Friday, April 18, 2014

Wine Review -- Back Holm on the Ranch

The Carmel Valley Appellation is not unknown, but hardly gets the kind of attention (and thus crowds) that Napa and Sonoma to the north do. That's the good news. More good news: Holman Ranch wines.

The family-owned Holman Ranch Vineyard and Winery is about a dozen miles from the Pacific Ocean and the ride inland from the dramatic coastline envelopes you in green, rolling hills, vineyards and quiet.

The climate is ideal for the wines Holman specializes in. Warm days from the inland valley location and cool nights from the marine layer are wonderful for quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.

There is a tasting room, an entirely underground winery, and a grove of 100 olive trees in the vineyards producing several different varieties of Tuscan olives.  With gardens, horse stables, mountain views and the solitude of the countryside, it is also a wedding site and provides overnight guest rooms in its restored stone hacienda.

But onto the wines. This is a small production winery; only 3,000 to 5,000 cases are produced, and the prices are extremely reasonable. Some notable wines for the upcoming summer season:

2012 Pinot Gris: Wonderfully dry and refreshing with subtle flavors of lemon and other bright citrus. This is the kind of wine that cleanses your palate and leaves your mouth feeling clean, not weighed down by butter or oaky tones, so is a good match with food. $16

2012 Rosé of Pinot Noir "Blushing Bride:" The deep color suggests cranberry juice, but the crisp high acidity indicates it's no juice drink. Subtle flavors of red berries. Dry, light and crisp. Rare (only 100 cases produced); $20

2012 Sauvignon Blanc:  Sauvignon Blanc is a favorite wine of mine and I am often disappointed -- but not by this one. Wonderful varietal character (many SBs simply do not taste like SBs) with an assertive but not overwhelming taste of grapefruit (or gooseberry, if you prefer) and again the clean, crisp finish of the two wines above. Most California Sauvignon Blanc does not use the musque grape clone, but that is what brings out the aromatic character of this particular one. A gem. $18.

 The Holman Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil, pressed and bottled on the estate, is rich and sturdy with a nice bite to it ($20 for a 375ml bottle). You can taste it in the wine tasting room and it can be packed together with wine in gift baskets.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Restaurant Review -- Worth a Gamble: 630 Park Steakhouse

The new 630 Park Steakhouse
It's a glitzy, high-end Las Vegas-type environment, spacious with tall ceilings. Its interior design features include a "Wall of Wine," a "Wall of Fire" (pictured) and beautiful Swarovski crystal chandeliers reflecting the movement of the flames. White tablecloths and luxuriously-upholstered leather booths with damask-covered bolsters for your back complete the feeling of sumptuousness.

And that's before you even open the menu, which trumpets a dozen cuts of steak, including some off-the-menu items like Japanese wagyu and rare items like large bone-in filets. Real wagyu, somewhat of a rarity in the U.S., is dense with spidery veins of fat streaking the red meat. If you order it here, you can even view the Certificate of Authenticity Traceability, which certifies it as genuine wagyu beef and even states the carcass number.

Only one warning: Prices are not for the faint of heart. If you think paying $23 for a glass of local Cabernet Sauvignon, $52 for a Kansas City strip, or $80 for a rich wagyu steak of only 8 oz., might induce cold sweats, dimming vision, trembling and a temporary loss of consciousness, then 630 Park Steakhouse is not for you.

But if you are out for an extravagant, celebratory evening -- one that includes gambling or not -- this could be just the ticket.

You may have guessed already that this haven of red meat luxury is located in a casino, the newish Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park, California. Some 70% of the four-month-old steakhouse's customers drift in from the gambling tables, estimates Chef Jerrett Davis, but he wants to attract a bigger share of dining-only, "foodie" customers from Sonoma County and the San Francisco Bay Area beyond. Graton's cavernous casino also contains almost a dozen other dining choices, all more casual than 630 Park.

Chef Davis' menu lifts the ordinary wedge salad ($10) to deluxe heights: The generous crisp wedge of iceberg was sprinkled with copious amounts of flavorful bacon, and rich chunks, rather than petite crumbles, of Blue cheese (and could have been a meal in itself). The lobster chowder ($12) was a creamy melange of lobster, potatoes and bacon. Opulent without being overly heavy, the sides of creamed spinach ($10) and potatoes au gratin ($9) were both delicious.

That $23 glass of Cabernet, by the way, was an excellent 2011 A. Rafanelli Cabernet Sauvignon from the nearby Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma. A 2013 Unti Rosé ($11), also from Dry Creek Valley, was lighter, but also a good companion to many of the dishes on the table.

Diners who don't eat meat won't be disappointed either. The menu offers Ahi tuna steak, rotisserie chicken and lobster tail, among other main dishes, and many more vegetable and starchy side dishes.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Foods To Fancy

Is your chocolate ethical? Your peanut butter fair-trade? Are your frozen sandwiches gluten-free, soy-free and guilt-free?
    Such are the pressing questions facing consumers these days. We all have to eat, but when, oh when, did that simple act of survival become so complicated?
    As full of potential mines as the hunt for acceptable food has become, it's good to know that there are so many pleasing choices today in the marketplace.
   Visiting the Winter Fancy Food Show, North America's largest specialty food and drink trade show, at the end of January in San Francisco reinforced that notion for me: everywhere I looked there was something tantalizing: Moravian cookies from the American South and pure butter shortbread from Scotland, coffees and teas with a multitude of flavors added, and smart chips made of seaweed, chickpeas, or quinoa. Due to my schedule, I only saw a fraction of it (there were 80,000 products on display). Can't wait until next year.

   Here are a few of my favorite discoveries from the show. The Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City will be held June 29 - July 1, 2014.

Walkers Shortbread Chocolate Scottie Dogs: Yum.  Just the right amount of chocolate allows the purity of traditional shortbread ingredients (butter and sugar) to shine through.

Numi Indulgent Tea and Savory Teas The indulgent line refers to chocolate teas, such as Chocolate Earl Grey and Chocolate Mint (a good substitute for dessert at only 5 calories a cup). The Savory Tea line is an ingenious mixture of vegetables, herbs, decaf tea and spices -- a light broth without the heavy salt of most bullions, and decidedly different flavors like tomato mint and carrot curry.

Vintage Italia Pasta Chips: traditional baked pasta transformed into a creacker-like snack in a variety of simple, Italian flavors -- Alfredo was my favorite. The payoff? Cholesterol-free, no trans fat, no saturated fat or sugars.

Giovanni Rana pasta: fresh pastas and sauces (Alfredo, Pesto, Bolognese) that will make you wonder why you've been buying that dried and canned stuff for so long. Giovanni Rana pasta and sauces include Cheese "Delicato" Tortelloni, Chicken Rosemary and Mushroom ravioli, a light and delicate Alfredo sauce and a Pesto sauce that made me forget I had grown tired of pesto.
The family-owned company began in Verona, Italy, and is now selling 13 filled and flat fresh pastas and 4 sauces. Thin pasta dough and sauces made from top-quality ingredients like DOP Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and DOP Genovese basil imported from Italy. Some products available at Costco. Giovanni Rana products will be at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York.

José Andrés Olive Oil Potato Chips and Mussels in Escabeche. These chips are light, salty and satisfying. The Esbabeche Mussel appetizer is a classic tapas dish from the Spanish-Ameican chef said to have introduced tapas to the U.S. The mussels come from Galicia, and are shelled and cooked by hand in a traditional "escabeche" sauce of olive oil, vinegar, paprika, salt, bay leaves, pepper and cloves.

Enzo Olive Oil: California estate-grown, extra virgin, organic olive oils in robust flavors like garlic, basil and Meyer lemon. Their unflavored line of oils comes in Delicate, Medium and Bold, a great idea for more (or less) sensitive palates.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Burger, Wine (or Beer) on Tap, and Thou

The gourmet burger market seems as robust as ever since it began about a decade ago. But recently I visited some new upscale hamburger restaurants that seem to be paying as much attention to their drink offerings as they are to their burgers.

Two of them -- Eureka! and ROAM -- opened recently in the San Francisco Bay Area, the former in Berkeley and the latter in Lafayette, an East Bay suburb of San Francisco. Eureka belongs to a relatively new chain in California with 10 restaurants scattered throughout the state; ROAM in Lafayette comes after two shops have been doing well in San Francisco.

It's a dirty job ... tasting beers at Eureka! in Berkeley, Ca
Besides good food and an upscale atmosphere, Eureka! specializes in craft, small production whiskies and 30 different craft beers on tap. It offers artisanal whiskey cocktails and unusual pairings such as four different small batch whiskeys or two whiskeys and two beers. The possibilities are many, and the staff will help you with your selections as well as matching whiskeys and/or beers with your food.

For dessert at Eureka! the staff suggested I eat my butterscotch pudding (delicious!) with an Old Rasputin Imperial Stout, a heavy dark beer. Normally, I would not lean towards drinking a dark beer at all, nor would I order an alcoholic drink with dessert, as sweets and alcohol together usually don't appeal to me by the end of a meal. But I accepted the suggestion and the pairing was wonderful, with a great complementary melding of flavors.

For a longer review of the food at Eureka! see my restaurant review on Nancy D. Brown's What A Trip website.

A little more casual than Eureka! but still cool and contemporary, ROAM offers sustainably-produced wine on tap in a range of varietals. I tasted a Riesling (fruity, but not too sweet)  a Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Noir -- all good. The craft beer at ROAM comes on tap and bottled.

Eureka! focuses on its burgers and other main dishes and has only one or two dessert options. At ROAM, there are a variety of Straus Family Creamery milkshakes in some very with-it flavors like Salted Caramel and Blue Bottle Coffee as well as Tahitian Vanilla Bean, Chocolate and Strawberry.

Not only do these two establishments show that burger cuisine has come a long way, but they show that wine, beer and cocktails can be great burger partners.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merry Christmas Markets

Touring several Christmas Markets in France and Germany earlier this month was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I hope to repeat! Although my own mother is from Berlin, I never knew about these markets until recently. Christmas markets started in Germany and many cities and towns put up temporary villages of gaily-decorated wooden booths selling Christmas decorations, gifts and delicious treats. But they are not just gift markets. From Cologne, Germany, to Strasbourg, France, I saw people of all ages enjoying themselves in the invigorating winter air glugging down Glühwein (hot, spiced mulled wine, red or white) and generally making merry with friends and family.

I was on a "Rhine Getaway" river boat tour with Viking River Cruises that traveled from Amsterdam to Switzerland so I was able to stop each day to experience a different Christmas market. There was a charming one in Rudesheim am Rhein, a  small wine-producing town that's a huge tourist draw in the  Rheingau area of Germany, where Riesling and some Pinot Noir (known as Spätburgunder) grow on insanely steep slopes overlooking the Rhine river.

I doubt the Christmas markets were ladling out the high-quality wines this region produces and exports around the world, but the warm Glühwein steeped with fruit and spices like cinnamon and cloves tasted great nonetheless.

The highlight of the markets for me since I wasn't looking for any more holiday decorations or gifts -- was the plentiful food options. All kinds and sizes of wurst were being grilled and placed on brochen (hard rolls), or atop sauerkraut,  potatoes or spätzle noodles, and just as food tastes better when you are camping or hiking so did these simple dishes taste especially satisfying in the mid-40s daytime temperatures and perhaps even better in the colder night air.

Another especially interesting visit was to the several Christmas markets in Strasbourg, a city that has passed between France and Germany five times in its political history and therefore has strong influences of both in its cuisines and culture. In the Strasbourg markets, there were cookies, pastries and crepes (as in all the other Christmas markets I visited) but also beignets and these beautiful chocolate-covered fruit kebabs.

The food was such a draw that I even passed up a couple of excellent meals on my boat, the Viking Jarl, just to graze at the Christmas markets. All-in-all, a culinary treat.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Wines from Southwest France

The consumption of wine in France is highly regional; the French tend to drink locally -- the two exceptions they will generally make are wines from the world renowned regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy. I, too, know wines from those two regions and a few others in France, but it was a voyage of discovery for me to visit the South West France (Sud-Ouest) wine region in September, an area that includes appellations inland and south of Bordeaux such as Gascony, Galliac and Cahors. I found some hidden gems in the areas I visited and at a subsequent wine tasting in San Francisco that involved tasty, refreshing white wines at  super values.  Although the wines are not household names (yet) in the U.S., they are available in both retail stores and at restaurants. These are a couple of the most impressive values:                                                                                                                                                                       
2012 Plaimont Colombelle L'Original Blanc. This wine is made from Colombard and Ugni Blanc grapes, usually used in Cognac, in the Gascony region. It is a refreshing white wine with the tart, grapefruity essence of many New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, but subtler and more delicate. Suggested retail price is $8.99.

In a similiar vein, the 2012  Domaine Duffour, also from Gascony, tickled my palate with its fresh, citrus-like brightness. It is made of Colombard with Ugni Blanc, and an additional local grape called Gros Manseng, which has great potential for winemaking in the area. Moderate alcohol level of 12% and suggested retail price of $9.99

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Napa Valley Wine Train

I used to live in the Napa Valley and the Napa Valley Wine Train was a familiar sight chugging through the vineyards along the valley's main artery, Highway 29.

I had not been on the train for about a dozen years, so I was pleased to revisit late last month for the 3-hour lunch excursion that begins in the city of Napa and travels north to St. Helena before reversing course and returning to Napa.

I rode in the elevated Vista Dome, a 1952 Pullman dining car with gleaming Mahogany paneling and brass accents. A glass of Domaine Chandon sparkling wine was poured as we sat  and menus for a four-course lunch were presented with at least two choices in each category and five choices of entrees (beef, salmon cooked two ways, duck and a vegetable plate). Chef Kelly Macdonald prepared the food for the Vista Dome car in a kitchen located in the car itself. Price per person for lunch or dinner in this car is $144 -- not inexpensive, but there are other cars with their own menus at lower prices.

Someone asked me to report back on whether the wine train was too "touristy." It certainly attracts plenty of tourists who were enjoying themselves -- this is not a commuter train used by anyone for reasons other than viewing the valley's vineyards while eating, drinking and soaking in the Napa experience. But is it artificial, gaudy, inauthentic, rowdy or otherwise obnoxious? Hardly. Service is friendly and helpful (kudos to Gerald, our server), the food and wine high quality, the views serene and colorful, and it's a fun ride.

Train, culinary, or wine purists may find fault that it's not a real train, or that the food or wine menus are more limited than you would get in a local restaurant or wine bar, but the whole package adds up to a special experience you can't get anywhere else in California wine country.