Appetizers
December 31, 2008
How to get free corkage at Paragary's

Local corkage policies are the topic du jour around here, including my "Wine Buzz" column today which focused on the free corkage program at Bandera. This was a follow up from last week's corkage column, which was prompted by a reader who took a $10 bottle of Bogle wine to Paragary's Bar and Oven. After the $20 corkage fee, he was the not-so proud consumer of a $30 bottle of Bogle.

But here's a tip on getting free corkage at Paragary's and its group of restaurants, including Centro, Cosmo Cafe, Spataro and Cosmo Cafe. Buy any California wine at Whole Foods Market, be it Bogle or any other wine from the Golden State. They'll give you a sticker to put on that bottle, and when you bring that bottle to any Paragary restaurant: voila, free corkage.

This promotion lasts indefinitely, and Whole Foods also plans to bring some of Paragary's chefs into the store for some cooking demonstrations. Sound good? Happy New Year, and see y'all in the wine department at Whole Foods.

December 26, 2008
My $.02 cents

OK, couldn't help but chime in with my own thoughts re: appropriate dress for fine dining. I certainly appreciate Blair's sartorial sense, and believe that it's better to be overdressed than underdressed for an occasion. I've also felt embarassed by some of my fellow dudes that I've seen dining, like the guy chowing down at Biba's while wearing shorts, a Tommy Bahama shirt and flip-flops. Definitely not appropos ...

As for wearing jeans to a destination restaurant, I say it depends on the kind of jeans. If you're wearing some old Levi 501s with patches in the knees, it's best to leave those for gardening or cleaning the garage. But if your jeans cost more than, say, dinner for two at Grange Restaurant, then you're probably OK. No matter the price, I'd stay away from jeans that were too distressed or have holes anywhere. And if you do opt for jeans, it's best to dress them up with a blazer and collared shirt (i.e. leave the t-shirts at home, bros). Quality shoes are also a must.

On the flipside, I've seen men in some very nice three-piece suits act like complete jerks to servers and pulling the "don't you know who I am?" routine. To me, that's uglier than a leisure suit circa the 1970s. So in my book, it's not so much what you wear, but how you carry yourself.


December 26, 2008
Our clothes tell a story; that's why we own mirrors

Oh Gina, did you just say Sacramento has no standards? That anything goes? I'm choking on my melba toast.

All I'm asking is that people aim a little higher.

I saw our new mayor at a press conference recently and he was looking pretty sharp. In fact, there was a recent gathering of mayors in Sacramento and one published photo of a certain Central Valley mayor showed he was wearing jeans while all the others, including Johnson, were in suits. That other mayor looked ridiculous.

There is a time and place for everything. It's always better to be the best-dressed person in the room rather than the worst.

There is a time to wear jeans -- walking my dog, doing groceries, blogging. There is even a time when nice jeans are appropriate -- at a night club (not at a country club), at more casual restaurants, on casual Fridays at some workplaces (The Bee, of course, has no sartorial standards, except one must be somewhat covered and it doesn't matter if one is covered with material that has ghastly palm trees or scenes of beaches on it).

Fashion choices are about being sensible and respectful and refined. Showing up in jeans at a very nice restaurant is simply tacky. The message I get from that person is, "I don't know any better." If the busboy isn't allowed to wear jeans, don't you think that's at least a tacit suggestion that jeans are the wrong choice at this place?

If someone showed up at a job interview wearing jeans and I was the employer, I would reply with one word, "Next." This person conveyed a message: I have poor judgment.

As for the hapless jeans-wearing hayseed at Slocum House, I would have lent him my sport coat, but I couldn't imagine anything I own going with orange and white stripes. It would have only made matters worse

December 26, 2008
It's not what you wear, it's what you eat

Oh Blair. They might do things differently in Maple Leaf country, but this is Sacramento - the home of Sutter's Fort and a stop on the Pony Express route. While the gold panning days are long gone, the pioneer spirit remains and that means everything goes.

I am of the age where jeans always go. In fact, I complain every time I set foot in the dining room at my parents' country club where denim is banned - they allow shorts and tennis socks - complete with a decorative fuzzy ball, but no True Religion jeans?

But really, in an age where inclusiveness is the theme, who cares how people dress as long as they are dining out and appreciating it. And in a sagging economy, I'm just glad they are keeping restaurants in business. Especially as a former server, I can understand being frustrated by a loud and complaining patron. But being more irritated by what he is wearing seems misplaced.

If it's really ruining your dinner though, why not offer to lend him your wool sportcoat? It was Christmas after all.

December 26, 2008
Have we lost our standards for how to dress and behave?


It's an old axiom in the restaurant business: the customer is always right.

I'm not so sure.

As The Bee's (new) restaurant critic, I have been dining out more than ever in recent weeks. I've seen servers and chefs and hosts (yes, hosts) make their share of mistakes, mostly minor.

But I've also seen more than a few diners behaving in ways that make me shake my head and wonder: Who raised you?

Put aside poor manners for now - we'll get to that another time. Let's talk about clothes, dress codes, common sense and, well, class. Here, there also seems to be a gender divide. I've seen plenty of well-dressed women at some of the area's best dining establishments with husbands or boyfriends wearing jeans and golf shirts.

I wonder: if you're going on out to dinner at a very nice place, why are you in jeans? A golf shirt? Or even a dress shirt without a sport coat? Why is the woman across from you dressed up and you're not? Do you think she's thrilled with the plaid short-sleeve number you're in?

When I was a kid, my parents used to make me wear a suit and tie when we went to dinner at a nice restaurant. It was a treat, an event, an experience to cherish, and my dad insisted we all dress accordingly. At the time, with the big knot in my bad tie threatening to cut off the circulation around my neck, I felt put upon. I felt like I was the only kid in town in a coat and tie.

Well, it's come full circle. I'm feeling that way again. I look around me and see men in clothes I might wear when I'm sweeping out the garage.

For instance, I had a very nice dinner at Slocum House on Christmas night. The duck was wonderful, the braised chestnut soup a delightful antidote to the plummeting temperature outside.

I wore gray flannel trousers and a wool sport coat, a white shirt and plain necktie. In a different era, that would have been considered casual. I was certainly comfortable and felt my attire was in keeping with the ambience of one of the area's finest restaurants. Slocum House is elegant, refined, classy. The kitchen goes to great lengths to prepare consistently excellent dishes. The servers are friendly and polished (and well dressed).

Yet, the fidgety man at a nearby table was wearing an orange striped dress shirt and jeans. He was the one who complained - and complained - that his bread didn't arrive on time. If memory serves, they load you up with bread at Olive Garden. That's apparently where he thought he was going when he got dressed. In a way, he robbed us of the ambience that Slocum House takes pains to create. When I looked his way, I felt like the all-you-can-eat bread sticks would be arriving any minute.

This may sound terribly old-fashioned, but I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I would dine at Slocum House without a coat and tie. OK, if one of the roosting chickens on a branch overhead throws up on my jacket, maybe. But I would at least feel self-conscious, practically exposed. A dress shirt or golf shirt at Slocum House might as well be a tank top undershirt.

Where I grew up, there were plenty of restaurants that kept a stash of sport jackets and ties for the man who arrived without one or both. My mother worked at a law firm in which the lawyers were required to wear their suit coats when they stepped outside their offices.

Here's a benchmark for men that has served me well. I'm certain I'm not the only one who has used Cary Grant as a guide. If you're unsure about how to behave or dress when going someplace nice, watch a few old Cary Grant movies. He always looked like a million bucks. When in doubt, ask yourself: What would Cary Grant do? What would he wear?

Would Cary Grant wear an orange shirt and jeans to a place brimming with old-world elegance? Would he call the maitre d' over, complain about the bread, then point to the next table and say, "And they haven't got their bread yet either. Get them their bread?" I don't recall that movie.

Good grief. The customer isn't always right. Slocum House deserved better.

Am I the only one who feels this way?

December 24, 2008
Love and fruitcake

fruitcakephoto.jpg

Reporters love to get calls, e-mails and letters - even those telling us about a typo, errant use of grammar or a missed ingredient in a recipe. It means people are reading and care enough to let us know. But once in awhile, it's more than that. It's a connection, and readers want to tell us how we affected their lives.

Last year, I wrote about fruitcake and the memories that the hated-of-all-holiday-treats elicit for people. The recipe we ran was from a Dixon couple who had made more than 30 pounds of fruitcake every year since 1954, a year into their marriage that would bring six kids, 17 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren on the last count. It got tougher to keep up the fruitcakes over the years, once Coralie Granger became blind and required the use of a wheelchair. But under her direction, and the recipe he would read aloud to her, Leonard Granger would measure, mix and bake - and the tradition continued.

"You can't mix it with the electric mixer," Leonard told me then. "So it's mixing with your arm. And I'm left handed, but when that gets tired, I try my right hand. Then I use my left hand."

It was a sad day in late November when I received an obituary in the mail. Leonard's note said the tradition had been broken since Coralie was in the hospital when they normally would make the fruitcake, and then she died Nov. 11, 2008. She was 73. But Coralie was happy her recipe ran in the paper last year, even to the chagrin of their children who were never entrusted with it, Leonard said.

I wrote a card offering my condolences and hoping that Leonard would keep up the fruitcake tradition, if only in Coralie's memory. And I was incredibly touched today when I got a package in the mail, complete with two fruitcakes and a note saying that he went out and bought all the ingredients and got "Coralie's memory fruitcake" in the mail this year, if a little later than usual.

Here is their recipe:

Fruitcake
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 55 minutes
Makes 10 fruitcakes

This is Leonard and Coralie Granger's foolproof recipe for fruitcake. Since 1954, the Dixon couple have made more than 30 pounds of fruitcake each year, and they swear their friends and relatives who receive it as gifts beg for more.

Ingredients
1 pound butter
1 pound dark brown sugar
12 eggs
1 cup honey
1 cup molasses
1/2 cup brandy *
5 cups flour *
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 pound mixed glazed fruit
1 pound dates
1 pound raisins
1 pound walnuts
3 large bottles maraschino cherries

* Additional amounts of these items are needed.

Instructions
Cream butter and sugar, add eggs and beat well. Add honey, molasses and brandy; mix well.

In a large bowl, sift flour and spices together and add to batter.

Separately, coat the mixed glazed fruit, dried fruit, nuts and cherries in additional flour. Add to batter.

Mix well and then divide into 10 1-pound pans.

Place a pan of water in bottom of oven to keep cakes from browning. Bake at 300 degrees for 55 minutes, then check to see if a toothpick or knife inserted in middle of cake comes out clean. If not, check again every 15 minutes until the toothpick or knife comes out clean.

Cool overnight and then remove from pans and wrap in cheesecloths soaked in additional brandy. Place in airtight container with more brandy-soaked towels on top.

Allow to soak for two weeks or longer.

December 23, 2008
Super spaghetti savings

Want to see what a pasta pandemonium looks like? Visit an Old Spaghetti Factory on Jan. 6. This restaurant chain will be celebrating 40 years of red sauces and noodles on a budget, and they're rolling back prices on that day to ridiculous levels. How cheap? We're talking dinners from $2.35 - $3.45 per person and includes salad, entree and dessert. Kids' spaghetti meals will be just $1.95. That's practically pocket change for all that pasta and other vittles. We're also expecting lines around the block for this 40th anniversary special, so good luck on getting this meal deal. But the bonus news is that Spaghetti Factory will have a 40% off deal on Mondays and Tuesdays for the last three weeks of January. It's pasta at practically pennies a serving, and the right sort of feast during the financial market's meltdown. Mangia!

December 19, 2008
Are you a supertaster?

Want to find out your potential for being a discerning epicure? Some of it may be beyond your control.

Sure, you can study and go to tastings and do all the homework you want, but you might just be among those called "non-tasters" - those with fewer taste buds blanketing the surface of your tongue.

On the other hand, you may be a supertaster - lots of buds, or papillae, on the tongue. That can be a great thing, but it can also be a burden. Some supertasters find bitter and spicy dishes overwhelming.

Apparently, about 25 percent of the population is composed of supertasters. About half of us are normal tasters and the rest are what's known as non-tasters (have trouble distinguishing most flavors they eat).

How can you tell? There's a simple test. Here's the explanation I got from the Good Housekeeping Web site.

If the thought of veggies makes you cringe, you may be. Around one in every four people are born with thousands of extra taste buds, which enable them to more acutely detect sweetness, sourness, and bitterness in foods. Think you fit in this category? Try this test (it's a little odd, yes, but experts stand by it):

What you'll need: A hole punch, a one-inch-square piece of waxed paper, blue food coloring, and a cotton swab.

What to do: Punch a hole in the waxed paper; set it aside. Dab a little blue food coloring on your tongue. It should turn blue, with the exception of tiny pink circles. (These are "fungiform papillae," and each contains six to 15 taste buds.) Place the waxed paper over the blue area of your tongue and count the pink circles in the hole that you punched out. More than 25 circles? You're a supertaster.

If you're really serious, you can get a more specific test using filter papers that have a harmless chemical that only supertasters can taste. The test costs $4.95.

December 19, 2008
In the mix

Mason Wong is kicking back on a couch at the Park Ultra Lounge, sporting work boots with a winter jacket by his side. The cool Diesel shoes and blazer will wait for another day - at least until Dec. 31. That's when Wong is set to open Mix Downtown on 16th and L streets in the renovated Firestone building. The plan is for a New Year's Eve blowout and grand opening party, but on this day, the only music coming from Mix Downtown is a cacophony of construction.

Mix Downtown is a $3 million project, with 8,000 square-feet of space that will include swanky VIP booths, a spacious outdoor lounge and boomin' sound system. The preliminary menu focuses on small plates for sharing, including trios of soups, beef sliders and other fodder for late night snacking. And of course, plenty of drinking will be going down here. Mix Downtown will feature 25 wines by the glass, but which ones to pour? That's being worked out by Darrell Corti, who is a consultant for Mix Downtown's wine program. Plan on champagne and sparkling wine tastings on Wednesdays, wine flights and pairings on Thursdays and a martini program on Fridays.

Wong knows this is a tricky time to launch a new club, given the shaky economy. And there's the competition, some of it from Wong's own enterprise. Just a block away from Mix Downtown, Wong already runs Mason's Restaurant and its adjacent Park Ultra Lounge. So Wong is aiming for a particular niche: those who might feel old compared to those just-turned-21 clubbers, but not too old and fuddy duddy to party.

"The economy's definitely bad now, but people still want to be entertained," says Wong. "We're trying to fill a niche and do something different than what other places are doing. We're targeting a little older audience: 30 to 35 year-olds. So we've got things like scotch and cigars on Tuesdays, and a 'girl's night out' on Wednesdays with champagne and bubbles. We're also setting up a 'Dirty 30' VIP club, where you can go straight to the head of the line if you're 30 or older."

The music at Mix Downtown will also skew a little older than the typical hot spot. The playlists at Mix Downtown will lean toward old-school, disco and funk from DJ Larry Rodriguez on Saturday nights, and an '80s format for Fridays.

Wong describes Mix Downtown's decor as "organic and Malibu-ish" but balanced with accents of steel and cement throughout the club. Seeing all this in action will have to wait a couple weeks, so until then, you'll find Wong in his work boots and surveying the work crews.

"You've got to stay fresh and change things up," says Wong, as crunch time for construction continues.

December 18, 2008
Blind wine tasting

Chris recently wrote about a blind tasting he attended with fellow Bee scribe Rick Kushman at Rail Bridge Cellars, a winery just north of town. Those kinds of tastings can be a little intimidating and very educational.

Check out this video to see a top-notch sommelier perform a pretty impressive blind tasting in front of bad boy chef Gordon Ramsey:

December 18, 2008
Great service explained

In my introductory column as The Bee's restaurant critic, I mentioned the importance of service. I was pleased to receive dozens of e-mails and phone calls afterward - many of them about that very topic.

In that first column, I said that one local restaurant (in Fair Oaks) had such consistently poor service (and with attitude) that I took the number out of my cell phone. In other words, I really wanted to support this place, but they wouldn't let me.

So let's talk about great service. What is it? How do you find it?

I think we approached perfect service the other night during a visit to Ella Dining Room and Bar at the corner of 12th and K Streets downtown. (The food was also exceptional, by the way). Since he did such an excellent job and had such a pleasant, assured way about him, I'll tell you our server's name: Bannon Rudis. Bravo! I also counted seven other servers that came to our table - for bread, water, delivering hot dishes, etc. - all seamlessly.

The following day, I called the restaurant's general manager, Dan Sneed, to ask him about his approach to service. He was pleased to hear about my experience.

"It does start with hiring," Sneed said. "We are looking for people who, when you look in their eyes you see somebody home. When we hire for the front of the house, we are hiring more so for personalities."

"You want somebody with a little bit more of an ego so if they get batted in the nose they are not going to go cry in the corner. They realize it's a show. It's a performance every night. You need to have a little bit of ego so you can go to the tables and be welcoming. This is your territory. You can't wait for the guest to come up to you."

Sneed also dropped a pretty good hint for those who want to get hired at a premier restaurant: "That type of personality that is not afraid to come up to me and say, 'Are you looking for somebody? I'm looking for a job.' If they can approach me, then I'm pretty sure they can approach my guests. It's the same thing when they work here; if they come in the back door every day, I make sure they say hello to all the kitchen people. If they aren't going to say hello to the people they work with, I'm not going to trust them to go on the floor and say hello to my guests."

Like many fine restaurants, the staff at Ella has daily briefing sessions at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Issues and concerned are recorded in a red book and addressed at these meetings.

Though Sneed was happy to hear my praise, he said he's far from satisfied.

"I still feel we have a long way to go for Sacramento," he said. "Every night we have one or two things go wrong that we're going to work on."

I have a suggestion: If there is, indeed, room for improvement, new hires would do well to shadow Bannon Rudis for an evening and take note of his demeanor. He was friendly, knowledgeable, smooth and attentive. All that, and he felt no need to prove to us how smart he was. He didn't have to.


December 17, 2008
Chiming In

I'm happy to be joining Chris and Gina as a contributor to this blog about all things food. I am The Bee's new restaurant critic and I hope to have plenty to discuss in the days ahead about that.

But let's begin on a lighter note - the foods in my life and, well, some that are no longer a part of my life.

What I cook when I want a treat: Filet mignon. My girlfriend and I will make something of a day of it, driving to the Orangevale Meat Shoppe on Main Avenue and picking out our separate steaks. I cook them based on a technique I read in Cook's Illustrated a few years back: heat a sauté pan on high, then sear the steaks (rubbed with olive oil) for three minutes each side before putting them (and the pan) in the oven for about 8 minutes. Oh, and don't forget the handle on the pan - it's now really hot (can you tell I once forgot that?).

What I eat when I'm in a hurry and low on groceries: Peanut butter and banana sandwiches. That's what I ate when I was 6 and, for better or worse, my inner-child never tires of this sandwich. I've moved on to natural peanut butter and better bread, but I still wash it down with a big glass of milk.

Bad eating habit: Keeping a bag of chocolate chips in the pantry and grabbing a handful after dinner. Sometimes it's more than one handful. I really wish I didn't have those in the pantry.

Favorite cookie: Chocolate chip. I'll make these if I have enough chips left (see above).

Bad eating habit II: Eating raw cookie dough. It's great at the time, but I always feel awful an hour later.

Something I wonder if I should still be doing at my age: Licking the inside lid when I open a new container of yogurt.

Food as meditation: I make sourdough bread, roughly two 2-pound loaves a week. It involves a lengthy process that only works if you make it part of your lifestyle.

Something rookies do after baking bread: Eating it while it's hot. Yes, it's tempting, but warm bread leads to a stomachache every time (why haven't I learned this about cookie dough?).

A restaurant I visited just once, just to see: Outback Steakhouse. I figured I would never really understand American dining habits unless I went to an Outback. I was somewhat horrified by the "appetizers," including the notorious "Bloomin' Onion" (2310 calories and 134 grams of fat, according to this site).

How I keep my weight down: I ride my bike to and from work most days (50 miles round trip). With longer rides on the weekends, I do 12,000-15,000 miles a year. I also give away a lot of sourdough bread.

Favorite food on the bike: Homemade energy bars from a recipe I got at www.EatingWell.com.

Favorite recipe Web site: By far, www.CooksIlustrated.com. Not only are the recipes battle-tested and almost always foolproof, but the Web site allows me to archive my favorites in a very organized way. It's well worth the $25 a year.

Favorite kitchen gadget: I find the silicone spatula, or rubber scraper, very satisfying and versatile.

Favorite appliance: That would have to be my coffeemaker. Yes, it cost $899, but it's really awesome and it's on sale.

Very simple pleasure: A really good shot of espresso. Unfortunately, my $899 machine makes very good coffee but only pretty good espresso. I'm dreaming of this machine.

Obsessive thing I do that doesn't make sense: When I eat breakfast alone, why do I obsess over whether I make a perfect "French fold" when cooking myself an omelet.

Annoying recipe detail I should have noticed: "After cheesecake cools, refrigerate for at least 4 hours before eating." Can anybody really do this?

Oh, the "food" no longer in my life: Diet Coke. Gave it up cold turkey months ago(there's still a 12-pack in my cupboard if anybody wants them). Hated myself for drinking it. Replaced it with sparkling water. I also gave up Chicken McNuggets, but that was 25 years ago. Does that count?

December 16, 2008
Tidbits

Unemployment is at record highs. The economy is in the worst shape since the Great Depression. And my dog chewed up all the decorations she could reach on my Christmas tree.

But we all still have to eat, right? This fact of life is why I'll be joining restaurant critic Blair Anthony Robertson in helping wine writer Chris Macias blog here on Appetizers. I'll be bringing all that I know and have yet to learn about food - where it comes from, how to make it at home, and its quirky histories (Did you know the birth place of cioppino is not Italy but San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf? All the Italian fishermen would make a big stew at the end of the day and each would "chip in" what he could.).

So you know a little about me, maybe I should reveal some of my beliefs: Dessert without chocolate is simply wasted calories; it's always a good time for pizza; Thanksgiving turkeys should be stuffed with Chinese sticky rice, not Stove Top; nothing cures a cold like my mother's homemade seaweed soup or spicy tofu soup.

Now do you think it might be a new trend to have a bare bottom third of a Christmas tree?

December 16, 2008
More cooks coming to this kitchen

Hey gang, guess what? "Appetizers" is soon going to feature more contributors from our Food & Wine section. First up, we've got Gina Kim, our hostess with the most-est and star of "In the Kitchen With Gina Kim." Her videos for sacbee.com have given us tips in making tamales, the proper way to roast pumpkin seeds and other how-to segments. Gina also makes some grubbin' sticky rice, and I've already had two helping of this at our department potluck today. Also on board soon for "Appetizers" is Blair Anthony Robertson, the Bee's cyclist supreme and newest restaurant reviewer. He'll be chiming in with some behind-the-scene goodies, culinary finds around town and other tasty stuff.

So think of "Appetizers" as the "21Q of Food," or a potluck-styled blog from the Bee's food writers. The three of us are taking a group photo later today, and we've got some fun and potentially messy ideas about taking this group shot while keeping Blair anonymous. Look for posts from Gina and Blair soon, and meanwhile I'll continue to blog away. But now, it's back to the potluck and see what scraps are left ...

December 15, 2008
On a Sunday afternoon ...

Here's a little heads-up: I've got the cover story in Wednesday's Food & Wine section about local butchers, some tips on working with one and a list of some notable meat purveyors around the 916 area code. My story was pretty much wrapped up on Friday, but wanted to pop into a couple more spots over the weekend. So I braved the cold and rain, and headed to South Sacramento on Sunday afternoon. First was a drive down Stockton Blvd., past Luigi's Pizza and Cafe au Creme (a.k.a. the home of "Barbecue Bobby" and the best ribs in Sac.), and then over to Vinh Phat Supermarket. What an epic Asian market and the clientele was fairly multi-culti on this day, waiting in line for service at the meat counter or checking out the tanks of live lobsters.

But this outing was more of an excuse to visit Carniceria Lopez Market #2. This is a great lil' Mexican meat market and the place to pick up carne asada for grilling during the outdoor cooking season. There's also a taqueria located in the market, and figured I'd grab some take-out tacos for lunch. So I headed to Franklin Blvd. and made my stop. Even though mi Espanol is pretty ragged, the butchers and counter folk here are always acommodating. Man, the marinated flank steaks were looking good. Made me want to curse the clouds and fire up the grill.

Then I went to the taqueria to place an order for tacos to go, plus a bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola. Quick side point ... As far as I'm concerned, Mexican Coke is truly "the real thing." The Mexican version uses cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup used by its gringo counterpart. That's why Mexican Coke tastes more balanced and far less cloying than what we've become used to in the U.S. of A. But back to the food, I also ordered three tamales at $1.25 each and my bill for everything (taco combination plate, three tamales, Coke en Espanol) was about $11. Not bad ... then I hurried home to scarf it all down.

The tacos de carne asada were very good, slightly crispy on the meat's edges and a little tangy with a squirt of lime. I also liked the little bits of corn mixed in with the accompanying rice. Wash it down with Mexican Coke and all was good in this 'hood. The tamales, however, were just OK. These guys didn't rank very well in the Bee's recent tamale tasting, but showed a little better on Sunday. The masa held up well - the problem was there was too much of it. There either needed more meat or less masa to get that equilibrium that comes with the best tamales. And yes, I'll say once again that I'm a tamale snob, but I still ate two of them on Sunday. In fact, I've still got one left in the 'fridge and I doubt that'll last more than a few hours. All I need is another bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola ...

December 12, 2008
And brush your teeth, too ...

There's lots of food handling going 'round this holiday season, but don't let food-borne illness be the Grinch that stole your jolly feasting. The January 2009 issue of ShopSmart has seven strategies for buying safe food. So let's say "no way" to stomach cramps and heed ShopSmart's list:

1. Look at the date on the package. Although it's no guarantee the meat won't make you sick, choose a date with the most leeway.

2. Check packages for loose juice. It can be a source of bacteria. So if the meat packages are leaking, sticky, or wet, ask the butcher to cut a dry piece.

3. Bag it. Put a plastic bag (get one from the produce aisle if you can't find one near the meat) over your hand and use it as a glove. Slip the bag back over the package of meat you select to prevent bacteria from contaminating you, your other groceries, or your fridge.

4. Sniff it. If meat smells off, don't buy it because it might not be fresh. (Even if it smells OK, however, that's no guarantee it's not loaded with bacteria.) And never rely on color alone since meat can be treated with carbon monoxide to make it look red and fresh.

5. Get meat ground fresh. Cuts of meat are held to a higher standard than ground. Choose cuts and have your trusted butcher grind them. The machine should be clean.

6. Look for firm fish. The flesh shouldn't have any gaps between the muscle fibers. Also sniff it; fish shouldn't smell fishy or like urine or ammonia. If you're buying whole fish, check the eyes; they should be clear, not cloudy.

7. Take along a cooler bag. Or ask to have meat and fish packed in a bag of ice so it stays cool. That will help slow the growth of bacteria.

December 10, 2008
Was blind, but now I see

Last night was all about sensory evaluation and overload, and some of the effects I'm still feeling today. My sense of hearing is a little wacky after Will Haven's pulverizing set at Harlow's, a benefit for Deftones bassist Chi Cheng. But before that concert for a righteous cause, I spent a great evening tasting at Rail Bridge Cellars, an urban winery just north of downtown. The event was a collaboration between Rail Bridge Cellars winemaker Jon Affonso and Donal Smith, wine merchant for Corti Brothers. The tasting was something of a one-night version of Donal's wine appreciation courses, which are generally held over three classes.

So about 30 of us, including my pal and collegue Rick Kushman, took a seat inside a somewhat chilly Rail Bridge Cellars. We were thankful for the heat lamps, but the setting was still communal and cozy, especially with a pour of Rail Bridge Cellar's crisp and green apple-ish 2006 Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. Jon then gave us a tour of the winery, explained his background and adherence to French winemaking principles (Jon's such a Francophile that he spent time there as a high school exchange student) and answered our questions about his winemaking style.

And then it was time for Donal's tasting seminar. The catch: we'd be evaluating all the wines blind. This is always fun, if not a little daunting to taste a wine and guess what's in the glass. I wondered, as the first flight was poured, if I was up to snuff. Was the Bee guy going to embarass himself? So Don takes us through the first flight, asking us to consider the clarity, color, nose, taste and so forth. Then he asked us what we thought the first wine was. The nose of stone fruit and a touch of pineapple, plus a little residual sugar on the palate meant one thing to me.

"Riesling!" I said. So did a woman at the table behind me.

"Chenin Blanc!" was the cry from another taster.

Chenin Blanc was correct, Don said. And that in the background was the sound of my wine ego deflating slightly. Wa-wa-waaaaa ...

The second set of flights started with an easier one. The buttery nose - something like a liquified version of movie popcorn - with a note of banana taffy screamed Rombauer chardonnay to both Rick and I. We were right on the $$$. The wine after that was a weird one, with a smell of canned pear juice but a taste that was pleasing and floral. Had no clue what this was, and didn't attempt to guess. A-ha, turns out it was an unoaked chardonnay from Bocage. I've had plenty of unoaked chards but never one like this.

I did a lot better on the last two flights, guessing correctly that we'd been served two glasses each of petite sirah and zinfandel. But figuring this out wasn't a slam dunk, especially with the petite sirah that had a few years of bottle age. The Michael-David Earthquake Zinfandel was easier to guess as an example of Lodi zinfandel, with its raisin notes and high alcohol heat.

And then we were served munchies from Corti Brothers deli and had an opportunity to mingle and drink more of the wine we'd previously tasted blind. Both Rick and I went back for the Dry Creek Vineyard chenin blanc, and as I drank it, tasted carefully so this varietal wouldn't stump me again. But it was all in fun, the way wine should be, and Donal's goal for all these guessing games is to give us the grounding to make us better wine consumers. And sometimes you need a little slice of humble pie to get there.

December 9, 2008
Hot tamales

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The title of the book above pretty much sums up my feelings about a Bee tamale tasting last week. "Too Many Tamales" is a childrens book by the wonderful author/poet Gary Soto. He also penned one of my favorite poems, an achingly lyrical piece called "The Elements of the San Joaquin" which harkens back to Soto's days laboring in the farmland near Fresno.

But back to the subject at hand: tamales. We tasted a dozen or so tamales for Wednesday's Food & Wine cover story, and by the end of this session my stomach felt like it was made of masa. I was glad to see that tamales from my beloved La Esperanza showed well, though they didn't take the top honors. You'll have to wait until tomorrow to see the final rankings in this great tamale showdown.

I also learned that I'm pretty much a tamale snob. (Would that be "sangron de tamales" in Espanol?). But guess I'm just spoiled. I grew up in a family that made some seriously bomb diggity tamales each holiday season. And though mom is gone and her tamale touch is missed, I'm lucky to have so many great tamale makers in my extended family. I always look forwarded to these tamales - plump with meat, surrounded by moist masa and impossible to eat just one.

I thought about all this during the Bee's tasting, looking for tamales that had a good ratio of meat-to-masa, felt firm but moist under the fork and with a spicy kick. Restaurant tamales generally pale to the homebaked ones, but the tamales in our tasting were fairly good on the whole. There were a couple that suffered from mealy and dry masa - and one had a filling that tasted like Chunky soup - but the tamales that came out on top will do you right.

Question: any of you have tamale stories to share, or want to spill the beans on your favorite tamales around Sacramento? Leave a comment ... orale!

December 9, 2008
Twofer Tuesday

Here are a couple more wine related events to consider for this week. With all the tastings going on, Sacramento just might become the capital of purple stained tongues. Add these to your calendar:

Wednesday

Get your swank on and head to the Park Ultra Lounge (1116 15th St.) and sample wines from d'Art Winery, a Lodi-based producer. $5 per glass and jazz tunes by the Midtown Music Makers. The tasting runs from 5:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.

Friday

And oh yes, I'm all about this tasting. David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods (515 Pavilions Lane) is hosting flights of champagne/sparkling wine and munchies for $15. The line-up is a good one that includes a mix of the big champagne houses and small "grower champagne" estates. Look for champagnes/sparklers from:

Diebolt-Vallois
Mumm de Cramant
Taittinger
Lucien Albrecht
Dampierre
Billecart-Salmon
Bollinger
Gruet

The tasting runs from 4:30 p.m. - 7 p.m. Information: (916) 929-4422.

BTW, be on the lookout for a special "bubbly" package in Wednesday's Food & Wine section. We've got tasting notes on some of the champagnes listed above, a whole lot of picks to consider and Rick Kushman's "Good Life" column will focus on all-things sparkling. Check it out ... cheers!

December 8, 2008
The week in wine

Let's take a look at some of the sipping and sampling that's going down this week:

Tuesday

Rail Bridge Cellars (400 North 16th St.) and Donal Smith, the wine merchant at Corti Brothers, are teaming up for a one-night tasting seminar. Ever wanted to test your blind tasting skills? Here's your chance. Rail Bridge Cellars' wines and selections from Corti Brothers will be poured blind as part of a sensory evaluation exercise. Food from Corti Brothers' deli will be for the munching, and tours of Rail Bridge Cellars will also be available to interested folks. The tasting statrs at 7:30 p.m. and costs $29. Reservations need to be made in advance. For more information: (916) 492-2530 or e-mail Donal Smith at donalswines@yahoo.com.

Wednesday

L Wine Lounge and Urban Kitchen (1801 L Street Suite 50) is featuring Italian varietals from both Italy and California for this week's tasting. You get to sample five wines for $10, and here's the lineup:

Farnese '05 Sangiovese, Farneto, Italy

Pasos Vineyards '06 Alta Mesa Sangiovese, Lodi

Cooper '06 Estate Barbera, Amador

Braida '06 'Il Baciale', Piedmont, Italy

San Felice '03 Poggio Rosso Chianti Classico Riserva, Tuscany, Italy

The tasting runs from 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. For more information: (916) 443-6970.

Also on Wednesday ... 58 Degrees & Holding Co. (1217 18th St.) is aiming the spotlight on wines from the wines out of the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria. Wines from Curran, featuring former Sea Smoke winemaker Kris Curran, and DiBruno will be poured. $10 for five pours, and the tasting runs from 5 p.m. - 7 p.m. Information: (916) 442-5858.


Friday

Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar (1431 Del Paso Blvd.) is featuring Napa Valley red wines for this week's tasting line-up. Call (916) 922-6792 for the wines and price.

Saturday

Revolution Wines (2116 P St.) is hosting live art demonstrations, holiday music and gifts as part of the Sacramento Christmas Walk & Bazaar. And you can bet plenty of wine tasting will be had as well. $5, with proceeds benefitting the Sacramento Children's Home. The event runs from 12 p.m. - 10 p.m. Information: (916) 444-7711.

December 5, 2008
At the library

Wanted to get this post in sooner, but I just got the info. I was looking for. You see, Capitol Cellars (110 Diamond Creek Place, Roseville) is hosting a tasting of library wines on Saturday from 2 p.m. - 6 p.m. That means the store is going to break open bottles from older vintages and leave that young stuff on the shelf for now. It's a great way to see how a wine's developing, and when it comes to reds, get to taste with some of the puckery tannins smoothed out.

But my question was: which wines are going to be served? It took a bit to find this out, but now we're good to go. Here's the line-up:

2003 Ascent Sierra Foothills Syrah
2004 Barnett Vineyards Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay
2001 Barnett Vineyards Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
2001 Behrens & Hitchcock Oakville Merlot
2000 Behrens & Hitchcock Fortuna Vineyard Merlot
2004 Londer Vineyards Kent Richie Vineyards Chardonnay

"We want to have a fun and educational setting for people," says Marcus Graziano, the owner of Capitol Cellars. "You'll really get to see how a chardonnay can benefit from a couple years of age."

The tasting costs $20, and the wines will be on sale under a very limited availability. For more information: (916) 786-9030.

December 3, 2008
And three cheers for his beers

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Appetizers sends its congratulations to Mike Mraz, an El Dorado Hills resident who was recently named as the Sierra Nevada California Homebrewer of the Year. You pretty much have to be a hero of hops to win this award. This title goes to the homebrewer with the highest point total after competing in three beer competitions: the California State Fair, the California State Homebrewing Competition and the Maltose Falcons Mayfaire. After all the suds were sipped at these competitions and the points were totaled, our man Mike Mraz emerged as "homebrewer of the year."

"You can't brew just one good beer," says Mraz about what it takes to win this title. "There's about 23 different categories that you have to be sufficient with. You need a variety of pale ale, IPA and Belgian specialties. But the one beer that did me the best is the pale ale. Some are too sweet, so I added some more of a hops presence and kept it more balanced."

Mraz has only been brewing for two years and crafts these winning beers when he's not working as a financial planner. These beers are made in 20 gallon batches, and sometimes brewed in his backyard. The bad news for most of us is Mraz isn't allowed to sell his beers, so they're mostly given away to some very lucky family and friends.

The prize booty for this homebrewer award includes $500 and an opportunity to brew a batch of beer at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico. The bragging rights, however, are priceless.

December 2, 2008
Dine on a cheaper dime

The timing of this event isn't the best - you know, right after the New Year when everyone's trying to lose that belly fat from the holidays. But sit-ups and Spanx be darned, it'll soon be time for Dine Downtown Restaurant Week. This all goes down from Jan. 10 - 16, when two dozen downtown eateries offer a fixed three-course menu for $30 per person. That's a great deal for the wallet, maybe not so good for your waist size. Many of downtown's destination restaurants are participating, and they include:

4th Street Grille, 58º and Holding Co., Brew It Up!, The Broiler Steakhouse, Chops Steak, Seafood & Bar, Cosmo Café, Dawson's at the Hyatt, Esquire Grill, Fat City Bar & Café, The Firehouse Restaurant, Frank Fat's, Fuzio, Gaylord India, Grange Restaurant at The Citizen, Il Fornaio, Mason's New American, McCormick & Schmick's, Melting Pot, Morgan's at the Sheraton, Pilot House on The Delta King, Rio City Café, River City Brewing Company, Spataro, and Table 260.

Part of this promotion is meant to keep restaurant seats filled in January, traditionally the slowest month of the year in the restaurant industry. After the financial hangover from holiday shopping, a lot of folks simply opt out from restaurant dining in January. But these prix-fixe menus at $30 a pop is a pretty good way to tempt locals.

So do you plan to pull up a napkin and fork during Dine Downtown Restaurant Week? Leave a comment, por favor.

December 2, 2008
Cheers to these vintners

The latest entrants into the Vintners Hall of Fame have been announced, and this esteemed bunch includes a local connection. Dr. Carole Meredith, a former professor at UC Davis' department of viticulture and enology, is among the honorees for her work in grape genetics. She utilized DNA methods to discover the origins of some of our most favorite wine grapes: cabernet sauvignon, syrah, chardonnay and zinfandel. Dr. Meredith is also the co-owner of Lagier-Meredith, a Napa winery that specializes in an especially spicy version of syrah.

The other honorees include: Gerald Asher (Gourmet magazine), Warren Winiarski (Stag's Leap Wine Cellars), Jess Jackson (Kendall-Jackson Estates), Justin Meyer (co-founder of Silver Oak), and Jack and Jamie Davies (founders of Schramsberg Vineyards). Frederick and Jacob Beringer - founders of Beringer Winery - received this year's Vintners Hall of Fame "Pioneer" award. Inductions, coupled with some very swanky food and wine events, will be held on March 13th and 14th at St. Helena's Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

The nominating committee included two local notables: Mike Dunne, the Bee's recently departed food and wine editor; and grocer/gourmand Darrell Corti, who was a 2008 inductee of the Vintners Hall of Fame.



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