Appetizers
January 30, 2009
Maynard James Keenan and his wines coming to Sacramento

Some of you "Appetizers" faithful might remember my stint as the Bee's pop music critic, so here's an event that has me stoked on a couple of levels. Maynard James Keenan, lead singer for the heavyweight hard rock band Tool, is coming to Whole Foods (4315 Arden Way) on Feb. 19 from 4:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m. When Keenan isn't making mosh pits go buckwild with Tool, he's the vintner behind Arizona Stronghold Vintners and the founder of Caduceus Cellars/Merkin Vineyards. Keenan's wines have traditionally been hard to find in Sacramento, but Whole Foods now carries them with prices ranging from $24.99 to a rock star-ish $109.

But to get a glimpse of Keenan, you first have to buy one of his wines. He won't sign anything but wine bottles at this event, so leave that copy of "Undertow" at home.

Stay tuned for our interview with Keenan, where we can all find out more about the terroir of Arizona's Kansas Settlement and why wine strikes such a big chord in him.

January 29, 2009
Unified Wine & Grape Symposium: talking trends

"The only constant these days is change," said Jim Trezise from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, as he opened one of today's sessions at Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. The topic of the morning was "changing trends in changing times" in the wine industry, and was perhaps the best general session of this wine symposium thus far. Attendance at the Hyatt Regency's ballroom, however, was on the lighter side and due perhaps to all the Unified wining and dining going on last night.

The emphasis on this panel was, like with other discussions over the week, centered around the economy and growing consumption of value wines. The United States is poised to become the largest consumer of wine by 2012, and a key to this rise is the "millennial" generation of ages 32 and under. Research shows that the portion of this demographic that is of legal drinking age is especially interested in drinking wine and more active among other age groups in visiting wine bars and joining wine clubs. But it's value that everyone is looking for, and this new surge in wine interest will be driven by affordable table wines versus high-end trophy bottles.

"The $10 bottle is the new $20 bottle, and the $20 bottle is the new $100 bottle," said John Gillespie of Wine Colleagues, a St. Helena-based advocate for wine businesses.

Rising interest in "foodie" culture, including such movies as "Ratatouille" and the Food Newtork, also bodes well for wine culture, said San Francisco wine consultant Courtney Cochran. But notions of elitism and snobbery in the wine world may be stunting some of this growth. The overall message: opportunities exist for the expansion of wine as a part of everyday American life, even in these tough economic times.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Convention Center's exhibition halls are still buzzing with the trade show. And the crush got especially mighty Wednesday evening as wine tasting featuring various regions around the country got underway. But now, it's time to log off this laptop and head to a seminar on business issues in the wine industry. Salud!


January 28, 2009
Unified Wine & Grape Symposium: a world of wine

Now's the time of the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium when you hear attendees around the Sacramento Convention Center mutter things about needing a power nap, or perhaps a drink. It's been an action packed day so far, with the "state of the industry" panel at 8:30 a.m. and the opening of the massive trade show. Walk inside the Convention Center's exhibit halls, and you'll find just about everything related to the world of wine. We're talking booths on corks, capsules, civil engineering, computer software, consultants, cooperage, crushers ... and that's just the wine-related stuff that starts with "c." Some 575 exhibitors are showing off their wares, and walking around this trade show is resulting in some very tired feet. The good news is that some wine tasting is on tap from 4 p.m. - 6 p.m., with such wine regions as Amador, Lodi, Santa Cruz, Sonoma and more than a dozen other locales showing off their vino. This will be the perfect way to wind down ... but it'll all kick off again on Thursday morning at 9:30 a.m. The general session will be a panel discussion on changing trends in the wine industry, plus another day of smaller group discussions and more trade show action. We'll bring you more highlights ... but now it's about time to locate a glass and get in line.

January 28, 2009
Romantic dinner for two? Make it to go

While nearly every restaurant is trying to entice you to come out to eat on Valentine's Day, David Berkley, the popular wine boutique and delicatessen at the Pavilions, wants to send you home. It's offering a helping hand to those looking for an excellent dinner without having to arrange a babysitter or pay search for parking.

On Valentine's Day (that would be Feb. 14, a Saturday, for the romantically challenged) D.B. will be selling chef-prepared gourmet dinners for two for $79.99. The food can be ordered ahead and picked up on Friday or Saturday. The dinners include an appetizer, Caesar salad, choice of three entrees (filet mignon, stuffed chicken breast or salmon) two sides, dessert and a bottle of sparkling wine.

On this day, of all days, dinner should lead to something more interesting than scrubbing pots and pans.

January 28, 2009
Dining out on the cheap

Local food bloggers and Fleishman-Hillard employees, Sac Foodies, tipped us off to a great way to eat well and save bucks. Restaurant.com offers gift certificates for less than they're worth. Just enter your zip code and order the gift certificates for participating restaurants.

For instance, you can get a $100 gift certificate to Aura for $40. Or a $50 gift certificate for Vallejo's Mexican Restaurant for $20. Or a $10 gift certificate at Kathmandu Kitchen for $3. Happy eating!

January 28, 2009
Unified Wine & Grape Symposium: state of the industry

Day two of the 2009 Unified Wine Grape Symposium kicked off this morning in downtown Sacramento, with E&J Gallo Winery being named "2008 winery of the year." The Modesto-based winery was especially lauded for its bargain-friendly Barefoot Cellars brand, which E&J Gallo purchased in 2005. Barefoot Cellars wines found the largest revenue and volume increases of all brands in food stores, and was the seventh overall largest brand. E&J Gallo's total volume grew by some 1.5 million cases to all markets in 2008.

Bogle Vineyards of Clarksburg and the 7 Deadly Zins brand of Lodi's Michael-David Winery were noted as "hot American brands and wineries in 2008" for their strong sales.

News was mixed in the "state of the industry" report, which opened the morning general session. Sales remain strong for "everyday wines" sold for $7 and under - the "Two Buck Chucks" of the wine world - but a proposed excise surtax on alcoholic beverages remains a specter on the wine industry, especially its potential impact on bargain wines.
Domestic shipments of California wine were up 2 percent in 2008, but this growth was the least seen by the industry in a decade.

Other highlights from the "state of the industry" session:

- The size of domestic wine grape crops is in a three-year decline, and the size of 2008's crop was smaller than the previous year. Vine removal and drought are driving this trend.

- Pinot noir remains an increasingly popular grape for planting, but there are questions of pinot noir's viability in "value" growing regions of California such as the Central Valley. Plantings of pinot noir may also be reaching market capacity.

- The "millennial" generation (ages 32 and under) is seen as key for the growth and viability of the wine industry.

- Sales of wine over the holiday season were overall solid, bucking the downward trends seen at other retail. Cabernet sauvignon at both low and high price points sold exceptionally well, as did bargain chardonnay.

-Frugality is now seen as "hip" and consumers continue to seek values and lower priced wines.

Panelists for the "state of the industry" included: Nat DiBuduo (Allied Grape Growers), Andrew Waterhouse (Univeristy of California, Davis), Jon Fredrikson (Gomberg-Fredrikson & Associates) and Bill Turpentine (Turrentine Brokerage). The panel was moderated by Michael Silacci (Opus One, and president of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture).

January 28, 2009
Cheers at de Vere's

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Sacramento has lagged far behind other cities with the Irish pub concept - the one where there seems to be a bar on every corner with cardboard shamrock cut outs in the windows and Guinness on tap. De Vere's Irish Pub may change that.

De Vere's is the project of three Sacramento brothers - two born in Ireland - who believe an Irish pub should be the center of a community. And even in tough economic times, the pub is where people in that community come for a pint to celebrate the good and commiserate over the bad.

The spot at 16th and L streets is not only Irish in spirit, the furniture and bars were built in Ireland and installed by Irish workers brought over to make sure it was done just like the Irish do. And the decor has family ties - pottery formed by a grandmother, books written by a grandfather.

The pub has been open for a few weeks to get the staff out of the green, and the grand opening will be Friday. Read my story and I'll pass you your Guinness.
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January 28, 2009
Football for cookies

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Someone once told me that my stock would go up if I actually liked football. Well, if these cookies were at the party, I might show up.

Ettore's European Bakery & Restaurant in Sacramento is offering sugar cookies with vegetable dye icing featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals logos, as well as one with the Tampa Bay Super Bowl logo. The cookies cost $2.25 each. Call ahead to order. And save one for me please.

January 27, 2009
A bit of Placerville at Bocuse d'Or competition

"Appetizers" is rooting right now for Timothy Hollingsworth, a chef with Placerville roots who is representing the United States in the Bocuse d'Or. This is the mother-of-all international cooking competitions, held every two years in Lyon, France and founded by Paul Bocuse (a.k.a. "the father of modern French cooking"). The first day of this two-day competition kicked off today, and Hollingsworth and his team are hoping to become the first Americans to win the Bocuse d'Or.

Hollingsworth, a 28-year-old chef at the French Laundry in Yountville, has spent the last three months on sabbatical and preparing for the competition in a training kitchen. He's required to prepare eight dishes for a panel of 24 international judges, and yes, this is one pressure cooker of a contest.

Go Placerville!

For more on Hollingsworth and the Bocuse d'Or, check this story from the Los Angeles Times.

The New York Times is also blogging from the Bocuse d'Or.

January 27, 2009
Unified Wine & Grape Symposium open for business

The wine industry descended on downtown Sacramento this morning for the opening of the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. Now in its 15th year, the event gathers winemakers, grape growers, marketing professionals, enologists and other related professions for the country's largest wine and grape conference. More than 11,000 attendees are expected over the duration of the event, which runs through Friday at the Sacramento Convention Center and downtown's Hyatt Regency hotel.

Navigating through economic hard times is an overriding theme of this year's event. The symposium opened with a general session titled "Why business is embracing sustainability," with a panel of speakers talking about the value of eco-friendly wine growing for both business and farming concerns. Ken McCorkle, executive vice president of agricultural industries for Wells Fargo Bank, started his presentation with a sobering array of graphs and charts that illustrated the challenging economic climate. McCorkle's overall message: wineries can save money and keep themselves competitive by going "sustainable" and reducing costs related to energy, water, chemicals and other factors.

Tom Selfridge, president of Hess Winery, illustrated some of these savings related to sustainability in his remarks. Selfridge noted that Hess Winery was saving more than $11,000 annually from reduced energy usage, and an additional $3,000 annually by recycling. The winery also saves $1 per case by using eco-friendly practices related to labels and bottling.

Getting the idea of "sustainability" to resonate in the marketplace is still a challenge, said Laurie Demeritt of the Hartman Group, a market research and consulting group based in Washington. Based on a recent survey, Demeritt noted that many consumers are still vague on the idea of sustainability, with some thinking the term refers to food that'll keep you extra full instead of eco-friendly. She recommended that wineries not use the term "sustainability" for consumer marketing, but such terms as "responsible" and "green" are embraced more easily by consumers. Recent research also shows varying levels of intensity from consumers regarding "sustainability," but wine buyers are also somewhat willing to pay a premium for eco-friendly wines.

Gene Kahn, global sustainability officer for General Mills, spoke on eco-friendly practices related to the packaged goods industry. Kahn argued that sustainability needs to be a mainstream concept and opportunity, not just for niche products.

"(Sustainability) is a process, not a product," said Kahn.

The rest of Tuesday's symposium is dedicated to smaller panel discussions on technical issues of grape growing and wine making (i.e. Fertility and weed management practices: costs and benefits). Wednesday's symposium opens with a "state of the industry" general session, and expect a lot more commentary on how the economic downturn is affecting the wine industry. A trade show at the Sacramento Convention Center will also open, with some 575 exhibitors showing off the latest technologies and products related to the wine and grape industry.

Stay tuned for more dispatches from Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.

January 26, 2009
My lunch was better than yours

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Midtown boutique Le Petit Paris has always been one of my favorite spots for a unique birthday or housewarming gift. One friend got a lovely Lagouile knife set I should have bought two of - so I could have kept one for myself.

Now, the boutique is also a cafe with delectable soups, a full espresso bar with French pressed coffee, wines, beers and a dessert case filled with mouthwatering creations like profiteroles, creme brulees and macarons.

I opted for a tartine with ham, brie and fig jam for just $5.95. I'll stop in for a breakfast of yogurt and granola soon, after a chocolate croissant appetizer of course.

January 26, 2009
Breakfast on IKEA

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OK, so the IKEA breakfast is actually only 99 cents, and the coffee costs another 99 cents, but when times are tough a dollar is a dollar. So head on over to the IKEA in West Sacramento on Friday, Jan. 30, through Sunday, Feb. 1, and get a free breakfast until 10:30 a.m.

Maybe you don't really need anything for your home, but the 99 cent toilet brush is always worth the trip over. You can always use a new toilet brush.

January 26, 2009
Drowning in recipes

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There are the computer printouts for portabella mushroom sandwiches. There are the recipes torn from newspapers and magazines promising the easiest of lasagnas and the best way to poach eggs. There are the hand-written cards with your best friend's salad dressing and pomegranate relish. And they're all stuffed into cabinets, cookbooks and oddly, the silverware drawer.

Get a grip on your recipes. There are several online tools to help you upload and catalogue recipes. BigOven and MacGourmet charge for their software. But you can search, email and print recipes easily. WeGottaEat is free but there isn't a handy importing process.

January 21, 2009
Thunder Valley Casino chef competes nationally

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Alex Talledo, chef at Austins Steakhouse at the Thunder Valley Casino, placed first in California's National Pork Board competition at the Fancy Food Show, meaning he will represent the state in a national competition in June.

Here is his winning recipe:

CHILI MARINATED PORK LOIN
WITH AJI AMARILLO POSOLE AND BRAISED PORK BELLY

PORK STOCK:
· 7 pounds pork marrow bones, sawed into 2-inch pieces
· 4 pounds of pigs feet cut
· 8 ounces tomato paste
· 2 cups chopped onions
· 1 cup chopped carrots
· 1 cup chopped celery
· 2 cups port wine
· 1 bouquet garni
· Salt and pepper
· 8 quarts water
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Place bones in a shallow roasting pan. Roast the bones and feet for 1 hour. Remove the bones from the oven and brush with the tomato paste.
In a mixing bowl, toss the vegetables. Lay the vegetables on top of the bones and return to the oven. Roast for 30 minutes. Pour off any excess fat.
Place the roasting pan on the stove, over high heat. Using a wooden spoon, deglaze the pan with the red wine, scraping the pan and loosening any brown particles.
Place everything in a large stock pot. Add the bouquet garni and water. Bring the liquid up to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Season the liquid with salt and pepper. Simmer the stock for 4 hours.
Remove the stock from the heat and strain through a China cap. Save pork feet skins for garnish, when sliced they look like sliced shitake mushrooms.

CHILI MARINADE:
· 2 fresh whole jalapeños
· 4 dried aji amarillo (yellow hot chili pepper, available in Spanish markets)
· 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
· 1/2 cup minced onions
· 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
· 6 limes, juiced
· 2 cups vegetable oil
· Salt
· Bone in pork loin
TAMARIND GLAZE:
· 1/2 cup seeded tamarind paste, ingredients should specify 100-percent tamarind extract. (Available in Asian markets)
· 1 tablespoon crushed aji amarillo
· 1 tablespoon honey
· 1/4 cup ketchup
· 2 tablespoons water
· 1 clove garlic, minced
Place tamarind paste and other glaze ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. Set aside.
In a food processor with a metal blade, combine the jalapeños, aji amarillo, cilantro, onions, garlic, lime juice and vegetable oil. Process until smooth. Season with salt.
Season the loin with salt. Pour half the marinade into the loin. Refrigerate for 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Remove the loin, reserving the marinade. Allow the loin to come to room temperature.
On a very hot pan, sear and put in the oven. Baste often with reserved marinade.
Remove from heat and coat with the tamarind glaze and rest for 5 minutes in a warm place.

POSOLE:
· 2 tablespoons olive oil
· 1 pound pork belly, cut into 1-inch pieces
· 2 cups chopped onions
· 2 pound fresh hominy
· 2 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped plum tomatoes
· 2 tablespoons minced garlic
· 2 tablespoon crushed aji amarillo
· Pinch of cumin
· 3 quarts pork stock
· 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
· Salt and pepper
In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil. When the oil is hot, sear the meat for about 2 minutes. Add the onions and continue cooking for 2 minutes.
Stir in the hominy, tomatoes, and garlic. Season the mixture with crushed aji amarillo and cumin. Stir in the stock and bring up to simmer. Season the liquid with salt and pepper.
Reduce the stock to a simmer and cover with aluminum foil and put into a 300-degree oven, cooking for about 3 hours.
Put back on the stove degrease and reduce until the stew thickens. Stir in the cilantro.

TO ASSEMBLE:
Ladle broth into a shallow bowl. Garnish with red jalapeños, julienned onions and fresh cilantro. Then add 3-ounces of pork belly into middle of plate. Rest pork loin chop on top and serve.

January 21, 2009
Michael-David's big win @ Chronicle Wine Competition

Think Lodi is just the land of zinfandel? Michael-David Winery showed that its cabernet sauvignon can beat the big boys from Napa. The Michael-David 2004 Rapture Cabernet Sauvignon recently won "best of class" at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Compeition in the category for "cabernet sauvignon - $45 and over." The competition included such venerable Napa wineries as Clos Du Val, Cakebread Cellars and Turnbull Wine Cellars.

"We're proving that Lodi can keep company with some of California's most celebrated winemaking regions," said Mike Phillips, the co-owner of Michael-David, in a statement.

The Rapture 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $59, and can be ordered here.

Michael-David nabbed a number of other awards at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Compeition: "Best of class" in the $15 to $25 Syrah category for the 2005 6th Sense Syrah; double gold for the 2005 Earthquake Cabernet Sauvignon; gold medals for the 2007 7 Heavenly Chards, the 2005 Earthquake Petite Syrah, 2006 Gluttony Zinfandel and 2006 Windmill Petite Sirah.

In news related to local winners in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, here's a piece about Casque Wines from Loomis, which won best of class in the category for "Rhone, Other White Varietals and Blends."

January 21, 2009
Tea represents at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco

Tea was the next big thing at the Fancy Food Show that ended Tuesday - tea hot or cold, tea as mints (eat three and supposedly get as many antioxidants as a cup of regular green tea), tea for kids, tea powder, tea bars and tea for good health. It seemed there was a tea maker or purveyor on every one of the hundreds of aisles filling Moscone Center.

Look out for a Food and Wine story in the next few weeks breaking it all down.

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January 20, 2009
Wining and (Inaugural) dining

Here's a link to the Inaugural lunch menu, a feast that was held earlier at the U.S. Capitol. This lunch was a three-course affair paired with three California wines: Duckhorn Vineyards 2007 sauvignon blanc, Goldeneye 2005 Anderson Valley pinot noir and Korbel Natural "Special Inaugural Cuvee" sparkling wine.

If you want to sip like a head of state
, here are some tips on finding two of these wines around Sacramento:

Duckhorn Vineyards 2007 sauvignon blanc
Note: This tangy and toasty sauvignon blanc from Napa is a fairly creamy expression of the varietal. This wine also includes 25% semillon, and 13.5 percent alcohol.
Cost: Approx. $27.
Available at: Beyond Napa Wine Merchants (2580 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; 916-481-8665); Capitol Cellars, (110 Diamond Creek Place, Roseville; 916-786-9030); Selland's Market Cafe (5340 H St.; 916-736-3333) and Whole Foods stores.

Goldeneye 2005 Anderson Valley pinot noir
Note: An offshoot of Duckhorn, this winery specializes in pinot noir from Anderson Valley with cherry and strawberry notes. 14.5 percent alcohol.
Cost: Approx. $55
Available at: Beyond Napa Wine Merchants, and Capitol Cellars.

January 20, 2009
More kudos for Corti

Darrell Corti, the grocer and gourmand behind Corti Brothers, is set to receive an award for his dedication to Italian wines. On Jan. 27 Corti will be inaugurated into the Italian Trade Commission's Hall of Fame at a dinner and ceremony in New York City, with such fellow inductees as Piero Selvaggio (Valentino Ristorante; Santa Monica, Ca.), Burton Anderson (author of "The Wines Atlas of Italy") and Victor Hazan (author of "Italian Wine").

It's the second hall of fame honor for Corti in two years. In March of 2008, Corti was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame, along with such wine legends as Paul Draper (Ridge Vineyards) and Milijenko "Mike" Grgich (Grgich Hills Winery). These upcoming accolades are for "outstanding leadership, contribution and lifelong dedication to the appreciation, education and marketing of Italian wines in the U.S."

January 16, 2009
I'll drink to that

Got some good news that I wanted to share. I just found out that I've won a fellowship to attend the 2009 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, to be held over four days next month at Meadowood in Napa Valley. I'd sent my clips to the judging panel in December, keeping my fingers crossed that I'd score one of these fellowships worth $1,600. The symposium is a great opportunity to meet and learn from some of the top wine writers in the country. The speakers this year include:

Eric Asimov - chief wine critic from the New York Times and author of "The Pour" (one of my favorite wine blogs)

Karen MacNeil - author of "The Wine Bible"

Frank Prial - longtime New York Times reporter and wine columnist

Barbara Fairchild - editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit

Ted and Matt Lee - brothers and wine columnists for Martha Stewart Living.

So I'll be spending my time in writing workshops, discussing current issues in wine and food journalism, and yes, drinking some wine and fine tuning my palate during tasting panels. Some of the wineries involved in sponsoring the fellowship program include: Blackbird Vineyards, Far Niente, Peju, Plumpjack, Robert Mondavi Winery, Shafer Vineyards and Silverado Vineyards.

I'll be blogging here during some of my downtime at the symposium. In the meantime, it's back to more wine writing - but with my mind on Napa next month.

January 16, 2009
Interview on Capitol Public Radio

I recently had the pleasure of dining with Jeffrey Callison, host of the afternoon interview show "Insight" on Capitol Public Radio. Jeffrey contacted me and wanted to see what it would be like to dine undercover as a critic. I told him he could tag along -- as long as he agreed to my terms. I stopped short of requiring him to dress as a woman. I'm saving that for if Armstrong & Getty ever call.

Jeffrey played along with good cheer, arriving at the restaurant and identifying me by the agreed upon code name. I wore my best toupe, so there's a good chance he will not recognize me again.

Jeffrey ordered what I suggested at a restaurant that was wonderfully alive, a small room but cozy and authentic. In no time, he was a critic himself, wondering where our server had disappeared to and, at the close of the evening, pointing out that his bread pudding lacked raisins. I'm not sure I would deduct points for missing raisins, but I appreciated his eye for detail. Being Scottish, Jeffrey has had plenty of bread pudding in his time.

Over dinner, I seemed to be asking most of the questions and we had a nice chat. I certainly enjoyed his company. The following day, I appeared on his show. Here is the link if you want to hear it (I come on after 10-15 minutes):

http://www.capradio.org/programs/insight/default.aspx?showid=5787

January 15, 2009
Korean BBQ satisfies all


The doom and gloom of the economy sure drives one to comfort eat, but with cash flow dwindling, what's a gal to do?

Head on over the rainbow to Oz Korean BBQ on Bradshaw Road for all-you-can-eat meat, rice and side dishes. It costs $17.99 Sunday through Thursday, or $18.99 on Friday and Saturday. And it's a carnivorous wonder of Korean favorites like bulgogi and galbi brought raw and heaping on plates to your table for you to cook up at the tabletop grill. The side dishes of kim chi, bean sprouts and pickled cucumbers get replenished as well, and expect to loosen your belt after the meal - although I still had room for the ice cream ball rolled in multi-colored crunchy flakes for dessert.

Leave your vegetarian friends at home, (sorry Carlos), everyone at the table is required to partake, otherwise everyone has to order off the a la carte menu.

Jal mokesumnida!


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January 15, 2009
And the survey says ...

The results are in from Zagat Survey's first guide to Sacramento restaurants. 192 Sacramento area restaurants were sampled and the findings are based on the opinions of 1,264 local diners. And they consumed a lot of grub to come to these conclusions.

These diners ate more than 200,000 meals in 2008, and one of the big results: Sacramento meal prices are a relative baragain compared to the rest of the country. The average meal price was $28.43, compared to Zagat's national average of $34.03. In Sacramento's 20 most expensive restaurants, the average meal was $53.30, more than $20 less than the Zagat national average of $75.26.

The average food rating for Sacramento area restaurants also showed well. Sacramento's average food rating was 21.28 on Zagat's 30 point rating scale, just slightly higher than the national average of 21.15. Sacramento's average food rating of 21.28 was sandwiched between two venerable food towns: San Francisco (21.29) and Chicago (21.25).

According to Zagat, Sacramentans ate an average of 3.1 restaurant meals per week (the national average was 3.3). The guide was edited by Kate Washington, Carol Diuguid and Bill Corsello. We're still trying to nail down the date when the Zagat Survey for Sacramento will be released, but in the meantime here are more results:

Top 10 Most Popular

1. Mikuni
2. Biba
3. Waterboy
4. Ella Dining Room and Bar
5. Mulvaney's
6. The Kitchen
7. Il Fornaio
8. Fat's Asia Bistro
9. Ruth's Chris Steak House
10. Firehouse

Top 10 Food

1. La Bonne Soupe Cafe
2. The Kitchen
3. Waterboy
4. Mulvaney's
5. Biba
6. Ella Dining Room and Bar
7. Hawks
8. Tuli
9. Mikuni
10. Kru

Top Five Service

1. The Kitchen
2. Mulvaney's
3. Hawks
4. Waterboy
5. Ella

Top Five Best Buys

1. Whitey's Jolly Kone
2. La Bonne Soupe Cafe
3. Rick's Dessert Diner
4. Willie's Burgers
5. Squeeze Inn

January 14, 2009
How old is your olive oil?

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Olive oil is supposed to be good for you - it is known to lower levels of that bad kind of cholesterol. But how old is the bottle in your cupboard? If you say more than six months, you might want to toss it and educate yourself a bit more with some facts. You can also see how grocery store olive oils fared in a Bee taste test. And find out what Kurt Spataro uses at home.

If you really want to test your bravery, grab a couple of bottles and have a tasting party.

January 13, 2009
Sipping on some Selland

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The four set out for Sonoma County this past Sunday morning with a single goal: blend a wine that will be sold later this year by the Selland family of restaurants. The sleepy eyed team included Josh Nelson (general manager of Ella Dining Room & Bar) and three sommelliers - Doug Nitchman (The Kitchen), David Baker (Selland's Market Cafe) and Joe Vaccaro (Ella). And the end of the road was Hirsch Vineyards, a premium wine producer especially noted for its pinot noir.

Hirsch winemaker Mark Doherty was there to help, as the crew from Sacramento tasted through 27 barrel samples of pinot noir and pondered which mix would make for the perfect blend. They also walked through the various vineyard blocks at Hirsch to get a better sense of their wine.

Tasting through all the samples and figuring what to blend was tougher than expected. But by 4 p.m., they had produced a pinot noir that'll be ready for bottling in March.

"To me, the wine had a kind of red and purple fruit to it," says Nelson. "It also had underlying minerality which was really nice. It definitely has a floral side to it as well. We used only 35 percent new oak. It's not too earthy. We wanted to have something that would be approachable right away and ready to serve in our restaurants."

So what to call this blend? That's still being decided, but expect a Hirsch labeling with perhaps a "Selland Family Selection" to designate this special blend. The price of this bottle is also being worked out, but Nelson expects a retail cost of $45 per bottle. Look for this pinot noir in a couple months on the wine lists at The Kitchen, Ella and Selland's Market Cafe.

"This was a really challenging process," says Nelson. "I walked out with a little more respect for winemakers."

January 8, 2009
Vegetarian on Valentine's Day

It may be too soon to be talking about that day when all singles remember they are indeed single. But if you're a vegetarian and want a night on the town, Deneb Williams at The Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento has got your best root vegetables in his thoughts.

Along with a regular Valentine's Day menu listed on the restaurant's Web site, Williams has come up with a five-course vegetarian and vegan menu with such treats as roasted beet tartare - oven-roasted beets wth olive oil and herbs served with garlic crostini; a honey-lavender Waldorf salad with a poppy seed vinaigrette; lentil croquettes - roasted root vegetables and lentils, along with mashed potatoes topped with a wild mushroom and miso gravy; and desserts such as a berry crisp or a chocolate-raspberry mousse cake.

The set menu costs a steep $115, the same as the regular Valentine's Day dinner, but broccoli huggers need love too.

January 8, 2009
Spend $30 and call it dinner

Starting Saturday, it's that time when you can eat in some of Sacramento's best restaurants for $30. Every year for a week in January, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership sponsors "Dine Downtown" - get three courses, as in a starter, main and dessert, and help generate business at a usually slow time for the restaurant business.

Add some wine, and it's not quite cheap eats. But it is a chance to check out some of the pricier restaurants for a little less damage to the wallet. Most of the participating restaurants offer choices for each course, while others have one set menu.

From the choices at 58 Degrees & Holding, I would pick the wild mushroom soup with parmesan foam and white truffle oil; baked ziti with broccoli, butternut squash, sage cream sauce and garlic bread chips; and the pistachio affogato. Mmm. I'll even wear jeans just to insult Blair (see posts below).

New hotspot, Grange Restaurant & Bar at the Citizen Hotel is also partaking - with a set menu of a farm lettuce salad with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and a fig balsamic vinaigrette; porcini mushroom risotto; and a bittersweet chocolate espresso and orange torte. (Check out Blair's review.)

And if you can't check out the Grange during the Dine Downtown week (Jan. 10-16), the restaurant is offering specials for lunch and dinner. A two-course weekday lunch goes for $17 with entrees changing daily such as grilled cheese on Mondays, cioppino on Tuesdays, and fried chicken on Thursdays. A three-course dinner will go for $45 with entrees such as cassoulet on Mondays, whole fish on Fridays and smoke-roasted prime rib on Saturdays.


January 8, 2009
Got beef?

Home chefs, here's a chance to show off your prized beef recipes - and perhaps win a meaty wad of cash as well. The 28th National Beef Cook-Off is seeking your beef recipes by March 31. A premium will be placed on recipes with a healthy bent, and the press release says, "Recipe entries should shine with great taste, health and convenience and should yield four to six servings."

15 finalists will be selected for a final competition in Sonoma on Sept. 23. The grand prize winner nets $25,000, three category winners take home $10,000 each and three runner-ups will receive $5,000. Now doesn't that make your mouth water?

For more details and information, surf over to www.beefcookoff.org.

January 5, 2009
The keg is tapped at the Oasis

In this latest installment of local restaurant closures, the Sacramento Brewing Company's Oasis (7811 Madison Ave., Citrus Heights) closed today after 13 years of serving beers. This news was passed along in an e-mail from Peter Hoey, the brewmaster at Sacramento Brewing Company. But not all is lost for beer aficionados. The Town and Country location remains open (2713 El Paseo Lane, Sacramento) and the brewery's distrubution will continue throughout the Sacramento area, southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.

"While closing the one restaurant is not good it is allowing us to focus on our brewpub and continue to serve our local community tasty craft beer," said Hoey in an e-mail.

For more information, including what to do if you purchased a keg from the Oasis, check out the Sacramento Brewing Company's blog.

January 2, 2009
Eat more, save bucks

Economic slowdown, bear market, turmoil. It's grim out there in the world, but eating is something that's non-negotiable. Save cash by knowing where to go and when. I wrote a story listing some cheap eats back in September. Who can beat dollar sushi?

Inspired by this, reader Darrel Ng put together a Web site listing about 50 happy hours around Sacramento, mainly Midtown spots. Search by day - so that, say you're meeting a friend after work on Wednesday, you can hit up $2 sliders at Dragonfly or $5 mac-and-cheese poppers at GV Hurley's. Check out the site here.



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