Appetizers
March 30, 2012
Insight discusses the city's culinary reputation



Bruich.jpgInsight on Capital Public Radio recently took a look at the the Sacramento restaurant scene, interviewing Pajo Bruich, executive chef at Lounge ON20, and a member of a new group that aims to get Sacramento a higher profile on the statewide and national culinary scene. It's called Sactown Dining Collective.

Conducting the interview, in dulcet tones, I might add, is Rick Kushman, a lover of food and wine, and a former colleague we miss at The Bee.

Listen to the interview here. Bruich makes several excellent points and raises the ongoing questions many of us are asking: What's it going to take to enhance the city's reputation for restaurants. Do we have to do more? Or say more?

For more on the Sactown Dining Collective, go to the group's Facebook page.
If you want to read more about Bruich and company at Lounge ON20, check out what I said after their Valentine's dinner extravaganza by clicking here.

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

March 30, 2012
Magpie Cafe celebrates three (great) years


Magpie Café, which has quickly established itself as one of the city's consistently great dining experiences, will celebrate three years in business this weekend.

Anyone familiar with the restaurant world knows that getting that far means overcoming all kinds of hurdles - several of which can doom a restaurant sooner than later. We're talking about concept, staffing, the physical space, the lease, the menu, the food costs, and all the intangibles that happen behind the scenes.

Then, if you're good, you start to build a clientele. Magpie has gone way beyond that. It is now one of those foundational restaurants in Sacramento. It has helped redefine the city's restaurant landscape, has taught its legions of fans about clean, honest flavors and excellent technique, and it continues to showcase great food morning, noon and night.

168600_456796902613_634097613_5074122_8005185_n.jpgOne sign of a great restaurant is how impactful its food is. I can sincerely remember nearly everything I have eaten at Magpie during my dozens of visits - precisely where I was seated the first time I smelled the gnocchi with duck, how I felt when I tasted the rib eye steak with pan sauce, the iconic chicken for two, the risotto with duck egg, the breakfast sandwich, the simple salad with chicken and beautiful watermelon radishes, the trout sandwich, the pork five ways (pictured), the carrot cake cookie, the seared ahi with runner bean ragout, the crab Louie, all the soups. On and on. This is just off the top of my head.

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March 30, 2012
Food trucks: Do you have some new favorites?



Last year, I reviewed three of the new food trucks that had quickly made their mark in and around Sacramento.

But plenty has changed since then -- there are several new trucks, and it's only fitting that I take a look at what they are up to. As most foodies know by now, SactoMoFo is fast approaching (April 21).

Let us know in the comments section about some of your favorite new trucks, as well as some of the menu offerings you think we should try.

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

March 30, 2012
Impressive line-up of cooking classes at Stella in Truckee

brobertson@sacbee.com

Stella, the well-respected restaurant at the Cedar House Sport Hotel in Truckee, is known for its fine cooking. But it also has a reputation for its cooking classes. I recently received an email detailing Stella's upcoming classes, and there seems to be something for everyone. I am especially interested in the class on salt. As some of you know, I wrote a story a few months back on the illuminating book, "Salted," by Mark Bitterman (not to be confused with Mark Bittman).

While looking at Stella's website this morning, I was impressed to see they are baking bread in a wood-fired oven and selling the loaves retail. That alone may be worth a road trip.

Below are the details about the upcoming classes, dubbed, "Dishing with Stella." Taking a class would be a nice way to spend a day in the Sierra. Even better, make it a part of a multi-day adventure.

March 29, 2012
Survey ranks Sacramento as country's "third freshest city"

Sacramento is one "fresh" city, or make the the third freshest in the country. At least, those are the results from the recent Ziploc Fresh Eating Survey. The findings showed that 50 percent of Sacramento residents keep a vegetable garden - a tie for the highest average nationwide alongside Hartford, Conn. and Cleveland. That's right, Cleveland's a rhubarb and radish kind of town. The national average for city residents growing their own vegetable gardens was 30 percent.

The survey also factored in the number of farmers markets per city, number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms per city, number of fast food restaurants per city, and other data related to healthy eating habits and attitudes toward cooking and gardening. The survey, conducted by Sperling's "Best Places," included 4,500 respondents and a 95% level of confidence in its statistics.

Hartford ranked first in the survey, followed by San Francisco and Sacramento. Portland and San Jose rounded out the survey's top five.

March 28, 2012
Full text of statement to drop mobile food vending bill AB 1678

As reported earlier today, Bill Monning (D-Carmel) has dropped AB 1678, his bill which would have restricted food trucks near schools. The bill was presented as an effort to curb childhood obesity and the said efforts of some food trucks to target schools. In its introduced version, the bill would have restricted mobile food vending within 1,500 feet of schools, and then amended to a 500 foot restriction. But now, the whole matter's been dropped, with Monning saying in a statement that, "It wasn't ready for prime time."

So does that mean the Sacramento City Council is ready to hold hearings about food trucks? A recent hearing before the city's Law and Legislation committee was cancelled until the fate of AB 1678 was decided. That was the third time that mobile food vending issues were to be heard, and third time in a row they were taken off the books. We'll see what city leaders have to say now.

In the meantime, here's the full text of Monning's statement to drop AB 1678:

March 28, 2012
1000 vegan cupcakes to be cooked for Earth Day

The folks behind the Sacramento Vegan Chef Challenge, which was held throughout local eateries in October, have cooked up a new idea for Earth Day. 10 local bakers will each whip up 100 vegan cupcakes, making for a whopping 1,000 cupcakes, which will be sold for charity. The event, aptly titled "1000 Vegan Cupcakes for Charity," will go down on April 22 at the Embassy Suites' Tower Bridge Bistro (100 Capitol Mall, Sacramento; 916-326-5050). These cupcakes will also be part of a competition to see who's vegan treats reign supreme.

Gluten-free and sugar-free cupcakes will also be available at the event, which runs from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Information: sacveganchallenge.com.

March 27, 2012
Wine storage facility to open in east Sacramento

In terms of naming, the new wine storage facility called Caverna Fifty-Seven makes perfect sense.

For starters, these lockers are tucked into a building near "antique row" on 57th Street in east Sacramento, and a temperature of 57 to 58 degrees is considered ideal for storing wine.

The final construction touches at Caverna Fifty-Seven are currently under way, and once all of its storage lockers are installed the facility will have space for more than 3,400 cases of wine.

March 26, 2012
Rodent problem temporarily closed Lemon Grass Grill, La Bou

There seems to be some confusion, judging from recent phone and e-mail inquiries, and a certain amount of speculative rumor circulating within the local foodie community.

Preview: This story has a happy ending. Bottom line: No, the health department did not close owner Mai Pham's iconic Lemon Grass restaurant on Munroe Street in Sacramento due to evidence of rodent infestation.

But, for that reason, it did temporarily close Pham's Lemon Grass Asian Grill & Noodle Bar, and owner Trong Nguyen's La Bou Bakery & Cafe. The two restaurants share facilities inside a building along Howe Avenue in Sacramento

March 23, 2012
See's Candies introduces new treats for the Easter season

RB Easter Chocolate.JPG Bee staff photograph by Randall Benton
One of the inevitable parts of any given Easter Sunday is mounds of candy stuffed inside Easter baskets. Peeps, jelly beans, chocolate-covered marshmallow bunnies, malted-milk-ball robin's eggs...

Stepping it up is the venerable See's Candies, with a special line of goodies for the Easter season, available now through April 8.

We sampled three of the 13 seasonal treats, pictured at left - the dark-chocolate "sitting rabbit" ($5.65), rocky road (with walnuts) decorated egg ($11.40), and orange-cream lollipops ($5.55 per eight-pack).

The tasters loved the high-quality dark chocolate (the rabbit's ears were the first to go), swooned over the luscious chocolate-marshmallow-walnut rocky road egg, and savored the creamy, orange-y lollipops.

See's sources its cocoa and chocolate from the Guittard Chocolate Company in Burlingame (www.guittard.com) and manufactures its candies at factories in South San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Charles and Florence See opened their confectionery business in L.A. 1921, using Charles' mother Mary's original recipes and portrait to "symbolize the old-fashioned virtues of homemade quality and friendly service." Mary See died in 1939 at age 85.

Today, there are more than 200 See's candy shops in 13 states. For more information, go to www.sees.com.

March 22, 2012
Play it safe or push forward? The menu discussion continues



Glasier.jpgMany folks tied to the Sacramento food scene have maintained a long-running, often appropriate and sometimes misguided discussion about the quality of the area's restaurants. Often, the discussion focuses on the lack of inspired, inventive and edgy meals (the definition of edgy is subjective and elastic, ranging from keeping the bones in the chicken breast all the way to, say, serving all those "gross" parts of animals, as well as vegetables you've never seen before).

The discussion and debate revolve around wooing customers without turning others off, food costs, and all kinds of other factors...like staying in business during a dreadful and persistent recession. In these times, is it best to play it safe or fire up the edgy ideas and invite people to be more adventurous eaters?

When I saw the rather stunning menu for an upcoming wine dinner at Maranello in Fair Oaks, I had hope. It would certainly be considered a highly adventurous - and possibly high-risk -- meal in Sacramento. We're talking veal carpaccio and lamb belly wrapped in lamb sweetbreads. Now that's edgy. It made me think of the kind of thing Mark Liberman is doing at AQ in San Francisco.

So I gave executive chef Gabriel Glasier a call and asked him to walk me through the menu, complete with his thoughts.

March 22, 2012
High school culinary competition to take over Sacramento Convention Center

While prep basketball enters the crunch time of state tournament season, a different kind of high school competition will be going down this weekend. Instead of a basketball court, this arena will be the Sacramento Convention Center where local high school culinary teams will go head-to-head on Sunday and Monday at the 10th annual California ProStart Competition. The teams come from a smorgasbord of area high schools: San Juan, Cordova, Madison, Cosumnes Oaks and Whitney. In a series of culinary competitions, the teams will have one hour to prepare a three-course meal. Then, they have to wow a judging panel that includes Molly Hawks (Hawks Restaurant), Taro Arai (Mikuni), Tony Marcell (Wafare Tavern), four certified master chefs and more. There's also a separate management contest, in which teams are required to propose a restaurant concept including a menu, marketing plan and design elements.

A whole bunch of cash prices and scholarships are at stake for the students. $12,000 in cash prizes will be awarded to students, teachers and schools, along with a whopping $348,000 in scholarships for winning teams.

Sunday's culinary competition is free and open to the general public. Look for the culinary competition to begin and 10 a.m. and wrap up at 5 p.m. Awards will be handed out Monday afternoon. Good luck, and let's see who's high school cooking team reigns supreme.

March 21, 2012
Meadowood's new $500 chef's table menu -- discuss


Kostow.jpgAs noted in this space several weeks ago, Meadowood in St. Helena is a world-class restaurant that didn't stop trying to be great when it was awarded three Michelin stars. The restaurant closed this winter for several weeks to dramatically retool the kitchen, tweak the décor in the dining room and rethink its purpose moving forward.

Part of that thinking is off to a rocky start, inviting such labels as "elitist," "self-important" and "ostentatious." I'm referring to the $500 per person tasting menu that runs to 20 courses, includes exclusive seating at the "chef's counter" in the kitchen, and if you want wine pairings, it will set you back another $350 or so. Even if you're one of those heartless 1-percenters and you stiff the waiter, you're still looking at around $1,000 for a meal that, from the looks of it, will either thrill you or overwhelm your taste buds. An on-call priest to give last rites is an additional $350, not including tip (OK, I made that up). Locally, by comparison, I believe the priciest meal is the $125 prix fixe at The Kitchen Restaurant, followed by Ambience..


March 21, 2012
Bouchon Bakery back in business, Addendum re-opens Thursday

With visions of brioche and buttery croissants, the line snaked down Washington St. in Yountville on a recent morning. The message was clear: Bouchon Bakery (6528 Washington St., Yountville; 707-944-2253), the heart of Thomas Keller's baking operations, had finally re-opened. Bouchon Bakery creates the baked goods for the French Laundry, Ad Hoc and Bouchon Bistro, along with running its retail shop that doubles as a popular foodie destination. Bouchon Bakery's retail space had been closed a month for remodeling. The bakery itself also required an overhaul following a September fire which reportedly started above the bread oven.

The remodeled bakery features a new, two-door entrance and added cash register that ideally allows for a smoother flow of traffic. The bakery itself, which goes through some 1,200 pounds of dough a day, has also increased its cooking capacity. Its new steam tube deck oven is capable of baking 120 baguettes at a time, which are sent to Keller's restaurant operations and other eateries around Yountville.

"As business increased, we'd outgrown the space," said Matt McDonald, Bouchon Bakery's head baker. "This space was built out to do more volume. It's a non-stop, 24/7 operation."

March 21, 2012
Tough day for Juno, the inspiration for Juno's Kitchen & Deli

JunoKitchenSignageNowOpen[1].jpg

Juno, a beloved dog known to many in East Sacramento and foodie circles well beyond, might be getting a new notation on her canine report card: Doesn't play well with snakes.

Huh?

Juno is the dog that inspired the name of Mark Helms' highly regarded Juno's Kitchen and Delicatessen. Her face is resplendent on the restaurant's logo. She sleeps in the couple's bed. For a treat, she wolfs down Helms' incredible burgers.

Tuesday, however, was a tough one for Juno, Juno's, Helms and his wife, Sue.

Sue and Juno were out on a romp along a quiet stretch of the American River. Juno went for a swim, darted into a bush or two, then came hobbling back to Sue. There were two fang marks on Juno's leg and it was badly swollen.

That's when things got scary. Sue called Mark at the restaurant. Mark took stock and left the restaurant in the hands of a lone employee -- taking the orders and cooking the food while the owner/chef was racing to the emergency veterinarian on Bradshaw Road.


March 20, 2012
Following in the footsteps of Olive Garden reviewer Marilyn Hagerty

Columnist Marilyn Hagerty's quaint review of the new-to-her-town Olive Garden restaurant in the March 7 edition of the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota caused a firestorm across cyberspace (www.grandforksherald.com).

Those observers with not enough to do were quick to show how clever they are by parodying the 85-year-old reporter's straightforward assessment of the restaurant, one of 750 franchises in the national chain.

The negative viral response to her review served to partially pull back the curtain and reveal some of the insular arrogance infused within the national sideshow of uncredentialed culinary snobbery

Then a legion of her defenders (including "No Reservations" host Anthony Bourdain) stepped up, calling Hagerty's review a refreshing reality check. .

Hagerty became an instant celebrity, her review a hot topic. She made the rounds of TV talk shows and was treated to a whirlwind dining tour of New York City. Her casual lunch at a hot dog stand there was duly covered by the New York Times. Still, Hagerty says she remains puzzled over all the fuss.

We took a cue from her review and dropped in on the Olive Garden in Folsom, sort of an "in the footsteps of Marilyn Hagerty" dining adventure.

March 19, 2012
Fabian's Italian Bistro brings back its Sunday brunch

brunch.jpg Between monthly wine-tastings on the last Wednesday of each month, and daily specials concocted by chef Tom Patterson (fried spinach, seasoned polenta fries), something's always going on at Fabian's Italian Bistro.

Now husband-wife owners Christian and Mercedes Forte are reopening their restaurant's outdoor patio for Sunday brunch (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), beginning this coming Sunday.

Last year, we loved the eggs Benedict Florentine (pictured), house-made Italian sausage link, and cinnamon custard-soaked brioche French toast.

Those dishes will return, along with a breakfast burger, house-smoked salmon, frittata Bolognese and seared flat iron steak with eggs, plus an expanded children's menu. Begin with a Bellini (Prosecco with peach puree) and end with one (or more) of eight desserts.

Also new: Dinner will now be served 4 to 9 p.m. Sundays. In exchange, the restaurant will be closed Mondays.

Fabian's is at 11755 Fair Oaks Blvd. in the Almond Orchard center, Fair Oaks; (916) 536-9891, www.fabiansitalianbistro.com.

March 19, 2012
Great brunch -- tell us your favorite spots


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So many good spots for brunch, so little time. For the next few weeks, I will be searching high and low as we prepare a list of the best brunch restaurants in the Sacramento area.

If you have a favorite, please let us know. Shoot me an email or make a comment below. It can be a fancy special-occasion spot or a little hole-in-the-wall. Doesn't matter. We just want good food and a great brunch experience.

If you want an example of a place that knows how to make brunch, check out the photo above of the smoked salmon omelet with fire-roasted red pepper sauce I had recently at Maranello in Fair Oak. It was a thing of beauty -- cooked perfectly, without even a hint of browning -- and the flavors were intense and satisfying. Kudos to executive chef Gabriel Glasier and his kitchen staff. This kind of cooking demonstrates good technique and great attention to detail.

And I'm on the lookout for more great food like this.

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

March 16, 2012
Billy Zoellin prepping to open his own restaurant


AA GOLDEN BEAR4.jpgBilly Zoellin's creative takes on simple cuisine while he was the chef at the Golden Bear attracted national attention and won him many new fans on the local food scene.

After a topsy-turvy year, Zoellin is getting ready to open his own place - a breakfast, lunch and espresso spot on 21st Street he's calling Bacon & Butter.

"It's really exciting. I've got a great opportunity," said the chef.

March 16, 2012
New lease, new locale: Bistro La Petite France moves to Folsom

EK LA PETITE FRANCE6818.jpgMany fans of the cooking and warm, friendly environment at Bistro La Petite France in Granite Bay have been upset to learn that their beloved restaurant has closed, albeit not for good.

But because of a issues regarding the lease, the husband-and-wife team of Christophe and Claudine Erhart were compelled to close the bistro and find a new location. By the first week in April or thereabouts - after plenty of heavy lifting, scrubbing and painting - the couple expect to reopen in Historic Old Folsom.

Explains Christophe: "We had been trying to renogiate the lease with our landlord. It just wasn't going anywhere. In order to continue to do what we wanted to do, it was just too difficult. Claudine and I are really hurt. We loved that place. This created a whole brouhaha in Granite Bay. Granite Bay is not happy about us leaving. We had people with tears in their eyes when we told them.

"We're turning away 12-15 reservations a day because people don't know we're closed."

March 15, 2012
Vendors announced for Sacto MoFo 4 mobile food festival

It's been a busy week of news on the local food truck scene, first with a city hall hearing on food trucks being cancelled in wake of AB 1678, and then MiniBurger announcing plans to expand to a brick-and-mortar business and also add a second truck to its fleet.

Now, we've got the exclusive heads-up on the list of vendors confirmed for Sacto MoFo 4, the mobile food festival which will be held April 21 at Eighth and W streets near Sacramento's Southside Park. It's set to be the biggest mobile food festival in Sacramento, with more than two dozen vendors and a possible beer garden. Check out the list and you'll find some familiar food truck favorites, and new ones as well:

March 14, 2012
Burger scandals in East Sac, and how they can be resolved

20111102_AOC_Junos_320w.jpgTwo of the best gourmet hamburgers on planet earth can both be found on J Street within a couple of blocks of one another in East Sacramento.

But life at the top isn't all it's cracked up to be. In fact, there's burger-centric controversy simmering at both restaurants - Juno's Kitchen and Delicatessen and Formoli's Bistro.

This isn't about a rivalry. Each "controversy" stands on its own, the only connection being the excellence of the burgers and the sometimes negative reaction from customers.

Let me explain, beginning with Juno's.

March 14, 2012
MiniBurger to debut second truck, new restaurant and new name

MiniBurger, a pioneer of Sacramento's mobile food movement, is about to expand its fleet and also open a brick-and-mortar business. A second MiniBurger truck will debut at the Sacto MoFo 4 mobile food festival on April 21st. MiniBurger owner Davin Vculek spent about $100,000 on this new truck, which he hopes will help his business keep up with increasing demand.

Vculek also plans to open a brick-and-mortar version of his business by early fall. That would make MiniBurger the second local mobile food vendor, following Drewski's Hot Rod Kitchen, to also open a stand-alone eatery. Drewski's is currently operating at Republic, a sports bar which recently opened at 15th and J streets in downtown Sacramento.

The final details on Vculek's lease are still being worked out, but Vculek plans to serve an expanded version of his burger-themed menu. The exact location should be announced soon. However, there's one catch. Once its second truck goes online, MiniBurger will begin operating under a different name. Vculek wasn't able to trademark the name "MiniBurger" because it was too general, so the new as-yet-untitled name will have more of a brandable and catchy ring to it.

March 14, 2012
WholeVine cookies now available in Sacramento area

Give today's Food & Wine section a read and you'll learn about a new line of gourmet grapeseed products that are geared for gourmets and those who want to eat gluten-free. With some help and consultation from UC Davis, the Sonoma-based company WholeVine has crafted a variety of oils, flours and cookies all based on varietally specific grapeseeds that are leftover from the winemaking process.

While WholeVine's flours are only available at the wholesale level to bakers, and its cold-pressed grapeseed oils can only be purchased online or at the Kendall-Jackson tasting room, its line of gluten-free cookies are now available at Nugget stores in the Sacramento area. They cost about $7 for an eight ounce bag.

Having tasted a bunch of similar products in the past, I have to say these are the best gluten-free cookies I've ever had. Each type of cookie is made with a specific grapeseed flour, including chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon blanc. The end result is a cookie that's moist as it should be and will satisfy your sweet tooth, with an underlying bit of frutiness.

For more information: www.wholevine.com.

March 13, 2012
Food truck hearing at city hall cancelled in wake of AB 1678

AB 1678, the recently introduced bill which would prevent food trucks from operating within 1,500 feet of schools, has a long way to go through the legislative process before being signed into law. However, this pending legislation is already having an effect on local efforts to address local mobile food ordinances at city hall.

A hearing about mobile food ordinances before the Sacramento City Council's Law and Legislation committee, which was set for March 20, has since been cancelled. This is the third time that food truck ordinances were to be addressed at the committee, and third time in a row that they've been knocked off the agenda. The issue won't be taken up again until a decision is reached one way or the other about AB 1678, which was introduced by Bill Monning (D-Carmel) in an effort to fight childhood obesity.

The city's Law and Legislation committee is chaired by councilmember Jay Schenirer (District 5).

March 12, 2012
Is it kosher? There's an app for that

Just in time for Passover planning, the Orthodox Union - the group behind the widely used "OU Kosher" symbol - has introduced a new smartphone application that can instantly search the kosher status of more than 600,000 products.

The free app is available for download for iPhones, iPads, iPod Touch and Androids. Passover will be observed April 6 through 14.

The OU Kosher app includes products manufactured at almost 8,000 plants in more than 90 countries that meet strict kosher guidelines. Besides the product search, the app also provides "kosher alerts," new product updates and online access to experts to answer dietary questions. There's also access to the OU Kosher information hotline.

The app is part of a social media blitz by the Orthodox Union in preparation for Passover. On its Facebook page and via Twitter, OU Kosher will feature "Kosher for Passover" products, recipes and articles as well as field questions from fans and followers.

To download the app, select "OU Kosher" from the iTunes App Store or use a direct link to the app from the OU's website at www.ou.org/apps.

The direct application can be downloaded at http://itunes.apple.com/ke/app/ou-kosher/id491138771?mt=8.

March 8, 2012
Sacto MoFo 4 food truck festival coming, possible beer sales

More than two-dozen mobile food vendors will descend on 8th and W streets, the site of Sacramento's Sunday farmers market, for Sacto MoFo 4 on April 21. The amount of vendors and trucks, currently at 27, will make this the largest celebration of mobile food seen thus far in Sacramento. Tentative plans also call for a first-ever beer garden, which would highlight local craft beers and microbreweries over that same ol' Miller Light. Additional mobile food vendors are expected to be announced soon, including the debut of a Sacramento food truck which specializes in Indian food.

Sacto MoFo organizers also plan to highlight a couple of issues facing the mobile food movement, both locally and around the state. AB 1678, recently introduced to the California State Assembly by Bill Monning (D-Carmel), would prevent food trucks from operating within 1,500 of schools. The legislation, supported by California Food Policy Advocates in their fight against childhood obesity, has since caused an uproar with food truck operators and consumers alike.

March 8, 2012
What happened to the best dish of the year?

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When I reviewed Lounge ON20 several months ago, I named its charcuterie plate as the best dish I had encountered in the past year. So, what happened since then? I stopped in at Lounge ON20 recently with that question in mind, wondering what the kitchen was doing with its already stellar charcuterie plate. The answer: to remain the best, you have to keep pushing forward.

That's what chef de cuisine Mike Ward is doing. We were already elated by his earlier charcuterie offerings, and this new one is superb, too. Take a look at the artistry and execution. As for flavors, there was so much going on here, such a lively and dynamic offering of tastes, colors, textures, surprises.

See if you can identify some of the following on the plate (click on the photo to make it larger):

  • Duck prosciutto sprinkled with Jurassic salt
  • Fermented black garlic puree
  • Pickled red beet puree
  • Pickled quail eggs
  • Yellow romesco puree
  • Cornichons
  • Pickled ground cherries
  • Virginia ham jowls
  • Two kinds of mustard: minced chile mustard and traditional whole grain mustard
  • Pickled shimeji mushrooms
  • Burnt caramel gastrique
  • Corned beef tongue with , next to dots of burnt eggplant (really sweet and caramel)
  • Chorizo pate with Fresno chile gel
  • Pickled cherries

Congratulations to Ward, executive chef Pajo Bruich and the rest of the hard-working crew at Lounge ON20. This kind of attitude is what helps inspire and challenge other chefs, resulting in more enterprising work and elevating our overall dining scene in the Sacramento region.

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

March 7, 2012
How do Fresh & Easy's instant meals rate against the competition?

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market opens the first two of its five Sacramento locations starting today, with the grocery chain emphasizing low-cost and freshly made instant foods as a core part of its business plan. Check this story from today's Food & Wine section for more about Fresh & Easy, but in the end, we really wanted to know this: How do Fresh & Easy's grab-and-go foods rate against the competition? You'll find similar sorts of freshly prepared meals at Trader Joe's and Raley's, so a tasting panel was rounded up and we fired up the microwave and oven to taste away. As a bonus, we also tried Two Buck Chuck against Fresh & Easy's $1.99 house wine.

The tasting panel included Chris Macias (Bee Food and Wine Writer), Allen Pierleoni (The Bee's "Counter Culture" columnist), Matt Chong of the www.getsrvd.com food blog, and local social media consultant Beth Diebels. Here are the results, on a scale of 1 to 5:

MAC 'N' CHEESE

Fresh & Easy Macaroni & Cheese ($2.99, 16 ounces): Average score of 1

*** Raley's To GO 5 Cheese Macaroni & Cheese ($5, 16 ounces): Average score of 2

Overall: Tasters were struck by how bland both mac 'n' cheeses were, especially with Fresh & Easy's version. Raley's took the edge for better chew on the noodles. In the end, Chong preferred Kraft to both.

March 6, 2012
Hawks' foie gras dinner? Too late, it's booked solid

420735_10150579176391752_58410521751_9268589_645743792_n.jpgSeveral of our best restaurants are doing special foie gras dinners as the deadline for foie gras prohibition draws closer.

This March 29 dinner at Hawks, at $120 per person, looks amazing. This is not the time to address the issue of foie gras. We'll do that another time. What's noteworthy is the creative approaches the kitchen is taking for getting foie gras into every course, including dessert.

I tried to get a reservation, but it's all booked up. I guess I need better connections! Nevertheless, congratulations to Hawks on the sold-out dinner and the overall excellence of the dining experience here.

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

March 6, 2012
Darrell Corti takes you to the Republic of Georgia and Hungary

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How would you like to take a trip to the birthplace of wine, the Republic of Georgia? As a bonus, you can travel with internationally recognized food and wine expert Darrell Corti of Sacramento (pictured here at the Alaverdi Monastery). Of course, this is all vicarious.

For five days in September 2011, Corti and Corti Bros. Market director Rick Mindermann traveled with a group of 60 international food and wine writers, scholars, scientists and media personalities. They were in Georgia to attend the first International Quvevri Wine Symposium, sponsored by the Georgian National Wine Association.

After that, Corti and Mindermann struck out on their own to tour the famous Tokaj wine district of Hungary, stopping at wineries and sampling as they went.

"We tasted the sweet wines of Tokaj," Corti said on the phone today. "Before the communists took over Hungary after World War II, those were the wines of which it was said, 'The wine of kings, the king of wines.'"

March 6, 2012
A great chef and his not-so-great appliances

I am looking at a photograph published in the Wall Street Journal showing one of the greatest chef's of our generation. Grant Achatz's restaurant in Chicago, Alinea, was awarded three Michelin stars and it has been listed by some as the best restaurant in the United States, and by others as one of the best restaurants in the world (how anyone can know these things without actually visiting all of the contenders within days of one another is a topic for another time).

Achatz is slim. His shirt is untucked. But my eyes looking over his shoulder. Yikes! He has a microwave! And it's white! And it's over his range! It's one of those gawd-awful microwaves that doubles as an exhaust hood - the kind that we used to have, the one that couldn't exhaust anything to save its life. The range and oven are also white. I rubbed my eyes. Refocused. Still white.

For the past decade or so, whether it was on one HGTV show after another or in magazines dealing with style and design like "Dwell," we have been led to believe that anything but stainless steel appliances are the kitchen equivalent of a fashion faux pas. We were supposed to make our kitchens look more commercial, more rugged. Watch HGTV. "Househunters," for instance. The first thing folks say when they walk through and encounter white or black appliances is, "Oh, we'll have to upgrade those." There is a slight and recent trend to offer other appliance options, like hiding them behind cabinetry.

March 6, 2012
Graze and sip on skis or snowshoes at Gourmet Ski Tour

On-snow gourmet grazing and sipping while walking on snowshoes or gliding on cross-country skis?

What a concept, but that's just what will be on offer at the 11th annual Gourmet Ski Tour, 1 to 3 p.m. March 11 at the Tahoe Cross Country Ski Center, 925 Country Club Drive, Tahoe City. If you don't have your own snowshoes or skis, the center will rent you the gear.

Kiosks will be set up along the trail, where purveyors will offer bites and adult beverages. Among the 13 restaurants will be Sunnyside, Jake's On the Lake, Bridgetender, Christy Hill, Mama Sake and North Shore Hawaiian Grill. Children 12 and younger get free admission and complimentary hot dogs, fruit and ice cream.

The afternoon will end with live music and margaritas, 2:30 to 5 p.m.

Wear a dance costume to match the "Snow Dance" theme (disco, hip-hop, ballet and the like) and get a chance to win a Tahoe XC season pass.

Tickets are $32 for adults (includes a half-day trail pass), $27 for ages 13-17. For information and to purchase tickets: (530) 583-5475, www.tahoexc.org.

March 2, 2012
You could be Safeway's next chef and a Skillet Meals star

If you have faith in your cooking skills and want a job in a professional kitchen, Safeway, Inc. has an offer.

It's looking for a chef to work in its 4,000-square-foot research-and-development recipe center, Safeway Culinary Kitchens in Pleasanton. Bonus: His/her original recipe will be included in the lineup of Safeway's Open Nature Skillet Meals.

All you have to do is win a national competition by "demonstrating a passion for innovation" in creating a recipe for a skillet meal "with 100 percent natural ingredients."

"We are the first to host a major competition where a talented chef has the opportunity to win a new job and develop a product that will be on the shelf in a major national grocery store," said Safeway senior vice president Joe Ennen.

The competition will include an April 23 regional cook-off at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Later, the judging panel for the final cook-off in Pleasanton will include chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli of the Food Network's "Chopped" and "Iron Chef."

For all the details and to enter, go to facebook.com/safeway.

March 1, 2012
Thomas Keller, on something as simple as the omelet

I thought the LA Times did a nice job on this piece about Thomas Keller and how he makes the perfect omelet.

As the visionary behind the French Laundry and Per Se points out, sometimes it's all about simple ingredients done with the proper technique. Keller does a couple of interesting things: he uses a blender and he uses relatively low heat with a non-stick pan. This is in contrast to the classic French technique of high heat with an untreated carbon steel pan, with clarified butter and two forks to stir vigorously.

Since it's always nice to learn a new approach, read the text, watch the video and give this a try. As Keller opines, the omelet is not just for breakfast -- he likes to eat his perfectly cooked eggs at night.

And if you're still looking for different, take a look at what I posted here a few weeks back -- poached scrambled eggs!

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



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