Appetizers
February 28, 2011
Free pancakes at IHOP Tuesday

FOOD_PANCAKES_5_TB.JPGBy Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

What can make a short stack of buttermilk pancakes taste better? Knowing that they're free, and that any money donated will benefit children's hospitals.

Tuesday is National Pancake Day at IHOP and the chain is giving away short stacks of fluffy pancakes to help raise awareness and funding for Children's Miracle Network hospitals.

IHOP served four million free pancakes last year and donated more than $2.1 million to children's charities. This year, the chain is hoping to raise $2.3 million, according to an IHOP news release.

February 28, 2011
Monday postscript: Pangaea and de Vere's

By Blair Anthony Robertson
brobertson@sacbee.com

I heard plenty of positive things from readers - and a couple of negative things - after my reviews yesterday of two exciting places that serve beer, this being Beer Week.

Of course, there are plenty of other fine establishments with a Beer Week agenda, and I encourage you to drop by several and get a sense of their different approaches. In fact, if you're looking for a watering hole to call home, whether you're new to town or have simply made a new commitment to start drinking more often to balance out all that time you put in at work and in the gym, this is a good week for you to be making the rounds. Remember, it's all about balance.

February 28, 2011
Breakfast from the Farmers Market

By Blair Anthony Robertson
brobertson@sacbee.com

photo (4).JPGCheck out our breakfast this morning, made with products from the Sunday Farmers Market.

The bacon is from Bledsoe Pork, where the affable John Bledsoe has gained fame as the supplier to Mulvaney's and several other top restaurants. The eggs are from the poultry vendor right next to Bledsoe, sold to us by a shivering woman who was without a portable heater.

The bacon was thick and beautiful, and it fried up in the cast iron pan much differently than the cheaper bacon you see at grocery stores. It held its shape, didn't curl and shrivel, and just look how good it looks when it is browned.

We got to the Farmers Market relatively early, but the eggs were nearly sold out. Again, these are significantly different than cheaper commodity eggs. The yolks are bright orange, as you can see, and the flavor is much better. Not shown is the three-egg omelet I made. The color of the beaten eggs was noticeably deeper than what many might be used to. This is why you'll often hear good chefs urge people following their recipes to use the best eggs they can get. The payoff is in the flavor.

To finish the breakfast, we had some excellent strawberries and honey roasted almonds, also from our Farmers Market excursion. It was a great way to start the morning -- and the kitchen smells terrific! It certainly got Oscar's attention.

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February 25, 2011
New farmers market is coming to Sunrise Mall on March 5

By Allen Pierleoni
apierleoni@sacbee.com

The Sunrise Mall in Citrus Heights is getting a new "tenant," it was announced Friday - a Saturday farmers market, debuting March 5.

This comes a year after the Certified Farmers Market left its space in the Sears parking lot behind the mall's main entrance after a 23-year presence. It relocated to the Sunrise light-rail station at Sunrise and Folsom boulevards near Highway 50, in Rancho Cordova.

The new farmers market is being opened by the Carmichael-based BeMoneySmartUSA, which describes itself as a "non-profit training company specializing in providing youth with financial-, business- and career-education programs" (www.bemoneysmartusa.org).

February 25, 2011
Are Girl Scouts Taking us to the cleaners?

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By Blair Anthony Robertson
brobertson@sacbee.com

OK, so we don't want to jump all over the Girl Scouts. We love their cookies -- at least we used to.

But check out this photo: On the left is the peanut butter sandwich cookie sold by the Girl Scouts. On the right is a peanut butter cream cookie made by Back to Nature, which we bought at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.

Not only does the cookie on the left have "partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil," but the amount of filling is just insulting. Bernie Madoff wouldn't sell these cookies.

Perhaps now is the time for the Girl Scouts to learn a little something about quality control and get more involved in the oversight of the cookie process. According to the box, the cookies are made by ABC Bakers/Interbake Foods in Richmond Va.

Sure, it's great that the Girl Scouts raise money by satisfying the nation's sweet tooth. They've been doing so for 100 years. In fact, being accosted by moms at folding tables outside grocery stores while their daughters talk amongst themselves and barely pay attention is one of the great American traditions.

But let's reinvent these woeful cookies. First, we wouldn't feed partially hydrogenated oil to terrorists, so let's get it out of these all-American cookies. It's pretty much a consensus that this stuff is sinful. Looking at the list of ingredients of both cookies, the worst culprits appear to be vegetable shortening and corn syrup.

Then let's add actual filling that amounts to more than a dollop. Perhaps it's time to contract with a baking outfit that aims to produce a significantly better product, one that mimics the original Girl Scout home-baked cookies of generations past.

Certainly, cookies are never going to be mistaken for health food, but they don't have to be this bad.

Make a better, marginally healthier cookie, Girl Scouts, and next year I won't pretend I'm answering my iPhone every time I walk past your folding tables.

February 25, 2011
Racer Scott Pruett hosts special wine dinner

By Debbie Arrington
darrington@sacbee.com

Auburn's Scott Pruett, arguably America's winningest road racer, has had plenty to celebrate, including his record fourth Rolex 24 at Daytona victory last month.

But at 6 p.m. Saturday night, the race-car driver-turned-vintner toasts something totally different: His first winemaker's dinner featuring his homegrown Pruett Vineyards wines.

A few seats remain for this special event at Carpe Vino restaurant in old town Auburn.

"There is absolutely no question that winning nine races in 2010 and my fourth Grand-Am Championship is a career-defining accomplishment," Pruett said. "But bottling the first vintage of Pruett Vineyard as a bonded winery with my wife, Judy, is as personally satisfying as any of my greatest moments in racing."

February 25, 2011
Elk Grove library to host teen cooking competition

By Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

Teenage culinarians take note: you could be the next Iron Chef.

The Elk Grove Library is hosting a cooking competition modeled after the popular Japanese "Iron Chef" show that has launched a popular American offshoot on the Food Network.

The competition, held March 31 at the library, is open to 13 to 18 year old cooks, said Elsie Mak, the branch's librarian.

The library has held food programs for adults before, including strawberry jam making, pickling and raw food programs, but this will be the first food program for teenagers.

February 24, 2011
Sacramento Beer Week kicks off tonight

By Chris Macias
cmacias@sacbee.com

This blog's going to be looking fairly sudsy for the immediate future now that Sacramento Beer Week is kicking off. In terms of beer, a week is more like 10 days with this second annual event that runs from tonight through March 6. So get thirsty and head down to the Crocker Art Museum (216 O St., Sacramento) from 5 p.m. - 9 p.m. tonight for the Sacramento Brewers Showcase. Local music, small plates from Mulvaney's B&L and of course plenty of local beers will all be on tap. $20 gets you 10 tastes of beer.

And that's just for starters. Sacramento Beer Week feature more than 300 events, and we'll have some highlights in tomorrow's Ticket section. For a full line-up of events at Sacramento Beer Week, visit their web site.

Note: Sacramento Beer Week organizers want everyone to have a good time but stay safe, so keep a cab number handy or designated driver as you proceed through the week.

February 24, 2011
Two reviews on tap to celebrate Beer Week

photo (2).JPGIn honor of Beer Week, which begins Saturday with many exciting events at pubs and restaurants throughout the Sacramento area, I am working on two separate reviews of places that serve beer really well: deVere's Irish Pub and Pangaea Two Brews Cafe.

Those reviews will run Sunday. If you haven't been to Pangaea, here is a shot of the excellent beer list.

February 23, 2011
Exit Plum Blossom, enter all things garlic

There's plenty of mystery but not much intrigue about the sudden closing of Plum Blossom, the semi-popular, semi-decent Chinese food joint on J Street at 19th.

When I was out walking the dogs the other night, I noticed the windows had been papered over (I applaud this progressive re-use of The Bee), and a sign said the place had closed. It was pretty much "Thanks, we're outta here."

Now, we learn via friend and reporter Suzanne Hurt's story in the Sacramento Press, that the prime location isn't sitting idle for long.

February 22, 2011
'Wild Table' dinner coming to Ella

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PHOTO CREDIT: Todd Humphries, executive chef and co-owner of the St. Helena restaurant Martini House smells the flavor of a matsutake mushroom he found in the hills near Angwin Monday, Jan. 12, 2009. Randy Pench, Sacramento Bee

By Chris Macias
cmacias@sacbee.com

A couple years ago, the Bee followed wild food expert Connie Green around a Napa County forest as she foraged for mushrooms. The story also included Todd Humphries, the chef of St. Helena's Martini House with a Michelin star to his credit, who also champions the culinary delicacy of mushrooms. The two are now teaming up with Kelly McCown, executive chef of Ella Dining Room & Bar, for a "wild table" dinner on Sunday at Ella.

The five-course meal features such prized fungi as dentinum hydnum umbilicatum and boletus edulis,paired with such dishes as braised pork belly and roasted Millbrook venison. The dinner also reunites Humphries with McCown, as the Ella chef served as chef de cuisine under Humphries at Martini House. The price is $125 per head, which is on par with dinner at Ella's sister restaurant, The Kitchen. If you've got some money to burn on a gastronomic feast, this mushroom dinner should suit you well.

For more information:
(916) 443-3772.

February 21, 2011
Monday postscript: huge lines at Chando's Tacos

By Blair Anthony Robertson
brobertson@sacbee.com

On Sunday, I wrote a very favorable review of a modest little taco joint. I talked about the wonderful flavors of the meats, the commitment of the owner and his employees, and the excitement of having such a stellar place to enjoy the best of Tijuana street food right here in Sacramento.

So how did Chando's Tacos do on Sunday? I called Chando - Lisidro Madrigal - after closing time to ask. I already had a pretty good clue. At about 2 p.m., he called me while I was out on a bike ride. Chando explained they were slammed with customers from the moment they opened and that he was on his way to the store to get more supplies.

By the time I called him at 8:30 p.m., Chando and his employees were bleary-eyed, dead tired and more than a little overwhelmed.

February 18, 2011
Sizzler chain adds tri-tip to its menus, but wait -- there's more

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By Allen Pierleoni
apierleoni@sacbee.com

What do we know about that succulent cut of meat known as the tri-tip? Several things - not the least of which is this: A freshly cut and grilled 6-ounce tri-tip steak, and an invite to the "endless salad bar," is yours at the six Sizzler restaurants in the Sacramento area. The cost: $10.99 (www.sizzler.com).

The Sizzler chain does business in 12 states, with 111 units in California.

Now, about that tri-tip:
- It was dubbed the "California Cut" by the California Beef Council for two reasons: It was first popularized in the 1950s in Santa Maria, and it remains largely unknown outside of California.

- Tri-tip is one of the three muscles in the bottom sirloin of the steer.

- Because it gets along so well with marinades, it's the king of the California grill.

- More than 400,000 pounds of aged black Angus tri-tip are sold through the Buckhorn steakhouse in Winters and Buckhorn Grills in the Bay Area, Napa Valley and Sacramento (1801 L St., (916) 446.3757; www.buckhorngrill.com).

- New York City was introduced to tri-tip in January 2010 at the Tri Tip Grill at Rockefeller Center.

- The tri-tip sandwich is the No. 1 meal sold at Raley Field during the Sacramento River Cats baseball season.

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni at (916) 321-1128.

February 17, 2011
Fresh-baked sourdough to share with co-workers

bread2.JPGBy Blair Anthony Robertson
brobertson@sacbee.com
Not to rub it in or anything, but I brought in a loaf of sourdough bread I baked this afternoon -- hot out of the oven.

I like to do this fairly regularly because it's fun to share food and, well, it's important that I don't eat all my bread myself.

This is the sourdough made with the techniques from the great new book, "Tartine Bread" by Chad Robertson. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago.

The most popular accompaniment on this cold, rainy Thursday was some excellent brie from the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op called "Fromager D'Affinois Brie." Highly recommended. The best pairing was by higher education writer Laurel Rosenhall, who enjoyed the bread with her homemade soup.

February 17, 2011
Food Network chef to teach cooking class at IKEA

PICK_OF_THE_DAY.JPGBy Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

Forget cookbooks, home cooks are increasingly turning to the Internet to learn how to roast, grill, bake and broil.

That's why you'll find a banquet of culinary legends like Martin Yan and Sara Masaharu Morimoto offering instructional videos at Food University, a free online cooking resource presented by IKEA and Family Circle.

But wait, there's more.

They're also getting ready to launch another culinary tour, where celebrity chefs will guide home cooks through free cooking seminars. And it's coming to West Sacramento.

Food Network's Curtis Aikens, a chef who has been with the cable network since its inception and also is a regular on Good Morning America, will be leading the seminar from 2 to 4 p.m. March 19 at the West Sacramento IKEA.

Aikens, who hosted "Pick of the Day" and is known for his healthful recipes, is one of the few African-American chefs featured on national television, a Food U Properties news release states.

The in-store cooking seminar will feature Aikens demonstrating Family Circle recipes and talking about the importance of local produce, using spices, ideas for quick and easy recipes and tips for entertaining, the release states.

Click here for more information about Food University.

PHOTO CREDIT: Food Network

February 17, 2011
National Absinthe Day is reason enough to try these cocktails

By Allen Pierleoni
apierleoni@sacbee.com

The potent, herbal, anise-and-fennel-flavored liquor known as absinthe has long been shrouded in mystery and myth.

Its roots go back to 1797, when the first absinthe distillery opened in Switzerland, making what was then considered a medicinal elixir. Absinthe gained and waned in popularity, until by 1915 its sales were forbidden in the U.S., France and Switzerland.

After a lobby campaign to separate absinthe fact from absinthe fiction, on March 5 2007 Lucid Absinthe Superieure became "the first authentic absinthe imported into the United States."

The liquor's restored reputation has led to its growing popularity, to the point that absinthe-centric bars have opened in Brooklyn (Maison Premiere oyster bar) and Miami Beach (La Fee Verte "burlesque house"). And let's not forget the vintage Olde Absinthe House in New Orleans.

To celebrate absinthe's re-entry into the U.S., the Lucid brand has declared March 5 National Absinthe Day. Yeah, that can be considered rather self-serving, but at least it gives absinthe-lovers a reason to try these two cocktails, complements of Lucid (www.drinklucid.com).

For more absinthe-based cocktail recipes, look at "A Taste for Absinthe" by R. Winston Guthrie (Clarkson Potter, $24.99, 176 pages).


ABSINTHE FRAPPÉ
Ingredients:
2 ounces absinthe
Dash of simple syrup
6 to 8 mint leaves and sprig
Splash of club soda
Directions:
Muddle mint leaves in the bottom of a frappé-style glass. Add absinthe and simple syrup, and fill with crushed ice. Pour the mixture into a shaker and shake vigorously until the outside of the shaker begins to frost. Pour contents into the glass, top with a splash of club soda and garnish with mint sprig.


ABSINTHE GARDEN
Ingredients:
1.5 ounces absinthe
Half-ounce simple syrup
Club soda
Kiwi fruit
Cucumber
Directions:
Muddle two cucumber wheels and two peeled kiwi wheels with the simple syrup in a double rocks glass. Fill with ice and add absinthe. Top with club soda. Garnish with an unpeeled kiwi wheel on the rim of the glass.

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni at (916) 321-1128.

February 16, 2011
Grange's pastry chef looking for the next opportunity

By Blair Anthony Robertson
brobertson@sacbee.com

Elaine Baker, the highly regarded pastry chef at Grange Restaurant, is looking for work.

The position at Grange has been eliminated and Baker, whose many dessert creations distinguished the restaurant, isn't wasting any time looking for new challenges.

Freelance work? Baking classes? Catering? Writing?

Baker is getting the word out that she's open to those things and more.

"I'm just kind of seeing what opportunities come my way. I had one of the best pastry chef jobs in the city. It was fabulous," she told me Wednesday when we chatted by phone.

I didn't get into what happened. Instead, we talked about baking for a living and what she might do next. Just to give readers an insider's view of this line of work, I asked Baker about the demands, the long hours, the physical toll it takes, especially with discerning customers typical of a high-end restaurant like Grange.

"There is a lot of pressure. You need to stay on top of the trends. You need to do things that compliment the overall menu that the chef has. It's very exciting," Baker said.

While viewers of the Food Network might get the impression that it's a glamorous occupation, Baker says it's pretty much 12-hour days, you're on the feet all the time and the schedule you work can be tough on families and relationships.

Baker was an original employee at Grange, starting there two years and four months ago.

When I mentioned the popularity of baking classes in town, Baker said it's something she is considering as she plots her next career move.

"Some people make it sound so mysterious and difficult. It would be nice to show people how simple it can be," she said.

Baker graduated in 1999 from the Culinary Institute of America's baking and pastry arts program. Before Grange, she worked at Firehouse Restaurant.

Anyone interested in discussing opportunities with Baker can contact her via email, efrancetic@yahoo.com.

February 16, 2011
Patty Bogle memorial set for March 11

By Chris Macias
cmacias@sacbee.com

Due to overwhelming interest and response, the public memorial for winery owner Patty Bogle has been moved to March 11 and will be held at the Robert & Margrit Mondavi Center at UC Davis. The memorial will start at 2 p.m.

Bogle, 59, passed away Friday from complications due to leukemia.

In lieu of flowers, the family invites contributions to be made to the Bogle Family Charitable Fund, to benefit local scholarships and schools, industry organizations and various other charities. Sacramento Region Community Foundation, 740 University Avenue #110, Sacramento, CA 95825-6751.

February 16, 2011
Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, after a very pleasant storm

By Blair Anthony Robertson
brobertson@sacbee.com

If you think you were busy on Valentine's Day - making that reservation, buying a card, ordering flowers, dousing yourself in cologne - think about Ginger Elizabeth Hahn and her talented staff at Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates.

Valentine's Day was their Super Bowl, their ultramarathon and, it turns out, it was a little bit of history.

I called Hahn the day after the big day for chocolatiers everywhere. Feb. 15, it turns out was a day for here to ask, "Where did everything go?"

"It was crazy. We had our busiest day ever - the most transactions, the most dollar amount ever," she said. "We had a double snake line going out the door all day."

This comes on the heels of a Christmas season that saw sales increase 60 percent from the year before.

When I walked past the stylish, 600-square-foot shop on L Street on Monday, the place was, indeed, jammed. Hahn, her husband and all their employees had the focus and intensity of athletes as they greeted customers, gathered up the orders and rang them up - over and over.

"Everyone is on super-overtime," Hahn said.

And Hahn? She's eight months pregnant with her second son, name still to be decided. The Hahns might go with something to do with Palet d'Or, the bittersweet chocolate treat that is the shop's top seller. I don't know about baby names, but I do understand a thing or two about chocolate. I'm a fan of the Meyer Lemon, the Maya Chile, the Grapefruit and Fennel Pollen Caramel, and the Fleur de Sel Caramel. If you can't decide, get a whole box, find a comfortable seat at home and prepare to savor some of the best chocolates you will ever have. I've also purchased chocolate in bulk at the shop, grabbed a recipe card at the register and did quite well baking Ginger Elizabeth-inspired cookies and brownies at home.

Ginger Elizabeth's fans know Hahn, just 30 years old, was recently named one of the top 10 chocolatiers in North America by "Dessert Professional," the respected trade magazine for the pastry and baking industry. Her ever-expanding customer base also understands that the shop's chocolates are worth the money, that once you have a brush with superb, it's hard to go back to so-so.

Hahn isn't resting on her laurels. The next big chocolate holiday is Easter, then Mother's Day. Meanwhile, she and her staff are planning to launch a selection of jams, as well as sell ice cream by the pint.

Before I let her go, I asked Hahn what she and her husband get each other for Valentine's Day.

"We don't have time to do it, so we normally do a nice dinner the next month," she said. "We eat our fair share of chocolates, though."

February 16, 2011
Safeway urges shoppers to choose healthy foods with new program

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By Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

Safeway is launching a program today aimed at helping consumers make better nutrition choices while grocery shopping.

SimpleNutrition is an in-store shelf tag system that highlights 22 nutrition and ingredient benefits in products, including lifestyle benefits (organic, natural, calorie smart and gluten free). The green tags will be placed next to the pricetag and club card special tags, according to a Safeway news release.

All products in Safeway stores are screened for the program and about 15 to 20 percent of them have passed the criteria, said Kerry Neville, Safeway's consulting dietician.

Needless to say, you won't see a lot of green tags in the chip aisle (although there are a few that made the cut, Neville said).

The company is launching the program as a way to help take the frustration out of grocery shopping.

"Walking through the grocery store can feel overwhelming," she said in a phone interview. "Finding healthy choices can feel frustrating sometimes."

Safeway surveyed 1,639 moms and found that 41 percent said the biggest challenge regarding nutritional decisions is not having time to read all the nutrition labels in-store, and 19 percent said it's too time consuming to search the store for the healthiest options.

"I think of it as having your own personal nutrition coach with you in the aisles," Neville said.

The program, which also includes a website full of tips and recipes, launches today in Safeway and Vons stores nationwide.

February 15, 2011
Remembering Patty Bogle

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By Chris Macias, Bee Food and Wine Writer
cmacias@sacbee.com

The remembrances have been coming all day, following the news that Patty Bogle passed away on Friday due to complications of leukemia. The comments section of the story along with Bogle's Facebook page have been filling steadily with well-wishers and condolences from friends, family and fans of the Clarksburg winery that Patty helped put on the country's wine map.

In my years of covering wine, I'm not sure I've comes across anyone in the wine industry who was so universally liked and well-regarded. When I profiled Patty and her family for a story in 2009, I was struck with her unfailing good nature, helpfulness and candor about elements of her family business along with the health struggles that ultimately claimed her life at the age of 59. While spending time with her in Clarksburg - as she talked about staying competitive in the cutthroat wine industry, plus transitioning the family winery to her children - you could tell she was an extremely astute businesswoman.

Patty was also a champion of petite sirah, a grape which produces a rich, inky wine and grows well near the Sacramento Delta. It was this grape, along with chenin blanc, that created the foundation for a winery that now ships some 1.2 million cases a year.

Jo Diaz, executive director of the petite sirah appreciation society known as PS I Love You, penned a wonderful and personal tribute to Patty Bogle here. Give it a read ...

Patty, the wine drinkers around the Sacramento area and parts beyond raise a toast to you. Rest in peace, and best wishes to the Bogle family as they continue the winery's mission.

February 15, 2011
What's right -- and not so right - about four food trends

By Allen Pierleoni
apierleoni@sacbee.com

What are some of the good and bad points when it comes to dining trends? Here are a few, as veteran restaurant consultant Jerry Prendergast sees them. He's the founder and president of Prendergast & Associates in Los Angeles (www.restaurantproducer.com).

February 14, 2011
Patty Bogle passes away at age 59

By Chris Macias, Bee Food and Wine Writer
cmacias@sacbee.com

The Bee has just learned that Patty Bogle, matriarch of Bogle Vineyards in Clarksburg, passed away Friday at age 59 due to complications of leukemia. Her son, Bogle president Warren Bogle Jr., confirmed this news

Bogle and her late husband, Chris Bogle, built Bogle Vineyards from a small winery with 18 acres of grapes to a major regional winery that ships more than 1 million cases annually. After being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2007, Patty Bogle stepped back from many of her winery duties, with children Warren Jr., Ryan and Jody overseeing the bulk of the family's business.

For more on Bogle and her legacy, read tomorrow's Bee.

Gallery: The Bogle family

Winery's transition sustains family legacy

February 14, 2011
Monday postscript: Tower Cafe

By Blair Anthony Robertson, Bee restaurant critic
brobertson@sacbee.com

I expected a lot of feedback regarding my review of Tower Café. My voicemail and e-mail did not disappoint.

This enduring restaurant has a loyal following and, if voluminous reader reaction is any indication, there are plenty of others who don't really get the appeal.

Is it possible both sides are correct? Of course. This is what I told folks on Facebook a couple of days before the publication of the review:

"One thing people who read my reviews should realize is that you don't have to agree with all of them. If I like a place you hate or hate a place you like, it doesn't mean you're wrong, and you shouldn't feel insulted. My primary obligation when I give my opinion is to convince the reader it is sincere, well reasoned and given in the spirit of context -- I compare similar places to one another.

"If I get careful readers to agree with 75 percent of my reviews and at least respect the rest, and perhaps be entertained along the way, then I'm doing OK."


So why the massive response this week? Many wrote to say I had validated their opinion, that their friends had considered them cranks and oddballs for not loving this restaurant. Some folks wrote or called to say I am an angry, bitter person. That's not fair. Comments like that make me angry and bitter.

But seriously, I never begin the review process thinking I am going to slam a restaurant. I always keep an open mind, am always on the lookout for things I had not considered, and I am always looking to be entertained. But I also know my role as a critic. I look for the good first - but I never ignore the bad.

Given the number of times I eat out each week, I take my mindset seriously. I never eat out if I am in a bad mood or feel as if it is some sort of obligation. I also make sure I am hungry. Sometimes, I will go for a run or a bike ride to stimulate my appetite because I don't know many people who go out to eat when they are full.

That is how I approached Tower Café - as a place I wanted to enjoy. It didn't work out that way. I didn't have room to elaborate in print, but it starts with attitude. The service tends to be too hurried, too businesslike, right down to those little handheld ordering devices that become the focal point of the server-customer exchange. There is very little banter, very few examples of extra effort and little to no warmth.

For a contrast of what I am getting at here, please visit Formoli's Bistro. It's a very busy little restaurant and the servers are working hard. But part of the hard work means taking the time to allow their charisma to shine through and to connect with the customers. It enhances the dining experience. It is no coincidence that Fromoli's has placed two different employees on my list of best servers the past two years.

As for the food at Tower, I argued in my review that the menu tries to do way too much with this idea of international cuisine. It's the kind of menu that seeks to make everyone happy. One rule of thumb regarding menus almost always holds true: If you encounter a giant menu at a restaurant - and the name Heston Blumenthal or Thomas Keller is not listed as executive chef - you're probably going to have a hit-or-miss experience. Big menus set the kitchen up for failure. You simply cannot bring your best cooking to so many different flavors and sauces and textures unless you are in a world-class kitchen with a talented chef devoted to each station in the cooking and plating process.

Just the week before, Chef David English, owner of the new and successful Press Bistro in midtown, touched on this topic. I asked him why he didn't have more options on the tapas menu. My contention was that after a third visit, I was a little less excited about adventurous eating and thought that the menu needed to change more often or have more options. I also wondered why he wasn't doing lunch, which would add to the liveliness of that midtown block during the day. English argued that trying to do too much too soon would have a dramatic impact on quality and he simply doesn't have the resources in the kitchen to do more just yet.

That made sense, even if I think Press Bistro really needs to offer lunch. I have been in several world-class kitchens through the years. At Corton in New York City, for example, I stood and watched one chef, tweezers in hand, carefully place a single strand of spaghetti (made, thanks to molecular gastronomy, out of charged liquid parmesan) on each plate. That was his role during dinner service. Around him, another chef handled the meat, another the fish, several others the different vegetable preparations and sauces. In the center of it all, the executive chef, Paul Liebrandt, sized up each plate with the eye of an art appraiser before allowing it to leave the kitchen.

I have worked as a cook and I could imagine what was going on in the kitchen at Tower Café - something along the lines of managed chaos and acknowledged concessions on quality. I don't think many would argue that a leaner menu would improve the quality and the focus of the cooking. Perhaps this menu, unchanged for so long, could reinvent itself as a seasonal selection of dishes. You could still embrace the theme of international cuisine while employing current progressive thinking about food that advocates local, seasonal and sustainable.

February 11, 2011
A primer on Egyptian wine

By Chris Macias, Bee Food and Wine Writer
cmacias@sacbee.com

Given today's resignation of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, I started wondering about the country's wine industry. I've understood that Egypt has produced wine throughout the ages, but how much does the country produce and what does Egyptian wine taste like? Alder Yarrow of Vinography has a great post from 2005 that answers these questions about Egypt's wine culture and much more. The short take is that Egypt's wine is, well, something of an acquired taste with three main producers creating the bulk of the country's wine.

In a related story, check out this USA Today article from 2006 about white wine discovered in King Tut's tomb.

February 10, 2011
Cuisine on Carson coming Feb. 26

By Chris Macias, Bee Food and Wine Writer
cmacias@sacbee.com

Most of us know Carson Rd. in El Dorado County as part of the Apple Hill trail, but it's also an area that's home to more than a dozen wineries. And on Feb. 26, the affiliation of Carson Road Wineries will host Cuisine on Carson, which will feature each winery pairing at least one wine with an appetizer. The event is free, and customers are encouraged to bring a wine glass. Prizes will even be doled out for especially unusual wine glasses.

Participating wineries include: Crystal Basin Cellars, Illuminaire, Jodar, Garnet Sun, Lava Cap Winery, Findleton Estate, Fenton Herriott, Para-Vi Winery, Madrona Vineyards and Wofford Acres Vineyard.

Cuisine on Carson runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit Carson Road Wineries' web site.

February 10, 2011
Eco-friendly Freshii coming to Folsom

By Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

A restaurant franchise that prides itself on providing nutrient dense, environmentally friendly fast food is opening its first Sacramento area location in Folsom.

Freshii, voted best new retail concept in Canada when it opened its flagship location in 2005 in Toronto, will feature a breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, with items such as wraps, salads, brown rice bowls, soups and snacks, according to a company news release.

The Folsom location, at 2776 East Bidwell Street, Suite 500, will open Monday, complete with tastings and specials.

The quick-service restaurant will operate in a "build your own" format and meals will be available for pickup or delivery. Internet, e-mail and iPhone app ordering also will be available.

The business also features eco-friendly packaging made from vegetable starches and everything taken from the store either biodegrades or is recyclable.

Customers also may bring in their own bowls, which will be "happily washed and filled with Freshii's best," the release states.

A second Sacramento area location is planned in the coming year.

February 10, 2011
Get orders in now for Mardi Gras king cakes, locally baked

By Allen Pierleoni
apierleoni@sacbee.com

A Mardi Gras celebration wouldn't be complete without a king cake, which you can order here in Sacramento and help a worthy cause at the same time.

A king cake is the traditional confection served during Mardi Gras and was named after the "three kings" mentioned in the Bible. A trinket of some sort is always baked inside the king cake, and whoever gets the slice that contains the trinket is obliged to buy the next cake or throw a Mardi Gras party the following year. Mardi Gras - or Fat Tuesday - comes around the day before Lent begins, and this year falls on March 8.

The king cakes will be baked and sold by the volunteers and staff of the charitable nonprofit Malachi's Homes Ministry, "dedicated to helping people (and children) in need." Prices and sizes range from mini ($3 each, minimum order one dozen) to large ($29.95). Four flavors of filling are available. To order, and for more information: (916) 534-5013, (916) 576-9679 and www.malachishomescenter.org.

Pick up king cakes at the Mardi Gras Family Day Celebration, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 5 at the Jose Rizal Community Center, 7320 Florin Mall Drive, Sacramento. Food and entertainment will highlight that party (free admission).

That night, there's another fundraising party at the same venue - the Capitol City Mardi Gras Ball, 7 to 11:30. It will feature entertainers from New Orleans, along with hor douvres and drinks. Admission is $35 per person in advance, or $300 for a VIP table for six. Tickets are available at the Malachi's Homes website.

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni at (916) 321-1128.

February 9, 2011
New wine tasting classes with Donal Smith

By Chris Macias, Bee Food and Wine Writer
cmacias@sacbee.com

Good news for those who've been looking to dabble and sip their way through some wine education. Donal Smith, known for his longtime stint in Corti Brothers' wine shop and tasting classes, is offering a new series of wine appreciation classes. You can learn the finer points of wine sensory evaluation, from aromatics to better understanding the flavor profiles of grape varietals. The goal, says Smith, is to make you a better wine consumer when it's time to buy a bottle or order off a wine list. And of course, having fun is perhaps the top priority here.

Smith will teach with a selection of wines from Beyond Napa Wine Merchants (2580 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; 916-481-8665) . Appetizers will be provided by Corti Brothers.

This class series will run on Wednesday nights from Feb. 23 - March 9, and will be held at Steel Magnolia (701 16th St., Sacramento). The cost is $35 for one class, or $89 for all three. Class size is limited to 35 tasters, so get signed up at 916-203-4641 or donalswines@yahoo.com.

February 9, 2011
Combine cheese, chocolate, wine for your valentine

By Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

The Valentine's Day-themed cheese and chocolate pairing class at Taylor's Market is booked, but cheesemonger Felicia Johnson provided a few tips for Appetizers readers.

For a post-dinner treat, pair a dark chocolate truffle with bleu cheese and serve with port.

"The sweet with the savory and salty is phenomenal," Johnson said.

Try milk chocolate and a lighter, fluffier cheese like chevre together. And for hazelnut chocolate truffles, try a meatier cheese such as a Taleggio or a Morbier, she suggested.

"Cheese for dessert is something that is definitely overlooked," Johnson said.

For more Valentine's Day meal tips, check out today's story in the Food & Wine section.

Speaking of chocolate pairings, UC Davis is hosting an event Saturday highlighting female winemakers and wine and chocolate pairings. Click here to learn more.

February 9, 2011
Try these tips to avoid bad breath on Valentine's Day

Allen Pierleoni
apierleoni@sacbee.com

Everyone has it now and then, and to varying degrees, but there are ways to avoid it. The subject is halitosis - bad breath - and Valentine's Day is not the time for it.

Offering helpful advice is Susanne Cohen, a dentist who left her practice to co-found Triumph Pharmaceuticals, maker of SmartMouth products (mouthwash, toothpaste, gum and mints; www.smartmouth.com).

To keep romance from fading, she advises:

Limit libations: Champagne or cocktails can help "set the mood for a romantic night, but alcohol can dehydrate the body and mouth. The result? Alcohol can cause or worsen bad breath on your big date. Limit yourself to one drink per hour and have a glass of water between each one."

Pass up protein-packed meals: Protein-rich foods feed "the germs that live in our mouths. From those proteins, germs create bad breath gases."

Take a break from coffee: So-called "coffee breath is not caused by drinking coffee alone. Coffee itself smells delicious (but) coffee breath is the result of coffee on top of already existing bad breath. Stick to water."

The chocolate challenge: Yes, chocolate can be a good thing - "Dark chocolate contains tryptophan, which triggers the release of serotonin, a natural anti-depressant" - but don't overdo it. "About an hour after eating chocolate, the germs that cause bad breath will begin to increase, putting you at risk for a less-than-fresh kiss."

Morning mouth: "Everyone wakes up with morning breath every day, especially if you over indulged in the above-mentioned bad-breath behaviors." Rinse, floss and brush before a morning kiss.

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni at (916) 321-1128.

February 8, 2011
Amador winery offering couples romance by the hour

By Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

Looking for a story book way to propose to your beloved or rekindle that spark this Valentine's Day?

Story Winery, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is offering a private section of their winery to lovebirds hoping to pop the big question this weekend.

The $65 fee includes use of a private table overlooking the picturesque vineyard for one hour, pre-set appetizers, a bottle of Story Raspberry Champagne on ice, two Champagne flutes and a bouquet of flowers to take home.

"There is a fantastic view of the Cosumnes valley and the vineyards, which are just starting to bud a little," said Cinde Dolphin, the winery's marketing representative.

The deal is available from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

A violinist also will be available at no extra charge on Saturday, she said.

Contact the Plymouth winery at storyinfo@zin.com or 209-245-6208 to make a reservation.

Be sure to check out The Bee's Food & Wine section Wednesday for more romantic, Valentine's Day tips and ideas on what to cook and how to set just the right mood.

February 7, 2011
45th annual Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest is looking for recipes

By Allen Pierleoni
apierleoni@sacbee.com

It's that time of year again, when home cooks can win cash and prizes by coming up with original recipes for baked goods.

The 45th annual Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest is now accepting entries through April 18; register and submit your recipes online at www.bakeoff.com. You could be among the 100 finalists who will gather for the contest finals March 25-27, 2012, in Orlando, Fla. There, they will make their dishes and vie for a chance at the grand prize.

The prestigious bake-off will distribute "more than $1.1 million in cash, prizes and trips" next year to amateur cooks in four cooking categories. Each category will have a number of finalists, and judges will choose one winner from each category. Then, judges will fork over $1 million (plus $10,000 in kitchen appliances) to the ultimate winner among those four; the three-runners-up will get cash and appliances.

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni at (916) 321-1128.

February 4, 2011
In the mood for a $1.4 million dessert? Or a $5,000 burger?

By Allen Pierleoni
apierleoni@sacbee.com

For the food- and drink-centric, there's www.thedailymeal.com, a website devoted to "creating a complete food experience for cooks, food lovers, wine connoisseurs, discerning diners and everyone in-between." Its motto: "All the food that's fit to eat."

One of its latest postings is a list of the 14 most expensive meals found around the world. It's not so much the refined ingredients in these dishes that make them outrageously expensive; rather, in many cases it's the side dishes - such as jewelry.

Sample these:

Samundari Khazana curry ($3,000), Bombay Brasserie, London: The curry includes "abalone, crab, caviar, white truffles and lobster, whose shell is shellacked with loads of edible gold."

Strawberries Arnaud ($1.4 million), Arnaud's restaurant, New Orleans: This dessert is "a patented blend of bright-red berries, vanilla ice cream, a port-red wine sauce, whipped cream, mint and a 5-karat pink diamond ring" with a pedigree.

FleurBurger 5000 ($5,000), Fleur by Hubert Keller, Las Vegas: "Rich Kobe beef is crowned with foie gras and black truffles. The meaty spectacle is paired with a bottle of 1995 Petrus wine and two Ichendorf Brunello glasses."

Zillion Dollar Frittata ($1,000), Norma's in New York City: "That eye-popping sum buys a six-egg frittata freighted with a whole lobster and 10 ounces of lustrous caviar."

More reasonable is the $95 mac 'n' cheese at Mélisse in Santa Monica: "Fresh tagliatelle pasta is topped with gobs of Parmesan cheese, brown-butter truffle froth and shaved white truffles."

For the remainder of the heart-stopping meals and a slide show, go to www.thedailymeal.com/14-bank-breaking-dishes.

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni at (916) 321-1128.

February 3, 2011
Bourbon dinner coming to Grange

By Chris Macias
cmacias@sacbee.com

Such local restaurants as One Speed and The Press have created their own house wines, but here's an example that gets into the realm of small-batch spirits. For the second year, Grange restaurant has partnered with Woodford Reserve to create a house bourbon. I got an early taste of this bourbon a couple months back, not long after Grange mixologist Ryan Seng had returned from Kentucky to help craft this blend. Let's just say this is some tasty hooch, with a balance of pecan flavors, vanilla oakiness and a bit of spice.

You can try this bourbon for yourself on Feb. 23 at Grange (926 J St., Sacramento; 916-492-4450) in a dinner with Woodford Reserve's master distiller. Check out this gut-buster of a menu:

February 3, 2011
Nope, kids won't get a peek at the mermaid

By Blair Anthony Robertson, Bee Restaurant Critic
brobertson@sacbee.com

After my "First Impressions" piece on the new K Street sensations Pizza Rock and Dive Bar (District 30 had yet to open at the time of publication), I received an interesting voicemail from a reader.

She has a 7-year-old daughter who adores mermaids and was wondering if Dive Bar would allow a child to stick her head in for a quick look at the mermaid. I had never thought of that. The mermaid and her massive, brightly lit water tank above the bar is the focal point of this new venue on K Street.

After listening to the woman, I thought that, yes, kids would find the mermaid even more interesting than adults do. Why couldn't they have a kids' hour or a monthly kids' day? So we asked. Liquor licenses don't seem to have much wiggle room for wide-eyed kids.

"We would absolutely love to do this," media contact Trevor Hewitt said via e-mail. "But we are licensed as a 21-plus-only venue. This means we are not allowed to have people under the age of 21 in the venue (even during off-hours). Pizza Rock is the only one of the three venues that has the appropriate license for under-21 guests. Hope you can understand."

The new Pizza Rock is a family-friendly pizzeria, and there's plenty of mermaid-less fun for kids. Checking the website, there is even a Kids' Day at Pizza Rock this Saturday.

But it looks like that little girl may have to wait 14 years for an up-close and personal encounter with the mermaids at Dive Bar. By then, once-doomed and deserted K Street could look more like Bourbon Street.

February 2, 2011
Pasta Dave in high demand at local restaurants, market

RB Pasta Dave 4.JPGBy Niesha Lofing
nlofing@sacbee.com

"I don't know whether to thank you or hate you."

If not for Dave Brochier's wide grin, the greeting might have been misconstrued.

Brochier, aka Pasta Dave, has been working at hyperdrive pace since a profile on the popular pasta chef ran in a recent Food & Wine section of The Bee.

Brochier is the man behind the pasta at Mulvaney's B&L and the numerous Mulvaney ventures, including the Crocker Cafe; Taylor's Kitchen; and Taylor's Market.

Brochier said orders for his pasta are flying out of the restaurants and market. Demand - and his workload - have quadrupled, he said.

One customer drove all the way from San Francisco.

"It's been going through the register a lot more since the article came out," Janet Caddel, a checker at Taylor's Market. "There's been a lot more questions about how to cook it, have we tried it."

Click here to read the story and see more photos of Pasta Dave.

PHOTO CREDIT: Randall Benton, The Sacramento Bee

February 2, 2011
More tips on wine preservation

enomatic.jpg

By Chris Macias, Bee Food and Wine Writer
cmacias@sacbee.com

My "Wine Buzz" column today tested out some new wine preservation systems that were on display at last week's Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. It's a hot topic both for restaurateurs who literally don't want to pour their profits down the drain when wine goes bad, and I regularly receive e-mails from readers who want advice about extending the shelf life of their wine once the bottle's been open.

The enemy here is oxygen, which in small amounts is necessary to "open up" a wine - which is why young wines are typically decanted for at least 30 minutes to soften. But with too much exposure to air, chemical reactions cause wine to oxidize and lead to deterioration in taste and color. That's why so many wine preservers are on the market, from the Wine Shield to high-end Enomatic systems designed for wine bars.

Wine preservers geared for the home tend to have mixed results. And I know of at least one high-end local restaurant that doesn't use a wine preserver for its by-the-glass program because the wine director still feels nuances in wine still get lost, no matter how much nitrogen and argon gas is pumped into a bottle for preservation.

For wine drinking at home, I got a good preservation tip this morning from Kurt Burris, a local wine salesperson. He says: "Here is an idea for those who want to save wine. Keep a couple of smaller bottles, one 375 ml and one 187 ml, clean and pour your leftovers in, using a clean funnel. Cork, refrigerate (this slows the oxidation) and enjoy later. Or just drink it all which is my preferred solution."

Keep in mind that some bottles simply show better on the second day. For me, this holds true for young Bordeaux and full-bodied domestic reds. And for those nights when I just want to have a single glass, I skip the preservers and opt for a 375 ml half bottle. I wish more local wine shops carried a larger selection of half bottles, but I've had good luck at Corti Brothers, Taylor's Market, Capitol Cellars and Total Wine & More in Roseville.

Anyone else have tips for keeping an opened bottle fresh? Leave a comment ... grazie!

February 2, 2011
Snap up tickets to one-woman Julia Child performance

By Blair Anthony Robertson, Bee Restaurant Critic
brobertson@sacbee.com

Here's a little inside information for "Appetizers" readers.

I have written a story on this month's one-woman Julia Child show sponsored by Slow Food Sacramento. All proceeds from the event will benefit Plates Cafe and Catering, which gives formerly homeless women a chance to work in a restaurant setting and develop skills to find jobs in the industry.

While most of us can be baffled by the homeless situation and the lack of ironclad solutions, this one is something we all can support - get women off the streets and away from potential danger, get them working, get them trained and send them out into the world to start a genuine career.

The "Julia Child Says: Bon Appetit" show, starring Linda Kenyon, is Feb. 17. Tickets are $45 - that includes appetizers, wine and the performance.

The story will be published Sunday in the newspaper. I am told that 93 of the 150 tickets have been sold. But once it's in the paper, those tickets are likely to be snapped up.

It should be a great evening for a great cause in a room packed with people who care about good food and a more stable, thriving community.

If you're interested in going, this is something you should jump on ASAP. Ticket information can be found at the Slow Food Sacramento website.

February 1, 2011
Zen Sushi looks very sharp - and very close to reopening

By Blair Anthony Robertson, Bee Restaurant Critic
brobertson@sacbee.com

Out with the dogs for a long walk on a chilly Tuesday night, I was startled to spot the first signs of life at Zen Sushi since well before Christmas. For weeks, the windows had been papered over and, eventually, many began to wonder what was up.

The good news: The paper has come down and the restaurant looks ready to reopen soon after a major remodel fraught with construction delays.

The restaurant's many fans will be happy about that. But even better, the new and vastly improved look is going to make quite a splash inside and out, and it is sure to spruce up the once-drab corner at 15th and I streets, across from Memorial Auditorium.

At first glance, the makeover looks stunning, taking a ho-hum interior and turning it into a showcase of modern style and dramatic lighting. There appears to be a completely new bar, a dining room that is much more open and all new furniture.

For passers-by, you simply won't be able to miss it, with large vertical blue lighting effects in the windows capturing your attention.

The food has always been good, but now Zen Sushi is really making a fashion statement with its bold new look.

As I strolled past, there were a few people inside going over final preparations. From the looks of things, it's ready to open. We will try to track down owner Jason Hom and get specifics on the reopening, along with more details on what promises to be one of the better-looking restaurants in town.

Gov. Jerry Brown's new neighborhood is going to get even better. I've been keeping my eye on the renovation of the historic but run-down Maydestone apartment building at 15th and J. According to Sacramento Press, that 10-month project is at the halfway mark and will have 32 units with rents in the $750 to $1,300 range.

New residents at the Maydestone won't have far to go for for good sushi -- Zen Sushi is a two-minute walk in one direction and Mikuni is three minutes in the other. Keep going on 16th for three or four minutes and there's Sapporo. Plenty of other restaurants, too, including Capitol Garage, P.F. Chang's, Lucca, Petra, California Pizza Kitchen, de Vere's Irish Pub and, for lunch, the Bread Store -- all a few minutes away on foot.

February 1, 2011
Would you pay $89 for a kitchen thermometer?

By Blair Anthony Robertson, Bee Restaurant Critic
brobertson@sacbee.com

I just got off the phone with the product rep from Utah-based Thermoworks, makers of a high-end instant-read thermometer called the Thermapen. Cook's Illustrated raves about this gadget, as do many others. When I recently spoke with Harold McGee ("On Food and Cooking") and asked him about his favorite kitchen gadgets, he immediately weighed in on the wonders of the Thermapen. Emeril Lagasse? Alton Brown? They're fans, too.

The standard instant-read gadget costs $12 to $25, and "instant" in many cases should be taken with a grain of salt. It should probably say "eventual."

In the days ahead, I will be putting this highly touted and very speedy device through the paces in the test kitchen. We'll try to determine if it's worth $89 and who should consider getting one. Beyond that, we'll be preparing a story on the importance of understanding temperature during the cooking process.

Apparently, there's not much understanding going on. Thermapen's makers recently did man-on-the-street style interviews at the Sundance Film Festival, asking folks how they determine if the meat they are cooking is done. They couldn't find anyone who uses an instant-read thermometer, let alone an $89 one.

I'm looking forward to seeing if the Thermapen lives up to all of the raves.

February 1, 2011
IHOP is giving away pancakes. Here's how to get yours

By Allen Pierleoni
apierleoni@sacbee.com

Can you use a year's supply of free flapjacks from the International House of Pancakes? What about a free short stack of buttermilk pancakes from IHOP on National Pancake Day, which will be March 1? If so, get your knife and fork ready for a worthy fund-raiser.

Once again, IHOP is sponsoring its national online contest, "Stacks for Good Acts," which asks good Samaritans for their 250-word stories "about a good deed they or someone they know did in 2010." The judges will choose one winner based on his/her story's "emotional impact, originality and entertainment value." That person will get free pancakes for a year.

To get started right now (through Feb. 25), see the contest rules (and more information) at www.ihoppancakeday.com. The winner will be announced March 1.

There's more: On March 1, more than 1,500 IHOP restaurants nationwide will fork over a free short stack of buttermilk pancakes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. In return, says a spokesman, "We will ask guests to make a voluntary donation to support Children's Miracle Network Hospitals and other local charities."

There are 25 IHOPs in the greater Sacramento area.

"National Pancake Day is IHOP's way of saying thank you and helping kids in need," said IHOP president Jean Birch. "We want to hear about (our customers') good deeds and reward one of them for an extraordinary act."

To further benefit Children's Miracle Network Hospitals, "Miracle Balloons" will be available at IHOPs for $1 and $5 each from now through March 1.

Since 1983, Children's Miracle Network Hospitals has raised more than $4 billion to help 170 children's hospitals nationwide. The money raised in the Sacramento for this fund-raiser are will benefit the UC Davis Children's Hospital.

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni at (916) 321-1128.

February 1, 2011
Hot Italian's superb coffee now available by the pound

By Blair Anthony Robertson, Bee Restaurant Critic
brobertson@sacbee.com

Hot Italian is known for excellent pizza as well as the style of its building at 16th and Q, done primarily in a palette of black and white, with large, inviting windows out front. It's also newly certified as a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building, a designation by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Taking the Italian theme further, Hot Italian made sure from the outset that it would serve a nice shot of espresso, made with an eye-catching and meticulously restored vintage Faema espresso machine. What's more, Hot Italian gets its beans from Mr. Espresso, an Oakland-based roaster with deep ties to Italy. The coffee company has for years supplied some of the Bay Area's top coffee shops and best restaurants.

Recently, Hot Italian began selling the beans by the pound. As a fan of its espresso, I stopped by to purchase some and give them the once-over. One pound costs $14.50, which is in the standard range for premium beans.

In days of old, perhaps due to the influence of Starbucks and the many roasts dubbed "Vienna" or "espresso" or "full city," we associated this style of coffee with dark, nearly burnt beans. Dark, of course, suggests it will be smoky on the palate, and really dark means it will be the equivalent of puffing a cigar and then snorting what's left in the ashtray. Most discerning espresso drinkers, along with more and more proponents of standard drip coffee, are looking for a more balanced cup that allows the flavor characteristics of the bean to shine without being overwhelmed by heavy hand in the roasting process.

That said, I have had many espressos along the way that were syrupy, overly fruity and unbalanced - and then were defended by the coffee shop by arguing that's the way the bean is supposed to taste. So, a good roast can be lighter, but not all lighter roasts are automatically good.

Now that independent coffee shops have stemmed the tide of the Starbucks explosion and dominance, it's no longer cool to say that Starbucks was largely responsible for educating the American consumer about coffee. Yet Starbucks, for better or worse, set the table for savvy independents like Temple, Chocolate Fish and Old Soul, to come in and do better work.

Mr. Espresso, founded in 1978 by Carlo Di Ruocco and managed these days by his son, Luigi, was one of the roasters that said no to super-dark beans. The beans sold through Hot Italian are medium roast and have a balanced flavor profile without being sweet or floral.

Most coffee roasters are heated with gas. According to Mr. Espresso, the company is the only roaster in the United States to roast beans by burning oak wood. When I first heard of this process, I assumed that a wood-burning roaster would impart some of that flavor into the finished beans. That is the assumption with wood-burning pizza ovens and bread ovens, though Chad Robertson, in his new book "Tartine Bread," argues that the bread he bakes in a gas-powered oven at his bakery in San Francisco tastes the same as the bread he baked in the wood-burning hearth oven he used in Point Reyes Station years ago.

According to the Mr. Espresso website, using wood for roasting allows the process to be slowed down. For coffee geeks, here is what the company says:

The differences (between gas and wood) are not what one might initially expect. Unlike cooking with a wood oven or grill, where the smoke from the wood imparts a flavor to the final product, the main difference between wood and conventional roasting lies in the quality of the heat delivered to the beans. Heat derived from wood has higher moisture content and is better suited for slow roasting.

The more oil preserved within the bean, the more exquisite the final flavor will be. The natural humidity within the wood seems to envelop the beans during the roasting process, hence preserving more of the lipids within. Meanwhile, the slow roasting aspect ensures the coffee is lower in acidity and higher in body. The result is most apparent in our espresso, yielding more crema, fuller flavor, and a smoother finish. For drip coffee for which we actually wish to retain the acidity of the coffees, we subject the beans to a faster roasting time.

As I have said before, more coffee options translates into better coffee options, and that leads to a more demanding coffee consumer. Sacramento is continuing to mature as a city with decent, good and great options for coffee.



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