December 30, 2011
Ring in the new year with something tasty in your glass

appletini.jpgWhen it comes to New Year's Eve celebrations, you can go in all kinds of directions for tasty adult beverages. Champagne is always going to work, but there are plenty of other options.

Let us know what your favorites are - bonus points if you include a recipe in the comments below.

For now, here are a couple of simple ones:

1. "Appletini" (pun intended, from the iPad app "Cocktails HD")
1 ½ ounces vodka
½ ounce sour apple schnapps
1 ounce sweet and sour mix
1 maraschino cherry
Fill shaker halfway with ice. Add vodka, schnapps and sweet and sour mix. Shake vigorously for 10 seconds. Strain into chilled martini glass and garnish with the cherry.

2. "Thriller from Vanilla" (from "Difford's Encyclopedia of Cocktails")
¾ shot vanilla-infued Ketel One vodka
¾ shot Tanqueray London dry gin
½ Cointreau triple sec
2 shots freshly squeezed orange juice.
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass.

For those who might get carried away this New Year's Eve, see the blog post below about how to get a free ride home that doesn't involve the police, bail and an unflattering mug shot.

December 30, 2011
Free 'tipsy tow' on New Year's Eve

tow truck.jpgIt's a little known fact that the last day of December is also known in some Western cultures as New Year's Eve, and on that day - which happens to be Saturday - people are known to enjoy a drink or two. For those who do, you should also know that AAA is offering a free "tipsy tow" to anyone who doesn't want to drink and drive. And by "anyone," I mean anyone who is smart enough to know that a DUI can ruin your life for the next several years. Yes, friends have told me as much.

AAA has a great deal. The catch, by the time you need their help you may A) forget how to spell it, B) be unable to pronounce it or C) forget where you jotted down the phone number.

If you can get past those hurdles, all you have to do is call 1-800-222-4357 or 800-AAA-HELP and say, "I need a tipsy tow." If you come up with something that sounds sorta like that, chances are you'll still get a tipsy tow.

Have fun, good luck, be safe, play smart and remember one thing when you start imbibing: if you have even the faintest designs on becoming a Supreme Court Justice, president of the United States or even a member of Congress, resist the urge to tweet how messed up you are or post dazed and confused photos of yourself on Facebook. Going shirtless and flexing won't go over well either. Just ask Anthony Weiner, the former Congressman who thought he was a Chippendales dancer.

Happy New Year. I've got the Champagne chilling in the fridge. We plan to ring in the New Year like pros - low-key, at home, out of earshot of guys who screech and holler when they have fun, with the car parked in the driveway.

December 29, 2011
Yes, there's more -- jobs, that is

Cowtown Eats doesn't sleep. Following up on my post about restaurants in hiring mode, here's a good one to add to the list: Selland's Market & Cafe. Looks like they're hiring for all kinds of positions.

Here's what I got over at Cowtown Eats: Selland's Market & Café is hiring for our new Eldorado Hills location. We have a job fair scheduled for Monday 1/2/12 and Tuesday 1/3/12 from 1 P.M. until 6 P.M. at the Town Center location (4370 Town Center Blvd. El Dorado Hills, CA 95762). We will conduct interviews for the following positions: cashier, counter staff, sous chefs, cooks, dishwashers, and externs. Please bring a current resume to the job fair.
Both Selland's locations are also hiring assistant general managers. We will be accepting resumes at our Hst location (5340 Hst Sacramento, CA 95819)for the management position only

Speaking of Selland's, I happen to know they're looking for a new head chef to replace Kelly McCown at Ella Dining Room & Bar. McCown is returning to the Napa Valley to be a partner in a new restaurant.

December 29, 2011
Hot tip for job seekers: New restaurant is hiring

job seekers.jpgJust a quick note for those of you out there who may be looking for a job (or maybe a second job). There's a new restaurant getting ready to open downtown early in the new year. It's called Blackbird Kitchen & Bar -- and there are lots of job openings.

Here's the notice from their Facebook page: "Blackbird is now recruiting talent. Looking for deft chefs, mixologists, and front of the house positions. Show time is very, very soon...
Please email resumes in an attachment to:

If you haven't heard of Blackbird, here's a summary of the concept (again, from Facebook): "Blackbird will be featuring organic cuisine, highlighting seasonal produce from local farms such as Full Belly and fish from Passmore Ranch; a full bar emphasizing modern, unique cocktails, American craft beers, awesome whiskeys and badass tequilas; a rawbar with a changing selection of oysters, crustaceons and other shellfish; and house-made breads and pastas. During lunch, in addition to the usual suspects diners can expect a few signature egg dishes such as biscuits with lobster gravy, crabcake Benedict, and arguably the best quiche in Northern California. At dinner, the kitchen will be providing an elegant menu featuring smoked and brined fish, big bowls of beer-popped mussels with grilled bread, and aged steaks."

In addition to Blackbird, there is actually quite a bit of positive movement in the business right now. Qualified job seekers could also do well at The Porch and Monsoon, two new restaurants that just opened in midtown. The Mongolian BBQ place at 19th and J is getting ready to open and the Firestone Public House is going to open in a couple of months (the place is completely gutted at the moment and all of the California Pizza Kitchen decor is gone).

December 23, 2011
3 Michelin stars, now what? Re-examine, reflect, reboot

kostow.jpgI didn't think much of it when I got the email from Meadowood, a restaurant in St. Helena that last year earned three Michelin stars. The notice said the restaurant would be closed for about 10 weeks beginning in January "to undergo an exciting renovation." Sure, it's a nice dining room but a little bit low-key, and it could use a splash of fresh color. Then I saw there will also be an extensive reworking of the kitchen to "allow for more space, better control of temperature, superior equipment and overall flow for service. The new kitchen will also include a Chef's Counter, which will seat up to 5 guests."

That's when I realized what I already suspected: Executive chef Christopher Kostow, though honored and humbled by all the recent praise of his food, wasn't satisfied with the greatness he has already achieved. If you've ever eaten at Meadowood, you can see the passion and inventiveness in Kostow's cooking. When I reviewed Meadowood more than a year ago, it was a Michelin 2-star restaurant, but it was pretty clear it was heading way, way up. I spoke extensively over the phone with Kostow, going over his thoughts on several dishes I had from the chef's tasting menu. I took note of Kostow's competitive fire, along with his humility. Months later, he was featured in "Art Culinaire," where he talked about creating dishes you won't find at any other restaurant. The very greatest dining experiences are like that. When we ate at Corton in New York City (in October), the chef's tasting menu contained course after course of food so unusual and edgy and complex that I took note of all the dishes I had neither seen nor tasted at any other restaurant. Chef Paul Liebrandt's mindset and ambition are similar to Kostow's. (Try to watch the documentary about Liebrandt if they re-run it on HBO; it's called "A Matter of Taste: Serving up Paul Liebrandt" and they follow his highs and lows for 10 years).

The recent Meadowood email directed me to click on a link to read Kostow's personal explanation for the temporary closure. It's an extraordinary example of what it takes to achieve excellence. Turns out, the temporary shutdown isn't solely about aesthetics in the dining room and functionality in the kitchen. It's about getting to the next level, even if there are no more Michelin stars to recognize that kind of achievement.

The chef says:

"The team and I continue to be humbled by the accolades and attention paid to The Restaurant since its inception.

The reality, however, is that we did not feel that we were as good as we could be. To get to the next level (and the all the next levels to come) we felt compelled to reexamine, reflect and reboot.

We will be closing briefly in the New Year for improvements to our kitchen and dining room. We look forward to reopening on March 12th with an even stronger dedication to creating for our guests a personal, honest and singular dining experience.

I look forward to welcoming you back to The Restaurant.

The Restaurant at Meadowood will reopen March 12. It will be exciting -- and perhaps inspiring -- to see what the rethinking and retooling will bring us in the days that follow.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @Blarob.

December 22, 2011
Albert Villanueva works unlikely side of restaurant business

albert.jpgAlbert Villanueva is a foodie. He and his wife love going out to eat in their off hours.

When he's working? He's visiting restaurants, too. He insures them.

When I became aware of Villanueva and his specialized line of work, I contacted him for an interview. I didn't know there was an insurance company that focuses solely on restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Since he's also an avid restaurant-goer, I also wanted to get his impressions on the local food scene.

Villanueva, 33, lives with his wife and two kids in East Sacramento. He works for InsuRestaurants as a producer/marketing director, a job that has him visit 15 to 20 restaurants a week. He estimates his company insures 90 percent of the bars and nightclubs in the area, along with countless restaurants.

When you read in the newspaper about a mishap at a nightclub - a fight, a shooting, a death -- Villanueva is probably reading about a client.

"Anybody who has high alcohol sales tends to get more hostile patrons. Assault and battery coverage is extremely important. It covers any kind of fighting - incidents between patrons or between employees and patrons. It's one of the things that our company boasts we can do extremely well," he said.

Villanueva says a busy nightclub will likely be paying $12,000 to $18,000 a year for general liability, liquor law liability and assault and battery coverage.

Of course, our restaurant scene doesn't see a lot of fighting. Villanueva says restaurants often deal with mishaps like slips and falls, food-borne illnesses and injuries like a chipped tooth.

Like a lot of people who make sales calls, Villanueva relies on word-of-mouth referrals. He is selling a product these businesses are legally required to have, so he has to win them over with personal service, attention to detail and all the little things that prevent a chore from becoming a hassle.

"I love my job and I love helping people protect their livelihood.," he said.

Villanueva typically plans his work two weeks out, relying on his iPad and iPhone to stay organized.

"Google calendar runs my life. It's something I'm constantly organizing," he said.

Regarding the food scene in the Sacramento area, he has visited nearly every kind of restaurant imaginable since he began specializing in this realm in 2005.

"I've seen it mature drastically in the last three or four years, especially outside downtown in the greater Sacramento area," he said. "There are some great places in Roseville and Folsom. The dining scene is maturing and really getting there. I really think over the next three or four years there is going to be even more

"There are a lot of young, talented chefs and they're starting their own eateries. They're coming with a plethora of skills."

Then I asked Villanueva a few food-related questions just for fun.

Memorable meal: "The most recent one that comes to mind is the Ella tasting menu in September. I had my birthday meal there. It was really great."

Favorite dive: "I'd have to say JR's Texas BBQ. I like JR, I love the food. I take my kids there."

Guilty pleasure: "Probably an In-N-Out burger. I don't eat much fast food, but I probably go there once a quarter."

Food that cheers him up: "I'd say pizza. It's just one of those things. It's a family affair. We make our pizzas at home. It's something that would cheer me up for sure. We hand-roll our dough and go to the farmers market to buy all the ingredients."

Food he won't eat: "That's tough. I probably wouldn't eat those Hostess cupcakes."

Something he might be embarrassed to admit he eats: "A combination pizza from Roundtable."

Blair Anthony Robertson is the restaurant critic at The Bee. Follow him on Twitter, @Blarob.

December 22, 2011
Christmas Eve dining options around Sacramento

After managing the masses at the mall and stringing oodles of holiday lights, leaving the cooking to someone else on Christmas Eve couldn't be a better gift. A variety of Sacramento restaurants will be ready to serve with special holiday menus and extended hours in some cases.

But, if you want to get a table at some of the area's fine dining establishments, better book a table soon. The Firehouse in Old Sacramento, which is offering a chef's tasting menu along with its regular offerings, will be open until 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve but is close to sold out. The remaining reservations start at 8:15.

At Sienna restaurant in El Dorado Hills, its Christmas Eve reservations are completely booked but still taking names for a waiting list. In Roseville, diners who want to sample La Provence's "menu de noel," a prix fix menu for $45 and $12 for children 10 and under, should prepare to eat on the earlier end. Just a few reservations are currently available at 4 p.m. and 4:15.

December 22, 2011
Contentment is as simple as a seat in the Swan Oyster Depot

OB CRAB 1.JPGThumbing through the recent fourth edition of the Zagat dining guide to the "world's top restaurants," we found several of the usual suspects in the "San Francisco Bay Area" section (but none in Sacramento). The French Laundry and the Restaurant at Meadowood in the Napa Valley, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Manresa in Los Gatos, Commis in Oakland, and Boulevard in San Francisco were among the 24 entries.

What stopped us - in a gratifying way - was the inclusion of the family-owned Swan Oyster Depot among those high-end dining palaces. The Swan has been around for nearly a century, practicing a brand of lacavorism - salmon, rockfish, Dungeness crab, halibut, sole - before the word was even coined.

Seriously, do you really want molecular gastronomy or a steak poached sou vide when you can opt for the Swan? Walk in and become part of the boisterous crowd, enjoy the camaraderie while you wait for a well-worn stool at the marble counter, check out the first-rate seafood market.

Banter with the cooks (who have a streak of stand-up comic in them), sip a beer, spoon a bowl of clam chowder, tear off a chunk of sourdough bread, crack a crab, dig into a plate of fresh raw oysters on a bed of ice. It's a San Francisco experience that's real, unpretentious and satisfying on many levels.

Among the comments in the Zagat guide, from real Swan diners: "Fabulous seafood so fresh that you expect it to talk back."

The Swan Oyster Depot is at 1517 Polk St. (between California and Sacramento streets) in San Francisco's Nob Hill neighborhood. Information: (415) 673-1101,

Two more things: Cash only, and it closes at 5:30 p.m.

December 21, 2011
Has 'free wi-fi' sucked the life out of coffeehouses?

coffee wifi.jpgRemember when coffeehouses were stimulating places full of intellectual rigor, lively conversations and, maybe, someone scribbling notes into a leather-bound journal or writing the next great short story?

OK, that coffeehouse was in Paris, and it never really existed on this side of the pond. Years ago, some of us would read about the so-called "Lost Generation," folks who traveled to Paris to absorb the culture, try their hand at a new way of living and maybe find some kind of artistic inspiration or stumble upon profundity. Eventually, they all seemed to pull up a chair at a little café, writing things in little notebooks before reconvening at Shakespeare and Co., the famous bookstore. Hemingway, Pound, Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald. Even a bearded William Faulkner hit up Paris for a time. (A great book about this era, by the way, is by Morley Callaghan called "That Summer in Paris.")

Before the current wave - or third wave - of coffeehouses like Chocolate Fish, Old Soul, Temple, Naked and Broadacre, there was the ever-expanding empire called Starbucks. Before that? There was Weatherstone, Boulevard Coffee and Java City. Then it was left to Denny's and 7-Eleven, where you could give your java a jolt of "Irish cream" flavored creamer. I remember going to this great bookstore in Oxford, Miss., when I was attending a Faulkner confernence. It was called Square Books, and I thought it was so cool you could have a coffee and a pastry while sitting in a bookstore. Tattered Cover did the same thing in Denver. Then Barnes & Noble made it generic and widespread.

The new coffee joints generally have very good coffee, employees who are really into coffee and an ambience of stone-faced folks staring at their laptops or iPads. Books? What are those? Conversation? Ideas? That's so '80s. I have gone into coffeehouse after coffeehouse and noticed that no one was actually talking - or even enjoying coffee. Libraries are livelier, the waiting room at my dentist more fun.

That may be why I was encouraged by a recent story I read on the Sacramento Press site about a new locally owned business, Insight Coffee Roasters, at 8th and S. One of the owners, Ben Lance, actually addressed the issue when he said there were a limited number of power outlets for people to plug into:

"We don't want this to be a place where everyone is clicking away on their laptops and you're afraid to make a sound," Lance told Sac Press. "We want you to play a board game or sit and have a conversation."

I suppose wi-fi at this point is a deal with the devil. One shop somewhere provided free wi-fi, so folks with laptops went there, bought a coffee and surfed the web. The place got crowded. Others had to respond. So now nearly every coffee joint has free wi-fi. Who needs friends or conversation when you have wi-fi. Even Starbucks, which used to charge for it, gives it away. There's a guy at 15th and H who actually sits with his laptop on the sidewalk across the street from the Starbucks but within wi-fi range. At least that's interesting.

I suppose the stone-faced and hush-hush issue at coffee shops won't go away until wi-fi is everywhere. It would be nice to see these great places for coffee actually feel great when you're sitting there. I had a conversation at one once and had some hipster look at me like, "What are you doing? Talking? This is a coffeehouse."

My mistake.

December 20, 2011
"Dine Downtown" specials coming in January

January generally doubles as the downtime for the restaurant industry. After all of the holiday shopping's been done, and folks feel a little economically hung over, dining out tends to take a back seat for many consumers. So, here's one way that Sacramento's restaurant community tries to keep those seats filled each January: Dine Downtown, which includes 10-days of specials at a variety of central city restaurants.

Organized by the Downtown Partnership, Dine Downtown runs Jan. 9 through Jan. 18, with three-course prix fix menus costing $30 per person. 29 restaurants will participate this time around, including four new eateries: The Porch (located in the former Celestin's), Tequila Museo Mayahuel, Restaurant Thir13en, Blue Prynt.

"Dine Downtown provides restaurants a huge boost at the start of the new year," said Michael Ault, executive director for Downtown Partnership, in a statement. "We estimate that the event generates just over $1 million in restaurant sales and parking revenue in just 10 days."

Here's the full list of participating restaurants, courtesy of the Downtown Partnership: Fires Lounge, 4th Street Grille, Biba Restaurant, Blue Prynt, The Broiler Steakhouse, Cafeteria 15L, Capitol Garage, Chops Steak Seafood & Bar, Dawson's at the Hyatt, deVere's Irish Pub, Ella Dining Room & Bar, Esquire Grill, Fat City Bar & Café, The Firehouse Restaurant, Frank Fat's, Grange Restaurant at The Citizen, Il Fornaio, Kupros Bistro, The Melting Pot, Morgan's at the Sheraton, Paragary's Bar and Oven, Pilothouse, The Porch, Restaurant Thir13en, Rio City Café, Spataro, Tequila Museo Mayahuel, Ten 22, and Tulí Bistro.

December 20, 2011
California's wine grape crop off by 9 percent

After a second year of unseasonably cool temperatures, the grape tonnage has been tallied and the results are ready. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, 3.3 million tons of wine grapes were harvested in the 2011 growing season, a 9 percent drop from the previous year.

That's not too much of a surprise considering the cold shoulder that Mother Nature gave to Northern California this year, with its wet spring and temperate summer. The grape harvest started about three weeks late in Lodi, with growers hoping for warm weather to help their grapes reach ripeness.

This year's total pales compared with 2009, when 3.7 million tons of grapes were harvested - the second largest amount in California's history. But as the saying goes, good things come in small packages.

December 19, 2011
Last chance for food 'n' fun at Nevada City's Victorian Christmas

club_sandwich.jpgThe annual Victorian Christmas extravaganza that fills the streets of historic Nevada City with visitors and vendors has been going on for at least 20 years. On Sunday, it was bigger and better than ever.

The main and side streets of the town were closed to traffic to accommodate the 1,500-plus revelers who strolled from booth to booth buying hats and scarves, jewelry and art. They also lined up for fragrant street food - wood-fired pizza and smoked brisket, Thai noodles and steaming hot dogs, freshly popped kettle corn and fat enchiladas. And they eagerly jammed the shops and restaurants that line the streets. Gratifyingly, the bookstores were doing brisk business.

Roaming costumed characters and carolers got plenty of smiles from curious children. Street musicians played fiddles and banjos. Families lined up for horse-drawn carriage rides.

We got lucky when we blindly chose the 9-year-old family-owned-and-run Cirino's for lunch shortly before the Victorian Christmas crowds began arriving. Still, the restaurant was jammed, but we miraculously found two seats at the 19th century bar, where the mixologist specializes in bloody marys.

The room was alive with diners' conversations and laughter, the two cooks moving at double-time speed, flipping this and plating that, the servers never losing their smiles. A certain holiday spirit was in the air inside and outside.

The lunch menu showed Sicilian sausage, meatballs, calamari, burgers, pasta, grilled polenta and salads. We settled for an unusual take on the classic clubhouse sandwich, which was more of a single-decker grilled cheese (with luscious Fontina) layered with turkey, ham and grilled tomato on toasted sourdough (hold the mayo, please). It packed plenty of rich flavor and soothing texture (pictured; $9.95). Cirino's is at 309 Broad St., (530) 265-2246; There's a sister restaurant in nearby Grass Valley.

Dessert was excellent handmade-in-Nevada City English toffee from the Sierra Sweets kiosk (

There's one more chance to catch the Victorian Christmas excitement. The last of five celebrations will occupy the town from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday. Information: ((530) 265-2692,

December 19, 2011
Is the rancor after the Waterboy review the right dialogue?

I am a big fan of controversy. It's important, stimulating and essential. Controversy is often how we figure out who we are and where we stand. It's how we change our minds or reaffirm what we believe, whether we're talking about the Middle East, the presidential election or a plate of pasta. Reflection is a good thing, too. But there's a difference between controversy of the stimulating kind and controversy that takes an unfortunate turn - leading to insults, needlessly stirring up anger and, worst of all, missing the mark.

I am referring to Rick Mahan's reaction to my largely positive review of his restaurant, The Waterboy. I was quite surprised to hear about it. I thought I had been very generous in my praise, and my criticisms were largely quibbles. But based on the tone and the language of his reply on Facebook, I was left wondering: Did I write a restaurant review or call a foot fault on Serena Williams?

December 15, 2011
Drewski's to launch second food truck, operate eatery at new downtown sports bar

Food lovers wait in line at Drewski's mobile food truck during the Sacramento Mobile Food Festival at Fremont Park on Saturday April 30, 2011. Lezlie Sterling, Sacramento Bee

February is shaping up to be a big month for Drewski's Hot Rod Kitchen, the popular local food truck that specializes in grilled sandwiches (think: aged Havarti cheese melted over Korean braised beef, kimchee and other goodness). Not only is Drewski's planning to launch its second truck on Feb. 1, but a new sports bar coming to downtown will host a brick-and-mortar version of Drewski's. Located in the former Dream Ultra Lounge, Drewski's will operate out of The Republic (908 15th St., Sacramento) which will feature pool tables, plenty of TVs showing sports events and an expanded menu from Drewski's. Look for it to open right around the beginning of February.

The Republic will act as a kind of home base for Drewski's and provide much coveted storage for its food trucks.

"This will save us money," said Andrew Blaskovich, the restaurateur behind Drewski's. "On the trucks we have a limited amount of space, so I'm constantly shopping. With the labor, gas cost and time it's challenging."

December 14, 2011
Fried lobster and skewered tenderloin at Ruth's @ the Bar

ruths chris.JPGHappy-hour menus abound around town, but we found a top one last night.

But first: The modern "happy hour" at restaurant bars likely has roots in 19th-century New York saloons, when the so-called "free lunch" brought customers in by droves. Buy a drink and get a free bite, was the deal. Stay awhile and buy more drinks, was the hope.

We flashed on that when we ducked into Ruth's @ the Bar for a respite from the holiday-shopping scene. There, we found the "Sizzle, Swizzle & Swirl Happy Hour" menu. It's a bargain-priced list of items served in the bars of both Ruth's Chris steakhouses in our area.

The seven appetizers usually cost $8 to $15 each, but go for $6 across the board from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays. For the "sizzle": Prime-beef burger with fries, prime-beef sliders, tenderloin skewers, steak sandwich with fries, New England lobster roll with fries, deep-fried lobster chunks with spicy sauce, and seared ahi tuna.

On our plates, meltingly tender chunks of medium-rare beef were speared on a wooden skewer and dashed with sesame soy sauce. Perfect, but better were the two lobster offerings (pictured). Lightly breaded and fried chunks of succulent lobster were tossed in just-hot-enough cream sauce. For the lobster roll, cold lobster salad was tucked into a slice of toasted and folded bread that had actual bread flavor.

"What I like best about these dishes is they're so satisfying and flavorful you don't need to order more," said my happy-hour pal. Well, actually, yes, we do... But another time.

Wine and beer are on the "swizzle and swirl" part of the menu, but the real attraction is the cool cocktails - cosmo, martini, Manhattan, Moscow mule and a margarita with orange juice added. Each for $6.

Find the "Sizzle-Swizzle" happy-hour menu at Ruth's Chris-Sacramento in the Pavilions center on Fair Oaks Boulevard near Howe Avenue (916-286-2702); and at Ruth's Chris-Roseville in the Galleria center on Galleria Boulevard in Roseville (916-780-6910). More informtion:

December 14, 2011
Ambience of Carmichael also makes Top 100 restaurants list

Morgan Song, owner and Executive Chef of Ambience, drizzles burgundy-apricot nappage on venison tenderloin, a sixth course in a 7-course meal at his restaurant in Sacramento. Andy Alfaro, Sacramento Bee

File this one under: Oooops! In yesterday's news about The Kitchen and Carpe Vino of Auburn making the list of OpenTable's "diner's choice awards" for Top 100 Best Restaurants in the United States, yours truly overlooked Ambience of Carmichael also making the cut. Like The Kitchen, Ambience specializes in prix fix menus, which in this case are $55 for five courses or $75 for seven courses prepared by executive chef Morgan Song.

Ambience is also a favorite of Blair Anthony Robertson, the Bee's esteemed restaurant critic, who raved in a four-star review earlier this year: "Giving this chef room to show off with a seven-course dinner evokes thoughts of Frank Sinatra with a microphone or Miles Davis on trumpet. He's just that good. If he ever puts out his 10-course dream menu, watch out."

Well heck, if Song is the Miles Davis of the local food scene I wonder which one of his courses is the equivalent of "Blue In Green?" Check BAR's full review here (which compares prix fix dining at Ambience and The Kitchen).

For more information: or (916) 489-8464.

December 13, 2011
The Kitchen and Carpe Vino make Top 100 restaurants list

The sound of clinking glasses and congratulations continue on the local food and wine scene. Fresh off the news that four local wineries made Wine Enthusiast magazine's list of the Top 100 wines, The Kitchen and Auburn's Carpe Vino were both ranked in OpenTable's "diner's choice awards" for Top 100 Best Restaurants in the United States. OpenTable, the popular online restaurant reservation system, compiled the list from more than 10 million reviews submitted by OpenTable users over 12,000 restaurants.

The news is doubly sweet for Carpe Vino, which was also ranked in OpenTable's list of the Top 50 restaurant wine lists. Only four restaurants nationally were ranked in both of OpenTable's lists for best wine list and best restaurants, noted Carpe Vino owner Gary Moffat.

Meanwhile, the staff at The Kitchen is also celebrating news that they're being awarded 5 diamonds from AAA, one of the most prestigious ratings in the domestic dining industry. Look for this to be announced formally around the new year.

December 13, 2011
The bone marrow trend is going strong at Chez Oscar

Oscar bone marrow.JPGThe other day, I ordered marrow bones from the meat counter at Taylor's Market, asking that these 8-10 inch behemoths be sliced lengthwise. Taylor's is old-school. You can watch them do the cutting on the well-worn band saw.

These were gourmet-caliber bones, and I neglected to tell the butcher they were not necessarily for human consumption. Among the places I've enjoyed roasted bone marrow in the past year or so are Red Lotus (now closed) and Ella (which is about to lose its well-regarded chef to St. Helena).

Oscar, a Rhodesian mix who would eat a tank if given the time, does not have what I would describe as a discriminating palate (ask me sometime about the dead salmon at the American River). He enjoyed his marrow without cooking or seasoning. But if you're so inclined and willing to be a bit adventurous, you can turn these into a side dish for an upcoming homo sapien meal .

I called John Paul Khoury, the corporate chef at Preferred Meats (which has supplied the bones to Ella, among others) and asked how he would prepare them. A couple of days ago, he posted a photo of his roasted bone marrow with flavors of tabbouleh. It looked fantastic, and I could practically smell it through the screen of my iPad.

Ferguson marrow.jpgMore generally, JP suggests folks roast the bones at 450 degrees for 10-15 minutes, perhaps with salt and pepper and a little Dijon mustard. You'll also want an accompaniment to cut the richness of the marrow -- a popular side is a simple parsley salad with a lemon vinaigrette.

Good roasted marrow has a creamy mouthfeel, but there shouldn't be a greasy finish. And you can go in several directions with a wine selection -- a big and bold zin, maybe, or sauvignon blanc with nice acidity.

Try bone marrow in the kitchen, and if that doesn't work for you, there aren't many dogs who will turn down these bones (al fresco dining for the pooch recommended with this dish unless you are due for a carpet cleaning). For Oscar and me, it has been a bonding experience.

December 13, 2011
Local wineries make Wine Enthusiast's Top 100 list

Jim Moore of Uvaggio wines checks on a vineyard of grapes near Lodi. Chris Macias, Sacramento Bee.

2011's winding down, which means it's time for lists honoring the best wines of the year. And in this bit of good fortune, four local wineries received accolades in Wine Enthusiast magazine's "The Enthusiast 100." They are (cue drum roll):

Michel David of Lodi for its 2008 6th Sense Syrah (#11), Uvaggio 2009 Moscato Secco from Lodi (#25), Easton 2009 Monarch Mine Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from the Sierra Foothills (#30) and Terre Rouge 2009 Viognier from the Shenandoah Valley (#63). (Note that both Easton and Terre Rogue are made by winemaker Bill Easton, and his "Easton" wines are non-Rhone varietals).

The nod from Wine Enthusiast was especially nice for Jim Moore of Uvaggio, a winery which specializes in Lodi-grown Italian varietals. Moore rarely sends his wines out for review, and when facing a world of competition from Bordeaux, Napa, the Rhone and other wine hot spots, he was happy to see Lodi get some love.

December 12, 2011
You say carnaroli, I say cannaroni

I wanted to clarify and correct a clumsy slip in Sunday's review, out of respect for Rick Mahan and the crew at The Waterboy, as well as our many eagle-eyed readers. In a short section about the dessert served at a special Thursday prix fixe dinner, I referred to carnaroli as a pasta rather than a rice. I apologize for getting it backwards.

To casual, non-foodie readers who happened to land here for something to read, that last paragraph must have sounded overly serious. Hey, I apologize for that, too!

As a writer, my obligations are many - to opine, to entertain, to inform --- but the most important fundamental is to be clear. Sometimes, the more you try - the more you stir and hone and fuss and fumble - the worse it gets. Throw in the whir and flurry of deadlines, one writer's effort to trim a line or two to fit the space and you end up calling rice pasta. I think.

It seems I have heard from every person who has ever made risotto, letting me know -- and gleefully chiding me -- that carnaroli is a rice. Thank you. I have that very rice in my pantry, purchased at Corti Brothers (if you're looking for it), and over the years I have made risotto that has ranged from dreadful to delicious.

Here's what I thought actually went down at The Waterboy that very pleasant Thursday evening. Toward the end of the meal, we chatted about dessert with our server, who informed us that they were using a plump Italian rice used for risotto. Every other course on the menu that night had a pasta component. During the give-and-take, our impression was that this rice was selected because it gave a pasta-like quality to the dessert. There was plenty of chatter, and it's possible we misunderstood our server's point, which may have been simply that the rice is Italian in origin. My minor - and it turns out clumsily realized quibble - was that the rice was just too firm for rice pudding (while our lasagna didn't seem firm enough). This was a small point and, in hindsight, wasn't really worth getting into.

For all those who felt CIA-superior for knowing your rice, you can thank me for the ego boost, especially on a chilly Monday morning. And for those who didn't notice and skimmed right over the error, let me reflect the spirit of my email in-box today: HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY BE SO DUMB?

December 12, 2011
Ella's chef heading back to wine country for new role

McCown.jpgKelly McCown, the chef who took the already popular Ella Dining Room & Bar to new heights, is leaving the elegant K Street restaurant for a new opportunity in wine country.

Outspoken and passionate about his craft, McCown was also known as something of a provocateur in the local restaurant game during the 2 ½ years he was in town. Online or in person, the chef tried to urge fellow chefs to think bigger and aim higher in order to elevate the city's dining scene beyond the "safe and secure cuisine" label that is sometimes all too fitting.

McCown, 44, will return to the site of the once-acclaimed (it earned a Michelin star) and now-shuttered Martini House in St. Helena. It was there, beginning in 2002 as chef de cuisine under executive chef and partner Todd Humphries, that McCown continued to expand his impressive repertoire. The new restaurant in that location has a working name of Goose & Gander, and the style of food is believed to be along the lines of a "gastro-pub," a term McCown doesn't necessarily like. He will be a partner in the new restaurant.

December 9, 2011
20% off all retail wines Saturday at The Kitchen and Selland's

Now here's some good news for those who have a wine lover on their holiday shopping list. The Kitchen and its sister restaurant, Selland's Market Cafe, are offering 20% off all retail wines on Saturday. Though The Kitchen (2225 Hurley Way, Sacramento) sells retail bottles by appointment, tomorrow its doors will be wide open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the 20% off wine sale. Now this is a wine list that runs especially deep, offering such coveted California "cult" wines as Screaming Eagle, Bond, Harlan and Kongsgaard. But you don't need to spend hundreds of dollars to score a special bottle. Look for wines from Sequoia Grove, Audelssa and Bridesmaid to nab some great gift bottles in the $50-$70 range.

Over at Selland's (5340 H St., Sacramento), some special wines can be had for about the price of a pizza. Long before I started writing about food, this was always one of my go-to shops for wine, a place where I could ogle at a bottle of Shafer Hillside Select or Blankiet on the shelves but still opt for a tasteful budget Bordeaux or Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato d'Asti. Look for a variety of local producers and moderately priced sparkling wines as well. The 20% off sale runs from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

And just for the record, I've been more nice than naughty this year, so I'll add a bottle of 1997 Dalla Valle to my holiday wish list 8)

December 8, 2011
J.R.'s Texas Bar-B-Que has opened its third site

EK JR'S BBQ.JPGGood 'ol Floyd Rothenberger knows a few things about barbecue. That's him on the left, holding a smoked brisket. His J.R.'s Texas Bar-B-Que has been around for 25 years, in a light-industrial area near the Campbell Soup factory. There, he loads cast-iron smokers with mesquite and cooks brisket, beef and pork ribs, pork shoulder, chicken, turkey and hot links.

Four years ago he set up a J.R.'s in West Sacramento, and on Oct. 19 opened a third 'cue joint on El Camino Avenue, near Watt Avenue.

Both satellite restaurants "have the same menu as the mother store," he said on the phone Wednesday. "I'm getting ready to start breakfast soon (at the El Camino site), probably after the first of the year. We'll have biscuits and gravy, chicken-fried steak - items like that."

We'll be waiting. Meanwhile, pass another slice of brisket, please.

The new J.R.'s Texas Bar-B-Que restaurant is at 3445 El Camino Ave., Sacramento; (916) 514-1148. The original is at 180 Otto Circle, Sacramento; (916) 424-3520. The West Sacramento site is at 4055 Lake Road; (916) 373-0800. To see menus:

December 7, 2011
Sacramento home cooks encouraged to audition for Fox's "MasterChef"

Hey, home cook, think you have the goods to be on Fox's "MasterChef?" Think you can withstand the heat in the kitchen while host Gordon Ramsay scrutinizes your every move? Well, brush up on those recipes and knife skills because there's a casting call for "MasterChef" on Saturday in San Francisco. We know it's a bit of late notice to make the haul to San Francisco, but hey, you know there's a $250,000 grand prize at stake, right? The producers also want to tap into Sacramento's culinary talent pool and are offering 10 front of the line passes to Sacramento home chefs who make the trip. Here's where it all goes down:

Le Cordon Bleu
350 Rhode Island St
San Francisco, CA 94103

The casting call runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and you're asked to bring your best home baked dish. For those front of line passes, send an e-mail to:

For more information and all the fine print for audition information:

December 5, 2011
Go for the whole-grain breads, stay for the pastries

Backer Back 2011a.jpgWe dropped by Town & Country Village last Saturday and sampled some breads and pastries at the unique Bäcker Bäck Bakery. Three fat cherry strudels has just been pulled from the oven and wore a dusting of powdered sugar (pictured). Yes, they tasted as good as they looked, but we had to make sure - over and over...

Other fine pastries crowded the display case, along with 30 kinds of rustic whole-grain breads in traditional and wedge-shaped loaves. They're made in Germany and France from proprietary recipes and arrive partly baked and frozen, then are finished off at Bäcker Bäck ($1.89 to $4.59).

The bakery is going seasonal with fruit- and nut-studded stollen, marzipan, pannetone with cranberries and walnuts, and other treats. Our problem was getting past the cherry strudel.

T&C center is at Marconi and Fulton avenues. Call Bäcker Bäck at (916) 487-2225).

December 5, 2011
MiniBurger sets sales record at Sacto MoFo 3

Patrons Jerrold Anub, left, and Elaine Dano of Rancho Cordova receive their food through the window of the 'Mini Burger' food truck in Sacramento on Saturday, December 3, 2011. Randy Pench, Sacramento Bee

You'd think the competition would be especially steep for local food trucks at Saturday's Sacto MoFo 3 mobile food festival. With such favorite Bay Area food trucks in the mix, including Chairman Bao and Seoul On Wheels, you'd think that locals would flock to the trucks that might only stop in the area a couple times a year. But even late in the afternoon, the local food trucks were getting plenty of love in the form of long lines.

Late in the day, Sacramento's own MiniBurger was pulling the longest lines by far. Anyone remember the three-hour wait for Chairman Bao at the first Sacto MoFo? By 4 p.m. you could get your order in less than 5 minutes. Meanwhile, MiniBurger set a personal sales record and cranked out more than 500 orders - a 10% increase over its previous record which was set at the inaugural Sacto MoFo. Overall, Sacto MoFo 3 drew about 5,000 people, according to the festival organizers.

December 3, 2011
Gingerbread people are back at Village Cake Shoppe

Last year about this time, we mentioned the hand-made decorated gingerbread people at the Village Cake Shoppe at Town & Country Village. They were such a hit that owner Patrick Clarke has brought them back. They're $2 to $2.50 (and up) "depending on how elaborate the design is," he said. They're available through Dec. 24.

What makes them so special? Well, they do bring back childhood memories of holidays past. Also, their quality is something special: The from-scratch little people are made in small batches from organic butter and molasses, brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. They're made to appeal to a child's taste, so they're not super-spicy.

"The demand for them last year was surprising, so it's a good idea to call first to make sure we have them at the moment," Clarke said. "Or people can call for special orders and customized decorations, like children's names."

The Village Cake Shoppe is in Town & Country Village, Marconi and Fulton avenues, Sacramento; (916) 485-8611, and

December 1, 2011
Undercover Caterer is not so undercover this Monday

oldironsides_photo1.jpgYou know her. You love her. But have you eaten her food?

If you're a fan of the fun and informative local food blog, Undercover Caterer, and/or you've been known to enjoy a good adult beverage at the legendary downtown bar Old Ironsides, AND if you like a really good bargain for dinner, I'm showing you the way to your perfect Monday night.

That's right, in a subtle stroke of ingenuity, Old Ironsides is having guest chef nights on Mondays to coincide with Monday Night Football. This Monday (Dec. 5), Sarah Singleton, aka the Undercover Caterer, is the chef. She's not a professional cook, but she is into food way, way more than most mortals. And she certainly knows her way around a kitchen. Her blog is loaded with recipes of all kinds, thoughts about cooking and food adventures.

ribs.jpgThe price of this dinner is a great deal -- $5. Dinner is expected to be served around halftime of the game -- about 6:30 or 7 p.m. No details yet on what Sarah will be cooking, but I'm sure it will be good -- and your $5 will go a long way. I don't think she could go wrong with her own recipe, "Baby back ribs with big cherry and Dr. Pepper sauce (pictured here)." Or maybe "Uncle Bobby's sausage burgers with peppers and onions (and marinated eggplant salad)." After I wrote this, Sarah, who actually has a real job, got back to me with some information about the dinner. She writes: "A prosperity sandwich, some sort of vegetable and gooey butter cake---all St Louis specialties. All designed to clog your arteries as well." Still, you won't have to sign a waiver before eating at Old I this Monday.

Sarah and I made an impromptu food swap a few months back -- a loaf of my sourdough for a jar of her homemade jam -- and it was a delicious deal for me. Her husband, Guido, is also quite the cook (and musician).

If you're not familiar with the venerable and beloved Old Ironsides, "Midtown Monthly" had a very informative piece on the bar a couple of years back. You can read it by clicking here.

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