Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review -- Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture

This lovely and unique book about almonds contains cultural history, recipes. nutritional information and gorgeous photographs. It is cookbook, coffee table book, culinary history, and around-the-world tour of the cultures that incorporate almonds in a meaningful way. And I'm not just saying this because I worked on it!

The lengthy introduction to the recipes covers a lot of ground -- the anatomy of the nut, the cultivation of almond orchards in California, the nutrition it provides, even its place in art and literature.

Did you know da Vinci once sculpted from almond paste? Or that 100 almonds for every person on earth are grown each year -- most of them in California? Or that its abundant nutrition qualifies the almond as a "superfood?” Or that the sweet almond we like to eat has a "bad-boy cousin" -- the bitter almond --  that is poisonous?

Once you've digested all this information, move on to the recipes, which traverse the full scope of the meal from starters to desserts and drinks. There is the simplicity of Burnt Sugar Almonds and a Banana Almond Smoothie and more complex dishes like Almond-and-Mint-Crusted Lamb Chops and Spanish Meatballs in Onion and Almond Sauce.

Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture is by Barbara Bryant, Betsy Fentress and Lynda Balslev; $21.99.

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.