November 26, 2008
Macaroni Grill restaurants in the 'burbs = still open

There seems to be some confusion about the status of local Macaroni Grill outlets, so "Appetizers" is here to help set this record straight. A recent report on KCRA TV about local restaurant closures mentioned Macaroni Grill (along with 55 Degrees and Elk Grove Brewery & Restaurant) as examples of casualties given the current economy. It's true that the Alta Arden Expressway location shut down in March, but the story led some viewers to believe that all Macaroni Grill outlets in the area were closing as well.

Hold that focaccia bread and breathe easy: Macaroni Grill outlets in Folsom, Roseville and Elk Grove are still open and plan to stay that way. A call to Brinker International, the company that owns the Macaroni Grill chain, confirmed this infornation. Hopefully this will clear up some of the anxieties from local Macaroni Grill denizens.

"We're not going anywhere but we've had lots of people calling," says Annie Rice, the general manager for Macaroni Grill in Folsom. "Yesterday we had someone here from the Folsom City Council and asked when we were closing our doors. This location is positive in sales and in no danger of closing. I was also talking to the general manager in Elk Grove and they're getting 20 calls a day and guests coming in and asking when the last day is. This worries us because we don't want people to be afraid to buy gift cards or book parties with us."

If we hear different about the future of these Macaroni Grill restaurants, you'll be the first to know. In the meantime, mangia!

November 25, 2008

While we're still in this "getting to know you phase," thought I'd list a few of my favorites related to food and wine. Feel that La Mexicana has better pan dulce than La Esperanza, or do you like the ramen better at Akebono? Please list your own local food picks in the comments section.

So now, let's cue up John Coltrane's version of "My Favorite Things" and get this party started ...

Favorite comfort foods: Empanadas from La Esperanza Bakery; a hot bowl of ramen from Edokko II; tempura ice cream at Kamon; a piping bowl of pozole at La Placita; ground steakburger at Nationwide Freezer Meats; meatloaf sandwich at Selland's Market-Cafe; mix of cherry and Coke Slurpee from the 7-11 near my house; heavyweight roast beef sandwich with pickles from Plaza Hof Brau.

Most missed restaurants/eateries: Masque during the Angelo Auriana years; the A&W on Freeport Blvd. that burned down under some shady circumstances; the Zombie Hut; the Sam's Hof Brau on J St.; the original Suzie Burger; La Pupusas in Folsom; Shige Sushi and Kagetsu.

Favorite local restaurants (always subject to change): Hawks in Granite Bay; Kru, especially that lobster tempura; Cafe au Creme (best barbecue in Sacramento - believe it); Birerria Bugambilias (my vote for best Mexican food in Sac.); Futami Japanese Restaurant; am still loyal to Tapa the World; Ella Dining Room and Bar; Mulvaney's B&L.

Favorite food related day trips: Trekking through the orchards of Apple Hill; stopping at Davis Ranch for Sloughhouse Sweet Corn; heading to Napa (on any day but a weekend) for wine tasting and foodstuffs; gotta love a sunny day tasting in the Shenandoah Valley.

Dream wines: 1968-1970 Gemello Cabernet Sauvignon; any bottle of pre-phylloxera Bordeaux;1970-1974 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon; way too much Burgundy. Hey, a guy can dream a little, right?

November 24, 2008
A new cook in this kitchen

Greetings, and no, I didn't take a wrong turn. Some of you may recognize my mug from the BeatNonStop blog on But I've moved on from music writing, and just like a strip of Sizzlean, it's time for something meatier. I'm now covering wine and food, and this "Appetizers" blog is part of my writing menu.

So why did I go from covering Amy Winehouse to actually writing about wine? Well, the Bee made me an offer I couldn't refuse - and in a nice way that didn't involve waking up next to a horse's head. Those who know me well have heard me geeking out on food and wine matters for the last 10 years or so, like gabbing about some 1991 cabernet I scored on, or not shutting up about that luscious taste of a 1978 Shafer, or that ridiculously creative and sumptuous tasting menu by Gabriel Glasier at Rebud Cafe, etc. etc.

Yes, this new gig is pretty sweet.

My plan is to keep "Appetizers" filled with morsels of food news, culinary finds around town, wine notes and whatever else is tasting good. But what I really want is for you all to chime in and create some dialogue through the comments section. You're all more than welcome to e-mail me at

For those keeping score at home, I've been on the food/wine beat since July. Since then I've helped pick 10 tons of zinfandel grapes near Lodi, written about the intricacies of apple cider, and recommended wines each Wednesday through my "Liquid Assets" column.

I've also spent the last few months under the tutelage of Mike Dunne, the Bee's venerable executive chef of food/wine coverage who recently retired from the paper. He was gracious enough to treat me as his understudy, including an excursion to the wine country of Amador County that he's covered for four decades. We also spent a day in Napa that was as educational is it was criminal to call work, and on a truly education end, we took a field trip to UC Davis' Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and introduced me to the folks out there. I'm really grateful to Mike, and hope he's hoisting a beverage of choice with family right about now.

I've got plenty more on my plate, so keep watching this space. In the meantime, did you hear that Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts in Napa has suspended operations?

Cheers ...

November 21, 2008
Time For A Course Other Than Another Appetizer

According to the calculator with the software that powers this blog, this is the 760th entry I've written since Appetizers began in May 2006. What the calculator doesn't say is that this entry will be my last.

At the outset, I said I wanted Appetizers primarily to be the outlet where I could post observations, news and tips about wine, food and restaurants that might not find as timely a place in one of my dining or wine columns in The Bee. By and large, that's how it worked out.

Less successful was a secondary goal - to encourage readers to ask questions, take issue with opinions expressed here, and otherwise participate in what I'd hoped would be an ongoing dialogue. I suspect the primary reason things didn't work out that way was that I never developed a comfortable blog voice, one that compels and provokes.

But there were other reasons why Appetizers didn't become a kind of online coffee house where anyone could jump in with a question or comment, I sense. For various reasons, readers couldn't even post comments for the first several months it was up and running, and that delayed traction for the anticipated exchanges. I also now realize that blogs need promotion and marketing to develop a following, and that didn't materialize to any great extent.

If I were to stick around, I'd lobby more energetically for that kind of support for all the blogs emanating from 21st and Q. But that isn't why this is my last posting. After I hit the "publish" button I'll pack up the last of my tasting notes, the bumblebee rock paperweight my granddaughter painted for me several years ago, the photo of my wife, and head out the door for the last time. I've accepted The Bee's voluntary buyout, and look forward to eating at The Waterboy, Lemon Grass, Mulvaney's, Biba and other restaurants without fretting about whether the battery in my digital recorder abruptly will die.

I'm going away, but Appetizers isn't. My colleague Chris Macias, who also is assuming much of the food and wine writing at The Bee, will take over Appetizers. He'll bring a fresh and energetic voice to this space, and I look forward to his observations on the local culinary scene. I may even post a comment here now and then. But I'm taking the silhouette with me.

November 18, 2008
Martinis and Smushed Ice Cream and Cake

When reporter Blair Anthony Robertson wrote his introductory autobiography for colleagues as he joined The Bee nine years ago, he began:

"If I were going to the electric chair, my last meal would be a smoked barbecue sandwich from Country's in Opelika, Ala. Dessert would be chocolate cake and ice cream smushed together like I have been doing since I was 4. Then I would have a glass of 2% milk. I hear they put a $50 limit on the meals. If they didn't, I would also have six martinis from Morton's."

Robertson isn't going to the electric chair, but he soon will occupy another hot seat, as The Bee's new restaurant critic.

Cathie Anderson, The Bee's features editor, announced Robertson's appointment following a tryout dinner, sample review and interviews involving in-house candidates who had sought the position.

Robertson, a native of Ottawa, Canada, earned a degree in English at Augusta State College (now University) in Georgia before embarking on a career as a newspaper reporter in 1987.

He's an avid home cook, Frank Sinatra fan, book collector, cyclist and golfer whose preferred writing instrument is a fountain pen he fills from a bottle.

As The Bee's restaurant critic, he succeeds me, who has held the post from 1984 to 1989 and again from 1994 until today. I recently accepted The Bee's voluntary buyout offer and will leave the paper at the end of the week.

November 17, 2008
Sacramento Wine Region Strikes Out, Sort Of

No wines from the Sacramento region qualified for the Wine Spectator's list of the top 100 releases for 2008, but a wine with a local connection did finish high in the roundup.

That would be the Mount Eden Vineyards 2004 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($42), ranked 13th on the list. Only one California wine placed higher, the Seghesio Family Winery 2007 Sonoma County Zinfandel ($24), coming in at No. 10.

Neil and Bernice Hagen of Sacramento are the principal owners of Mount Eden Vineyards, long celebrated for chardonnays that are crisper, longer lived and more European in style than their riper, richer and more heavily oaked California counterparts.

Of the 100 wines on the list, 14 are Californian. For a full rundown, go here.

November 12, 2008
Another Makeover For Copia

On the eve of its seventh anniversary, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa again is reinventing itself, and no longer will be the culinary center envisioned by the late vintner Robert Mondavi.

According to an online report by Paul Franson for the trade magazine Wines & Vines - the full story is here - the name Copia will live on in "satellite campuses with wine bars and stores," but the future of the monumental center itself in downtown Napa is very much up in the air.

Franson reports that Copia CEO Garry McGuire plans to sell the building by the end of the year, then either lease back quarters in the facility or move to someplace smaller.

No events are being scheduled at Copia for after the end of the year, and the Mustard Marketplace scheduled to be at Copia during next spring's annual Mustard Festival has been moved to Robert Mondavi Winery, reports Franson.

With a debt of $78 million, Copia earlier laid off staff and cut back programs after failing to generate anticipated tourist traffic.

November 6, 2008
A Closer Look At Wine Study

Relax, and continue to enjoy an occasional glass of wine, or two, scientists are saying as they take a closer look at the results of a British study that claims potentially hazardous levels of heavy metal ions could be contaminating many commercial table wines (see the earlier posting below).

The Wine Spectator, in a comprehensive follow-up to initial news reports of the research, quotes one authority as saying the study targets the wrong contaminants, and that drinking water often contains more metals than wines. That would be George Soleas, vice president of quality assurance for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which routinely tests the wines it sells in the Canadian province for heavy metals and other contaminants.

"I'm not trying to minimize the fact that contaminants get into wine, but they are targeting the wrong contaminants. Most people will drink two glass of wine a night, but eight glasses of water per day, and if they take a multivitamin tablet they get two milligrams of manganese on top of that, so how is the metal obtained from wine going to kill anyone?,"
says Soleas, who has degrees in clinical biochemistry and enology.

November 5, 2008
A French Retreat

The French won't be making one of their more dramatic incursions into Napa Valley after all. Their deal to buy historic Chateau Montelena Winery at Calistoga has fallen apart. According to the winery's principals, their French suiter, Reybier Investments, which owns the esteemed Bordeaux estate Chateau Cos d'Estournel, "has been unable to meet its obligations under its contract with the Barrett family" of Chateau Montelena.

Jim Barrett, who acquired Chateau Montelena in 1972, is to remain the estate's owner and will not put it up for sale, according to a press release issued by the winery this morning. He wasn't elaborating on what went wrong with the sale, which in July he called "a dream marriage." "This is a perfect fit...We could not have asked for a finer team to carry on this legacy," Barrett said in July.

No price was disclosed, though at the time the British wine journal Decanter speculated that Chateau Montelena was fetching $110 million from Reybier.

Chateau Montelena, founded in 1882, shot to celebrity in the spring of 1976 when its 1973 chardonnay was judged the best take on the varietal in a blind Paris tasting involving comparable French wines and French wine judges.

More recently, it served as the storyline for "Bottle Shock," a movie about the 1976 Paris tasting that was released this past summer.

Despite the collapse of the sale, Barrett said in his statement that the winery's principals are "energized by the enthusiasm and vision expressed by all the parties who bid for ownership of Chateau Montelena."

His son, Bo Barrett, is to continue as a limited partner in the winery, specifically working on undefined "special projects." Greg Ralston is to remain as managing director, while Cameron Parry will continue as winemaker and Dave Vella as vineyard manager.

November 4, 2008
Another Stop For Stoppers

If you drink wine, you likely gather wine corks. When the bottle is empty, you could just throw out the cork. Too many, however, have stories to tell, memories to evoke, a funny drawing, a witty saying or a helpful telephone number. Someday, you're apt to think, you'll find a use for those corks. As a consequence, they gather in bags in the garage, basement or barn. And you still don't have a solution about what to do with them.

Now, the Whole Foods Market chain and ReCork America, a recycling program sponsored by cork producer Amorim, are teaming up to give wine enthusiasts another option to dispose of their stained and torn corks.

The two companies are launching a six-month trial program whereby wine drinkers can dump their old corks into recycling bins in the wine departments of 25 Whole Foods stores in northern California and Reno. The participating markets include the Sacramento store and the Roseville branch, which is to open Wednesday.

Wine corks, noted Roger Archey, program manager for ReCork, can be converted into a wide range of secondary uses, from floor tiles to fishing-rod handles. An estimated 13 billion natural corks are used by the world wine trade annually, Archey says.

November 4, 2008
Morton's To Hop To New Site

Officials of Morton's The Steakhouse, who last summer revealed plans to abandon their branch at Westfield Downtown Plaza, now are announcing that their new nearby Sacramento location will open Nov. 18.

The expanded and more visible restaurant will be in the lobby of the US Bank Building at 621 Capitol Mall. The new site is to include floor-to-ceiling windows, a Bar 12-21, a patio, and lunch weekdays.

Bar 12-21, which takes its name from Dec. 21, 1978, when the first Morton's opened in Chicago, is to feature a "bar bites" menu of such snacks as crab cakes, cheeseburgers and filet-mignon sandwiches.

November 3, 2008
Heavy Metal: A Sour Note For Wine?

For nearly two decades, American thirst for wine has been driven in part by one study after another to show that a regular glass or two seems to have several far-reaching health benefits.

Now a report out of Britain suggests that that string of positive endorsements could be coming to an end. According to news reports, researchers Declan Naughton and Andrea Petroczi of Kingston University in South West London have found potentially hazardous levels of heavy metal ions in many commercial table wines.

In analyzing wines from 16 countries - but not the United States - they found that metal ions were of high enough concentration to pose potential health risks in wines from 13 of the nations. Only wines from Argentina, Brazil and Italy didn't jeopardize health because of their content of metals, say researchers.

The report, in the online Chemistry Central Journal, suggests that a daily 250-milliliter glass of white or red wine could expose imbibers to a potentially higher risk of chronic inflammatory disease, Parkinson's disease, premarture aging and cancer.

The researchers used as safe a value of 1 in calculating the "target hazard quotients" (THQ) of potentially toxic levels of metal ions in wine, a technique developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Monitoring by the English researchers generally found levels much higher than that, ranging from 50 to 200 for Hungarian wines and up to 300 for Slovakian wines.

Researchers focused specifically on seven metal ions, including vanadium, manganese chromium, copper, nickel and lead.

Naughton and Petroczi call for more research to pinpoint the source of metal ions showing up in the wine - grapes? soils? insecticides? fermentation tanks? - and to determine the upper safe limits for their consumption. They also found THQ levels above 1 in orange juice and stout.

At UC Davis, meanwhile, Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, intermim chair of the department of viticulture and enology, said the faculty is aware of the study and is analyzing what it may mean. "A couple of things seem a bit odd," says Waterhouse. "Their scoring system seems to have each metal equitable in risk. That's surprising. Lead is more dangerous than copper."

He also found some of the study's findings contradictory, questioned whether the consumption pattern on which it was based it realistic, and concluded that his own early analysis of the data didn't find any reason for alarm.

The university, adds Waterhouse, isn't monitoring heavy metal ions in wine, but that soon could change. "Chemists here would like to do a similar survey of California wines to see what is going on, so we'll talk with some industry folks to see if they want to pursue this or not," Waterhouse says.

The British researchers indicated that they aren't so concerned about the issue that they will stop drinking wine, but they are proposing that levels of metal ions be added to wine labels.

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