger chains are anything more than a publicity stunt orchestrated by their advertising agencies, especially during economically shaky times like these. Still, the folks at Carl's Jr. sound not only unflattered by Jack's imitation but downright bitter. "Jack must have decided to turn their new $150-million 'Innovation Center' into an employee lounge," snorts Brad Haley, the executive vice president of marketing for Carl's Jr.

In addition, Carl's Jr. tomorrow will give customers a free Western Bacon Cheeseburger when they purchse any version of the burger, but you will have to get to Eureka, Redding, Chico or Reno to take advantage of the offer in this area; Sacramento branches of Carl's Jr. aren't participating in the promotion.

On a brighter note, Carl's Jr. has pulled from retirement its iconic mechanical-bull TV commercial from 2004, featuring the beat of Foghat's "Slow Ride."

That alone gives Carl's Jr. the edge in the burger sweepstakes this time around, but before I cast my final vote I'd like to hear what others think is the superior burger.

April 15, 2008
Quiet Changes in the Restaurant Business

If you're a restaurateur squeezed between rising food expenses and guests looking to cut costs as fears of recession intensify, what you going to do?

Well, you can rewrite your menu so prices don't stand out so much. Or you could increase the price of a $7.95 dish to $7.99; who's going to notice that? Or you could start to use smaller plates so a smaller serving really doesn't look smaller.

These are a few of the tactics that restaurateurs are learning as they try to survive these challenging economic times. To learn more about penny-pinching changes that could be under way at your favorite bistro, take a look at this David Segal feature from The Washington Post.

April 15, 2008
No Prayer for White House Party

It wouldn't be the choice of wine, would it? Pope Benedict XVI is skipping his scheduled 81st birthday party with President Bush at the White House tomorrow night.

Word of the unexplained change in schedule materialized as principals of Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma County were crowing that their 2005 Dutton Ranch Chardonnay would be poured for the bash in the East Room.

The wine has been described variously as a typical California chardonnay - rich, ripe and oaky. Maybe the pope's palate runs more to white wines lighter and more refreshling, like gruner veltliner, pinot grigio or riesling. Clearly, he isn't a teetotaler, according to a New York Times article early in his papacy. Quoting friends, cardinals, biographers and the like, the article says that while the pope is especially fond of lemonade and orange juice he also savors wines from Italy's Piedmont region and the German beer Franziskaner Weissbier. Quick, alert the White House cellar keeper, maybe this party can be saved, after all.

April 14, 2008
The Citizen Bows In

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Sacramento's first high-rise luxury boutique hotel isn't to open until mid-November, but a couple of rooms already are basically finished, we found on a tour through the structure the other day. From one, you can look down on the Capitol as you shower. From virtually every room, in fact, the view of the Sacramento skyline is spectacular. Almost makes you want to move away so you can return to book a room.

The hotel is The Citizen, taking over the historic 14-story former Cal Western Life building at 10th and J streets. It will have 197 rooms, five penthouses and nearly 15,000 square feet of event space, including a seventh-floor terrace bound to become the hottest party-venue in town, and not just because it's on the southwest side of the 1926 building.

I joined the tour in hopes of finding out about the hotel's restaurant, but didn't learn much more than it will include a two-story glass-enclosed wine vault stocked with 2,000 bottles, a principal dining room with 22-foot-high ceilings, an industrial look but sophisticated feel, an adjoining lounge and mezzanine with a law-library ambience, and a towering "jewel-box" loggia along the 10th Street side of the building.

The principals of Joie de Vivre Hospitality of San Francisco, the hotelier pulling together the project, say they have an operator and a name for the restaurant, but for now they aren't revealing anything more. Joie de Vivre operates some 30 other boutique hotels, most of them with restaurants that are casual in attitude and contemporary in cuisine, including American Restaurant & Bar at Hotel Vitale, Cafe Andree at Hotel Rex, and Saha Restaurant at Hotel Carlton, all in San Francisco. Whatever the restaurant is to be called at The Citizen, it's to open with the hotel this fall.

April 11, 2008
Last Night's Wine

Maybe it's going through a funky stage, I thought. "Is it a merlot?" asked my wife, who prefers to taste wines blind, then speculate on varietal and the like, almost invariably being spot on. We were off to an uncertain start with a wine that shouldn't be at all ambiguous, being a new zinfandel out of Amador County.

What's more, it was made by some of the more inventive characters in the wine trade, the guys of Rebel Wine Co. in Napa Valley, responsible for the Three Thieves and Bandit lines of value varietals. I'm a fan of their generally environmentally sensitive packaging, their bargain-oriented marketing, their unpretentious attitude, and their direct winemaking.

But their latest project, the Wingnut 2005 Amador County Zinfandel ($13), was leaving me baffled. It was coming off as if growers in Amador County had sent their grapes to a finishing school in Napa Valley. There, the usually swashbuckling attitude of Amador County zinfandel got wrung out of the fruit and replaced with a kind of politeness that while appropriate in some circles isn't customarily expected at a table where Amador County zinfandel is poured. With its typical brashness, Amador County zinfandel can be counted on to stimulate the really interesting dinner topics of religion, politics and sex, but this interpretation is too well-mannered for that. It's cleanly made, all right, with modulated fresh fruit flavors and a readily accessible texture, but it isn't going to interrupt any conversations with its authority.

Nonetheless, I look forward to trying another bottle. Maybe with a little time it will bloom with more color and drama. I do like the pricing, and even more I like the back story. The principals of Rebel Wine Co. recruited student designers at the Portfolio Center, a communication-arts school in Atlanta, to create the packaging. The striking label, by Dave Whitling, who won a scholarship for his efforts, captures the "loopy, weird, oddball" way the Rebels see themselves and the attitude they want to represent in a wine called Wingnut. Another Portfolio Center designer, Rachel Strubinger, came up with the notion of stamping the cork in each bottle with a bit of unconventional wisdom. Ours said: "It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things," attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. I like the sentiment, but I think the Rebels may have missed another novel marketing twist by not putting the wine in bottles with wingnut screwcaps.

April 11, 2008
Warming Up to Beer

A reader wants to know why we don't write more about beer in The Bee's Taste section. While I try to think of a response I'll tip him off to some beer news:

- On Monday, Peter Hoey of Sacramento Brewing Company will tap a keg of a truly unusual beer, Saucerfull of Merkins, made by the Paso Robles brewery Firestone Walker. According to Rick Sellers of Pacific Brew News, only 80 kegs of the beer were made. It's a blended winter ale, mostly oatmeal stout with a portion of Belgian-inspired strong dark ale. It's been variously described as "a dark winter stout with light spicy notes, full silky body and bourbon accents" and "dessert in a glass." You can read more about it at Seller's blog. Hoey says the keg will be tapped when the Oasis branch of Sacramento Brewing Company - 7811 Madison Ave. - opens at 11:30 a.m. Monday. Plans to tap a second keg at the brewery's Town and Country Village site are uncertain. The beer will sell for $5 a pint.

- The new "lounge menu" at the restaurant Hawks in Granite Bay - housemade charcuterie with grilled bread ($12), macaroni and Gruyere ($8), onion beignets ($5) and the like - is complimented by an enticing beer menu. In addition to the predictable Bud ($4) and Stella Artois ($5), there's several brews not often seen hereabouts, like the Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar ($14), the Leyerth Urthel Vlaemse Bock from Belgium ($22) and the North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stourt ($6). Hawks is at 5530 Douglas Blvd., Granite Bay.

April 9, 2008
Rick Mahan Saddles Up

Rick Mahan is about to combine his twin interests in slow food and slow transportation, but to do it his life will pick up speed. Mahan, chef/owner of The Waterboy restaurant in midtown Sacramento, is preparing a second restaurant. He's signed a lease to open One Speed in Folsom Boulevard quarters occupied most recently by Cafe Milazzo, just east of East Lawn Memorial Cemetery.

The name One Speed was inspired by his long affection for old-fashioned Schwinn bicycles. Mahan also is keen on the principles and goals of the Slow Food movement, which favors the preservation of culinary traditions over fast food and fast living.

One Speed, which he hopes to open as soon as July, will be more casual and less expensive than The Waterboy. The menu will emphasize pizzas, pastas and antipasti, with just a few daily entrees. The restaurant will be open only for dinner and for weekend breakfast.

He anticipates no changes for The Waterboy, which will continue to emphasize the foods of northern Italy and southern France in an environment more upscale than what he sees for One Speed.

April 9, 2008
Where's the Governor Been Eating?

Is Gov. Schwarzenegger eating out less in Sacramento and more in San Francisco? As reported in today's Bee, the governor is urging state lawmakers to find imaginative new ways to draw in revenue without calling the sources taxes.

"Coperto," anyone? In Italy, you run into this term on dining bills; basically, it means cover or service charge. Since earlier this year the Italian restaurant Delfina in San Francisco has been appropriating "coperto" for a new surcharge levied on diners to help restaurateurs pay for a city-mandated health-care program. At Delfina, the coperto is a flat $1.25 per guest.

Other San Francisco restaurants are adopting similar tactics. A Sacramentan just back from dinner at the new Epic Roasthouse along The Embarcadero sent me a photocopy of his party's bill, which included a 4 percent "health care" charge of $14.42 on a total that without the levy would have been $392.37. "To provide the best health care for our employees a 4% health charge is included," noted the bill.

He dined with a San Franciscan who said similar additional fees are becoming common in the city's restaurants, with patrons often responding by deducting the cost of the health-care levy from the tip they otherwise would leave. If that's the case, don't expect such "copertos" to last for long. Inevitably, restaurateurs will respond to their additional costs as they always have, by raising across-the-board the price of their menu items, thereby not so obviously alarming guests.

Or, giving the governor any new ideas.

April 8, 2008
Eppie's Back in the Saddle

After an absence of about 10 years, legendary Sacramento restaurateur Eppie Johnson is returning to food service. Johnson, who during his 35-year career in hospitality owned 27 restaurants as well as hotels and tennis clubs, has leased Horseshoe Bar Grill in Loomis and hopes to have it reopened by mid-May.

"I kind of miss the business," said Johnson this afternoon. He's bringing in as the restaurant's manager his nephew, Richard A. Bruce, who he first hired as a 13-year-old to police the parking lot and tend sprinklers at his Eppie's Restaurant at 30th and N streets in midtown Sacramento. After that, Bruce became a fry cook, went off to study at the Culinary Institute of America (he graduated in 1972, the last year the school was at Yale University before moving to Hyde Park, N.Y.), and launched his own restaurateuring career, which has included startup roles and high managerial positions with such chains at Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Elephant Bar, Hilton Hotels and Muriel Hemingway's group of Sam's restaurants.

For the past nine years, Bruce has been involved in restaurateuring in Las Vegas, but now is relocating to Roseville. Horseshoe Bar Grill will be rechristened New Horseshoe Bar Grill, with a "California bistro" atmosphere and a menu that features "recognizable, sustainable, seasonal and organic" ingredients. "It will be good, basic, hearty food," said Bruce. His executive chef will be Robert Facciani, who has been working in Minnesota and Colorado, but more recently at Sacramento hotels.

Over nine years, Horseshoe Bar Grill evolved from casual bistro to destination dinner house, but two years ago, the owners, Dave Rosenaur and Karen Fox, who still own the building, closed the restaurant after they found themselves spending more time in San Diego County. "Running restaurants long distance is not a smart thing to do. It's difficult enough even when you are there," Fox said at the time.

This will be a busy spring for Johnson, who also is gearing up for the 35th running of Eppie's Great Race, "the world's oldest triathlon," to be staged July 19 on and along the American River.

April 7, 2008
Breaking Bread, Raising Dough

By eating out one day later this month, Sacramentans can help raise awareness and funds in the fight against HIV and AIDS. On April 24, more than a dozen Sacramento-area restaurants will donate proceeds from their sales to the midtown agency CARES, the Center for AIDS Research, Education and Services.

In the past, Dine Out for Life - this is its 17th year - has raised between $10,000 and $15,000 for CARES, said Julie Kennedy, who is in charge of fund development for the agency. On or about April 24, restaurants in 47 cities will join the drive. They customarily donate 25 percent of their food sales for the day to a local agency involved in HIV and AIDS work, but some restaurants also donate a portion of their wine, beer and spirits sales, said Kennedy.

CARES will dispatch representatives to each participating restaurant to hand out information and to be available to answer questions about HIV and AIDS.

The participating restaurants in and about Sacramento include Mulvaney's Building & Loan, Paesanos, Dragonfly and Lucca. A complete list can be found here.

April 7, 2008
Passport to Spring

IMGP2817.JPGWhat with the grass getting taller, barns jutting up like Sierra peaks, and vines budding with new life, spring in the Sierra foothills provided the perfect backdrop for this weekend's 17th annual Passport Weekend sponsored by the El Dorado Winery Association.

I'll be reporting on some new wineries in the area in a forthcoming Dunne on Wine column in The Bee, but first a couple of quick impressions:

- The food was never better, with the most impressive fare of the day dished out at Busby Cellars along Grizzly Flat Road of Somerset, home to this grand old barn. Off the Vine Catering Co. of Cameron Park was dishing out smoked pork with a sauce of ancho chile peppers on blue-corn tortillas, red lentils with andouille sausage, and the big surprise, fried white beans scented with sage and spicy with chile powder and garlic. It was tough deciding which Busby wine was the best match, with the sweetly fruity 2005 tempranillo, the firm and spicy 2005 zinfandel, and the peppery and juicy 2005 petite sirah all possessing the build and depth to pair with the hearty foods.

- The two most impressive wines of the day fell at opposite ends of the style spectrum. On the light end was the Iverson Vineyards & Winery 2007 Sierra Foothills Grenache Rose ($18), austere in structure but all refreshing strawberries and pomegranates in smell and flavor. On the robust end was the Holly's Hill Vineyards 2005 El Dorado Patriarche ($30), a jammy, earthy, and complex blend of black Rhone Valley varieties.

- Holly's Hill Vineyards and Colibri Ridge Winery & Vineyard share the award for extra-step hospitality, the former for its complimentary espresso stand, the latter for Garrison Yeandle, who not only attentively directed traffic in the parking lot but quickly opened car doors for visitors and volunteered to take group photos under the oaks. We started the day at Colibri Ridge and ended it at Holly's Hill, and those considerate touches were perfect bookends.

April 4, 2008
Shakeup in Wine Tasting

Light wines before heavy, white wines before red has been a prevailing principle of wine appreciation for decades. Almost without exception, that's the order in which wines are poured when you visit a winery tasting room.

But no longer, at least not at Madrona Vineyards on Apple Hill in El Dorado County. For two months now, the Bush family that owns the winery has been pouring red wines before white. The switch, says Paul Bush, may be contrary to tradition but is based on scientific reasoning.

White wines typically are higher in acidity and pH levels than red, especially when grown at higher and subsequently cooler elevations; Madrona's vineyards, at 3,000 feet, are among the higher in the state. Red wines grown at such altitudes customarily have fairly substantial tannins.

When whites from such a microclimate are tasted first, they show well, but their residual impact on the palate help accentuate the tannins of the red wines that follow, says Bush. When the order of tasting is reversed, red wines will taste more balanced, while the reviving fruitiness and acidity of white wines will be put to a better test for showing off the cleansing ability of the wine. This red-before-white tasting approach, incidentally, is what Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti has been using for years during tastings at his store, Corti Brothers.

Visitors to Madrona's tasting room have been surprised by the reversed order, but game to give it a try, indicates Bush. If you are planning to visit some El Dorado County wineries this weekend you might just want to put Madrona on your itinerary to see how you find the order.

April 3, 2008
This 'Green' Wine is White

IMGP2793_edited.JPG
The dawn of Earth Day 2008 draws near. It will be April 22. Look at it as if it were a serious St. Patrick's Day; once again, we're obligated to go "green."

And like Christmas, the commercial exploitation of Earth Day starts earlier each year. Three days ago, a new boxed wine showed up on my desk. It touts itself as an "eco-friendly upgrade" to other 3-liter boxed wines, which already have an environmental advantage over traditional bottles, the cost of which to manufacture and transport accounts for about 45 percent of the carbon dioxide attributed to winemaking, according to calculations by UC Davis professor Roger Boulton.

At any rate, this latest boxed wine from Boho Vineyards, a brand of The Wine Group Inc. of San Francisco, reputedly cuts by more than half the carbon footprint of the wine if it were packaged in customary bottles, and slashes by 85 percent the packaging that will end up in a landfill. The plain brown box looks as if it's made out of recycled paper, and for the most part - 95 percent - it is. Not only is glass eliminated entirely, so is the use of corks, capsules and labels (appellation, vintage and the like are printed directly on the paper, and with soy-based ink, at that).

While boxed wines make environmental sense, they face a couple of marketing challenges. One is the popular perception that they are so small they couldn't possibly hold four bottles, which the 3-liter containers do. And because of their compact size, their price - about $24 in this instance - looks high. But for the Boho Vineyards 2006 Central Coast Chardonnay, that works out to just $6 a bottle.

So how's the wine? Actually, quite pleasant, representing with clarity and balance more the tropical-fruit side of chardonnay than the citric, melon and apple. It isn't a barrel-chested example of California chardonnay. It's more demure, intended to be taken at the table with light spring cuisine. It isn't an oaky, alcoholic monster meant for cocktail-hour sipping, pondering and discussing. It put me in mind of a carafe of the house wine that would be put on the table of a bistro in Burgundy, a small place in a cellar, so casual the dogs wouldn't be leashed.

In a press release, winemaker Adam Richardson is quoted as saying representative artisan winemaking went into the wine, including night harvesting of the grapes and aging of the wine in small oak barrels, which comes across with a smokiness and toastiness that is more intriguing whisper than intrusive shout. Overall, it's a refreshingly dry and complete chardonnay, worthy for a toast come Earth Day (that's another thing about boxed wines; once you open the spigot the plastic bag inside collapes a bit more with each glass, curbing the intrusion of oxygen and retaining the wine's freshness for up to about six weeks).

Nugget Markets and Corti Brothers carry the wine, which also is to be available at Raley's stores May 1, said a spokesperson for The Wine Group Inc.

April 2, 2008
Javier Bardem as Robert Parker?

Decanter, a wine magazine published in the United Kingdom, came up with the best April Fool's Day joke I've seen in publication - the making of a movie about influential American critic Robert Parker Jr. At least, I think it's a prank, but you can draw your own conclusion by giving the article a read here.

April 1, 2008
No Fooling: A Vineyard in the City

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Sacramento Bee editorial writers have asked readers to send in questions they'd like to see the city's mayoral candidates answer. The invitation is here.

OK, I'll play along. I want to know what the mayoral candidates will do about that sorry downtown hole bordered by Capitol Mall and L, 3rd and 4th streets. Actually, I want to know which candidate will be the first to step up and endorse my proposal that it be filled in and planted to a vineyard of wine grapes.

This is the site where two high-rise residential and commercial towers were to be built, but since that proposal collapsed last year the lot has stood largely empty and abandoned. There's a piece of earth-moving equipment in there, scattered remnants of rebar, and tombstone-like rows of concrete pilings, none of which would present more than a momentary obstacle to planting a vineyard.

Why a vineyard? Well, Sacramento not only is the capital of California, it's the capital of the nation's most diverse and prosperous wine country. The city is virtually surrounded by vineyards admired by the nation's wine drinkers - Sonoma and Napa to the west, Clarksburg and Lodi to the south, the Dunnigan Hills to the north, and the foothills of the Sierra to the east. With many visitors arriving or leaving Sacramento via Interstate 5 or Tower Bridge, what better way to remind them of the state's and the city's pivotal role in the nation's agricultural bounty than with a prime piece of real estate devoted to a vineyard?

There are other reasons for planting a vineyard there. It would be educational. It would contribute to rather than take from the city's efforts to establish itself as a "green" community. It would be a natural and equally pretty counterbalance to the grandeur of the Capitol at the other end of the mall. Get the right winemaker and profits from the sale of wines made from grapes grown on the plot could be used to help shore up the city's weak budget. With few tall buildings in the neighborhood, it has just the exposure to sunlight that grapes need. A deer fence already is in place.

Which mayoral candidate will be the first to step up and offer to turn the first shovel of dirt to get this project going?

April 1, 2008
No Joking Around

It may be April 1, but you won't find any pranks here. These items are the real deal:

- When officials of California's Democratic Party met in San Jose over the weekend they were poured the first wines to be released by the United Farm Workers' Union, reported KCBS News. Sure enough, the brand Black Eagle Wines is raising its profile this week with several tastings as the union commemorates the 40th anniversary of Cesar Chavez's first long public fast. According to the brand's Web site, the first three wines - cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, merlot - are being made by a Napa Valley winery with Napa Valley fruit. They can be ordered through the Web site.

- When a bottle of wine appears in a television show or movie it just doesn't happen to be chilling in a fridge on the set. Product placement is big business, of course, and Kevin McCallum of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat gives it an unusually deep and entertaining look by focusing on just how one small participant, the wine trade, is involved. His insightful read can be found here.

- Charles Bamforth, chair of the department of food science and technology at UC Davis, has a new book out, "Grape Vs. Grain," in which he explores the contrasting traditions, science and culture of beer and wine. I'm about halfway through it, and just came across this comment: "One of the biggest differences between beer and wine is that to make the former a huge amount of water is used, whereas for the latter, there is need for relatively little." This is apt to alarm more than comfort highly regarded wine writer Jancis Robinson. As she points out in a recent essay, it takes as much as 10 litres of water in the winery alone to produce a litre of wine, and that's just for cleaning the equipment. She provides other unsettling figures, some of them from vintner David Graves of the winery Saintsbury in the Carneros area at the southern reaches of Napa and Sonoma counties. Robinson is pretty frantic about the long-range consequences of climate change and thirsty vineyards, so it might not be the best time to offer her a beer.



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