Appetizers
August 8, 2013
Take a trip to Japan and visit Food Expo with Darrell Corti

RP CORTI AND WINE.jpgHow would you like to take a trip to Japan with internationally recognized wine and food expert Darrell Corti of Sacramento (pictured)? Along the way will be a stop at FoodEx Japan, the largest international food and beverage trade show-exposition in Asia.

Of course, all of this is vicarious.

For 11 days in March, Corti and Corti Bros. Market director Rick Mindermann traveled 2,000 miles through the country by cab, wagon, subway, bullet train and jet, visiting six cities. They dined at 29 different restaurants, cafes, and eateries, and spent a day tasting new-to-the-marketplace foods and drinks at Food Ex, with the thought of bringing some of the product lines to their store.

What was their best meal? "We ate at a yakatori house specializing in grilled skewered meats," Mindermann said. "We ate an entire shamo (game cock), cut into pieces. The breast was only seared on the outside, and mostly raw. It was better that the best seared ahi tuna I've ever had."


In Kyoto, Corti made a point of stopping at a McDonald's.

What!?

"He said he wanted to make sure that American culture was being properly represented in Japan," Mindermann said with a laugh. "He covers both ends of the food and beverage spectrum."

Midermann showed his expertise with camera gear and film-editing software, assembling a day-by-day blog of their excursion in 120 videos and 900 photographs. Check it out at : https://www.sites.google.com/site/tvcorti/home/blog-japan-2013.

"The blog site captures what it's like to travel with Darrell," Mindermann said.

Also at that link is Corti TV, an audiovisual window into Corti's world travels and the business of his store. In just over a year, more than 58,000 viewers in 134 countries have tuned in. Also: Word has it that another exotic trip could be coming up, this one in the fall. It too will show up at the blog site.

Corti added this thought: "The trip wasn't a blog - it was a real job."

Corti Bros. Market is at 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, (916) 736-3800, www.cortibros.biz.

August 6, 2013
Make That Sandwich Recipe Contest is worth $25,000

Since August is National Sandwich Month, it's a good time to remind everyone that the annual Make That Sandwich Recipe Contest is winding down. It's sponsored by Mezzetta, the purveyor of olives, peppers and other condiments, based in American Canyon (think Napa Valley).

Home cooks can submit original recipes using Mezzetta products to www.makethatsandwich.com in any (or all) of the categories - cold sandwich, hot sandwich and vegetarian sandwich - from now through Sept. 2. The top prize is $25,000. Runners-up in each category can win $1,000. Full details are on the website.

Specialty-foods producer Mezzetta opened its doors in 1935 in San Francisco's historic North Beach.

FROM THE BEE:

A jarring success: Mezzetta foods no longer just a California favorite

August 6, 2013
Spice rubs join Smokin' Cups for a hot-off-the-grill taste test

photo.JPGTwo 'cue-centric products arrived here at Food Central, and we tested them simultaneously.

The family-operated Ferolito's in American Canyon, on the outskirts of the Napa Valley, makes spice rubs for chicken and pork. At www.ferolitos.com, we learned that the rubs are from "a 20 year old family recipe," but no one got back to us with prices or availability.

We liberally rubbed a rack of St. Louis-style ribs with the pork rub, and did the same with two organic chicken breasts, using the chicken rub.

Next, we broke open the package of Cowboy-brand Smokin' Cups, described as "perfectly portioned cups of naturally flavored hardwood smoking chips." The trio of little aluminum foil cups contained hickory, mesquite and apple wood chips. Remove the tab convering the "smoke hole," place the cup on top of hot coals and it will release wood smoke for about a half-hour. We did. On two separate grilling sessions, we used the mild applewood chips for the chicken and the hearty mesquite chips for the ribs (seen in the photo).

We tasters ate, licked our fingers and huddled. We agreed the Ferolito's spice rubs looked and smelled good going on, and gave the pork and chicken great color when they came off the charcoal grill. Though the rubs were tasty, they were too tame for our taste. Where was the heat? The tongue-twisting bold flavors? And we were a bit surprised at the inclusion of "smoke flavor" as one of the ingredients in the pork rub, given all the other natural ingredients.


The Smokin' Cups performed as advertised, once the wood chips started smoldering in about five or so minutes. The cups gave off steady if thin streams of smoke, just enough to flavor the ribs and chicken breasts, without putting too much smoke flavor into the meats. The three-pack is available for $5 at all Lowe's hardware stores.



August 1, 2013
Small plates and sips with artist Gregory Kondos

kondos.JPGTwo events are coming up, both involving superstars of different types, and both involving food.

First this: Any event featuring internationally acclaimed Sacramento artist Gregory Kondos will sell out in a heartbeat, especially if it's limited to 60 guests. So...

Now this: "Gregory Kondos: Art & Antipasti in the Garden" will feature the artist in an "informal talk and conversation about his life and art." Enjoy a light buffet meal and sip a glass of wine while a living legend holds forth.

The event will start at 6 p.m. Sept. 8 at the historic Murer House, 1125 Joe Murer Court, Folsom. Tickets are $25 at (916) 985-3250, folsomite@aol.com and www.murerhouse.org.

Also: Italian autos, motorcycles and motorbikes will be displayed from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 14 at Murer House. The event is free, but look for on-site sales of wood-fired pizza, gelato, gourmet food items, Italian beer and soda, and crafts. If you own an Italian vehicle, bring it.

Both events are fundraisers for the preservation and operation of the Murer House and Learning Center, built in 1925 by Giuseppe "Joe" Murer.

Bee photograph/Lezlie Sterling

July 29, 2013
Sweet deal: half-price for cheesecake at Cheesecake Factory

cheesecake.jpgHere's a sweet deal from the Cheesecake Factory: In celebration of National Cheesecake Day, the 163-store national restaurant chain is offering any slice of its signature cheesecake for half price (normally the toll is $7 to $8 a slice). The offer is good only for dine-in patrons, and only on Tuesday, July 30.

The Cheesecake Factory bakes more than 30 flavors of cheesecake, and will introduce its newest on Tuesday - Toasted Marshmallow S'mores Galore is topped with chocolate ganache and finished with toasted housemade marshmallow, graham crackers and whipped cream (pictured).

Thirty-two Cheesecake Factories are in California, including two hereabouts: 1127 Galleria Blvd., Roseville (916-781-3399) and 1771 Arden Way, Sacramento (916- 567-0606).

Information: www.thecheesecakefactory.com.

July 26, 2013
Restaurants and wineries will converge for Off to the Races

offtotheraces.jpgAn annual wine and food extravaganza is returning to the courtyard at the Pavilions shopping center, 5:30 to 8 p.m. Aug. 17.

Off to the Races is the kickoff event for the 15th annual Race for the Arts on Aug. 24; both are fundraisers benefitting arts groups and arts programs throughout California.

Line up for a diverse array of small plates from Ruth's Chris Steak House, Fabian's Italian Bistro, Monsoon Cuisine of India, Roxy's, Sutter Street Steakhouse, Mandarin, T&R Taste of Texas, Florez, Cafe Bernardo, Raley's and Starbucks. Capital Confections will serve its award-winning gelato.

Sip reds, whites and rosés from Napa Cellars, St. Supéry Vineyards & Winery, Mount Aukum Winery, Sean Minor Wines, Cielo Estate Winery, Barefoot Wines, Heringer Estate Winery and Lava Cap Winery.

Entertainment will include performances by six-time Elly Award-winning El Dorado Musical Theatre. World-renowned Sacramento artist Wayne Thiebaud's painting "Three Cones" is this year's Race for the Arts logo.

Off to the Races tickets are $50 at the door or in advance at www.raceforthearts.com. Pavilions is along Fair Oaks Boulevard, east of Howe Avenue, in Sacramento; www.pavilions.com.

From Aug. 1-17, enter a drawing for a $1,000 shopping spree at the Pavilions, and a $1,000 donation to the arts group or school program of the winner's choice.

Race for the Arts features a 5K B-tagged run/walk, as well as "fun runs" for children, at William Land Park, 3800 S. Land Park Drive, Sacramento, beginning at 7 a.m. Aug. 24. Also on site: More than 45 arts groups will participate in an arts festival; food will be from a trio of food trucks and restaurants.

For race registration and details: (916) 933-4056, www.raceforthearts.com.

July 26, 2013
French potato chips are surprising -- goat cheese, anyone?

potatochips.JPGBee photograph by Randy Pench


A couple of lunch pals and I spent two hours inside the Cost Plus World Market on Howe Avenue earlier this month, and I wrote a "Counter Culture" column about our visit (July 12 Ticket section).

"We went (there) to discover some of its seasonal food items that could complement a backyard barbecue or picnic in the park," the column said.

Shortly after the column appeared, store manager Tom Hedtke phoned to say the market had just received a batch of uniquely flavored potato chips from France. "Too bad they weren't in stock when you wrote the story," he said.

In the interest of discovery, we returned and picked up five bags of the chips ($2.49 each) and held an informal taste test. The comments are below.

July 26, 2013
In California, Long John Silver's Big Catch is trans-fat free

Recently, the well-regarded but excitable Center for Science in the Public Interest labeled Long John Silver's new entree item "the nation's deadliest restaurant meal."

The chain's Big Catch is a large fillet of "sustainably harvested" haddock, hush puppies (balls of seasoned cornbread) and a side dish.

The consumer-advocacy group sponsored lab tests that showed the Big Catch contains "33 grams of trans fat ... (and) 19 grams of saturated fat ... and nearly 3,700 milligrams of sodium." The CSPI chose onion rings for its side dish, not the optional french fries, corn, green beans, rice or coleslaw.

The version of the Big Catch the CSPI had tested sure didn't originate in California. We know that because in January 2010 California became the first state to ban restaurants from preparing their offerings using "oil, margarine and shortening containing trans fat." Trans fat is another name for unsaturated fat containing trans-isomer fatty acid, which has been linked to the increased risk of coronary artery disease. A number of cities in a handful of states followed California's lead.

Bottom line: Diners in California can at least erase concerns over the CSPI's "33 grams of trans fat" finding.

As for actually eating the Big Catch: We thought the fish we tasted was way oversalted, but the steaming-hot fillet was moist and flaky, jacketed in a thin, crunchy coating. It's $4.99 while supplies last; www.ljsilvers.com.

July 25, 2013
Pop-up dinner by mother-son chefs Karen and Duncan Holmes

karen.JPGKaren Holmes, who runs the estimable Karen's Bakery and Cafe in Folsom, will team with her son, Duncan Holmes, to create a pop-up gourmet dinner with a multicourse menu.

Karen Holmes (pictured) is an accomplished chef-baker, and Duncan Holmes has some chops of his own. The chef de cuisine for Sons and Daughters restaurant in San Francisco was included on Zagat's list of the top 30 up-and-coming San Francisco chefs under 30. Also, the online culinary magazine starchefs.com named him a Bay Area Rising Star Chef, and he was nominated for a Young Guns 2013 Award, sponsored by the blog site sfeater.com.

The pop-up dinner will be on the patio and inside the restaurant at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 30, at Karen's Bakery and Cafe, 705 Gold Lake Drive, Folsom; www.karensbakery.com. Tickets are $100 apiece at (916) 985-2665. It's a fund-raiser for the nonprofit group Cool Earth, which helps protect rainforests worldwide.

Check out the menu here, which includes two glasses of wine. "As always, you should expect a few surprises from the kitchen," said Karen Holmes.

July 24, 2013
From America's Cup to restaurant walkabout -- it's all good

We wanted to find some America's Cup madness, so headed to San Francisco for the weekend to check out the Summer of Racing in hopes of seeing multimillion-dollar catamarans with seven-story-tall masts zip around the bay. We did.

We also wanted to explore some restaurants and help you find your way to a few highly recommended tables next time you're in SF. Hey, you go to the city, you've got to eat, right?

village.JPGAs for the Cup: Essentially, there are only two craft competing in the Louis Vuitton challenger series (now through Aug. 30), the walk-up to the America's Cup race (Sept. 7-21). Italy's Team Luna Rossa is matched against Emirates Team New Zealand. Sweden's Artemis Racing hasn't had its craft on the water since it capsized in May; one crew member was killed in that accident. The winner of the Vuitton series will go head-to-head with Oracle Team USA for the America's Cup trophy.

This year's field is so narrow because so few global race syndicates could raise the millions to build the newly styled and controversial "wing-sailed multi-hull" craft. The entry fee alone was $100,000.

We spent many hours over two days at America's Cup Park at Pier 27/29, and America's Cup Village at Marina Green. Incredible world-class attractions await the curious. In a word: Go. Details and scheduled events and entertainment are at www.americascup.com.

Restaurant-wise, follow our lead and you won't be disappointed. Our first stop was the esoteric Nojo, specializing in reasonably priced Japanese yakatori (grilled food on skewers). In a city of 4,000 to 5,000 restaurants (for some reason, the exact figure is a mystery), this is a standout.

octopus.JPGOn our table: sea salt-flecked steamed edamame (soy beans in pods); sea urchin roe in noodle soup; octopus salad (pictured); crunchy heads-on prawns; grilled beef tongue and chicken on skewers; and poached peaches with sake-ginger granita.
Nojo: 231 Franklin St.; (415) 896-4587, www.nojo.com.

Yes, celebrity chef-cookbook author Martin Yan is an entertainer (we once saw him debone a whole chicken with a cleaver in 18 seconds), but he still can cook.

July 23, 2013
Bread meets cheese meets wine at Old Sugar Mill fest

cheese.JPGThe historic Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg houses 10 California winery tasting rooms, and is an ideal venue for special food- and wine-related events.

The next party there will be the Wine, Cheese & Bread Faire, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 3-4. It's being billed as the "Ultimate Gourmet Wine & Food Shopping Experience" in our area, perhaps with good reason.

Cheesemakers and bakers will pair their specialties with local wines, while purveyors will sell gourmet goodies including chocolates and olive oils, nuts and spices, coffees and teas. All this while live music plays in the background.

The $20 per-day toll ($25 at the door) includes a commemorative wine glass, insulated tote bag and tastes at the 10 wineries. New this year is a grilled-cheese sandwich throwdown. Also, interactive seminars and cheesemaking classes (advanced registration required).

Old Sugar Mill is at 35265 Willow Ave., Clarksburg. For information, directions and to buy tickets: (916) 744-1615, www.oldsugarmill.com.

July 22, 2013
Arby's rolls back the price of its classic roast beef sandwich

On July 23, 1964, entrepreneurs Leroy and Forrest Raffel of Boardman, Ohio, turned their idea into a reality. That's when the first Arby's restaurant opened, following their concept of offering an alternative to the national fast-food burger restaurants popping up across the country. Their sandwich shops would serve "hot, freshly sliced roast beef sandwiches as fast as anyone could flip a burger."

That's how the Arby's national chain began. In celebration of its 49th anniversary, Arby's will sell its signature roast beef sandwich for the 1964 price of 64 cents, today only, while supplies last. Get the coupon at www.arbys.com.

July 19, 2013
'A Taste of Tuscany' coming to Evan's Kitchen

gnocchi.JPGAward-winning Sacramento chef Evan Elsberry keeps turning out multi-course themed dinners, and diners keep attending. One reason is his expertise in the kitchen. Another selling point: He pairs each dish with a different wine.

"A Taste of Tuscany" is coming to Evan's Kitchen, 6 to 9 p.m. Aug. 5. The cost is $75 per person, with reservations at (916) 452-3896. The restaurant is at 855 57th St., Sacramento, in the Antiques Mall; www.chefevan.com.

Now for the menu:

First course: zucchini flowers stuffed with sausage
Served with Enza prosecco

Second course: gnocchi del casentino
Served with: Ruffino pinot grigio

Third course: osso bucco ravioli
Served with Cecchi chianti classico

Fourth course: beef tenderloin roulade
Served with Bolla valpolicella ripasso

Dessert: coffee on a fork and African cookies
Served with Italian moscato

July 17, 2013
First Impressions: Giant Orange offers burgers, shakes, fries

avocado fries.jpgSomeone with a sense of humor got carried away with music- and movie-title-oriented puns on the oversized and overwrought laminated menu at the new burgers-dogs-fries-shakes restaurant Giant Orange.

Such as "Chili-Chili Bang-Bang" for the open-face chili-smothered burger. "My Bleu Heaven" for the blue cheese burger. "Don't Go Bacon My Heart" for the bacon-topped burger.

Want more? "I Yam What I Yam" for sweet potato fries, "Lord of the Rings" for onion rings and "Dippity Do Dah" for dipping sauces. "Lettuce Entertain You" is the heading for salads.

Would you really say (out loud and in public) to the server standing at your table, order pad in hand, "I'll have the 'Yippee-I-O-Ki-Yay' burger?"

Neither would a lunch pal sitting next to me on a banquette in the impressively slick, retro-plush dining room, the walls decorated in '50s and '60s kitsch and memorabilia.

That burger turned out to be loaded with thick-cut bacon, grilled onions, cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce, with lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickle chips.

We also sampled the "burger of the month," topped with gobs of melted Swiss and cheddar and a really big green chile (along with the lettuce-tomato-onion-pickle template). Burgers are a tasty handful and range from $9 to $15.

We added Frickles, rather dense and salty battered-and-fried pickle spears ($5); curiously neutral but conceptually interesting "avocado fries" (pictured), panko-coated-and-fried avocado strips with chipotle-ranch and lime-sour cream dipping sauces ($6); and a pile of very good sweet potato fries ($5).

To wash it all down: Pulp Fiction fresh-squeezed orange juice ($3 and $4), a superb Orange Blossom Creamsicle shake ($6.50) and a Brain Freeze, "a cross between a root beer float and a milkshake," says the menu ($6).

A full "First Impressions" review of Giant Orange will appear in an upcoming Ticket section.

Giant Orange is at 1407 Howe Ave., Sacramento; (916) 564-6300, www.giantorange.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.

July 17, 2013
Four plates of good fish 'n' chips swimming in a sea of so-so

tugboat.JPGThe angler's mantra is "Fish are where you find 'em." That's also true of exceptional fish 'n' chips, which swim in a small school in a sea of mostly so-so versions.

Our go-to's? We like the plates of haddock, cod and salmon at 36 Handles, served either battered and deep-fried or buttermilk-dipped, rolled in panko and pan-fried (1010 White Rock Road, El Dorado Hills; 916-941-3606, www.36handles.com).

We've also been known to knock back a plate of crispy fried wild Atlantic cod in beer-vodka batter, and skinny, hand-cut Kennebec fries (preceded by briny clam chowder) at Boxing Donkey (300 Lincoln St., Roseville; 916-797-3665, www.theboxingdonkey.com).

Whenever travel takes us to Marin County, we detour to Nick's Cove on Tomales Bay for excellent (though costly) deep-fried locally caught rockcod and more premium hand-cut Kennebec fries (23240 Highway 1, Marshall; 415-663-1033, www.nickscove.com).

BTW: Highly regarded Kennebec potatoes hold up well to frying (they don't get soggy) and are widely used to make chips.

Closer to home, a group of us recently sat on the breezy patio adjoining Tugboat Fish & Chips, diving into a fried-seafood feast. The place looks like a weathered wood vessel docked alongside busy Fair Oaks Boulevard in Carmichael. Though there are a half-dozen Tugboats around town, we favor this one.

Why? The cooks seem to know that deep-frying is an art. The oil must be clean and just hot enough, the batter thin and not oversalted. Cooking time is crucial, as are freshness, handling and consistency.

In this case, a crisp, non-oily, tempura-like coating encased fresh-tasting cod fillets and sweet prawns (pictured), pieces of flavorful calamari and assorted fresh veggies (including thick, crunchy onion rings). The french fries were an also-ran.

We could have done without the fishy, pre-breaded frozen oysters, chewy fried clam strips and the surprise dish - pork lumpia, a Filipino-Indonesian meat pastry similar to Chinese spring rolls. They can be terrific if you know a home cook who makes them from scratch.

And: Not all tartar sauces are created equal. Tugboat would be wise to upgrade its runny, sub-par version to match the quality of its fish and prawns. Which made us wonder: Is there any seafood restaurant in Sacramento that makes real tartar sauce from scratch? You know - dill pickle, onion, bell pepper, mayo. Not aioli. We'd love to know.

Caution: Watch your step on the patio. For some reason, the floor is on two levels, with a hard-to-see curb dividing them. We watched in shock as a woman tripped over it and crashed hard.

Tugboat is at 7601 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael; (916) 944-4911.

July 16, 2013
A dozen foods we can do without? You make the call

gumbo.JPGSan Bruno-based Eat24 is up to its food tricks again at its blog site, Bacon Sriracha Unicorn Diaries.

Eat24 is an online service that partners with 20,000 restaurants in 1,000 U.S. cities. It specializes in matching diners with restaurants in their area that will deliver meals "to wherever you may be."

Its blog site has an amusing post titled "Top Foods We Wish Never Existed."

"The food world had a few members who you wish just didn't show up," says the blog, and goes on to name "12 culprits."

The catch is that each entry has an "exception." Take okra, for example. "Most people don't think okra actually tastes bad," the site says. "It's just that it likes to be all slimy and stringy."

That's followed by the exception - in this case gumbo, which uses okra as an ingredient (pictured). "Gumbo has been able to magically transform okra into something wonderful."

Other "bad foods" that can be made into good dishes include cilantro, liver and lima beans. Do you have your own list? Share it in "Comments" below.

For more, go to www.eat24.com.

July 10, 2013
What, no prime rib? Distillery restaurant goes with lighter fare

distillery.JPGWe got the tip the other day from a guy who likes to dine out at Sacramento's more vintage places. Said he was at the Distillery steakhouse Saturday and the waiter said it was the last night the restaurant would serve its full-on heavy-duty dinners. Goodbye to the prime rib plate.

Hard to believe. For 49 years, the Distillery has been a Sacramento dining destination. In the day, it was traditionally frequented by the three-martini-lunch crowd. It competed with the Golden Tee, Coral Reef, Stroh's Neptune Table, Buggy Whip and the Ram.

But a rumor is just that, so I called Ron Alvernaz, the sole owner of the Distillery since day one.

"Yes, I've given up dinners," he lamented. "There's not enough business - just 10 to 24 people a night and it's killing us. Parking is tough and there are so many places to go to downtown."

All is not lost: The Distillery will serve "small dinners" from 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, featuring sandwiches (steak, turkey, French dip). "Light stuff that one guy can handle," Alvernaz said.

Also: Lunch will continue from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. And look for Saturday breakfast from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. - quesadillas, linguica, ham, Joe's special.

"I'll be out with a new menu after the summer," Alvernaz said. "It will be lighter and cheaper."

The Distillery is at 2107 L St., Sacramento; (916) 443-8815.

July 10, 2013
Sampino's Towne Foods to open Mexican takeout next door

A Mexican restaurant that will specialize in authentic south-of-the-border cuisine is scheduled to open Sept. 1 in the space next door to the iconic Sampino's Towne Foods, the "affordable Italian gourmet deli."

It will be operated by Gabriela Fabbri, co-owner of the deli with husband Michael Sampino and father-in-law Bill Sampino.

"I'm very excited about it," a breathless Fabbri said on the phone. The background noise was overwhelming, as she was in the middle of Sampino's lunch rush. "I'm running around right now... But the menu will be (based on) family recipes prepared in fast-food style. We'll have specials every day."

July 9, 2013
T&R Taste of Texas sold out of 'cue in two hours on the 4th

rodney.JPGGot an excited call from Rodney Ray the day after The Bee published its special "Now We're Cookin'!" premium section on the Fourth of July.

Ray, pictured here, is the pitmaster at T&R Taste of Texas, and specializes in smoking ribs, tri-tip, pork shoulder, chicken and hot links over hickory, mesquite, applewood and pecan (3621 Broadway, Sacramento; 916-739-1669).

The premium section featured advice for home cooks from three restaurateurs who are expert at barbecue, plus guides to new barbecue-centric gear and where to get the best frozen treats.

One of the stories I wrote was Ray's response to the proposition: If he were to host a Fourth of July barbecue party in his backyard, what would it be like? The thought was that readers could get some informed tips from Ray and emulate parts of his plan.

So, what's up, Rodney?

"I wanted to tell you that the Fourth of July was a roaring success, the biggest day of the year for us," he said. "I prepared enough food for 200 people, which usually takes me all day to sell. But on Thursday I sold out in two hours."

How was that possible? "It was the perfect storm," he said. "The article in The Bee came out, it was hot that day and nobody wanted to barbecue, and we had our regular crowd come in. It was crazy. We had tons of big orders - five to 10 slabs of ribs per order, 10 pounds of tri-tip at a time..."

Like we keep saying, Sacramento is a 'cue kind of town.

July 5, 2013
This version of linguine with clams takes pasta to the sublime

clams.JPGPasta comes in a delightful array of shapes, sizes and names, from the familiar (rigatoni, lasagna) to the obscure (maltagliati, sorprese lisce).

Linguine means "little tongues" in English, and is a go-to in Genoa and the Liguria region of coastal Italy, food experts tell us. When teamed with clams and white sauce to make "linguine alle vongole," the flat spaghetti-looking pasta becomes sublime.

We found a marvelous version at Piatti Ristorante in Sacramento, where a starter bowl is $13, the entree is $18.

Steaming-hot al dente linguine is covered in a silken, complex sauce and topped with plump, briny clams in the shell. Add some grated cheese. Flavors and textures explode with each forkful, as a touch of heat lingers in the background. How good was it? My lunch pal went with a Margherita pizza, and we ended up dipping the leftover pizza crust into the leftover clam sauce.

We asked executive chef Lance Carlini to disassemble the dish:

The sauce: The fragrant creation is a luscious mix of Parmesan broth, white wine, preserved Meyer lemon, lemon juice, garlic, tomato, herbs, butter and white wine, finished with olive oil-cured Calabrian chile peppers, he explained.

The house-made Parmesan broth is based on the rinds from the 75 pounds of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese the restaurant uses each week. Typically, the rinds are cooked in water with olive oil, caramelized onion, garlic, aromatic herbs and other ingredients.

The clams: "We use littleneck clams because they stand up to the heat a little better than Manila clams, and they're bigger," Carlini said.

The pasta: "It's made in-house. The key is the organic eggs we use, from Vega Farms near Davis. We get them less than 24 hours after they're laid. The yolks are super-orange."

This is one of the better pasta dishes we've found in our excursions. Get it at Piatti in the Pavilions center, just off Fair Oaks Boulevard and just east of Howe Avenue; (916) 649-8885, www.piatti.com.


July 3, 2013
'Candy-cot' pie is the seasonal treat at Karen's Bakery

piies.jpegKaren Holmes, owner of Karen's Bakery & Cafe, always has something good cooking in the oven.

Now and for the next three weeks or so (while the apricot supply lasts), it's the seasonal apricot pie ($25), weighing in at five pounds. Last time we tasted a slice, we wanted a second right away.

"We source the apricots - called 'candy-cots' - from a small farm in Modesto," said the master baker. "The farmer's father originally brought the seeds for the trees from the Middle East. I'm very certain that these apricots are on my last-meal menu."

Get the candy-cot pie at 705 Gold Lake Drive, Folsom; (916) 985-2665, www.karensbakery.com. The bakery is open 6 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, and 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays.

July 1, 2013
Jim-Denny's Superburger makes the list of 50 best burgers

burger art.JPG"The definition of a perfect burger is open to opinion," understates the arbiters of all things food and drink at The Daily Meal.

That loaded line is part of the introduction to their "40 Best Burgers in America" list, compiled by their panel of experts nationwide. Take a look at www.thedailymeal.com/40-best-burgers-america.

The Daily Meal makes a habit of going out on a culinary limb. In recent months it has assembled national "best of" lists for food trucks, pork and beef ribs, coffee shops, sports bars - even the top 101 restaurants.

Not surprisingly, lots of California businesses have made the lists, including the latest. The Superburger at Sacramento's Jim-Denny's came in at No. 35 (816 12th St., 916-443-9655).

The judges said of the half-pound burger ($8.75):

"The bready, no-frills bun encloses a griddled patty, well-done but still at least a little juicy, dressed with mustard and mayo and layered with the usual tomato and lettuce."

At No. 7 is the half-pound Niman Ranch cheeseburger at chef Cindy Pawlcyn's Mustards Grill near St. Helena in the Napa Valley: "So big and juicy and tasty that it's hard to resist."

No. 9 is the cheeseburger at Gott's Roadside in San Francisco: "Thick and juicy. An icon."

No. 13 is the burger at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco: "The lunch-only grass-fed burger is ground in-house and comes on grilled rosemary focaccia slathered with aioli."

No. 16 is the house-specialty burger at the Father's Office in Los Angeles: "With caramelized onion, bacon, Gruyere and Maytag blue cheeses, and arugula."

Do you have a favorite burger? Tell everyone about it in "Comments," below.

June 29, 2013
The fresh peach milkshake is back at Whitey's Drive-In

peaches.JPGFor the 10th straight year, the seasonal sign has gone up Whitey's Jolly Kone, the West Sacramento landmark drive-in: "Fresh peach milkshakes."

Chunks of tree-ripened freestone peaches from Modesto are blended with high-quality vanilla ice cream for a throat-freezing milkshake that's one of the best anywhere.

Through August, owners Steve and Paula Ericson will sell peach shakes as fast as they can make them.

The usual hours are 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, but the diner is closed this Thursday and Friday for the long Fourth of July weekend.

Whitey's Jolly Kone is at 1300 Jefferson Blvd., West Sacramento; (916) 371-3605.


June 26, 2013
Lotus 8 Chinese restaurant is rolling in Folsom; here's why

lotus8.JPGWe're all looking for the next terrific Chinese restaurant, and it appears to have recently arrived.

The Cantonese-style Lotus 8 held its soft opening on April 18 in the beautifully renovated space that once housed the Chinese restaurants Liu's and then Yummy Kitchen.

My Chinese-American lunch pal suggested a number of authentic, expertly assembled banquet-style dishes that were outstanding.

We loaded our table with Hong Kong-style house special noodles (crispy noodles topped with lean barbecued pork, scallops, calamari and black mushrooms); a disjointed and fried two-pound salt-and-pepper Dungeness crab; and crispy Peking duck (pictured) served two ways - rolled in rice crepes with fresh spring onion and hoisin sauce, and chopped up with cilantro and jicama and made into lettuce wraps.

The restaurant makes the best hot relish we've tasted - nicknamed "fire and lightning" - a mix of dried bean curd and hard-to-source special peppers. The ingredients aren't easy to come by, which is why the relish is served mostly on weekends.

Other good things: the freshest orange chicken we've found, gloriously messy soy sauce-bathed prawns, rarely seen bitter melon, "special" barbecued pork, luscious fish maw with crab meat soup.

"If you don't see anything you want, tell us what you like and we will create a menu for you," offers general manager Michael Chow.

Look for a complete review in an upcoming Friday Ticket section in The Bee.

Lotus 8 is at 199 Blue Ravine Road in Folsom; (916) 351-9278, www.lotus8folsom.com.

June 26, 2013
Check out the Costco Food Court for a top dog deal

costco.JPGStopped by the Costco Food Court today for the best dog deal in town - a quarter-pound all-beef wiener or Polish dog with a 20-ounce drink for $1.63 with tax. You needn't be a shopping-club member to grab a bite there.

As we waited 10 minutes in line, we took note of the wall-mounted menu and found more bargains: churro, $1; chicken Caesar salad, $3.99; pizza slice, $1.99 ($9.95 for a whole 18-incher); cheese-and-bacon-stuffed chicken fingers, $2.99; hot turkey and provolone sandwich, $3.99; plus frozen treats, $1.35 to $1.65.

We got our dogs, dressed them with deli mustard and relish, filled our cups with raspberry iced tea, grabbed some napkins and found seats at a metal picnic table (which needs a good scrubbing).

Lunch there is like eating in an open-air aviary, with birds flitting here and there looking for crumbs. The dogs were hot, tasty and filling (they once were kosher), the tea was cold and refreshing. The price was right, made possible by high-volume sales and a limited menu of easily prepared items. So what's not to like?

Find the food court at 1600 Expo Parkway, (916) 563-7002; 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays; 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays.

June 25, 2013
Pay attention, class -- here's how to make perfect pulled pork

pulledpork.JPGClass started at 4:30 p.m. last Sunday in the back patio area of BBQ Pro in Fair Oaks, and we were glad to be back in school.

The lesson: how to prepare and smoke a pork butt (shoulder) and magically turn it into a succulent heap of pulled pork. In this case, two pork butts had been injected with marinade, rubbed with spices and smoked over lump charcoal and hardwood for 18 hours before class started (pictured).

BBQ Pro co-owners and veteran pitmasters David and Jennifer Hill guided our class of eight through the steps, using a raw pork butt as the model. The Hills host monthly 'cue classes ($50) at their store, 10140 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks; (916) 595-7444. Check the website www.bbqproonline.com for upcoming lessons.

BBQ Pro stocks "everything for the pitmaster," and is a dealership for the Big Green Egg, a high-fiber ceramic grill with many add-on accessories. Its design has roots in the "mushikamado" cooker, used for centuries in Japan.

David Hill made it clear: You don't have to cook on an Egg to learn new 'cue techniques in the class. True. My dinner pal and I took away a long list of tips and techniques; he cooks on a gas-fueled grill, I have a Weber charcoal grill.

We felt like we'd received an education. Here's a tip: After rubbing the roast with a spice blend, rub it again with turbinado sugar (such as Sugar in the Raw). The sugar will caramelize, adding color and flavor to the "bark" (the crust on the meat).

Before the butts were shredded and dinner began, the Hills demonstrated how to roast Anaheim and jalepeno peppers over open coals so that they blister and the skin peels off. The peppers were then dipped in garlic butter. Yow!

Jennifer Hill then showed the class how to assemble and grill mac 'n' cheese and peach-and-blackberry tart, and then whipped up a bowl of coleslaw.

Soon, the pork was shredded and dinner was served. All the students got good grades.

June 24, 2013
Big changes (and a grand opening) come to Maranello

maranello.JPGThings are shaking up at Maranello in Fair Oaks, and a grand opening from 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday will show them off.

For one thing, the restaurant has a new name - Maranello Bar and Kitchen. For another, it will open a second bar this week, replacing much of the former main dining room. Banquette seating will accommodate diners there, or they can stake out the patio or the Ferrari and Pebble Beach rooms.

The menu has gone gastro-pub, with emphasis on bites, small plates, salads and pizzas (don't miss the ground shortrib burger). Entrees have gone from a couple dozen to seven.

"At the end of the meal, we want people to say, 'Wow, what just happened? That was fun and different,'" said innovative chef Gabriel Glasier.

Also, Sunday breakfast is back ($7 to $15, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.) with dishes such as luscious creme brulee french toast (challah bread with raspberry coulis, Chantilly cream and candied pecans; pictured), meaty crab cakes served as a Benedict (with roasted pepper hollandaise), and smoked salmon scramble (caper-dill salsa, lemon zest sour cream). Also tops: cherrywood-smoked bacon and tender biscuits with raspberry and plum jams.

"We're trying to appeal to people who don't want to spend big bucks on entrees on weeknights," said co-owner Joe Hensler (with wife Gayle). "We're going more in the direction of (our customers) sharing food and enjoying a fun bar atmosphere with artisanal cocktails, craft beers and a focus on wine."

Maranello Bar and Kitchen, 8928 Sunset Ave. (off Hazel Avenue), Fair Oaks; (916) 241-9365, www.maranellorestaurant.com.

June 21, 2013
Lake Forest Cafe in Folsom will close its doors June 30

lake forest.JPGAfter a successful 31-year run of serving heaps of homestyle food in a cozy space crowded with loyal customers, owner Barbara Rubin will close the doors of her Lake Forest Cafe in Folsom at the end of business day on June 30.

"We provide food cooked the way you would cook it at home, if you had the time," said Rubin, who is retiring. "I don't know many people who have held the same job at the same location for so long, but everything comes to an end. This is a business that has encompassed my life 24 hours a day."

The iconic restaurant, housed in a century-old former residence owned by a gold-mining company, is best known for its hearty breakfasts. On the menu are 43 omelets, giant cinnamon and pecan rolls, french toast, pancakes and hard-to-find Jewish specialties - cream cheese-filled blintzes, lox and eggs, chicken livers and eggs, potato latkes, and kosher salami and pastrami.

The lunch menu offers a long list of salads, housemade soups, quiche, crepes, burgers and hearty sandwiches (pictured).

In a "Counter Culture" restaurant review, Rubin was quoted as saying, "Everything is made from scratch here. We know how to do old-fashioned and real in this era of packaged and processed food."

Rubin's plans for retirement may well include writing an anecdotal cookbook featuring dishes from the menu and stories set in the cafe.

"When the restaurant closes, the recipes will pass on with it," she said. "I'd love to be able to continue sharing them with my customers, who are really going to miss our signature dish, Mike's potatoes."

Rubin's late father created the potato dish, which includes onions, tomato, avocado, melted cheese and sour cream (bacon, sausage or ham can be added).

The Lake Forest Cafe is at 13409 Folsom Blvd., at the intersection of Parkshore Drive in Folsom. The restaurant will be open from 7 a.m. to 1:45 p.m Saturday and Sunday, and Wednesday through June 30.

Information: (916) 985-6780, www.lakeforestcafe.com.

June 21, 2013
We'll try the crostini with a trio of toppings, please

waterboy.JPGWe've been losing sleep lately, tossing and turning while trying to figure out the difference between crostini and bruschetta.

Plainly put, crostini ("little toasts") are thin slices of baguette, kissed with olive oil, sprinkled with pepper and salt, toasted and then topped with, well, just about anything - cheese, bell pepper, capers, salami, anchovy, shrimp, pate or any combination you can conjure.

Bruschetta ("to roast over coals") are larger slices of garlic-and-oil-rubbed bread, which are grilled (ideally) and traditionally topped with a drizzle of olive oil, sliced tomato and fresh basil. Restaurateurs don't stop there, though. You'll find bruschetta topped with everything from goat cheese to caramelized onion

Crostini don't get much better than the version we found at chef Rick Mahan's Waterboy restaurant last Tuesday (pictured). The merging of flavors and textures quickly led us to clear the plate, reminding us of a movie title now at theaters - "Now You See Me." In our case, it was "Now You Don't."

The six crostini were topped with three spreads - roasted eggplant, a tapenade of green and black olives, and white bean with sweet pepper. Pecorino cheese and olive oil nicely finished the dish.

Get it for $8 at Waterboy, 2000 Capitol Ave., Sacramento; (916) 498-9891, www.waterboyrestaurant.com.

P.S.: The menu is seasonal, so keep an eye out for an appetizer that comes and goes, described as "fish sticks" but so much more.

June 19, 2013
Seafood pairs with wines at Evan's Gone Fishin' dinner

chowder.JPGAward-winning Sacramento chef Evan Elsberry is on a roll with his themed dinners, in which he pairs specific cuisines with appropriate wines.

He'll turn his culinary skills loose on seafood for the "Evan's Gone Fishin'" multi-course meal, 6 to 9 p.m. June 24. The cost is $75 per person, with reservations at (916) 452-3896. Evan's Kitchen is at 855 57th St., Sacramento, in the Antiques Mall; www.chefevan.com.

As for the menu, have a look:

First course: lobster soufflé
Served with 2012 Oyster Bay chardonnay

Second course: saffron seafood chowder
Served with 2012 Lapostolle Casa sauvignon blanc

Third course: scallop-prawn-crab cake with mango-papaya-pineapple relish
Served with 2011 Roscato Rosso Dolce

Fourth course: halibut pomodoro over fresh pasta with tapenade
Served with Seven Daughters pinot noir

Dessert: lemon crumble with vanilla bean-raspberry swirl-coconut ice cream
Served with 2010 Pacific Rim gewürztraminer

June 17, 2013
Bootleggers and flappers at the Great Gatsby Extravaganza

gatsby.JPGAmerica has gone Jazz Age crazy ever since director Buzz Luhrmann released his movie version of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," still in theaters (pictured).

Adding to the party is the publishing industry's release of new editions of what many academics regard as "the greatest American novel of the 20th century," compounded by several historical-fiction "autobiographies" and audiobooks as "told by" Zelda Fitzgerald, the novelist's wife.

Coming up on the local front is The Great Gatsby Extravaganza, a Jazz Age-themed dinner at 4 p.m. Sunday June 23 at 5412 Gibbons Drive, Carmichael.

The organizers invite you to "consort with flappers and bootleggers in the speakeasy...and get your engine revving with the Charleston" as a jazz band plays (there will be a dance contest).

As for appropriate dress, think the Roaring Twenties (there will also be a costume contest).

The dining part of it looks good: hors d'oeuvres (two kinds of bruschetta, dolmas, meatballs), caprese salad, fruited green salad, au gratin potatoes, sesame green beans, chicken breast stuffed with smoked cheese and arugula, smoked tri-tip with red wine reduction sauce, onion biscuits, and peach cobbler with vanilla gelato. Oh, and this: Along with wine, beer and sodas, martinis will be served, of course.

The special fund-raiser marks the new season for Camerata California, Sacramento's chamber choir (www.cameratacalifornia.net). Proceeds will help fund its Emerging Young Artist Scholarship program.

Tickets are $60; for more information and reservations: (916) 483-1386.

June 13, 2013
Winetasting, small bites and music at Tahoe City Wine Walk

wine.JPGStrolling, sipping and supping will be at the top of the agenda at the eighth annual Tahoe City Wine Walk, noon to 4 p.m. June 22.

The Sierra town, on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, is known for its dramatic views of the lake and its vibrant restaurant scene.

The alfresco Wine Walk will feature winetasting from 30 regional wineries, bites from area restaurants and caterers, a commemorative wine glass and live music. Parking is free.

Advance tickets are $35 at www.tahoecitywinewalk.com; $45 day of, cash only, at the registration tables at the Boatworks Mall, Heritage Plaza and North Tahoe Arts Center. Look for the bands and balloons.

June 12, 2013
Food truck fans, are these the 101 best trucks in the U.S.?

foodtrucks.JPGThe food truck phenomenon continues to expand, with more "chuck wagons" hitting the road very day.

Of course, Sacramento his its share of good ones. If you've attended any of the Sacto MoFo food truck festivals, you know what we're talking about. If not, plan on joining an expected crowd of 10,000 hungry folks who will line up at 40 trucks at the next festival, planned for July 21 at 8th and W streets.

Meanwhile, those arbiters of all things food and drink at The Daily Meal have checked out 450 food trucks in more than 40 cities nationwide to come up with its list of the 101 Best Food Trucks in America. Surprisingly, Sacramento did not make the cut.

"While including seven different types of fare, this year's list was still dominated by Asian fusion, burgers, sandwiches, grilled cheese and tacos," said a Daily Meal spokesman. "Pizza and lobster rolls were other predictable leaders, but there were some impressive chef-y menus, too."

Ruling the list is Los Angeles, with 16 food trucks, followed by San Francisco with 11 and New York with 10. Other California cities had one each (Santa Monica, Fresno, Anaheim, Oakland), along with one in Reno, Nev.

For the complete list, go to www.thedailymeal.com/101-best-food-trucks-america-2013?page=0,0.

June 11, 2013
Line up for 'cue and activities at Back to the Farm

bbq ribs.JPGGet out of the city and take a ride through the country this Saturday. Destination: the Back to the Farm barbecue and celebration on a peaceful 200-acre walnut grove.

What's happening? How about a feast of spareribs, pulled pork, burgers, hot dogs and homemade side dishes, and a pie-eating contest - good practice for Father's Day on Sunday.

Plus: orchard rides on a tractor and a Model-T Ford; displays of hot rods, classic cars, a 1921 firetruck, and vintage farm equipment and machinery; demonstrations and hands-on activities; and country crafts, farmers market and DJ music. Buy a bag of walnuts and give the mechanical "walnut cracker" a workout.

The good times will be 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Farm on Highway 20, Farmlan Road, Meridian. Information: (916) 933-4056, (916) 933-4107, www.benalishrine.org. Cost: $5 per "wheel." For instance, $20 per car, $10 per motorcycle. Back to the Farm will benefit the Ben Ali Shriners.

One way to get there: Highway 99 north toward Yuba City, then scenic Highway 20 west to Meridian, finding Farmlan Road when you arrive.

For the best scenic drive, the organizers suggest another route; see it on the Back to the Farm Facebook page.

May 29, 2013
Giovanni's Pizzerias roll back the price on the large cheese pie
pizza.JPGThe concept of thin-crust New York-style pizza for purists was unknown in Sacramento until John Ruffaine came to town from Brooklyn and opened Giovanni's Old World New York Pizzeria 12 years ago.

In Brooklyn, he built pizzas for 22 years in various restaurants, learning more as he went along.

"I'm providing something (to Sacramento) that I grew up with," he said shortly after opening the first Giovanni's, when he posed for the accompanying photo. "Fresh, from scratch, no shortcuts and the finest ingredients from New York and Italy. It's the old school way."

Next month will be a good time for a taste test. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of his Folsom Boulevard restaurant, Ruffaine is rolling back the price of his large (16-inch) cheese pizza from $17.95 to $9.95 at both his stores.

"If you add your favorite toppings, it's a good way to get a great deal," he said.

The rollback program will run through June at the two Giovanni's pizzerias in Sacramento: 5924 S. Land Park Drive, (916) 393-7001; and 6200 Folsom Blvd., (916) 455-8831. Vist Givanni's on Facebook.

We've eaten more than our share of Giovanni's pizza over the years, and have witnessed Ruffaine pounding pizza dough with such concentration and commitment that his staff is told he is not to be disturbed while he's working it. Which could be funny if it wasn't so earnest.

If you're not in the mood for pizza, the Sicilian roasted chicken from a family recipe is a winner ($9.95 whole, $5.95 for a half). The from-scratch lasagna is also tops, made with ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, fresh tomato and ground beef ($11.95).

May 28, 2013
Stoking the grill this summer? First check in with the BBQ Pro

david hill.jpgWhether you grill marinated tri-tip or spice-rubbed ribs over a charcoal-fired kettle or gas-fueled range, or break down brisket for 12 hours in a dented old smoker, the California backyard is the summertime site for some of the best 'cue going. Just ask the neighbors who live downwind from your place.

With summer here and Father's Day approaching, it's time to sharpen our 'cue skills. Open-minded backyard cooks are always willing to learn new techniques, and David Hill (pictured) is the guy to teach them.

Hill owns the BBQ Pro in Fair Oaks, a company that claims to stock "everything for the pitmaster."

It's got more 'cue stuff in one place that we've ever seen. The long, narrow store is jammed (in an organized way) with all things barbecue, from tempting rubs and sauces to top-quality grill brushes and marinade injectors. In the inventory too are bags of oak, mesquite and hickory lump charcoals, and bags of real wood chips and chunks - cherry, alder, apple, pecan, almond and hard-to-find red oak, the wood of choice for Santa Maria-style open-pit barbecue.

The BBQ Pro is also a dealership for the Big Green Egg, a high-fiber ceramic grill with many add-on accessories. Its design has roots in the "mushikamado" cooker, used for centuries in Japan.

Hill and hot coals have been BFF for "a good 40 years at least," he said. "I'm not so good with inside ovens. I would just as soon cook outside." Which is what he does it at home.

Hill hosts monthly grilling classes ($50) at his store, 10140 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks; (916) 595-7444. The next one is on pulled pork, 4:30 p.m. June 23. Check the website www.bbqproonline.com for details.

Meanwhile, we asked Hill to give us the benefit of his expertise, and he offered these tips for backyard cooks:

May 28, 2013
Where are the best pork and beef ribs around the nation?

bbq ribs.JPGYou'd best know your pork and beef ribs before you compile a list of the best in the nation. The eat/dine editor at the "all things food and drink" online site The Daily Meal rounded up a panel of well-qualified 'cue lovers to decide who's boss.

"So what does make for a perfect rib, according to some of the country's leading experts?" asks Dan Myers at www.thedailymeal.com/americas-best-ribs. "Tenderness, sauce-to-meat ratio, smokiness and good charring."

Among the top 20 are two in California. Coming in at No. 9 is Phillips BBQ in Los Angeles. The judges wrote, "The smokiness and work-of-genius flavor combination (makes for) about as authentic a barbecue experience as you'll ever get."

Ranked No. 15 is Bludso's in Compton, near L.A. The judges say, "The recipes are a well-guarded secret, but the end result is world-class: smoky, sweet and requiring a little tug to get at."

Visit the website for more. Meanwhile, where do you go for your ribs fix?

May 22, 2013
Kraft cheese truck is coming to town with free samples

The big cheese is coming to town. The Kraft Fresh Possibilities tour trucks are rolling across the nation, with upcoming stops in our area. One of them will be parked in two locations, with offerings of free samples, dollars-off coupons and recipes.

A highlight will be tastes of the company's new Fresh Take, a "meal kit" of cheeses, spices and breadcrumbs in one compartmentalized bag. The Kraft folks will demonstrate "more than 60 ways" to create meals from the kit.

Look for the Kraft truck on May 30 in front of Raley's stores: 10 a.m. at 5345 Hazel Ave., Fair Oaks; and 3 p.m. at 715 Bidwell St., Folsom.

For more information, visit www.tryfreshtake.com.

May 21, 2013
Do you know your cheese from your gravy and cucumbers?


cucumbers.JPG

San Bruno-based Eat24 has a good gig going. It's an online service in partnership with 20,000 restaurants in 1,000 U.S. cities. It specializes in matching consumers with restaurants in their area that will deliver food "to home, office, campus or wherever you may be" when ordered online.

It's blog site, Bacon Sriracha Unicorn Diaries, has an interesting post that explores "the hidden meanings of favorite food phrases." Like these:

The big cheese
Definition: "The best of the best"
Origin: "Since the earliest 19th century, cheese was used as a noun to describe something wealthy or top-rate. Cheese originated from the Persian use 'the chiz.'"

It's all gravy
Definition: "It's all good"
Origin: "This phrase originated from an Old English saying that explained life is meat and potatoes, and the luxuries are gravy."

Cool as a cucumber
Definition: "Calm and composed even in difficult situations"
Meaning: "This expression is taken from a literal characteristic of cucumbers. The inside of a cucumber is actually 20 degrees cooler than their outsides."

For more, go to www.eat24.com.

May 20, 2013
'Cookies & Cream' arrives just in time for summer

cookiescream.JPGSummer is here, which means it's time for a little something to take the edge off the notorious Sacramento heat.

For guidance, one place to turn is "Cookies & Cream" by blogging cook Tessa Arias, who describes herself as "a college student turned culinary student" (Running Press, $18, 222 pages; www.handletheheat.com).

Hundreds of imaginative recipes show the step-by-steps of matching home-baked cookies with homemade ice cream and ice cream custard in ways you would not expect.

The concept is simple, but the possibilities are seemingly endless. How about a Black Forest ice cream sandwich, or vanilla whoopie pies? For fruit fans, Arias gets involved with strawberries, pomegranates, lemons, mangoes, blueberries and the like. Can your sweet tooth handle it?

May 13, 2013
Mighty Kong Cafe closes its doors, but the bakery lives on

kong bar.JPGThe well-used meat smoker is still on the fenced-end back patio, but the signs on the windows and the locked front door of the Mighty Kong Cafe on Stockton Boulevard tell the story: "After three years of good food and service, it has come to an end." The official closing date was May 2, but we dropped by this morning anyway and knocked on the door. No answer.

Though the cafe is history, the bakery part of the operation is still turning out organic bran muffins in 23 flavors (including pineapple-coconut, ginger root, and banana-walnut). Order at (916) 231-3631 or www.mightykongmuffins.com.

The Mighty Kong Cafe was owned by King W. Smith, who turned a grass-roots idea into a business.

"Closing was a hard decision, but we weren't making any money," Smith said on the phone. "It turned into a breakfast place and we were down to being open only Thursday through Sunday. So now we'll stick with what we know best - the muffin business."

Will there ever be another cafe?

May 13, 2013
Potato chips with a twist are kettle-fried in coconut oil

potato chips.JPGThe Northern Plains Potato Growers Association tells us that the humble potato chip, "invented in 1853," is the No. 1 snack in the U.S.

Helping to maintain the chip's position is 10-month-old Jackson's Honest Potato Chips, made in Colorado from organic heirloom Yukon gold and German butterball potatoes sourced from small farms. The chips are kettle-fried in "organic cold-pressed coconut oil" and touched with sea salt. The use of coconut oil is an interesting twist on a traditional technique.

At its website and on the packaging, the company touts the benefits of coconut oil versus other oils, explaining the science of "fatty lauric acid" and "monolaurin." That aside, our panel of tasters found the chips darn good - dark and crunchy, curly instead of consistently flat, not too salty, and with a more substantial "body" and "mouth feel" than many other potato chips. A couple of tasters even said they could taste coconut in the background.

The problem is local availability. "We're trying to make inroads into small retail outlets and health food stores in the Sacramento area," said a spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, you can order the chips online at www.honestchips.com - three bags for $14.97, six bags for $29.94, 12 bags for $59.88.

Sacramento Bee photograph by Tim Reese

May 10, 2013
Davis Dishcrawl No. 2 coming up, this time for breakfast/brunch

kebab.JPGLast month, the Cupertino-based food tour company Dishcrawl led an evening mini-tour of four restaurants in Davis. If you don't already know, the town has one of the most diverse restaurant scenes around.

In a typical Dishcrawl scenario, each restaurant offered samples of three house-specialty dishes, from bites to small plates.

Eighteen curious foodies attended the tour, said Dishcrawl "ambassador" Julia Simpson. "It really was a social dining experience, with a lot of talking and laughing, and people exchanging phone numbers," she said.

The group visited Seasons, Cafe Mediterranee, Monticello and Village Pizza & Grill. Tastes included cauliflower au gratin; chicken shawarma over rice with hummus and spicy adjika sauce; roasted seasonal-vegetables soup with asparagus-cheese flatbread; kebabs; and fried calamari rolled in blue cornmeal.

Now there's a second Davis Dishcrawl planned, this one focused on breakfast-brunch. The identities of the host restaurants are a secret until just before the tour launches. Participants who sign up at www.dishcrawl.com/davis will be emailed the name and address of the first restaurant on the tour, 48 hours in advance; that will be the meet-up spot.

Get going at 10 a.m. May 25. Tickets are $45, but use the promotional code word for a 15 percent discount - it's "davis25."

May 8, 2013
Wine, bites and socializing at all-things-Italian Dante Club

tortellini.JPGThe folks who run the 87-year-old Dante Club know something about food and wine. The public is familiar with the Italian cultural organization through its fund-raising crab feeds and wine dinners. Now comes Viva Vino, its second annual winetasting soiree.

Eight wineries will pour reds and whites from 2 to 5 p.m. May 19, accompanied by antipasto and pasta. Live music and an art show will be part of it. Attendees can cast ballots in the wine-judging contest.

The Dante Club is at 2330 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento. Tickets are $15 or two for $25, and $20 at the door; free for 12 and younger. For tickets, visit www.danteclub.com or call Chuck Tobia at (916) 747-0035.

Also, the club hosts Italian family-style dinners at 6 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month; advance sales only at (916) 925-8230.

May 7, 2013
Tour foothill wine country for tastes of the Rhone River Valley

foothills.JPGNo need to mount an expedition to the Rhone wine region of France to sample luscious reds, roses and whites, as well as great views such as the one shown here.

Five wineries in the Pleasant Valley area in the El Dorado County foothills will pour their Rhone-style vinos (including syrahs and grenaches) and serve bites at the 10th annual Rocks & Rhones Festival. Save the dates: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., May 25-26.

Hosting will be Holly's Hill Vineyards (www.hollyshill.com), Miraflores Winery (www.mirafloreswinery.com), Narrow Gate Vineyards (www.narrowgatevineyards.com), Sierra Vista Winery (www.sierravistawinery.com) and Auriga Wine Cellars (www.aurigawines.com).

They will match their wines with locally sourced tastes of lamb, pork and beef dishes, wild mushroom ravioli, duck confit, polenta, honey, olive oil and desserts. Also: vineyard hikes, barrel tastings, new releases, arts and crafts, and winemaker discussions and demonstrations. Sign up to win the 100-bottle Mountain of Wine.

Tickets are $35 per day through May 21, $40 at the door (read: whichever winery you visit first). There is no particular order in which to visit the wineries. To buy tickets, and see maps and locations of the wineries, and for more information, got to www.pleasantvalleywineries.com.

To further explore the foothills wine region, go to the Sacramento Bee's wine site at www.sacwineregion.com.

May 3, 2013
Evan's Kitchen will pair German dishes with local wines

pot roast.JPGSacramento chef Evan Elsberry is always up to something, whether it's entering (and winning) food competitions or hosting themed dinners at his restaurant, Evan's Kitchen.

Elsberry particularly enjoys getting the creative current moving by matching ethnic cuisines with appropriate wines, usually resulting in some unusual twists. Last year, he sold out his Italian-, French- and Spanish wine-pairing dinners.

Now he's ready for the next one, with a German theme. It's planned from 6 to 9 p.m. May 20. The cost is $75 per person, with reservations at (916) 452-3896. The previous wine dinners filled up fast, so...

Evan's Kitchen is at 855 57th St., Sacramento, in the Antiques Mall; www.chefevan.com.

The German dinner looks like this; note that all wines are from Frog's Tooth winery in Murphys (www.frogstooth.com).

First course: shrimp in dill cream
Served with 2011 pinot grigio

Second course: split pea soup with Black Forest ham laced with coriander, cumin and ginger
Served with 2011 meritage white

Third course: roasted pork shanks
Served with 2010 barbera

Fourth course: slow-cooked marinated roast beef with spiced and braised red cabbage, curried butternut squash, and potato pancakes with apple salsa
Served with 2009 malbec

Dessert: apple strudel
Served with 2011 dulcinea

May 1, 2013
'Snacks' is a user-friendly cookbook with twists by the 'aisle'

snacks.JPGA library of cookbooks is published each year, the daunting avalanche overwhelming the curious home cook who's daring enough to browse the Cookbooks section of bookstores.

Where to begin? One manageable starting point could be the just-released "Snacks" by self-proclaimed "food explorer" Marcy Smothers (HarperOne, $19.99, 293 pages). It's one of cookbookdom's most entertaining and user-friendly new titles, with a foreword by celebrity chef-restaurateur Guy "Johnny Garlic's" Fieri, Smothers' longtime pal.

"Snacks" is a mini-feast of food lore, tips and trivia, surprising factoids and original recipes with chapters organized by "aisles," modeled after what a shopper will find along each aisle of a supermarket. For instance, Smothers begins with Produce, moves to Bread, then Cheese, then Frozen Food and so on - 15 aisles altogether.

Randomly flipping through the book, we found:

- The fresher the vegetables, the quicker they will cook (it's a moisture thing).

- What do the colored plastic tags on commercially baked breads signify? Answer: the day of the week they were baked (blue for Monday, green for Tuesday and so on).

- Tomato sauce doesn't have to simmer all day to be good; 20 minutes will do.

- There's no nutritional difference between white eggs and brown eggs.

Among the 50 recipes, consider prime rib sauce, crab Rangoon, fried rice and pork tacos with watermelon salsa.

As Fieri puts it: "When Marcy talks about food, I listen."

April 29, 2013
Zinfest is a celebration of all things zinfandel -- and much more

zinfandel.JPGWith 80 wineries and tasting rooms and 750-plus grape growers invested in 100,000 acres of vineyards, the Lodi area is obviously well-positioned to host the annual Zinfest, a celebration of zinfandel. The red wine is famous for its flavors of berry, licorice and black pepper.

Tasters can choose from among 200 wines (zins and other varietals) from more than 40 area wineries, and stroll the banks of the Mokelumne River, enjoy live music and wandering entertainers, buy wine-country goods from merchants, and dine on regional cuisine from many of San Joaquin County's restaurants.

Not enough? Chefs, wine experts and guest speakers will host cooking classes, wine-pairing lessons and hands-on seminars, including how to blend your own zinfandel.

Zinfest will be noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 18 at Lodi Lake Park, 1101 W. Turner Road in Lodi. Tickets are $45 in advance, $55 at the door. Advance tickets are at www.zinfest.com/wine-festival and at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, 2545 W. Turner Road in Lodi, (209) 365-0621.

April 29, 2013
Get in the mood for 'cue season with Smoke & Fire

tri-tip.JPGOne way to get a belly full of inspiration for the start of barbecue season is to show up at the second annual Smoke & Fire BBQ Cook-Off.

The 'cue fest will star competitive cooking crews from eight Sacramento fire stations, whose smoky offerings of tri-tip and pork ribs will be judged by a panel of experts, followed by an awards ceremony. It's sponsored by the Del Paso Boulevard Partnership.

The price is a bargain - $5 for a tasting, $10 for a heaped plate - with proceeds benefitting the Sacramento City Fire Volunteer Reserves.

Also: live music, beer garden, a display of antique fire trucks, community booths and more.

Check it out between noon and 4 p.m. Saturday May 4 at 1409 Del Paso Blvd., at the corner of Del Paso Boulevard and Edgewater Road. Information: (916) 923-6200, www.smokeandfirecookoff.com.

April 17, 2013
Add one more 'cue joint to Sacramento's smokin' lineup

ribs.JPGOur town hungers for smokey barbecue, but there just don't seem to be enough joints to go around. Now 'cue lovers can add one more option.

Dickey's Barbecue Pit will open at 11 a.m. Thursday in the Park Place shopping center, 4630 Natomas Blvd., Sacramento (916-378-4122, www.dickeys.com). The first 100 customers through the door will get a free pulled pork sandwich. Another store is at 110 Laguna Blvd., Elk Grove (916-546-4400); it opened in March 2012. Children eat for free on Sundays at both sites.

Dickey's started about 70 years ago in Dallas; now there are nearly 300 franchise stores in 43 states.

"We've stayed true to our Texas roots," the website says. "All meats are seasoned and slow smoked on-site at each restaurant."

Though we've not eaten there, the menu looks good: brisket, ribs (maybe like the ones pictured here?) , pulled pork, Virginia ham and Polish sausage, with a dozen sides that include jalepeno beans, fried okra and potato casserole.

We'll be knocking down a spread of 'cue at the new store for an upcoming "Counter Culture" restaurant review column. Soon.

April 15, 2013
Oscar Mayer Wienermobile is coming to town. Are you ready?

wienermobile.jpgThe good news is the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile is coming to town as part of its national promotional tour (it averages 500 miles a day), and you can go inside and tour the 27-foot-long hot dog-shaped vehicle.

The not-so-much part is there won't be any free hot dogs involved; instead, visitors will be given Wiener Whistles and stickers. Meanwhile, go for a blog ride at www.hotdoggerblog.com and visit www.kraftbrands.com/oscarmayer.

Relish the Wienermobile experience in front of Walmart stores at these locations:

April 19: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 7010 Auburn Blvd., Citrus Heights

April 20: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 900 Pleasant Grove Ave., Roseville

April 21: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 5821 Antelope Road, Sacramento

April 22: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 3460 El Camino Ave., Sacramento

April 22: 2 to 5 p.m. at 7901 Watt Ave., Antelope

April 15, 2013
Fish are where you find 'em -- in this case, swordfish skewers

swordfish.JPGFor centuries, one of the most sought-after kings of the oceans has been the swordfish. Predictably, in recent decades the demand for its firm, flavorful flesh led to gross overfishing.

Thanks to 1998's national "Give Swordfish a Break" promotion and the subsequent conservation efforts led by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, the swordfish stocks in the North Atlantic and the Pacific oceans reportedly are now stable.

Stocks continue to be stringently overseen to protect the resource, meaning that diners can eat swordfish from those fisheries without a lot of guilt. Still, swordfish overkill is a concern in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.

That said, one of the best seafood dishes we've found is the seared swordfish skewers with tzatziki sauce at Bistro 33 in Eldorado Hills (sourced from the North Atlanic and the Pacific).

Slightly charred on the outside, moist and succulent inside, the chunks of fish are made even better with dips into the garlicky yogurt-based sauce ($9.95). Get it at 4364 Town Center Blvd., Eldorado Hills; (916) 358-3733, www.edh.bistro33.com.

April 10, 2013
IACP honors culinary professionals in San Francisco

alicewaters.JPGMore than 600 members of the International Association of Culinary Professionals gathered in San Francisco over the past five days for the organization's 35th annual conference, "Dirt to Digital: Real Food in a Virtual World."

Converging in the banquet rooms of the Hyatt Regency Hotel on the Embarcadero - and the Ferry Building Marketplace across the street - were chefs, dietitians and nutritionists, food stylists and photographers, cookbook authors, academics, food bloggers, farmers and others. They participated in a lengthy menu of culinary tours, cooking classes, demonstrations, lectures and panel discussions.

The conference culminated last night with an awards ceremony in multiple categories. Among the presenters were chef Thomas Keller (the French Laundry in Yountville) and restaurateur-cookbook author Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill in Chicago).

Among the award-winners were San Francisco restaurateur Charles Phan (Slanted Door and others) for his cookbook "Vietnamese Home Cooking"; restaurateur and cookbook author Alice Waters of Berkeley (Chez Panisse) for lifetime achievement (pictured); and www.food52.com and www.saveur.com for best culinary web sites.

For the complete list of winners, go to www.iacp.com.

The 35-year-old IACP has more than 2,000 members in 32 countries. It fosters connections between professionals in all walks of culinary life and serves as "a crossroads where everyone can meet to share experiences and expertise."

April 9, 2013
Biscuits, more biscuits and lots of recipes for biscuits

biscuits.JPGOver here we have the croissant and the scone. Over there are cornbread, soda bread and shortcake. Meandering around close by is the good 'ol Southern biscuit, a cultural icon.

Think of it: dark and crusty on the outside, tender and flaky and steaming in the middle. Add butter, honey and/or fruit preserves, or spice-heavy country sausage and skillet gravy. There are as many variations as there are home cooks, and we would gladly line up to sample all of them.

Unfortunately, we can't join the other 20,000 biscuit-lovers who will do something close to that at the International Biscuit Festival, May 16-18 in Knoxville, Tenn. But the Food Network and the Cooking Channel will be there - along with celebrity chef Alton Brown - strolling along Biscuit Boulevard, filming the action and tasting the goods.

This year's biscuit-partner is 47-year-old Southern Living magazine of Birmingham, Ala., a regional lifestyle publication devoted to food, travel, home and garden as represented in the culture of the South.

Its test kitchen will set up temporary shop at the fest, and its editors and cooks will help judge the biscuit bake-off. Bonus: The magazine curates a kitchenful of biscuit recipes at www.southernliving.com, along with recipes for other authentic Southern dishes.

Listen to Southern Living's editor, Lindsay Bierman: "We will never give up on our quest to discover or formulate the world's most perfect biscuit. It's one of our culture's simplest, most satisfying soul foods."

For more on the biscuit festival, visit www.biscuitfest.com. It was named the nation's No. 1 food festival by Livability.com, the arbiter of "America's best places to live and visit."

Meanwhile, we have some baking to do...

April 8, 2013
Dishcrawling through Davis offers a 12-course tasting


dishcrawl.JPGThe dining scene in Davis has never been better or more diverse. To get a taste of what's happening across the Yolo Causeway, the Cupertino-based food-tour company Dishcrawl is offering a mini-tour of four Davis restaurants.

Each restaurant will offer samples of three house-specialty dishes, from bites to small plates - maybe something like the dish pictured here. Adult beverages are not included, but can be purchased separately.

Which restaurants will be visited? That's a secret until just before the tour launches. If you sign up at www.dishcrawl.com/davis, you'll be emailed the name and address of the first restaurant on the tour, 48 hours in advance; that's the tour meet-up spot.

Dishcrawl in Davis starts at 7 p.m. April 23. For a 15 percent discount, use the promotional code word "downtowndavis."

April 4, 2013
America's Best Coffee Shops include three in California

coffee.JPGA cuppa joe is so much more than just a drink. Preparing and sipping coffee is a comforting ritual that is either good for you or bad for you, depending on the science of the moment. But is there actually a coffee-lover who has given up the habit based on shaky data from sources that are suspect to begin with?

Now those arbiters of all things food at drink at www.thedailymeal.com have conferred with coffee roasters, coffeehouse owners, baristas (including U.S. barista champ Katie Carguilo) and coffee bloggers around the country to finalize their list of America's Best Coffee Shops.

The criteria for singling out the 33 winners included "quality of coffee, quality of food, customer service, atmosphere and the 'unique' factor."

The top choice is Ultimo Coffee in Philadelphia because "what you won't find there is an attitude," the Daily Meal editors write. "That's exactly what our panelists noted Ultimo so highly for in the customer service and atmosphere categories."

California showed three winners in the list - Lamill Coffee Boutique in Los Angeles (No. 6), Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco (No. 8) and Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz (No. 22).

For the complete list, go to www.thedailymeal.com/americas-best-coffee-shops-slideshow.

BTW: What's your go-to coffee joint? Let us know in "Comments" below.

April 2, 2013
Dawson's celebrates its 25th anniversary with dinner specials

tenderloin1.164318.jpgHere's a novelty: In celebration of its 25th anniversary, Dawson's restaurant at the Hyatt Regency hotel will roll back prices to 1988 for a special four-course dinner. Alert: It's a one-time deal on Saturday, April 6.

The Rollback Menu For Two is $88, with items from Dawson's original menu. It starts with potato stuffed with whipped crème fraîche and caviar, then moves to a crab Louis salad, French onion soup, bacon-wrapped filet mignon (pictured) and scampi-style shrimp with sides of twice-baked potato and asparagus, and ends with bananas Foster cheesecake.

There's more anniversary celebration with a $25 prix fixe prime rib dinner, served Sundays from April 7 through December. The menu: lettuce wedge salad, prime rib, baked potato and cheesecake.

Dawson's at the Hyatt Regency, 1209 L St., Sacramento. For reservation: (916) 321-3600. Information: www.sacramento.hyatt.com.

April 1, 2013
Plan now for Sierra Foothills Artisan Cheese & Wine Fest

wine.jpgWould you like some cheeses with those wines, with emphasis on regional sourcing?

The second annual Sierra Foothills Artisan Cheese & Wine Festival will offer wine and cheese pairings, workshops, winemaking demonstrations, winery and vineyard tours, tastings of Rhone- and Bordeaux-style wines, a marketplace and more.

Tickets are limited, so plan ahead. The festival will be from noon to 4 p.m. May 4 at Lavender Ridge Winery, 3030 Hunt Road, Copperopolis.

Tickets are $40 ($30 for wine club members). A separate cheesemaking course will be 9 a.m. to noon for an additional $65.

For more information: (209) 728-2441, www.lavenderridgevineyard.com.

March 29, 2013
Fish taco hits the spot at Gordon Biersch Tavern at Galleria

taco.JPGAs mall food courts go, the one at the Galleria in Roseville is a cut above. The spacious (and always crowded) second-floor dining area offers a wide range of ethnic-oriented choices - American, Japanese, Italian, Mexican, Thai, Chinese.

We dropped by the Galleria the other day and serendipitously grabbed a bite at the Gordon Biersch Tavern, under an umbrella at a little table for two.

The server was efficient and courteous, and twice the manager stopped by to check on our well-being. Nice touches for a food-court restaurant, where a top priority is turning tables - though we never felt rushed.

The brief menu offers fish tacos, wings, roasted turkey sandwich, a cheeseburger, sliders and "signature garlic fries" ($2.50 to $10).

This being a brewery restaurant, there's plenty of German-style beer on tap. GB started in Palo Alto in 1988 and now has 36 fast-casual taverns across the nation, including Hawaii.

We found a winner with the fish taco (pictured). Blackened mahi joins pepper jack cheese, lettuce, mildly spicy remoulade (think aioli) and salsa in a crunchy blue-corn tortilla nestled inside a soft flour tortilla ($4.95); we added avocado for $1 more.

We hit the tacos with shots of Cholula hot sauce and took big bites. Wow! Were we on the Baja peninsula?

Get it 1151 Galleria Blvd., Roseville; (916) 772-2739, www.gordonbiersch.com.

March 27, 2013
Crowds in Granite Bay camp out for Chick-fil-A's 'First 100'

It's happening again, right now, this time in Granite Bay, all because of a chicken sandwich.

No, that crowd of people camped out along Douglas Boulevard isn't there to make a statement about the U.S. Supreme Court's ongoing deliberation over Proposition 8, California's ban on gay marriage. Nor is it linked to controversial statements on same-sex marriage made last year by Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy.

Instead, those folks are congregated at 4040 Douglas Blvd. waiting for Thursday's morning's grand opening of the Sacramento area's fifth Chick-fil-A, bringing the total number in California to 62.

March 27, 2013
Lunch at Waterboy, a chat with former teen idol Fabian Forte

fabian.JPGFabian Forte was in town for a few days, visiting with his son and daughter-in-law, Christian and Mercedes Forte, and with his two grandchildren. I joined Fabian and Christian for lunch at the estimable Waterboy, chef Rick Mahan's restaurant at 20th Street and Capitol Avenue in downtown.

You remember Fabian, right? He was one of the groomed-and-packaged teen idols of the late 1950s and 1960s to come out of Philadelphia, a star on "American Bandstand," the guy who rocked the worlds of hysterical teen girls.

"The singing sensation of the nation" had his share of hits ("Turn Me Loose," "Tiger") before signing a movie contract and moving to Los Angeles. His filmography is impressive - 30-plus movies, including "High Times" with Bing Crosby, "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation" with Jimmy Stewart, "The Longest Day" with Henry Fonda, "North to Alaska" with John Wayne.

salmon.JPGFor the past 28 years, he and longtime pals and fellow teen idols Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell have toured their show, "Golden Boys," around the nation. Last summer they were in Reno for "Hot August Nights," but not this year.

"We used to do 90 shows a year," said Fabian, 70, digging into a gorgeous salmon fillet (pictured). "Now we play cemeteries - we don't have to worry about the sound system. No, really, we do 25 shows a year. It gets me out of the house."

"The house" is on 40 rural acres outside Philadelphia, shared with his wife, Andrea Patrick-Forte, 52, a former Miss Pennsylvania-USA.

"I've never been happier," Fabian said. "I ride my ATV and tractor and cut the grass. Where I grew up, there wasn't any grass.

"I'm looking forward to spring, when I can plant my garden - tomatoes, corn, you name it," he added. "I don't even water it and it grows. I just got a (gas-fueled) Weber grill and I'm waiting to get the searing thing going - lamb, fish, vegetables."

pasta.JPGChristian and Mercedes Forte own Fabian's Italian Bistro in Fair Oaks. On one wall is an iconic black-and-white photo of Fabian at 15, looking 25, in a suit and well-oiled hair, taken by famed portrait photographer Richard Avedon.

"We named the restaurant after my dad as (an homage) to our family and heritage," Christian Forte said, finishing a bowl of seafood-filled squid-ink pasta (also pictured).

Last summer, Fabian was among the guests of honor at the San Francisco Bohemian Club's exclusive retreat in the luxurious Bohemian Grove campground in Monte Rio. Its membership consists of megastars in the arts, politics, business and media.

"For years they asked me to go, but I told them I don't camp," Fabian said with a laugh, then went on for 15 minutes to say how incredible the experience was.

We declined dessert, but I had one last question. Who is Fabian's favorite singer?

"Bob Seeger," he said without hesitation. "He's a rocker whose songwriting speaks to me. When you see him perform live, you want to shoot yourself because you know you'll never do anything like that."

Fabian paid the bill and we left. Rock on.

March 26, 2013
Relive St. Pat's day with corned beef (and pastrami) at Sam's

sams.JPG

St. Patrick's Day came and went, but we're still dreaming about that corned Wagyu beef brisket and tender cabbage we feasted on for three days.

Which led us to Sam's Hof Brau on Saturday, looking for a hand-carved corned beef sandwich with a bowl of fragrant jus on the side for dipping.

Standing in the cafeteria-style order line, the thought struck: How about a combo corned beef-pastrami "heavyweight" instead? The counterman thought that was a good idea, too.

We admired his artistry with a carving knife as he sliced pieces off the two seasoned briskets in a blur of metal and meat and stacked them on rye bread. Also tempting: Polish sausage, chicken pot pie, veal cutlet and stuffed bell peppers.

Tableside, horseradish and hot mustard became involved with the delicious brisket duo, and the dipping jus was just the right touch.

Get it for $6.69 at Sam's, 2500 El Camino Ave.; (916) 482-2175, www.thehofbrau.com.

How about some Sam's history:

March 21, 2013
Here comes the 'bride,' dressed in 1,000 French macarons

st.francis.jpgNext time your travels take you to San Francisco, carve out some time for a look a 6-1/2-foot-tall wedding cake made out of vibrantly colored French macarons (meringue-like cookies).

The mega-cake is inside the ornate lobby of the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square, next to the 157-year-old Viennese Magneta grandfather clock, a popular rendezvous spot for generations of San Franciscans. The cake is in celebration of the spring and summer wedding seasons, said a spokesperson, and will be displayed through May 6.

"Growing up in France, macarons were and still are my favorite dessert, and I find it very exciting that they've become the treat du jour here in the U.S.," says St. Francis executive pastry chef jean-François Houdré. "This wedding cake is a labor of love inspired by my childhood roots."

The chef and his staff devoted 75 hours to the cake, which is decorated with 1,000 handmade macarons in various sizes and flavors.

Upcoming at the St. Francis are Easter weekend lodging packages, children's activities, special programs and brunch. For more information: www.westinstfrancis.com, 415-397-7000.

March 21, 2013
Capitol Dawg's 'hot Italian' is gone, but Ruffhaus' brat is a go-to

bratwurst.JPGWe've sorely missed our go-to wurst since Capitol Dawg shut its doors at Capitol Avenue and 20th Street last November. Our favorite was the "hot Italian" - a juicy Italian sausage on a seeded roll topped with a heap of hot giardineria, the Italian relish of spicy pickled vegetables.

There are other wurst options, one of which serves our substitute go-to dog. Ruffhaus lists five wursts on its recently expanded menu. We've tasted them all, but keep going back to the crisp, complexly flavored bratwurst that we dress semi-Chicago-style. We get it on a seeded bun topped with sport peppers and neon-green relish, with house-made potato chips (about $7.50 for the package; pictured).

Now, about neon relish, which looks like it might glow in the dark: In the 1930s, a certain preservative was commonly put into pickle relish that made it neon-green. The chemical hasn't been used for decades, but because neon relish is a part of Chicago's food lore, many companies there use a mix of mint and artificial food coloring to replicate the bright-green hue. Call it tradition.

Ruffhaus sources neon relish, giardineria and sport peppers from the Puckered Pickle in Chicago (www.puckeredpickle.com). Ruffhaus is at 4366 Town Center Blvd., El Dorado Hills; (916) 941-3647, www.ruffhaushotdogco.com.

Other dog-centric options include:
Wienery, 715 56th St., Sacramento; (916) 455-0497, www.thewienerysacramento.com.
Wiener Works, 5207 Madison Ave., Sacramento; (916) 334-8711, www.weinerworksmadison.com.
Parker's, 1605 Douglas Blvd., Roseville; (916) 786-2202, www.parkershotdogs.com.
Hotdogger, 29 E St., Davis; (530) 753-6291, www.thehotdogger.com.
Burney's, 886 Lincoln Way, Auburn; (530) 887-1262.

March 19, 2013
The proof is in the chocolate bread pudding (with gelato)

breadpudding.JPG
Though it sounds like a mundane dessert to the uninitiated, bread pudding can be a delight.

It's found in various world cusines and in seemingly every restaurant throughout the South. In its simplest form, it's stale bread softed with milk, bound with egg, spiced with mace or cinnamon, and sweetened with rum- or caramel-based sauce.

We discovered a chocolate-rich incarnation at Fabaian's Italian Bistro the other night. Resistance was futile.

Chef Tom Patterson combines Acme-brand challah (egg bread), heavy cream, eggs, sugar and cinnamon and bakes the base for 40 minutes at 450 degrees. Then he whips up cocolate sauce from Guittard chocolate - the brand used for See's candies - adds Guittard chocolate chips to it and pours it over the pudding. It's served warm with orange gelato from the Italian Ice Cream Co. in Folsom.

Get it while it lasts ($6.95) at 1755 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks; (916) 536-9891, www.fabiansitalianbistro.

March 18, 2013
Sonoma County Restaurant Week will serve through Sunday

spaghetti.JPGIf you have a taste for dining out, and enjoy winetasting and short drives, you should know that the fourth annual Sonoma County Restaurant Week starts today and runs through Sunday.

On the table: More than 115 restaurants will offer three-course prix-fixe dinners for $19, $29 or $39, along with optional wine-pairings. After all, Sonoma County is known for its many wineries.

Cuisines range from Italian, French and Japanese, to American and "wine country" - a term that usually translates to mean locally sourced and artisanal ingredients.

"The meals are across the board," said spokeswoman Audrey Bendowski. "We have burgers and pizza, but we have salmon and ribeye steaks, too."

For more information: www.restaurantweek@sonoma-county.org.

March 14, 2013
Gearing up for grilling season with new Flavor Infusers

chicken.JPGinfusers.JPG
Years ago, many adventurous home cooks who like to wrestle with whole turkeys moved beyond brining them in a spiced-saltwater solution and turned to the flavor-injection method. Turkey injector kits are sold in many barbecue-supply stores, sporting-goods and hardware stores, and online.

In this method, a big "syringe" is filled with seasoned marinade (or beer, wine, sherry, olive oil or whatever). Then the attached big-gauge needle is inserted into the turkey carcass at multiple sites and in various directions. The plunger is pushed with each insertion, spreading the liquid throughout. The injected turkey is refrigerated overnight, then smoked, deep-fried or oven-roasted the next day. The result is a juicer, more flavorful turkey.

In a smaller, far-less-hassle scenario, the French's company (of ballpark mustard fame) has introduced its new line of Flavor Infuser marinades. The theory is the same as above, but less ambitious and much easier for the weekend griller who's cooking, say, chicken breasts, pork loin, steak or fish.

Here's how: Remove the cap from the infuser, stick the plastic "needle" into the meat at several sites, remove slowly while simultaneously squeezing the plastic tube - slowly. Let the meat rest for 10 minutes before grilling.

Flavor Infusers sell for about $3 each at supermarkets and come in four flavors - Sweet & Tangy Teriyaki, Classic Steakhouse, Zesty Italian and Caribbean Jerk.

While we waited for the charcoal in our Weber grill to burn down, we injected two chicken breasts (pictured), a filet of salmon, a thick porkchop and a market steak with the four flavors. The liquids certainly plumped up the meats. We found some marinade streaks when we cut into them later, but overall the infusers delivered what they promised - more juice, more flavor.

Caution: Because of the risk of cross-contamination on the injector tips, French's urges consumers not to reuse the plastic infusers. If you don't use a whole tube of liquid (which infuses up to four pounds), toss it.

For more information: www.frenchs.com.

March 11, 2013
Too bad 'The Taste' can't visit Tuli Bistro, or vice versa

pizza.JPGAdam Pechal, chef and co-owner of Tuli Bistro and Restaurant Thir13en, had a good run on the ABC-TV cooking competition "The Taste" before he was shown the door on Feb. 26. His appearances were chronicled at www.sacbee.com/appetizers by my colleague, wine and food writer Chris Macias.

With that in mind, lunch pal Gloria Glyer and I walked over to Tuli to say hello. Gloria writes the weekly "Fundraisers" calendar for The Bee and is a former Dining Diva for Sacramento magazine.

Pechal wasn't in evidence, but we grabbed a patio table anyway and shared a "pollo caliente" sandwich and a Molinari salumi pizza (pictured).

The huge sandwich was tops - tender chicken breast, white cheddar, crispy onion, cabbage slaw and chipotle BBQ sauce on focaccia ($12). The accompanying skinny fries were smothered in terrific chili, chunky with succulent pork and al-dente beans, and gooey with melted cheese.

We think Tuli assembles one of the most well-balanced pizzas around, cooked in a wood-fired pizza oven that blisters the edges of the thin, chewy crust.
Ours was topped with Molinari-brand pepperoni, salami and hot coppa, rich sauce from fire-roasted tomatoes and just the right amount of mozzarella ($15).

Too bad Pechal couldn't have made those winners on "The Taste."
Tuli Bistro, 2031 S St., Sacramento; (916) 451-8854, www.tulibistro.com

March 6, 2013
What's on the menu at salmon dinner? Uh, chicken and ribs

salmon.JPGDetermining the exact dates of the $1.4 billion salmon season is a complicated and, well, fluid exercise. Right now, the opening and closing dates are a work-in-progress, but it's fair to say that recreational and commercial salmon-fishing seasons will be from around mid-April to around the end of September, or maybe into October.

Helping the finny natural resource along is the Golden Gate Salmon Association, which will host its annual dinner (with appetizers and cocktails) and fund-raiser at 5:30 p.m. April 26 at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento; (916) 452-5881.

Tickets go fast and are on sale now at (855) 251-4472 and www.goldengatesalmonassociation.com. They're $80 per person, $140 per couple, $40 for ages 16 and younger. "Table Sponsor" packages for eight are $800 and include reserved VIP seating, raffle tickets and a drawing. Look for auctions hosted by auctioneers from the Discovery Channel's show "Auction Kings."

The GGSA's membership includes salmon fishermen and restaurants. So, what's for dinner? "You'd expect it to be salmon, but (the members) are around salmon all the time and they want to eat something else," said a spokesman. "There will be some salmon on the menu, but primarily it will be ribs and chicken."

March 4, 2013
The Great Burger Hunt strikes it rich in Placerille

burger.JPGOutstanding burgers are where you find 'em, in this case at Cascada Mexican restaurant in Placerville.

The thick, juicy half-pound patty is made from prime-rib meat and sits on a lightly toasted ciabatta roll that can handle the heft.

Ours was topped with avocado, bacon, pepper-jack cheese and sauteed mushrooms, with a mound of crisp, well-seasoned fries ($11.95). Best strategy: Cut the monster into halves.

Get it at 384 Main St.; (530) 344-7757, www.cascadaonmainstreet.com.

Tip: Sit at the bar for this meal; it's the best seat for people-watching and to overhear the inside chatter between the bartenders and the serviers.

March 1, 2013
Doughbot to strut its deep-fried stuff on 'Doughnut Masters'

doughnuts.JPGThe doughnut can be a work of art, as proven by a few doughnut shops around town - like Doughbot, whose motto is, "Resistance is futile." Its pastry expertise is on display from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Get there early for such exotic flavors as chocolate-caramel-stout (for Sacrmento Beer Week) and peanut butter-jelly-blood orange.

Meanwhile, Sacramento-area doughnut cognoscenti aren't the only ones who think highly of Doughbot's pastries, created by husband-wife co-owners Bryan and Dannah Widener.

Late last year, the couple traveled far north and crossed the border to compete on a new half-hour show created by Food Network Canada. "Doughnut Masters" will star doughnut-makers from 30 American and 12 Canadian doughnut shops.

Each episode will feature three contestants who must make doughnuts from three "secret ingredients." Judges choose a winner, who walks away with $10,000. That's right - they're handing out 10 grand a week.

Though the taping is a done deal and the show is scheduled to premiere at 10 p.m. April 2 on Food Network Canada, the Wideners can't talk about how they fared or who the winners and losers were.

"Our contract states we can't talk to anybody about it, and (the producers) are really serious about that," Bryan Widener said on the phone today.

Fair enough - but let's hope Food Network USA picks up the show so we can see for ourselves. Meanwhile, check out some of the "Doughnut Masters" audition videos on YouTube. Sorry, but Doughbot's isn't among them.

Doughbot is at 2226 10th St., Sacramento; (916) 444-5157, www.doughbotdonuts.com.

February 27, 2013
America's best 101 retaurants: Agree or disagree?

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Those arbiters of all things food and drink at the Daily Meal have seemingly accomplished the impossible by naming their 101 Best Restaurants In America. That's from a field of 200,000 full-service restaurants, so their opinions could differ from yours. Ya think?

Among the chosen are 20 from California, and among those are a dozen within reasonable driving distance from Sacramento.

Taking the No. 1 spot was Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Yountville, in the Napa Valley. It beat out Nos. 2 through 5, all in New York City. The French Laundry is known for its multi-course, multi-hour meals, and the artistry of its dishes; pictured is snapper with veggies (but no tartar sauce...).

To see the complete list, and get an explanation of how it was devised, go to www.thedailymeal.com/101-best-restaurants-america. Meanwhile:

No. 97: Benu, San Francisco
No. 80: The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena
No. 64: State Bird Provisions, San Francisco
No. 56: Michael Mina, San Francisco
No. 54: Quince, San Francisco
No. 52: Coi, San Francisco
No. 42: La Taqueria, San Francisco
No. 30: Bar Tartine, San Francisco
No. 27: Mission Chinese Food, San Francisco
No. 23: Bouchon Bistro, Yountville
No. 19: Zuni Café, San Francisco
No. 15: Chez Panisse, Berkeley

February 27, 2013
Meet the pan roast, a sublime seafood bisque with some heat

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Among the 35 dining options at the century-old Grand Central Terminal in New York City is the iconic Oyster Bar & Restaurant, serving 30 kinds of oysters and 25 kinds of fish.

Also on its menu is an original dish so sublime that restaurants around the nation have adapted it as their own. That would be the pan roast, a highly prized meal in a bowl.

Typically, a pan roast is a bisque built around cream or half and half, butter, clam juice, white wine, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, Tabasco sauce and spices such as celery salt and paprika; sherry is sometimes added, as is garlic and sweet chili sauce. The broth is scalded and mixed with seafood, typically oysters, shrimp, clams, scallops, crab or lobster, or any combination.

For your next road trip, you should know that a great version is served at John's Oyster Bar at John Ascuaga's Nugget in Sparks; another is at the nearby Oyster Bar at the Atlantis in Reno.

Closer to home, we stopped at Powell's Steamer Co. & Pub in Placerville for a bowl of its oyster-shrimp pan roast (pictured). One delicious spoonful led to the next, one pack of oyster crackers was replaced with a second. Soon, lunch was history. We plan to do it again soon.

The combination pan roast is $18; shrimp-only and oysters-only roasts are $16 each. Powell's is at 25 Main St.; (530) 626-1091, www.powellssteamer.com.

February 26, 2013
You want tender beef? Try the hard-to-find 'T major roast'

corti.JPGIn the prep area behind the Corti Bros. Market meat counter, meat department manager and master butcher Mike Carroll used a metal paddle to move around the trimmed briskets and other gorgeous cuts of beef soaking in his proprietary brine in stainless-steel barrels.

In preparation for St. Patrick's Day, the brine-injected cuts will soak for 21 days before they're displayed in cold cases and sold to home cooks planning to carve corned beef for their Irish-themed dinners.

Meanwhile, stacked in the display case out front is an item new to the store. The beef chuck shoulder tender filet - sold under the name "T major roast" - is "remarkable," Carroll said. It's $7.99 a pound, on sale for $6.99 from Wednesday through March 5.

"It comes off the top of the crossrib shoulder and weighs between three-quarters of a pound and a pound," Carroll said. "It just sits up there and doesn't do much (work). Like beef tenderloin, it's along for the ride. That's what makes it so tender. It's a very lean piece of meat that's been forgotten by most butchers. Traditionally, it's thrown into the trim bucket for hamburger."

We brought some home and cooked it two ways. The first steak was cut into medallions, rubbed with olive oil, coarse-ground black pepper and coarse Vignalta herbed salt from Italy, and pan-seared in olive oil to medium rare. The meat was shockingly full of flavor and more tender than many filet mignons we've had.

We seasoned the second steak the same way and put it under the oven broiler, turned it several times, removed it and let it rest, then cut it into slices (pictured). The rare beef was delicious, but the pan-fried version was better.

"You can put it on the grill for about 10 minutes," Carroll said. "It seems to do best when it's cooked rare, but you can take it up to medium. It's very versatile; you can make kebabs, roast it whole, pan-fry it, make steak sandwiches out of it, turn it into hash, add it to salads... It's an amazing piece of meat."

Corti Bros. Market is at 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 736-3800, www.cortibros.biz. Pre-order corned beef at (916) 736-3805.

February 22, 2013
Get ready to do some oinking at Davis Farmers Market Pig Day

3Pigscloseup-thumb-300x296-23300.jpgThe Davis Farmers Market will bring new meaning to the term "pig out" when it hosts the 22nd annual Pig Day, a celebration of all things pork that has become a part of Davis culture.

Oink this: pork and market-fresh veggies stir fry, piggie pops, pig's head-shaped French bread on a stick, smoked pork ribs, bacon-topped pizza, pulled-pork breakfast sandwiches, pigs-in-a-blanket, corn dogs and hot dogs, pig-shaped cookies, watermelon-chocolate-chip ice cream and much more.

Special events for children include pony rides, piglet petting zoo, piggie arts and crafts, and make-your-own piggie banks. Pose for photos with the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, and say hi to "Ms. Piggie."

"We have visitors from all over Sacramento and Yolo Counties on Pig Day, and more people attend every year," said farmers market manager Randii MacNear. "Pig Day celebrates the pig's rightful place as one of man's most intelligent and useful domesticated animals, and it's the only event of its kind in California."

Pig Day at the Davis Farmers Market will be from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 2 in Central Park at Fourth and C streets. More information: (530) 756-1695, www.davisfarmersmarket.org.

February 21, 2013
SF Chocolate Salon will put on a sweet spread of delights

chocolatae.JPGYou say you love chocolate and you're prone to partying? Then you're a perfect candidate for the 7th annual San Francisco International Chocolate Salon.

More than 40 chocolatiers and confectioners will offer their sweet delights at the affair, while winetastings and live music will serve as backdrops in the 55,000-square-foot space.

A ticket buys chocolate tastings and wine pairings, demonstrations, first-taste samplings of new products, tastes of experimental flavor combinations, talks and presentations, panel discussions, games, author signings and ongoing interviews by TasteTV's "Chocolate Television" show.

The chocolate extravaganza will be from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 24 at Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco; (415) 345-7500, www.fortmason.org.

Early-bird tickets are $20, or $25 in advance and $30 at the door; $10 for children ages 6 to 12; free for 5 and younger. To buy tickets, watch videos from past events and for more information, visit www.sfchocolatesalon.com.

February 21, 2013
Bouchon Bakery devotes love and time to its great croissants

Untitled.jpgWe scoff at Danish, laugh at Napoleons and don't waste a glance on doughnuts. For us, pastry doesn't get any better than the croissant, a shining star in the family of baked goods known as "viennoiseries." The word references the city of Vienna, Austria, where many such goodies originated.

The flaky, crescent-shaped puff of fleeting delight is a combination of layered yeast dough and butter, rolled, layered and folded - a baking technique called "laminating."

The croissant is not French in origin, but evolved from a Viennese pastry called "kipferl." In the 1830s, the Boulangerie Viennoise in Paris specialized in Austrian pastries, including kipferl, and it wasn't long before the French "borrowed" the template and gave it a twist -- literally and figuratively. And a darn fine job they did.

Inevitably, the art of croissant-making was sullied by the fast-food mindset when frozen, premade croissants went on the wholesale market in the 1970s, making it possible for any store with an oven to sell dumbed-down, insulting versions of the baker's pride.

Good thing for us the Bouchon Bakery exists in Yountville in the Napa Valley. The bakers there make croissants from scratch. It's a process that requires 48 hours of loving care from the bakery's pastry team and bread team, from the time the dough is mixed till the croissants are sold at the counter. That's according to assistant head baker Erik Bursteiner.

We dropped by the bakery last Tuesday and were shocked to find no line outside the door, as there is usually. We walked inside to a blast of wonderful aromas from fresh-baked pastries and breads, and freshly brewed coffee. We were tempted to tell the counter person, "Two of everything, please!" but settled for a box of croissants and a large dark-roast.

We returned to the parking lot, used the trunk of the car as a table, and ate half the stash. You can, too. In fact, you should.

Bouchon Bakery is at 6528 Washington St., Yountville; (707) 944-2253, www.bouchonbakery.com.

February 20, 2013
Visitors & Convention Bureau launches farm-to-fork website

The Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau has launched a "farm-to-fork" food- and dining-centric website, www.farmtoforkcapital.com, which will include agricultural news and information on upcoming festivals.

"It's a work-in-progress, a shell that we will be filling in," said bureau spokesman Mike Testa.

The bureau has hired former Bee staff writer Ed Murrieta to write restaurant reviews for the site, reports today's edition of the media blog www.jimromenesko.com.

"'Culinary Concierge' is closer to what I'll actually do," Murrieta says on Romenesko. "My job is to find and showcase the best (restaurant) food and beverages in the Sacramento region. I'm interested in whether the food is good ... and (in finding) good value for the money."

To read a question-and-answer interview with Murrieta, visit the Romenesko site.

February 20, 2013
Six beers from the Rockies to match with dinner at Fabian's

SG6pkfront.pngThe daily menu at Fabian's Italian Bistro offers plenty of solid dishes, with some liquid surprises to be found at the bar. Co-owner Christian Forte (with his wife, Mercedes) is dialed in to the beer scene, as he has proven with his regular beer-centric events featuring artisanal and microbreweries.

For Sacramento Beer Week (Feb. 22 through March 3), he's hosting the Rocky Mountain Beer Dinner, featuring six beers from two breweries in the Rockies, matched with a multi-course meal engineered by executive chef Tom Patterson.

Look for three different pours from both microbreweries - Boulder Beer from Colorado (www.boulderbeer.com) and Grand Teton Brewing Co. from Idaho (pictured; www.grandtetonbrewing.com). Representatives from both breweries, and chef Patterson, will be on hand to discuss all things beer and food.

The evening will begin at 7 p.m. Feb. 28; tickets are $49 per person (including tax and tip). Fabian's is at 11755 Fair Oaks Blvd. in the Almond Orchard center; (916) 536-9891, www.fabiansitalianbistro.com.

Each course will be paired with a beer. The menu will go like this:

Reception course: Beer-soaked housemade Yukon gold potato chips with spicy-sweet aioli
First course: Whipped bone-marrow bruschetta with capers and fried balsamic-infused cippolini onion
Second course: Beet carpaccio with shaved watermelon radish, blood orange, rocket greens and spicy pepitas
Third course: Porcini-dusted ahi tuna slider with green garlic aioli and housemade wasabi pickle relish
Fourth course: Hops-smoked quail with crispy pork belly and trumpet mushrooms
Dessert: Beer-infused chocolate brownie with salted caramel gelato and smoked bacon brittle

February 15, 2013
Mulvaney's B&L will cook a rainbow, based on 'Ripe' cookbook

5051322642-1.jpgInnovative chef Patrick Mulvaney is whipping up something special once again. This time he has teamed with cookbook author Cheryl Rule to create a multi-course prix fixe dinner based on recipes in Rule's cookbook, "Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables" (Running Press, $25, 312 pages; with color photos by Paulette Phlipot).

"The book is structured around the colors of the rainbow, so I thought we would make (colored appetizers) and spread the spectrum around through the dinner," Mulvaney explained.

Of course, the ingredients are locally sourced. Mulvaney and his wife, Bobbin, are well-known for their farm-to-table philosophy, serving what they call "hand-crafted New American cuisine."

Tickets are $60 per person, or $100 for two; a signed cookbook is included. Buy tickets at the restaurant or at www.tastybooks.eventbrite.com. Mulvaney's B&L is at 1215 19th St., Sacramento; (916) 441-6022, www.mulvaneysbl.com. For more on the cookbook: www.ripecookbook.com.

Here's the menu:

February 13, 2013
Cottage of Sweets stuffs 600 candies into 300 square feet

IMG_0073.JPGFor visitors to Carmel-by-the-Sea, it's always a case of "so much food, so little time." Well and good, but take a break from winetasting and expensive bistro dinners to enjoy some casual treats at the always-crowded Cottage of Sweets.

The 300-square-foot cottage sells 600 types of candies, from Turkish delight to peanut butter cups. The big draws, though, are the licorice and the homemade fudge.

The most popular fudge flavor is sea salt-caramel, said manger Karen Bateham on the phone today. "It outsells the other fudges three to one."

Dozens of kinds of licorice are on offer, 10 of which are salted - a common touch in European countries. Many of the licorices are domestic, but most are imported from Australia, England, Finland, Germany, Holland, Italy, Switzerland and Sweden.

What's the most unusual type? "Dutch licorice ship ropes," Bateham said. "They look like little pieces of rope and are dusted with an extreme salt coating."

The cottage was built in 1922 and became the Cottage of Sweets in 1959. Its current owners, Lanny and Linda Rose, took over in 1980.

The cottage was fashioned after the 20 or so "fairytale" cottages built by architect and Carmel resident Hugh Comstock in the 1920s. The style is characterized by crooked lines, swooping roofs, turrets, alcoves and stone chimneys that appear to be on the brink of tumbling down. They help epitomize the town.

If you can't get to Carmel any time soon, you can order candies online at www.cottageofsweets.com. The store is on Ocean Avenue between Lincoln and Monte Verde; (831) 624-517.

One last thing: Why can't people resist candy? I asked Bateham.

"Why would they want to?" she replied.

Good point.

February 11, 2013
Here's a book for chocolate-lovers: Eat it (sort of) and read it

photo (1).JPGShari Fitzpatrick moved to Sacramento 22 years ago and parlayed a $1,500 advance into an iconic business. The confectioner's specialty was luscious chocolate-dipped strawberries, a staple at celebrations everywhere.

The bad economy forced the closure of her three-store Berry Factory in 2011, but not before she had written "Berried In Chocolate: How I Built a Multimillion-Dollar Business by Doing What I Love To Do and How You Can Too" (Pelican, 224 pages). The entrepreneur went on to reinvent herself as a motivational speaker.

Now she has a "special edition" of the book (Valentine's Day, anyone?), autographed and partly covered in dark chocolate drizzled with white chocolate.

The novelty: You can read the book and eat it, too - sort of. Here's how: Remove the decorative cellophane, then remove the first layer of shrink wrap. When you do, the chocolate breaks away in sweet, edible shards. The book itself is covered in a second layer of shrink wrap, so things do not get messy.

The chocolate-covered book is $35; the plain edition is $25. To order: www.sharifitzpatrick.com.

February 8, 2013
Carpe Vino takes a culinary tour of New Orleans

FOOD WBS-UNCORKED TB.jpgLast summer, Gary and Drew Moffat got some good news from Wine Spectator magazine, informing them they'd won an Award of Excellence for their digital list of 250 wines for the restaurant portion of their store. The Moffats are the father-son co-owners of Carpe Vino, the classy wine bar/wine shop/restaurant in Auburn. It's stocked with about 500 wines, an inventory that's in constant flux.

Their dining program includes regularly scheduled prix-fixe themed dinners. Their first of the year will be the New Orleans-accented "Big Easy Culinary Celebration," Feb. 26 through March 3. The toll: $49 per person. Reservations: (530) 823-0320, www.opentable.com.

Check out the menu (one choice per category; vegetarian options available):

First course: crispy pork boudin, or baked oysters "Josephine," or Louisiana shrimp remoulade

Second course: mock turtle soup, or muffuletta chopped salad

Main course: Creole jambalaya, or duck and smoked turkey gumbo, or crawfish and shrimp etouffee

Dessert: "gateau de sirop" ("syurp cake," made with pure cane syrup), or bananas Foster-style bread pudding

Carpe Vino is at 1568 Lincoln Way in Old Auburn; visit at www.carpevinoauburn.com.

February 5, 2013
In Amador County, the place for goodies is the Vintage Market

IMG_0138.JPGSeems like more Sacramentans are dialing in to the growing winetasting scene in the foothills of Amador County. When it comes to tasting reds, our go-to wineries are Borjon, Cooper and Deaver. For more wineries to visit, go to the Amador Vintners Associations home page, www.amadorwine.com.

How about some goodies to go along on that winery tour? The homespun Amador Vintage Market in Plymouth is a smart stop for picnic supplies, sandwiches and salads (the curried chicken is tops). Specially prepared box lunches, basket lunches and platters are available.

"We get a lot of tourists on weekends," said market-deli owner Beth Sogaard. "Weekend winetasters are the key to our success. Ninety-nine percent of what (we sell) is made in-house, and we use a lot of local produce."

One don't-miss dish is the pairing of flour tortilla chips ($4.95 a bag) and hummus ($2.95 a container), both made in-house.

The well-seasoned Parmesan-tomato-basil-garlic chips (pictured ) are so popular they're shipped around the country. They're light, crisp and loaded with flavor. We used them to scoop up globs of hummus, a tangy paste of garbanzo beans, tahini (ground sesame seed paste), cumin, cayenne, parsley and olive oil. Somebody stop us!

The Amador Vintage Market is at 9393 Main St.; (209) 245-3663, www.amadorvintagemarket.com.

January 31, 2013
Ultimate smoked meatloaf sandwich is right here in town

IMG_0131.JPGLunch pal Neal Hagen was back in town after a business trip to Tennessee, and was talking about some of the meals he'd had there. "Fried chicken, fried catfish, fried okra - fried everything," he said.

The chat turned to the subject of meatloaf. "I don't know anybody who doesn't love meatloaf," he said. "But you never find consistent meatloaf at restaurants. Even the meatloaf at the same restaurant will vary from visit to visit, so I have to question their contents. The trick is to find a restaurant that intentionally makes the same meatloaf day after day."

I know of such a place, I told him, and they serve meatloaf every day. Well, then, he said...

That's how we found ourselves standing in line at Roxie Deli at 11:15 this morning, while the countermen assembled our sandwiches: house-smoked meatloaf on chewy ciabatta rolls with melted cheddar and provolone cheeses, horseradish, mayonnaise, tomato, onion and crisp jalepeno coins. They're built in three sizes (big, bigger and biggest) for three prices - $7.56, $9.52 and $15.06, after tax.

Here's how Roxie co-owner Chris Tannous (with wife Amy) makes the meatloaf: "I mix 80-20 ground chuck with eggs and my secret rub, then form (the loaves) in pans and put them in the smoker. It's not your mother's meatloaf."

What's in the secret spice mix? I was joking, right?

Neal and I sat in the sunshine at a small table next to the massive smoker, which burns oak and fruitwood. Wisps of fragrant smoke wafted by now and then.

We unwrapped the sandwiches, admired their artistry and began demolishing them. The melange of tastes and textures is a template for all other meatloaf sandwiches to follow.

"Gee, whiz!" Neal exclaimed. "You can smell the flavors before you even take a bite. Most meatloaves are dry, but this is moist and delicious."

Chris Tannous came outside and opened the smoker to rearrange fragrant, mahogany-dark briskets, which are smoked for 16 hours. Then he opened a top compartment and showed us the pans of meatloaf.

"I put these in at 5:30 this morning, and I'll take them out at about 5 this afternoon," he said.

Any specials coming up? "We'll smoke brisket, ribs, tri-tip and Buffalo wings for Superbowl Sunday," he said. "Get here early."

We chewed the last bites of the sandwiches and wadded up the last of the napkins.

"Sitting outside of a little grocery store, next to a smoker in a parking lot, eating a meal like this..." Neal said. "Only in America."

Neal should know - he's traveled the world. Ironically, the best meatloaf sandwich he's ever had has been right here all along.


Roxie Deli, 3340 C St., Sacramento; (916) 443-5402, www.roxiedeli.com

January 30, 2013
Could this be the freshest frozen salmon in Sacramento?

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Lovers of fresh salmon filets and steaks couldn't wait to fire up their outdoor grills last April when the commercial salmon-fishing season opened and markets began to fill with the delectable fish. But smiles turned to frowns when the season closed at the end of summer. Home cooks have had to settle for farm-raised salmon while they wait for the season to reopen in the spring.

There's an option, though. Corti Bros. Market is selling an innovative new product, Frozen At Sea wild king salmon, for $15 to $20 a pound (depending on cut and occasional sales).

The technique as explained by FAS distributors involves "rapid freezing of the fish at minus-40 degrees while the boat is still at sea." This takes place while the fish is still pliant, which means, they say, it will have a higher moisture content when thawed out, resulting in better flavor and texture. There's more science to it than that, but you get the drift.

We broiled lightly seasoned steaks and fillets of FAS salmon at home and found them to be better than any farm-raised salmon steaks and fillets we've had, and pretty much the same in flavor and texture as fresh salmon. The succulent fish disappeared so fast, though, that we'd better get some more and conduct a second tasting just to be sure.

Corti Bros. gets its FAS salmon from Seafood Suppliers of San Francisco. The actual fisher responsible for that supply is Heather Sears, captain of the F/V Princess, docked in Fort Bragg. She and her crew caught the fish between Point Arena and Bodega Bay, an area that was thick with krill last season. Salmon love to eat krill; in turn, the small crustaceans intensify the salmons' natural orange color.

Corti Bros. Market is at 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 736-3800, www.cortibros.biz.

January 29, 2013
Amore Cafe-Bakery changes hands, but food will stay the same

amore.JPGNader Shirakh phoned to say he and wife Fariba have sold their Amore Cafe, Bakery and Espresso Bar in Gold River, one of our favorite go-to's.

The new owners are husband-wife Abhishek and Nina Paul, who took over Jan. 21 after the Shirakhs trained them in the restaurant's operation.

"We will have exactly the same menu, but will add some Indian cuisine in a month or so," Abhishek Paul said. "Nina is the chef, and comes from a family of chefs. She has many family recipes for Indian food."

The Pauls relocated from India to Canada, where they ran a restaurant for eight years, and then moved to Sacramento two months ago.

The cuisine at Amore will remain primarily a fusion of Mediterranean, Italian, French and Persian, prepared from scratch. To ensure that continuation, Fariba Shirakh schooled the new owners on her cooking techniques and handed over the recipes.

Nader and Fariba Shirakh once ran the fine-dining house Amadeus on Fair Oaks Boulevard, then segued to Amore Cafe about eight years ago.

"It was time to get out," Nader Shirakh said. "We want to travel around the country and we might go to Europe. After that, I'm going to get tired of sitting at home, I'm so used to doing something."

Could that include returning to the restaurant business? "You never know," he said. "We need to see where we are in a few months. I'm always open to opportunity. I never close my eyes on it."

The Shirakhs were gracious hosts who built a loyal clientele. "(Some of) our customers cried when we told them the news," Nader Shirakh said. "We've had such a wonderful relationship with the community. It has been the most beautiful experience in our lives."

Amore Cafe is at 220 Gold Springs Court, Gold River; (916) 463-0011.

January 25, 2013
Looking for romantic restaurants? OpenTable has 100 of 'em

9.jpg Valentine's Day is Feb. 14, and romance is beginning to fill the air. Which segues to this: The diners have finished their meals (and held hands), the votes have been counted and the results are in. Check out OpenTable's "2013 Diners' Choice Award Winners for the Top 100 Most Romantic Restaurants in the United States" at www.opentable.com/romantic.

OpenTable, the free online restaurant reservations site, pored over 5 million reviews of 15,000 restaurants, "submitted (last year) by verified OpenTable diners." Most of the restaurants on the list serve French or Italian cuisines.

Of course, California had the most winners (16), followed by Hawaii and Florida. No Sacramento-area restaurants were included, but there are two in San Francisco - Acquerello and Fleur de Lys (pictured) - as well as Madrona Manor in Healdsburg and Shadowbrook in Capitola.


January 22, 2013
Espanol restaurant closed? Nope, it's 90 years old and thriving


Let's spike this rumor before it spreads: No, the venerable old-school Espanol restaurant in east Sacramento has not closed its doors.

"This is our 90th year in business and things are going well," said Perry Luigi this morning. He co-owns the restaurant with family members. "We've held our menu prices for at least years and still serve family-style dinners."

The cause of the confusion: El Dorado Savings vacated the space next door to the Espanol to move across the street, into the Sav-Mart shopping center. Temporarily occupying the empty building is Liberty Tax, which will camp there through tax season. For those driving by on Folsom Boulevard, it may look like the Espanol has closed.

The Espanol opened in the 1920s and calls itself "the Italian restaurant with a Spanish name." It began life as a Basque restaurant created to accommodate the Spanish sheepherders who lodged in boardinghouse quarters above it, at 11th and J streets. Today, the minestrone soup is brought to the table in a blue tureen with a ladle, a remnant of the Espanol's heritage of serving meals "Basque-style" or "family-style."

The Espanol changed hands and relocated in 1952 to Third and I streets in the Commercial Hotel, then to Folsom Boulevard in 1965, its present site.

Certainly, the Espanol is out of the hip farm-to-fork mainstream. It's more of a relic of a bygone era, but its clientele is famously loyal.

"The menu and the staff haven't changed much in years," Luigi said. "We're a straightforward, no-gimmick restaurant. We do what we do, and we do it well."

The Espanol is at 5723 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 457-1936.

January 21, 2013
Third annual Napa Truffle Festival continues today

IMG_0122.JPGToday is the final day of the third annual Napa Valley Truffle Festival, where "world-class cuisine meets cutting-edge truffle science."

The festival got started last Friday, with a reception at La Toque restaurant, and continued over the weekend with truffle-centric seminars, winery tours, food-and-wine pairings, a winemaker dinner, a truffle orchard tour and a mushroom-foraging excursion.

Today, the free Festival Marketplace is taking over the Oxbow Public Market in the town of Napa, with cooking demonstrations, winetastings ($25), special truffle-accented dishes, and a cornucopia of local foodstuffs and wines for sale.

The festival sells out early each year, bringing foodies from all over California and a few foreign countries. It's a big deal. Remember, truffles are delicacies in the global marketplace. Black truffles retail for about $1,700 a pound; white truffles cost around $4,500 a pound. For centuries, truffles have been a treasured ingredient in haute cuisine, prized by master chefs around the world.

On Sunday, we caught the truffle festival luncheon at the Beringer winery in St. Helena, which included an informative tour of the caves. A day trip to the winery is a treat any time. The grounds are gorgeous, the winetasting is fine and the history is fascinating (the winery dates from the 1870s; www.beringer.com).

January 16, 2013
Randy Paragary's Cafe Bernardo will open in Pavilions

Randy Paragary.jpg The speculation is over. After sitting vacant since July 2011, the Market at Pavilions has a new tenant.

That would be Sacramento restaurateur Randy Paragary (pictured), who has signed a lease and plans to renovate the space and open a Cafe Bernardo in the 4,000 square-foot space by June.

The new Cafe Bernardo will be the fifth in the Paragary Restaurant Group, which also operates Paragary's Bar & Oven, Esquire Grill, Spataro and Centro, as well as three bars.

The Cafe Bernardo concept is described on the company's website, www.paragarys.com as "relaxed casual" and "inspired by the European tradition of cafe dining."

Calls to Paragary and his restaurant-group offices were not returned.

The specialty-foods Market at Pavilions closed its doors July 1, 2011, after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy from its creditors in April 2011.

Until 2008, the Market had been owned by food-and-wine expert David Berkley for 25 years and was called David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods.

In July 2008, Berkley sold his store to Greg Rhategan and investor Raymond Matteson. Rhategan was a specialty-foods and wine purveyor and restaurateur from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and was the face of the Market.

The Market's landlord - and now Paragary's - was the Costa Mesa-based retail-property company Donahue Schriber, which owns Pavilions.

At the time of the Market's closure, Donahue Schriber marketing director Audrey Yokota said the company was ready to move on. "We want to find a replacement (for the Market)," she said then. "Our leasing agents are talking with a number of players and prospects."

One well-known restaurateur whose name kept coming up as a possible new tenant was Randall Selland, whose Selland Group owns the Sacramento fine-dining restaurants Ella and The Kitchen.

Shortly before opening a second Selland's Market Cafe in Eldorado Hills Town Center in January 2012 (the original cafe is on H Street in east Sacramento), he said he was exploring additional expansion opportunities. One of them was the empty Market at Pavilions.

"There's a possibility we will open something there and still keep our (H Street) location," he said at the time. "We've been talking to Donahue Schriber about that space for a long time."

Obviously, that didn't happen.

January 16, 2013
Who are top 50 most powerful people in the food biz?

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Those arbiters of all things food and drink at the Daily Meal have announced their third annual "America's 50 Most Powerful People in Food" list, and it's a cornucopia of tasty bites.

"These are the men and woman who have made a substantial impact on the way we eat," explains a spokesman. "Their decisions directly affect what we consume day to day - for better or for worse."

Though most of the players on the list are corporate and government types whose companies and federal agencies have international influence, included are Santa Rosa-based restaurateur-TV host Guy Fieri (pictured), who was the subject of a media blitz when the New York Times' restaurant critic blasted his Guy's American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square in mid-November; Napa Valley restaurateur Thomas "The French Laundry" Keller; restaurateur Wolfgang Puck, whose Spago in L.A. helped spark the California cuisine movement when it opened in 1982; author and TV host Anthony "No Reservations" Bourdain; author Michael "The Omnivore's Dilemma" Pollan; and New York restaurateur-chef Mario Batali.

Here are the top 10 influencers. See the complete list at www.thedailymeal.com. P.S.: Coming in at No. 50 - "the American farmer."

January 14, 2013
See's Candies has a special lineup for Valentine's Day


Bee photograph by Tim Reese

see's candies.JPGChocolate is tempting and resistance is futile.That's why See's Candies does such a landslide business throughout the year, especially when its special limited-edition batches of seasonal goodies hit the shelves in its 200 candy shops in 13 states.

Now through Feb. 14, its Valentine's Day offerings include several versions of heart-shaped boxes (including a satin box) filled with various chocolates, plus marshmallow hearts, hot hearts, sour hearts and cinnamon lollypops ($5.40 to $38.50).

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.
Visit www.sees.com.

January 10, 2013
Oskar Blues beers will team with five courses at Fabian's

dales_pale_ale.jpgWhen it comes to wine and beer, Christian Forte knows his stuff and proves it at the bar of Fabian's Italian Bistro, the restaurant he and wife Mercedes Forte own in Fair Oaks.

Each month, they sponsor a wine or beer event featuring tastes and small plates. This time around, though, there's a five-course dinner that will match beers from the Oskar Blues Brewery of Colorado (www.oskarblues.com) with creations by chef Tom Patterson. On site will be Eben Weisberg from the brewery, talking about all things beer.

The dinner is $42 per person at 7 p.m. Jan. 17 at Fabian's, 11755 Fair Oaks Blvd. in the Almond Orchard center; (916) 536-9891, www.fabiansitalianbistro.com.

"We're also planning a Rocky Mountain Beer Dinner in celebration of Sacramento Beer Week (Feb. 22-March 3), with the date to be determined," Christian Forte said. "We'll have the Boulder Beer Brewing and Grand Teton Brewing Company here, with with some new specials by Chef Tom."

Meanwhile, here's the menu for Oskar Blues dinner:

First course: Dale's Pale Ale with blackened scallops
Second: G'Night Imperial Red with a warm salad of house-smoked salmon, frisee, spinach and chanterelle mushroom
Third: Deviant Dale's IPA with crispy pork belly
Fourth: Old Chub Scotch Ale with beer-braised beef short rib
Fifth: Ten Fidy Imperial Stout with chocolate cake and salted pretzel gelato

January 8, 2013
Try Kurtz Culinary Creations for luscious sauces and spreads

photo (1).JPGNext time you're strolling along Ocean Avenue in Carmel, pop into Kurtz Culinary Creations, near the corner of Ocean and San Carlos (831-625-5267).

You'll find hundreds of specialty foods, many available for tasting - jams and jellies, spreads and dipping sauces, marinades and dressings, curds and fruit butters.

"We have more items than I've ever counted," said owner Anne Just. "More than half are under the Kurtz brand from our family farm in Canada. The others are from premium companies from around the world. Surprisingly, we've introduced a lot of Californians to their own products."

The best-selling item on both sides of the border is the house-brand Asiago "bread topper," a brightly flavored mix of Asiago cheese, herbs and spices in grapeseed oil ($16.95), made in Ontario.

January 7, 2013
On the verge of closing, J.R.'s Texas Bar-B-Que gets a reprieve

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Shortly after local TV stations reported Friday that J.R. Rothenberger's three iconic J.R.'s Texas Bar-B-Que restaurants would be closing their doors within five days "because of a slumping economy," crowds of loyal customers showed up to help save the day.

The new bottom line: "I'm still here and in the game," the outspoken 'cue master told me earlier today.

Rothenberger got a reprieve in the form of a $20,000 personal loan "from a friend" and will continue to deliver hard-to-find smoked brisket, deeply flavored pork and beef ribs, pork shoulder, chicken, turkey and hot links. "The Lord has worked this out," he said. "I'm cool."

January 4, 2013
Sacramento is a burger kind of town, so what's your favorite?

IMG_0055.JPGConsider the hamburger, in concept a simple meal. The reality is something else.

We've made a national obsession out of a sandwich that originated as beef tartare in the Baltic province of Russia. In the 1800s, the story goes, German sailors brought back the strange dish to Hamburg, a seaport town, where somebody was inspired to roll up a handful, flatten it and cook it. The burger as we know it debuted at the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904.

Our town is blessed with hamburgers. Big burgers, little burgers (sliders), Wagyu beef burgers, hand-formed burgers, fully loaded burgers, half-pound burgers, steakhouse burgers (think Morton's, Land Ocean and Chops) and even a burger made from ground Niman Ranch shortrib meat. That one is at Maranello in Fair Oaks, and is topped with manchego cheese, Little Gem lettuce, tomato confit, onion straws and a "dijonnaise" of house-made mayonnaise and Dijon mustard, with a side of skinny twice-cooked fries (916-241-9365, www.maranellorestaurant.com).

Raley Field was packed with burger-lovers last September, when Elk Grove website designer Rodney Blackwell (www.burgerjunkies.com) organized the inaugural Sacramento Burger Battle. Fifteen restaurants flipped their best offerings in a sizzling judged throwdown. When the smoke cleared, the winner was the Chef's Table of Rocklin (916-771-5656, www.chefdavidstable.com).

For a great burger at a bargain price, our vote goes to the prime-beef burger with fries (pictured) served during Ruth's Chris steakhouse's happy hour, dubbed "Sizzle, Swizzle & Swirl." The thick, juicy burger normally goes for $13.50, but it's yours for $7 from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays, in the bar area.

Where: In the Pavilions center on Fair Oaks Boulevard near Howe Avenue, (916) 286-2702; and in Roseville in the Galleria center on Galleria Boulevard, (916) 780-6910. Visit www.ruthschris.com.

So, what's your favorite burger and/or burger deal? Share your picks in "Comments" below.


December 18, 2012
Everyone was a winner at the Holiday Cooking Throwdown

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In the holiday-season rush, the significance of simple but satisfying family traditions too often is overlooked.

Such as: For the fifth year running, I was asked to judge the annual Holiday Cooking Throwdown in the Folsom home of a very active family.

The tradition began in 2008 with cookies, and over the years moved to appetizers, bruschetta and cupcakes. This year, the "contestants" brought their cooking skills to the dish at hand - pies.

The family members ranged in age from 6 to 66 and formed two-person teams. They took the contest seriously, but mixed good humor and lots of laughter with their competitive spirits. (Two neighbors were absent this year, having committed to a performance of "The Nutcracker").

When the flour had settled, the table was laden with a raspberry mini-tart, tamale pie with jalapeno, cheese pie with raspberry-blackberry sauce, cream-filled chocolate-mint mini-pies, and a fruit pie topped with a big chunk of chocolate (pictured).

Though I used a point-based system to rank the entries (one to five each for presentation, taste, texture and creativity), as the judge I reminded the competitors that every entry was a winner.

The contest was fun and the family bonded over the creation and cooking of their eclectic pies. The whole experience was just plain...well, nice for everyone.

The point: Take a moment to reflect on your own holiday-season family cooking traditions, and share them in "Comments" below.

December 17, 2012
Piatti Ristorante has a new look, but what do you think?

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The 20-plus-year-old Piatti Ristorante reopened last week after a four-month closure for a complete makeover, I reported in this space last week.

We dropped by one recent weeknight for a looksee. The bar was jammed with well-dressed patrons (many of them regulars), the dining room was about half-full, and the servers rushed from the bar station to their tables, carrying glasses of wine and brightly colored cocktails.

The place definitely has a sleeker, more contemporary look - though we've heard a few veteran customers call it "stark," "cafeteria-like" and reminiscent of a "dimestore lunch counter."

Yes, radical changes have been made, but that's part of the biz.

December 13, 2012
'Deadliest Catch' star comes to dinner in Monterey

timebanditjpeg.JPGIf your weekend road-trip plans include a stop in Monterey on Saturday, you can linger over a three-course dinner that includes Alaskan king crab or Alaskan salmon, and meet the wild and wooly Capt. Johnathan Hillstrand, who will be in town.

He and his brother, Andy ("The Bad Boys of the Bering Sea"), are among the stars of the reality-TV show "Deadliest Catch" on the Discovery Channel. It documents the daring fishermen who go out in 60-foot seas to harvest Alaskan king crabs in the Bering Sea.

"I went halibut fishing in Alaska for a week with those guys," restaurateur Dominic Mercurio was saying on the phone today. "Waves were breaking over their (113-foot boat Time Bandit), but it was not nearly as rough as when they're working the crab catch (pictured). I don't know how they stay in the ocean when it's that rough. Those guys are married to the sea."

Mercurio is the owner of Cafe Fina and Domenico's restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey. He's sponsoring the $50-per-person dinner from 5 to 8 p.m. at Domenico's. Reservations: (831) 372-3655. For more information: www.domenicosmonterey.com.

December 11, 2012
Grateful Bread's seasonal treats include luscious orange stollen

>IMG_0048.JPGBaked goods are an integral part of the holiday season, but, of course, not all breads and pastries are created equal.

Terrific bakeries do abound in our area - you just have to find them. One of our favorite go-to's is Grateful Bread, on the scene now for 22 years.

We dropped by the other day to check out its "Holiday Features" of eight seasonal goodies ($4.50 to $15.75): Black Forest bread (chocolate and cherries), Italian pannetone (golden raisins and citron), Swedish rye limpa (orange rind and anise seed), German Christmas stollen (raisins, almonds, hazelnuts and citrus peel) and fruitcake (only 100 brandy-fed cakes were made, beginning in August; they contain no nuts or candied fruit).

Coming Dec. 20 will be alpine lemon bread, a puckery treat with a loyal following. Also: Choose a bread and master baker-owner Joe Artim will shape it into bears, wreathes and Christmas trees (by special order only).

There's one more holiday bread to mention, something new to us. Fragrant orange stollen

We returned for two more light-as-air loaves, much of which was turned into crispy French toast. In a word: Yum!

"The recipe came from a seminar on enriched dough held in 2005 at the San Francisco Baking Institute," Artim recalled. "The chef (who demonstrated it) was from the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena in the Napa Valley. We played with (the recipe) a little bit and tweaked it for our needs."

Grateful Bread in Loehmann's Plaza, 2543 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 487-9179. Open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.

December 10, 2012
Piatti Ristorante reopens in Pavilions with a new direction

Piatti Ristorante at the Pavilions center is back in business after a four-month closure for a makeover. What took so long?

"We were going to do a small facelift, but instead we decided to completely expand the scope and redo everything," said Nick Dedier on the phone today. He's the Italian-themed restaurant's director of operations. His resume includes more than five years with the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group in Yountville. During that time, he ran Bouchon for a year and Ad Hoc for four years.

Piatti certainly has a brighter, cleaner look.

December 4, 2012
Is turnabout fair play? Restaurateurs rate the restaurant critics


The Daily Meal, the online site that covers all things food and drink (www.thedailymeal.com), is taking much delight over the results of its latest survey, "Top Chefs Rate America's Food Critics."

In fairness, the term "food writers" should have been added to that title, as some of the people on the list do not strictly qualify as restaurant critics, though they do cover the food and dining scenes to varying degrees.

At any rate, the Daily Meal explains: "We have given dozens of chefs and restaurateurs a chance to turn the tables on food critics by asking them to divulge their opinions about the men and women who write reviews for America's top publications. While anonymity was guaranteed to elicit the most truthful responses, every chef and restaurateur is an elite industry figure. Most, in fact, are household names."

December 3, 2012
Darrell Corti, 'Skyfall' and herbal wine meet over cocktails

There's a connection between Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti - an internationally recognized food and wine expert - and "Skyfall," the 23rd James Bond adventure now playing in theaters.

Some context: First there was the Vesper cocktail, the classic "shaken, not stirred" mega-martini that James Bond favored in "Casino Royale." That was the title of the 1953 Ian Fleming thriller that became the 2006 movie that introduced Daniel Craig at Agent 007, in which the Vesper found new cachet.

Inspired by "Skyfall," the head mixologist at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London - Erik Lorincz - decided to "refresh" the ingredients of the Vesper and create a special cocktail called the Skyfall. This is what he came up with; note there are just about 30 milliliters in one ounce:

December 3, 2012
Five restaurants will gather to dish for a fund-raiser

Five restaurants will be in one place at one time, dishing food and talk, with live music playing in the background and a silent auction as part of it. And it's all in the name of a good cause.

Taste of the Town
will feature Fabian's Italian Bistro, Tower Bridge Bistro, Coffee Republic, River City BBQ, and Noodles & Company, each offering tastes of their specialties.

Proceeds will will help raise funds to refurbish the community stage at Crossroads Church of Carmichael. Organizers describe the much-used stage as "a canvas, a host, a venue and a tool."

Heap goodies on your plate from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday at 7100 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael; (916) 501-5916. Cost is $15 for adults, $5 for children 12 and younger; free for ages 3 and younger.

November 20, 2012
Capitol Dawg goes out with a bark...and may return

DSCF0655.jpgIt's been a madhouse at Capitol Avenue and 20th Street in Midtown since Friday. That's when word got out that Mike Brown is closing his popular Midtown restaurant, Capitol Dawg, after lunch today. It opened in March 2008.

"I've been trying everything, but we're just not bringing people through the door," Brown told me Friday. "We've never cut quality or service, but we can't seem to turn the corner economically."

On Saturday and again on Monday, a line of 500-plus hot-dog lovers and well-wishers crowded out of the restaurant, stretched along the sidewalk and snaked down an alley. The wait to place an order both days was 60 to 90 minutes, and that was in on-again, off-again rain between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

This morning, a line of expectant patrons waited patiently for the Capitol Dawg crew to start serving, and by 12:30 p.m. it looked like a safe bet that the Saturday and Monday scenarios would be repeated.

November 16, 2012
Capitol Dawg will close its doors after lunch on Tuesday

20120531_PK_HOT DOG_0627.jpgThe ever-energetic Mike Brown phoned two hours ago to break the bad news: His popular Midtown restaurant Capitol Dawg will close its doors after lunch on Tuesday.

"I've been trying everything, but we're just not bringing people through the door. We've never cut quality or service, but we can't seem to turn the corner economically," Brown said.

"This hasn't come on suddenly, it's been brewing for a long time. It's been a struggle to keep the doors open and (make) a reasonable profit. (Blame it on) rising food costs combined with years of a struggling economy - including state worker furloughs - and our location."

Capitol Dawg is near the intersection of Capitol Avenue and 20th Street in Sacramento, where a concentration of restaurants compete for diners' dollars. Nearby are Jack's Urban Eats, Waterboy, Mulvaney's B&L, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Rubicon Brewing Company, Paesanos and Zocalo.

November 12, 2012
Jars of organic heirloom tomatoes capture summer's taste

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Bee staff photo by Lezlie Sterling


Real, ground-grown heirloom tomatoes are a fond memory of hot summer days. Cold from the refrigerator, sliced and splashed with olive oil and dashed with salt and pepper, and blanketed with fresh basil - wow!

Maybe a close second is a six-variety line of organic heirloom tomatoes - chunks of brightly colored, tasty fruit, pulverized and swimming in their own juice. They're from the family-run Balakian Farm in Reedley, in Fresno County.

At the farm's website, www.balakianfarms.com, fourth-generation owner-manager Amber Balakian writes, "I wanted each sauce to embody a distinct flavor, smell and texture that is reminiscent of my family farm. It is a simple way to create fresh, organic, homemade meals."

We sampled 16-ounce Mason jars of Yellow Roman, Pink Oxheart and Green Zebra blended sauces and were very impressed. We used them as pasta sauces and as ingredients on a pizza and in meat-heavy chili, stew and soup. And, yes, we drank them straight from the jars, too.

Our favorite was sweet Yellow Roman, followed by the slightly tart Green Zebra and the complexly flavored Pink Oxhart.

You can order them at the farm's website for $10 a jar, and buy them at the Saturday farmers market at the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco. Or you can order them at a very cool site, www.americasfarmstand.com (click on "Gifts").

America's Farmstand is an online retailer that has gathered a consortium of family farms that offer "organic and all-natural artisanal foods." There, you'll find everything from maple syrup and pickles to nuts and cheeses, along with a line of gluten-free items.

November 12, 2012
What are the nation's best sports bars? Try this list

The Daily Meal, which reports on all things food and drink at www.thedailymeal.com, is toasting its list of "America's Best Sports Bars."

Coming in at No. 9 is the only entry from California - Pete's Tavern in San Francisco (128 King St.; 415-817-5040, www.petestavernsf.com).

I called Jake the bartender.
"It's kind of busy right now, so don't ask too many questions," he said.
How many TV sets are in the bar?
"One...two...three...14."
What are the most popular menu items?
"Chicken cutlet (served Tuesdays), it's like chicken picatta. And the buffalo chicken salad and bacon-wrapped hot dog are pretty popular, too."

Rounding out the list, in descending order:
Walk-On's, New Orleans
Red Star, Brooklyn
The Four's, Boston
State, Chicago
Duffy's, Fort Lauderdale
Chappell's, Kansas City, MO.
Stats, Atlanta
Chickie's and Pete's, Philadelphia
Nemo's, Detroit
Lagasse's Stadium, Las Vegas
Auto Battery, Seattle
Jerome Bettis' Grill 36, Pittsburgh
Phoenix Landing, Boston
Sam's, Nashville
Eskimo Joe's, Stillwater, Okla.
Frankie's, Dallas

November 9, 2012
In need of pie-making help? Call the Crisco Pie Hotline

Making pies for the holidays is a snap, right? Well, for some home cooks it is. For others, not so much. Our pie crusts usually end up on the kitchen wall, but that's another story.

To the rescue come the experts at the Crisco Pie Hotline, dispensing baking advice, recipes, pie-making tips, time-saving shortcuts and trends for the ultimate goal: pie perfection.

Talk with the "pie experts" starting Monday and running through Dec. 21. Call (877) 367-7438 to get the pin rolling. For more information: www.crisco.com.

November 5, 2012
Enotria and Carpe Vino make the OpenTable Top 100 wine list

When you want a special bottle of wine with dinner, which restaurants are your go-to's?

OpenTable has some suggestions, sort of. The San Francisco-based online restaurant-reservation company recently released its latest Diners Choice Top 100 Restaurants With the Most Notable Wine Lists.

For context, OpenTable explains: "The awards reflect the opinions of over 5 million reviews submitted by OpenTable diners for more than 15,000 restaurants in all 50 states and the District of Columbia."

Not surprisingly, California has the most, with 17. Those include Enotria in Sacramento; Carpe Vino in Auburn; Press in Saint Helena; Acquerello and BIN 38 in San Francisco; and André's Bouchée Bistro and Wine Bar in Carmel.

For the complete list, go to www.opentable.com/wine.

November 1, 2012
36 Handles pub looks at a Dec. 1 opener in El Dorado Hills

When it opened in September 2011, diners lined up at Kinnee O'Reilly's Irish-themed restaurant-bar in the Montano center in El Dorado Hills (1000 White Rock Road).

With good reason. The place was spacious and expertly decorated, the fare was very good, and the bartenders knew the correct ritual of filling a pint glass with Guinness. I wrote in a review, "The illusion of being in a real Irish pub is startling."

But tastes are fickle and the restaurant business is brutal, and the place closed a few months ago.

Now news comes from veteran restaurateur Richard Righton that he will open a pub-restaurant in that space, his third venture. It will be called 36 Handles, with a target date of Dec. 1 ("Fingers crossed," he said). As the name implies, 36 beers (and a few wines) will be available on tap, along with a full bar specializing in classic cocktails such as the Manhattan and the Old Fashoned.

October 31, 2012
Ask the chef your cooking questions at Bee Book Club event

If you're looking for great recipes and expert advice for the holiday cooking season, Brian Streeter is the man to see.

He's the executive chef and culinary director of the Napa Valley's Cakebread Cellars winery, and author of "The Cakebread Cellars American Harvest Cookbook."
On Thursday night (Nov. 1), Streeter will talk about all things food and cooking, including recipe development, ingredients, techniques and wine-and-food pairings. His presentation and question-and-answer session for the Sacramento Bee Book Club will be especially timely as Thanksgiving and other holiday "cooking days" quickly approach.

Join the culinarily curious crowd and ask Streeter your cooking questions. He will give a presentation and autograph the cookbook at 6 p.m. at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento; (916) 452-5881.

Barnes & Noble will be there to sell the cookbook for 30 percent off the retail price (Ten Speed Press, $35, 203 pages.

Through Thursday night, these bookstores will offer a 30 percent discount on the title: Barnes & Noble, Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento, Avid Reader in Davis, Time Tested Books, Face in a Book in Eldorado Hills, Underground Books, the Hornet Bookstore at California State University, Sacramento, the UC Davis Bookstore and the Bookseller in Grass Valley.

For information on the Bee Book Club: (916) 321-1128

October 30, 2012
What were Hemingway's and Ephron's favorite dishes?

Under the heading "cool food-related websiltes," add this one:

Journalist-foodie Nicole Villeneuve maintains www.paperandsalt.org, where she reveals the favorite dishes of famous authors (recipes included).

For instance, Agatha Christie liked fig and orange scones with Devonshire cream - very tea time in the drawing room. Contrast that with Ernest Hemingway's manly go-to of bacon-wrapped trout with corn cakes, maybe his lunch after a morning of fly-fishing.

Other pairings: Nora Ephron and frozen key lime pie; Jack London and baked bacon-tomato risotto; John Steinbeck and pork-filled posole; Salman Rushdie and lamb korma; Willa Cather and spiced plum kolache. The list goes on, and includes some authors' favorite cocktails. Now head for the kitchen.

October 29, 2012
'Culinary California' offers archival cookbooks, menus and more

So many Californians are obsessed with food, from its history and sourcing to its preparation and consumption. We're big fans of celebrity chefs, too, from regional kitchen artists to the superstars of the Food Network. And cookbooks - we can't get enough of them.

The California State Library knows this, and has joined the table with its "Culinary California," the new program in its "A Night at the State Library" series.

The free archival exhibit is open to everyone from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays through November. It offers a range of memorabilia "from California's eating and drinking appetites, from the Gold Rush to present day." Included are cookbooks, menus, bartenders' guides, wine labels and more.

The California State Library is at 900 N St., Sacramento. Information: (916) 654-0261, www.library.ca.gov.

October 26, 2012
Cook meets book in family-style dinner at Mulvaney's B&L


Crab feeds and special restaurant meals are a hugely popular part of our seasonal dining scene. Leave it to innovative chef Patrick Mulvaney and cookbook authors Georgeanne Brennan and Ann Evans to come up with an unusual variation on the theme.

Using the "Davis Farmers Market Cookbook" as his guide, Mulvaney will prepare a multi-course prix-fixe dinner made with locally sourced ingredients, with recipes from the cookbook. Mulvaney and his wife, Bobbin, are well-known for their farm-to-table philosophy, serving what they call "hand-crafted New American cuisine."

After appetizers, the family-style dinner will be served platter by platter in the banquet hall (called Next Door) of Mulvaney's Building & Loan restaurant, 1215 19th St., Sacramento.

Co-authors Brennan and Evans will be there to sign copies of their "Davis Farmers Market Cookbook" (Mirabelle, $24.95, 235 pages) and offer 15 percent off the retail price

The dinner will be 6 to 10 p.m. Nov. 12; cost is $45 per person, including tax and tip. For reservations: (916) 441-6022.

For more information: www.davisfarmersmarketcookbook.com and www.mulvaneysbl.com.

As for the menu - a collaboration between cook and book - take a look:

October 25, 2012
See's has special chocolates for Halloween and Thanksgiving

Bee photograph by Autumn Payne

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It's not as healthful as fresh fruits and vegetables, but it's nearly impossible to deny the temptation of chocolate. See's Candies knows that, and throughout the year makes special limited-edition batches of seasonal goodies.

Right now through Oct. 31, the Halloween offerings include pumpkin-spice lollypops, orange-chocolate wafers and boxes of assorted treats - the Petite Boo Box, Trick or Treat Box and Halloween Treat Box. Prices range from $5.55 to $34.30, depending on the item.

See's hasn't forgotten Thanksgiving. Now through Nov. 22, the offerings include cranberry-orange truffles, pecan pie truffles and foil-wrapped milk chocolate turkeys ($10.20 to $12.30).

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 candy shops in 13 states. For more information, visit www.sees.com.

October 24, 2012
Summer may be over, but 'cue season is still cookin'

If you just couldn't get your fill this summer of smokey, juicy, St. Louis-style pork ribs - the cut used by professional cookers at the huge annual Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off - come on down to east Sacramento.

The fourth annual Albie Ribbin' BBQ Cook-off to benefit the Albie Aware Breast Cancer Foundation is planned from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday at the Hilltop Tavern, 4757 Folsom Blvd.; (916) 456-2843.

Twenty "Q teams" from area restaurants and sports bars will compete for trophies and braggin' rights. 'Cue judging will be handled by professionals from the Western States BBQ Association.

A $20 buy-in ($12 for children) gets lunch (noon to 3 p.m.), entry in a raffle, a silent auction and music from the Sacramento party band the Q-Balls (2 to 5 p.m.).

For more information: (916) 927-1592, www.albieaware.org.

October 22, 2012
Ultimate Clubhouse Sandwich throwdown had some winners

Hundreds of people sipped wine and beer and tasted a variety of club sandwiches at Saturday's fifth annual Ultimate Clubhouse Sandwich Contest & Fall Food Faire, held at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Sacramento.

After munching their way through traditional and nontraditional versions of the classic sandwich, and discussing contents and techniques with the chefs representing their restaurants, five judges made their decisions. It went this way:

October 17, 2012
Planters puts a twist on peanut butter with Energy Mix blends

HJA_9351.JPGYes, peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth and gives you "peanut breath," but it conjures childhood memories and is a staple in kitchen cupboards for most of us. It's so popular that more than half the peanuts harvested in the U.S. end up in jars as creamy or crunchy.

Trivia: It's generally agreed that the first commercial-brand peanut butter was Skippy, packaged in 1922 by a company in Alameda, Ca.

Now, adding a twist to the many peanut butters on supermarket shelves is the iconic snack-food conglomerate Planters, owned by Kraft Foods.

In an intriguing peanut-butter mini-makeover, its three NUT-rition ("nutrition," get it?) Energy Mix peanut butters are chocked with (mostly) good things ($3.49 to $3.99 per 12-ounce jar).

Our panel of expert food-tasters (read: always hungry) sampled the trio - Cinnamon Raisin Granola Nut, Berry Nut and Banana Granola Nut. Note that the "berries" in the Berry Nut flavor are cranberries, and the "nuts" in all three are crushed peanuts. Though the peanut butters are marketed to adults, we see no reason why children wouldn't like them.

Here's what our peanut butter-lovers had to say, starting with yours truly:

October 17, 2012
Gourmet meals and premium wines at Napa Truffle Festival

FOOD TRUFFLES 11-2.JPGAmong the most precious delicacies in the global marketplace is the truffle. How good are truffles? French novelist Alexandre Dumas famously said, "The truffles themselves have been interrogated and have answered simply: Eat us and praise the lord."

Truffles may not look like much, but for centuries they've been a treasured ingredient in haute cuisine. Master chefs call them "the diamonds of the kitchen," and with good reason: Black truffles retail for about $1,700 a pound; white truffles cost around $4,500 a pound.

A truffle is a type of mushroom that grows underground, usually close to oak and hazelnut trees. Dogs and pigs are commonly used by Italian and French truffle-hunters to help locate truffles in the wild and dig them up.

Now there's a window of opportunity to do some foraging of your own - and eat some truffled treasures - by joining the truffle cognoscenti at the third annual Napa Truffle Festival, known as North America's premier truffle event, Jan. 18-21.

October 16, 2012
Bistro Jeanty speaks French in California Cuisine Central

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We were coming back from visiting Brian Streeter in Napa Valley last week and decided to stop in restaurant-rich Yountville for a bite.

Streeter is the culinary director of Cakebread Cellars, and will present "The Cakebread Cellars American Harvest Cookbook" for the Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Nov. 1 at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento; (916) 452-5881.

In Yountville, the first bit of luck was something unheard of - an actual brief wait in a short line to get inside the legendary Bouchon Bakery for a bagful of the world's best croissants (6528 Washington St.; 707-944-2253, www.bouchonbakery.com).

The second piece of good fortune was the discovery of the charming and relaxed Bistro Jeanty (pictured). Sat at the bar and cruised the chalkboard specials, which included rabbit terrine, fried boneless pig's foot and Mediterranean seabass with ratatouille ($12.50 to $30).

October 16, 2012
Can you take on the 5-1/2-pound sandwich at Harrah's?

.2012 Tahoe F&W chef and sandwich.jpg The recent Lake Tahoe Food and Wine Festival at Harrah's and Harveys in Stateline at South Lake Tahoe was over the top in a good way. The three-day party featured food-and-wine pairings, multi-course dinners, cooking demonstrations and costumed showgirls moving to a Latin beat.

One feature was an eating competition, judged by the Food Network's "Chopped" champion, New Orleans firefighter Michael Gowland.

The two-man eating team from the Tahoe Douglas Fire Department in Nevada beat out the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department team, donating the $500 prize to the 52 Foundation to benefit the families of fallen firefighters. Meanwhile, Harrah's-Harveys donated $2,000 to the Carson Valley Food Closet.

But what were those Godzilla-size sandwiches the four burly firemen on stage were so valiantly trying to finish in the 30-minute time frame?

Turns out the contest fare was the Dominator, on the menu of Harrah's American River Cafe from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

We asked executive chef Brad Budd about its contents.

October 11, 2012
Port wines take center stage at Ruth's Chris five-course meal

Fall is in the air, and one good thing that means is the return of muscular red wines to the table.

Appropriately, Taylor Fladgate ports - from tawny to vintage - will take center stage at a five-course dinner hosted by the two Ruth's Chris steakhouses in town.

A different port will be matched with each course. Among the dishes will be port-steeped figs, port-poached pear, butternut squash bisque, filet mignon and "sizzling shellfish," and a dessert of cheese, berries, nuts and port-infused chocolate.

Dinner will be at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at both restaurants. The toll is $125 a person at Ruth's Chris in the Pavilions center, along Fair Oaks Boulevard east of Howe Avenue. Reservations: (916) 286-2702.

The Ruth's Chris in Roseville will host the same dinner at the same time for $115. (Each store in the chain sets its own price.) It's at 1185 Galleria Blvd.; (916) 780-6910.

More information: www.ruthschris.com.

October 9, 2012
Thai Paradise expands, along with Christina Mendonsa's Corner

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One of our dining go-to's is Thai Paradise in Folsom, especially for its succulent, garlicky lemongrass chicken, which appears on the daily-specials whiteboard.

Other diners like the restaurant, too, as evidenced by the out-the-door lines on Friday and Saturday nights. Its loyal clientele includes News10 news anchor Christina Mendonsa. There's even a corner table dedicated to her, complete with a publicity photo. It's known as Christina's Corner, partially pictured here.

"I walked in (when it was first set up) and was unbelievably flattered," Mendonsa said Monday. "That was so sweet of them!"

More about that in minute, but first the news:

October 4, 2012
The Spice Queen of Singapore will cook a feast at Lemon Grass

download.jpgRestaurateur-chef Mai Pham has worked her cooking magic in Sacramento since 1988, when she debuted Lemon Grass restaurant at 601 Munroe St. It continues to serve some of the best Southeast Asian cuisine anywhere.

Pham is a world traveler who brings imagination and flair to whatever project she happens to be involved in at the time.

Want proof? Pham is bringing Singapore celebrity chef, cooking instructor, cookbook author and food columnist Devagi Sanmugam (pictured) to the Lemon Grass kitchen to prepare a multi-course meal. "We'll be treating our guests to the flavors of Singapore," Pham said.

The feast will be Oct. 25, with seatings at 6 p.m. in the main dining room and 7 p.m. in the bar-area dining room. Cost is $48 per person (not including tax and tip). For reservations: (916) 486-4891; seating is limited.

The menu will go like this:


October 3, 2012
Fall menu and wine list get a tryout at Fabian's Italian Bistro

Area restaurants are busy compiling and testing their fall menus and wine lists, a good move for us diners. One of our go-to's, Fabian's Italian Bistro, is doing that, too.

As part of it, co-owner Christian Forte (with wife Mercedes) and his crew will pour five tastes from their new vinos, 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6.

The freight is $10 and includes appetizers by chef Tom Patterson - torched Brie with fresh fig mustard; house-cured wild salmon with phyllo, lemon crema and mache lettuce; and marinated baby beets with black sea salt.

October 2, 2012
All things Italian will be at Hot Italian's Moderno Festival

In a mission to "reach out to the community," Hot Italian restaurant will host its third annual Moderno Italian Festival, combining "contemporary Italian food, design and film."

Hot Italian is at 1627 16th St., in Midtown Sacramento; (916) 444-3000, www.hotitalian.net, www.facebook.com/hotitalian.

Here's the lineup for the free fest, to be held at the restaurant and in Fremont Park (converted into a "bike-in theater" for the two movies) across the street from Hot Italian.

September 19, 2012
Make reservations for third annual Lake Tahoe Restaurant Week

Can Northern California's foodies get enough wining and dining in the Sierra? Apparently not.

Following the spectacular Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival held Sept. 8-9 at Northstar Ski Resort (with 2,000 in attendance) comes the third annual Lake Tahoe Restaurant Week, Oct. 7-14.

Three-course prix-fixe meals for $20, $30 and $40 per person will emphasize organic, seasonal and local ingredients. The dining venues will range from historic resorts and landmark restaurants to shiny new bistros, from the casual to the high-end.

September 19, 2012
Sacramento Regional Restaurant Week to debut Oct. 1

Maybe there's a restaurant (or two or three) you've always wanted to try, but somehow have never gotten around to it. The inaugural Sacramento Regional Restaurant Week, Oct. 1 through 14, could be your window of opportunity.

Hey, wait a minute... Isn't that two weeks, not one?

"Well, that's one more thing that makes it unique," said Daniel Conway, with a laugh. "We'll double down and have twice the fun." Conway is the public-affairs director of the California Restaurant Association. The Sacramento chapter of the CRA organized Restaurant Week.

So, what is it?

September 19, 2012
Foodies and the culinarily curious will gather in Stateline

Harrah's and Harveys in Stateline at South Lake Tahoe certainly know how to throw a party. The hotel-casinos proved it again last year with their Lake Tahoe Food and Wine Festival, which was over the top in a good way. Now plans are set for the third annual soiree, Oct. 5-7, which - judging by the lineup of events, celebrity chefs and wine experts - looks like more of the same.

If you missed the spectacular Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival held at the Northstar ski resort and the Ritz Carlton hotel Sept. 8-9, this one's for you.

Bet on a long list of food-and-wine pairings and tastings, multi-course dinners, cooking demonstrations, panel discussions, seminars, live entertainment and contests. Among the highlights will be "Around the World with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay," hosted by master sommelier Jay James; "Sushi, Sashimi and Sake Tasting"; and "Decadent Desserts and Drinks."

September 10, 2012
Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival is a hit

The weather was unseasonably warm at the Northstar-at-Tahoe ski resort last weekend, but that didn't slow down the 2,000-plus foodies who sipped fine wines and sampled delectable small-plate dishes at the 27th annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival.

The nine-day fest, which featured food- and wine-related events around the lake and at the ultra-luxurious Ritz Carlton hotel (situated a gondola ride above Northstar), culminated at Sunday's Grand Tasting. It featured 24 area restaurants teamed with 24 wineries to vie for gold, silver and bronze medals in various categories.

A panel of judges had huddled earlier in the day for an extensive tasting. From noon to 4 p.m., crowds of attendees went from tent to tent, tasting samples and sipping wines while bands played on the main stage.

The judges' choice for "best pairing of food and wine" was Granlibakken Resort of Tahoe City (mushroom stuffed with red lentil hash, chevre, duck and red currant) and Morgan 2010 pinot noir
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Second place: Jake's on the Lake of Tahoe City (seared scallop) and Wente 2010 chardonnay
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Third place: North Tahoe Catering of Kings Beach (chile smoked beef tender with roasted-peach truffle sauce) and Renwood 2010 old-vine zinfandel.

The Hard Rock Cafe chain won for "best pairing of food and beverage other than wine" for its bayou shrimp burger and Indian spices-dusted potato chips, with Charbay blood-orange vodka negroni cocktail.

In the "best food" category, Jake's on the Lake of Tahoe City took gold for its seared scallop; Six Peaks Grille of Squaw Valley took silver for its roasted beet salad with goat cheese and fried shallots; and Hawks took bronze for its smoked pork belly with corn pudding and pluots.

Once again, Hawks of Granite Bay was the competition's only entry from the Sacramento area. Last year, co-owners Molly Hawks and her husband, Michael Fagnoni, took gold for "best food" and silver for "best food and wine pairing."

As for the people's choice winners, "best food" and "best pairing" both went to the Chocolate Bar of Northstar (turkey crepe), teamed with Francis Coppola 2009 petite sirah.

As our group tasted, we found other favorites:
- A delectable smoked Korean pork rib roll from Plumpjack Cafe in Squaw Valley, teamed with our new favorite wine, the grenache D-66 from Orin Swift winery in the Napa Valley.

- A perfect seared scallop with corn-crab pudding and fig space from the West Shore Cafe in Homewood.

- A luscious vanilla-saffron mussel from Farm to Belly personal-chef and catering service in Truckee.

- An exceptional pork rib with black bean sauce from Drunken Monkey Sushi in Truckee.

We also ran into an old friend among the dozens of exhibitors and vendors selling goods in the Northstar central plaza. Limerock Orchards of Paso Robles makes a silken walnut oil that we use on everything we grill, from pork roast and ribs, to chicken and corn on the cob.

For the complete list of festival winners, visit www.tahoefoodandwine.com.

September 6, 2012
Which celebrity chefs make the most bread...uh, money?

How much money do chefs make each year? According to the trade magazine Nation's Restaurant News, executive chefs who run the kitchens at independent restaurants pull in around $71,000 a year.

Now let's move to the next level - celebrity chefs. They're celebrities because of their TV shows or their great restaurants or both.

The Daily Meal - the online site that reports on everything food- and drink-related - has compiled its annual list of "America's 25 Most Successful Chefs," ranked by their annual earnings.

Included are Gordon "Hell's Kitchen" Ramsay at $38 million; Paula "Paula's Home Cooking" Deen, $17 million; Bobby "Throwdown!" Flay, $9 million; Thomas Keller (The French Laundry in Yountville), $8.4 million; Guy "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" Fieri, $8 million; and Anthony "No Reservations" Bourdain, $6.1 million.

For the complete list, visit www.thedailymeal.com.

September 4, 2012
The smoke clears on winners of Best in the West Rib Cook-off

The 24th annual Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off over the Labor Day weekend was a serious rib-cookin' throwdown between 25 professional cookers competing for cash, trophies and braggin' rights.

Along the way, they sold a quarter-million pounds of bones to a sauce-smeared Rib Nation a half-million strong, while a medley of bands blasted the crowds with multi-genre music. To go with the St. Louis-style spareribs were roasted corn, onion rings, funnel cakes and plenty of beer.

The six-day event - considered the most prestigious of its kind anywhere - culminated Monday on Victorian Square at John Ascuaga's Nugget in Sparks. That's when Nugget officials announced the winners (and their cash winnings) to a cheering throng. They were:

First place: Chicago BBQ Company of Burr Ridge, Ill., $7,500
Second place: Sweet Baby Ray's of Wood Dale, Ill., , $3,000
Third place: Famous Dave's of Minnetonka, Minn., $2,000
Fourth place: Porky 'n' Beans of Port Saint Lucie, Fla., $1,000
Fifth place: Checkered Pig of Martinsville, Va., $500
Best Sauce Award ($500) went to Famous Dave's, while Back Forty Texas Barbecue of Pleasant Hill, Ca., took the People's Choice Award ($500).

For more information: (775) 356-3300, or www.nuggetribcookoff.com.

August 30, 2012
Napa Valley restaurateur Cindy Pawlcyn opens Wood Grill

MAJ RESTURATEUR PAWLCYN.JPGVeteran restaurateur and cookbook author Cindy Pawlcyn is reinterpreting the "American wine-country comfort foods" so popular at her iconic Mustards Grill (since 1983) in Yountville in the Napa Valley. They will migrate to the menu of her newest restaurant, Cindy Pawlcyn's Wood Grill & Wine Bar.

Diners will also find some of the signature dishes from two other restaurants that Pawlcyn once co-owned - the Buckeye Roadhouse and Fog City Diner.

"C.P.'s," as it will be called, will open Sept. 5 at 641 Main St. in St. Helena. The space was formerly the site of Pawlcyn's Go Fish restaurant, then became her Brassica Mediterranean Kitchen.

This newest incarnation replaces Brassica and will serve dishes such as sweet-crispy pork belly, Napa cabernet-braised shortribs, crab roll, artisan pizzas, vegetarian dishes and desserts (blackberry-apple crumble with crème fraîche ice cream is a good choice).

"We are all really excited about this transition," said Pawlcyn. "Many friends have been asking me to bring the flavors of Mustards Grill to this location, and it makes sense."

Look for live jazz and world beat music on the patio (6 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays), and the ongoing Vintner Splash casual wine-tasting program (6 to 8:30 p.m. Saturdays).

More information: (707) 963-0700, www.cindypawlcynsgrill.com.

August 29, 2012
Dancing, music, shopping and delicacies at Greek Festival

Ethnic festivals are always a good thing, a chance to explore a different culture and discover new delicacies.

The 49th annual Greek Food Festival this Labor Day weekend will offer that and more. Scheduled are dancing, live music, cooking demonstrations, cultural displays and a marketplace full of imported clothing, art and jewelry.

Food-wise, 55 Greek "YiaYias" (grandmothers) are preparing a menu featuring appetizers, gyros, lamb and desserts.

Sip a little Greek wine, or pair anise-flavored Ouzo with strong Greek coffee.

The action will be happening at the Sacramento Convention Center, 1400 J St., Sacramento. Admission is $5 ($4 for seniors); food and drink priced separately.

Days and hours:
Friday: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Saturday: noon to 11 p.m.
Sunday: noon to 10 p.m.
More information at www.sacramentogreekfestival.com.

August 28, 2012
Evan's Kitchen will pair Mexican dishes with Mexican wines

Evan Elsberry is a chef who enjoys creating original dishes for food competitions. His imaginative menus have won numerous ribbons at the California State Fair over the years. Last year, he was among the top three winners in the Ultimate Clubhouse Sandwich contest at the Scottish Rite Center, and in the second annual Sacramento Tomato Fest at Town & Country Village.

Elsberry is partial to pairing ethnic cuisines with matching wines. So far this year, he has hosted Italian-, French- and Spanish wine-pairing dinners at his restaurant, Evan's Kitchen. Now he's geared up for a Mexican-themed dinner, with accompanying Mexican wines.

Wines from Mexico? Yes, especially from the Baja Peninsula. The wine industry there has taken huge strides in recent years, surprising critics and casual imbibers alike. Some of those wines were featured in the "Mexico Issue" of the high-end food magazine Saveur. Go to www.winesfrombaja.com.

Meanwhile, "A Taste of Mexico" is planned from 6 to 9 p.m. Sept. 17. The cost is $75 per person, with reservations at (916) 452-3896. Tip: The previous themed dinners filled up fast, so...

Evan's Kitchen is at 855 57th St., Sacramento, in the Antiques Mall; www.chefevan.com.

The Mexican wine dinner looks like this:

August 24, 2012
Yoplait Greek 100 fat-free yogurt is a tasty alternative

Greek-style yogurt has caught on in this country as a favorite snack, to the point where it seems like a new brand (or version of a brand) is in supermarkets' dairy cases every month.

In general, Greek-style yogurt has more butterfat than regular yogurt, along with more protein. Straining the yogurt removes some of the liquid from it, so Greek yogurt is more dense and creamy than regular yogurt.

Add another version of Greek-style yogurt to the table, this one aimed at the diet-conscious. Yoplait's fat-free Greek 100 carries 100 calories and "two times the protein of regular yogurt (10 grams)," the company says. On the Weight Watchers scale, it's two points.

Greek 100 isn't as thick as most other Greek-style yogurts, but it's not as thin as traditional Yoplait, either. It's artificially sweetened with zero-calorie Sucralose, giving it a bit of an aftertaste. Think "sweetish" instead of "tangy."

We sampled the six flavors and ranked them from most favorite to least favorite ($1.29 per 5.3-ounce cup): key lime, black cherry, mixed berry, peach, strawberry and vanilla.

For a money-saving coupon, go to www.everydaysaver.com/yoplait. For more information: www.yoplaitgreek.com, www.generalmills.com.

August 23, 2012
Classic Grand Marnier brandy coming soon in cherry flavor

book014 copy.JPGYou know Grand Marnier, right? It's the famous bitter-orange infused brandy concocted by Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle in 1880, still made in France. It's versatile (and volatile) stuff, especially tasty as a topping on ice cream or as an ingredient in flambeed crepes.

Coming in September and available through the holiday season will be the limited-edition cherry-flavored version ($41.99), made with premium European Griottes cherries.

Try it in these cocktails, created by "Cocktail Guru" Jonathan Pogash:

Cherry Sidecar
2 ounces Grand Marnier Cherry
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup
In a shaker filled with ice, vigorously shake the ingredients and strain into a chilled sugar-rimmed martini glass. Garnish with a lemon wedge and cherry.


Cherry-Hattan
2 ounces Grand Marnier Cherry
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
3 dashes Angostura bitters
In a shaker filled with ice, stir the ingredients, strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a brandied cherry.


Cherry Surprise
1-1/2 ounces Grand Marnier Cherry
3/4 ounce dark, aged rum
1 ounce milk
1/4 ounce simple syrup
Pour ingredients into a shaker filled with ice. Shake well and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with dark-chocolate shavings.


Cherry Tiki
2 ounces Grand Marnier Cherry
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
3/4 ounce orgeat (almond) syrup
1/2 ounce pineapple juice
3 dashes Angostura (or Tiki) bitters
Pour the ingredients (except bitters) into a shaker filled with ice, shake well and strain over an ice-filled tall glass. Garnish with mint sprig and lime wheel. Add bitters on top.

August 16, 2012
Bon Appetit chooses its 10 best new restaurans in the U.S.

After traveling, tasting and judging, the culinary experts at Bon Appetit have announced their picks for "The Hot 10: America's Best New Restaurants." Two of them are in California.

Taking the No. 1 spot is State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, co-owned by husband-wife Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski.

The small plates "arrive on either a dim sum-like trolly or a tray," says the Bon Appetit review. "Each dish is identified with a price: whipped smoked trout with croutons and peas, $5; duck neck dumplings, $6; crispy kimchi pork belly in a broth with clams and tofu, $8."

The California state bird is the quail, and State Bird Provisions has an interpretation of it: "Dusted in pumpkin seeds and breadcrumbs, deep-fried, and served with onion jam and Parmigiano-Reggiano."

We called the restaurant, but no one picked up. However, Bon Appetit quoted Brioza: "Eating should be fun. We want to throw a sense of adventure into the dining experience."

State Bird Provisions is at 1529 Fillmore St.; (415) 795-1272, www.statebirdsf.com.

Recipes and reviews accompany each pick at www.bonappetit.com.

The nine other winners are, from No. 2 to No. 10:
Blanca in Brooklyn
Battersby in Brooklyn
Luce in Portland
Catbird Seat in Nashville
Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis
Little Serow in Washington, D.C.
Oxheart in Houston
Baco Mercat in Los Angeles
Cakes & Ale in Decatur, Ga.

August 13, 2012
Sample and sip at Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival

With more than 2,000 foodies expected to show up, now's the time to make a plan for a culinary safari, to sip and sample, and take plenty of tasting notes for future reference.

The 27th annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food and Wine Festival has expanded from two days at the Village at Northstar ski resort to nine days of gourmet events and activities around the north, east and west shores of the lake (www.villageatnorthstar.com). It will be happening Sept. 1 through Sept. 9.

"We're moving forward with the growing trend of culinary tourism," said Pettit Gilwee, public-relations representative for the North Lake Tahoe Visitors Bureau. "There will be something food- and wine-related going on in your neck of the woods, wherever you're staying."

The centerpieces of the festival will continue to be the Grape Stomp (Sept. 7 in Tahoe City); Gourmet Marketplace, and classes, seminars, demonstrations, tastings, food-and-wine and beer-and-cheese pairings, and cooking competitions at Northstar (Sept. 8); and the Grand Tasting and Culinary Competition at Northstar (Sept. 9). At the judged Grand Tasting food-and-wine pairing, guests can graze and sip at more than 30 booths.

Some events are free, others are ticketed ($15 to $95). For details (including special lodging packages) and to buy tickets: www.tahoefoodandwine.com.

August 10, 2012
Leatherby's says 'happy birthday' with a 12-hour party

It's ice-cream weather and you're in luck.

The four-generation family-owned Leatherby's Creamery will celebrate its 30th anniversary with what it calls "an old-fashioned birthday party" from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 14.

The party hats will be out at the three area Leatherby's. Featured will be free hot dogs for the 18-and-younger crowd (dine-in only), prizes via scratch-off cards, giveaways (including T-shirts and gift baskets), balloons, face-painting, and ice cream for 30 percent off.

Leatherby's stores are at 2333 Arden Way, Sacramento, (916) 920-8382; 7910 Antelope Road, Citrus Heights, (916) 729-4021; and 8238 Laguna Blvd., Elk Grove, (916) 691-3334.

More information: www.leatherbys.net.

August 6, 2012
Wine and food will star at two tasting events on Aug. 18

Two wine-and-food extravaganzas are approaching fast, both of them Aug. 18, but it will be easy to catch one and then drive to the other.

We're talking about the 17th annual Grape & Gourmet, and the 14th annual Off to the Races.

Grape & Gourmet will feature pours (and sales) from the 200 wineries that won medals in the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition. They include Wise Villa, Ciotti Cellars and Secret Ravine.

Plus, look for award-winning beers from the fair's Commercial Craft Brew Competition, and award-winning cheeses from the fair's cheese competition. Also, nosh on samples from 20 area restaurants, among them Paul Martin's American Bistro, the Porch and Pizza Rock.

The results of the fair's wine competition are in California Wine magazine, which will be available at the event and in SaveMart stores soon.

Grape & Gourmet will be 3 to 6 p.m. in Buildings A and B at Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento. Tickets are $40 in advance, $50 at the door. Online group sales of 10 or more are $35 per person. To buy tickets and get more information: (916) 263-3636, www.calexpo.com.

Proceeds will benefit the Friends of the California State Fair's scholarship program.

After Grape & Gourmet, set your sights on Off to the Races, a fund-raising food- and wine-tasting.

Line up for hors d'oeuvres from nine area restaurants, including Ruth's Chris, Roxy and Fabian's Italian Bistro. Then enjoy pours of red, white and rose from seven wineries, among them Napa Cellars, St. Supéry and the Hess Collection.

Off to the Races will be emceed by KCRA news anchor Edie Lambert. Accompanying will be live entertainment from Suzuki Music Association, six-time Ellly Award-winning El Dorado Musical Theatre, and guitarist Sean O'Conner.

The event will be 5:30 to 8 p.m. in the courtyard at Pavilions center on Fair Oaks Boulevard (east of Howe Avenue), Sacramento. Tickets are $40 at the door or in advance at (916) 933-4056.

Off to the Races is the kickoff event for the 14th annual Race for the Arts. Race registration starts at 7 a.m., with the first run-walk at 8:30 a.m. Aug. 25 at William Land Park. Both "Race" events benefit arts groups and arts programs throughout California.

For more information: www.raceforthearts.com.