Saturday, July 31, 2010

Refuge pastrami dances with Bourgueil

The Refuge. Pastrami. Their other food is excellent too, and not being a huge fan of pickled meat, I used to order Philly cheesesteak. Last week, my friends and I made the pilgrimage (for all of 20 min from Palo Alto to San Carlos), and I decided to finally give that famous pastrami a shot.

Dude! If you still haven't heard of or been to the Refuge in San Carlos and haven't had their Pastrami sandwich (in a few different variations, like Swiss & mustard or Russian dressing, or sauerkraut, on a few different bread options) - you are majorly missing out! Apologies to vegetarians - that place ain't for you. But for the rest of us - the Refuge is it. They specialize in Belgian beers too, but for a bona-fide wino, you owe it to yourself to bring a bottle of a Loire red - such as Bourgueil (pronounced "boor-geye") - a light-to-mid weight "tobasco-ey", spicy, veggie-laden, metallic tasting, acidic wine made from Cabernet Franc. (I know I know - that sounds very appetizing).

The environs of the Loire Valley are a smorgasbord of grape varieties and fascinating food-friendly wines of all kinds - white, red, pink, sparkling, and sweet. Around there are the neighborhoods of Chinon and Bourgueil - where Cab Franc reigns supreme as the undisputed king of red, reaching its uniquely iron-rich, food-friendly expression. Normally I would not be caught dead with either pastrami or Bourgueil, but at the Refuge, they fit together like a glove, the wine's juicy spice and minerals dance with the savory meat, and that fits me just fine!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Living off the land in Palo Alto

I moved to Palo Alto three years ago. In the city famous for its proximity to Stanford University and world's greatest technology companies, and for its swanky downtown full of restaurants that don't seem to last very long in the ultra-competitive food scene, hardly anyone would notice a movement much more subtle than the tech revolution - a movement back to the roots, folks seeking local organic produce, growing their own food in their backyards and community gardens, and generally balancing the break-neck pace of their professional lives with quieter, gentler way of living at home. It may sound ironic, considering Palo Alto is home to some of the most expensive real estate in California. Indeed, when one's neighbors are Steve Jobs (of Apple & Pixar) and Steve Young (of the 49-ers), and Facebook and Google are just around the corner, the words "quieter, gentler way of living" may seem funny. But on the second thought, us crazy professional folks do occasionally have balance in life. I suppose growing my own food is a bit like growing my own company or building my own software - making it better day by day with love, care, know-how, and whole lot of trial-and-error. I've met many like-minded high-tech gardener foodies & winos since I moved here - wonderful people with a zest for Martha Stewart's proverbial "good life". Fittingly, as the developed world is becoming more environmentally and health conscious, it makes sense that the hotbed of progressive thought and innovation - Palo Alto - would pave the path toward a new balance - that of a Silicon Valley farmer.

The other day, Rona and I invited our good friends Eric and Mao for a little dinner & wine get-together, just the 4 of us. Not only do we share a passion for food and wine, which provides inexhaustible source of discussion, but also our sentiments about consuming local produce and cooking with simple high-quality ingredients. While at this point I don't raise any fish, poultry or cattle, yet :) (and in fact we prefer wild rather than farmed salmon), I do try to include as many ingredients as possible from my own garden, and I constantly experiment with more edible plants. We also believe that when cooking at home, uncomplicated dishes made with fresh produce straight from the vegetable bed, often dressed with just a good olive oil and sea-salt are perfect. I like to build up a meal progressing from lighter to heavier, serving small portions for each course, while paying attention to pairing food and wine such that they accentuate each other in weight, texture, and flavor. When wine savvy friends come, I enjoy the opportunity to share special bottles. We take our time, preparing dishes as we go, allowing the conversation and alcohol to unfold slowly.

1. We started off with tempura-fried zucchini & squash blossoms from my veggie bed, stuffed with a mixture of goat cheese, crème fraiche and lemon zest (Mao expertly constructed this dish from her own recipe). The 2002 Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru vintage Champagne - an excellent bottle from a good vintage - a classically sculpted, high-acid wine whet our appetites and worked magic with the tangy creamy cheese inside the tempura.

2. Rona served her tomato soup made from San Marzanos she'd picked and canned with her foodie friends last summer at a local farm. Pulverized with sauteed onions and orange zest, and topped with a sprinkle of high-quality freshly-bottled olive oil, basil from my garden and a drop of cream, the soup was so deep, intensely sweet & tangy that I though she must have added sugar, but she didn't. The Champagne worked remarkably with the tomato's acidity, and reflected off the flavors of orange zest and basil. Eric reminded us of the age-old cliché: "Champagne goes with everything!" By this time, I also had red Burgundy uncorked, its alluring earthy cherry scents beckoning.

3. Wild sockeye salmon that I personally filleted and de-boned, rubbed with a little sea-salt, garlic, and oregano from my garden, then generously floured (this is a key step) on the skin side, and then seared skin-down on a hot pan for just a minute, was a simple but very satisfying dish. After searing the skin side, I quickly and lightly fried the other side, and served in a "pond" of olive oil. Here olive oil is not just a splash, but a spill, like sauce. I picked up the concept while dining at Frasca in Boulder (a fabulous Italian/Friulian restaurant run by Bobby Stuckey, the French Laundry ex-sommelier). The combo of crispy skin, sea-salted flesh still somewhat raw on the inside, and rich olive oil is delicious. We served it with freshly picked arugula from the veggie garden. Accompanied by an excellent red Burgundy - 2001 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Les Vaucrains" (one of the top vineyards in NSG) by Maison Ambroise. The 2001 (solid year) was already showing secondary flavors - dense, meaty, earthy, "cherry-meet-veggie" complex, very Burgundian, very Nuits-Saint-Georges. "There is nothing that tastes like this in California or Oregon", we all nodded.

4. The Burgundy provided a bridge to the heavier course - Asian baby-back pork ribs - my own recipe. I came up with it a few years ago by observing the Chinese cooking of my mom-in-law and combining it with Western touches. I first boil the ribs for 1.5 hours using lots of Asian spices. And then I coat them with my special sauce (soy sauce, tomato sauce, 5-spice, a few other secret ingredients), and bake for 20 min or so at 375 degrees, applying the sauce 3-4 times in the process. The initial boiling makes the meat soft and falling off the bone, and the eventual basting and baking gives it a punchy, slightly salty flavor that guests can't stop devouring. I garnished the meat with a bit of cilantro from the garden. The Burgundy continued to work its magic - Pinot Noir always being an excellent match to soy sauce. Half way through the ribs, we proceeded to the next level - a 1998 Barbaresco "Marcarini" by Cantino Vignaioli - a mind-bending wine, drinking perfectly now, so complex, so delicious, so "faded flowers meet truffles" - what a great wine (kudos to both Garagiste and Gary Vaynerchuk for recommending)!

Two salads made from my garden veggies - one from Japanese cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes, and another - from Butter lettuce and Romaine lettuce - provided textural counter-point to the meat. Rona dressed the lettuces with Dijon mustard, a dash of sea-salt, a splash of olive oil and apple cider vinegar, and freshly minced garlic. The bright green and the fresh-off-the-plant crunchiness of the lettuce is something totally different from your usual super-market crap.

5. As the 3 lbs of ribs disappeared, we grabbed the rest of the Barbaresco and moved off to the couch to watch Netflix and eat Rona's home-made strawberry ice-cream, slowly falling asleep...

Ah, what a way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Palo Alto, before the hustle and bustle of the work week ensues. Good food, good wine, good friends, good city, good living - that's what it's all about for me, my friends!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sicily's Mount Etna reds make seafood sing

I started hearing about Mount Etna over the last couple of years as it grew in popularity in the "in" circles. The region has been going through a renaissance in the last 10 years, finally starting to show up on the radar of boutique wine shops and serious Italian restaurants. The fascinating and impressive aspect of red wines from Etna is their textural, structural, and color likeness to red Burgundy (Pinot Noir grape) and particularly to Barolo (Nebbiolo grape) - the two greatest wines in the world. One expects rustic, thick wines to come out of Sicily, the widely known consumer-marketed examples made from Nero D'Avola and Syrah. Yet, grown on elevations thousands of feet above sea level on centuries-old lava soils around the Mount Etna volcano (the largest active volcano in Europe), the native grape called Nerello Mascalese achieves dizzying heights.

Last week, I sat with Enrico N. - director of Italian wines at one of the largest wine distributors in California - Wine Warehouse - to taste wines from the fast up-and-coming wine region - Mount Etna in Sicily.

"These wines are related to volcano, rather than Sicily", explained Enrico. "Until early 60's, wine was a source of calories in Italy. The quality difference between then and now is astounding." Recently I wrote about how the advent of stainless steel tanks allowed Silvio Jermann to revolutionize winemaking in Friuli in 1970's. Similarly in Sicily, new technology and equipment brought about quality unseen even 10 years ago, allowing the region to move from bulk production of jug Syrah, much of it exported to the Australian market, to making truly fine wine. Growing grapes on the dangerous slopes of a live volcano is a hard way to make a living. Yet, a few dedicated pioneers are starting to show the world what this region can achieve, and the market is beginning to respond, rewarding them with higher prices and attention of Italian top food-and-fine publication Gambero Rosso, the organization behind the prestigious Tre Bicchieri wine guide. Much credit for the Etna's revival goes to Salvo Foti - currently consulting at Gulfi and Benanti wineries, Andrea Franchetti of Passopisciaro (and Tenuta di Trinoro in Tuscany), and Marc de Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere.

Staring down from high above the sea, Mount Etna serves up reds that are a superb match to seafood, especially after a couple of years of bottle age as tannins dissipate. As usual, Donato Enoteca provided a perfect setting and expert dishes for the occasion.

Though from the first look and whiff comparisons with Nebbiolo are inescapable, let's face it - these wines are not Barolo. But what they may lack in mind-boggling truffles, roses, and tar of the great Nebbiolos, they deliver in a twist of ashy, intense candied cherries and raspberries, balancing acidity, and a touch of spiciness in a medium body frame that as a package is unlike any other wine on earth. In the past having had Graci 2007 Etna Rosso with Donato's signature squid ink pasta and spicy tomato - it was one of those food-and-wine combos that make life worth living, my friends! And while neither red Burgundy nor Barolo go particularly well with seafood, Etna reds just work. The cat is starting to get out of the bag, and the orders to roll in, Enrico attested.

Over the past couple of months, I had the pleasure of tasting rosso (reds) from 3 different fine producers of Nerello Mascalese -- Benanti, Passopisciaro, and Graci. Wow!

This time Enrico featured 3 reds - 2006 Benanti Rosso di Verzella Etna Rosso (blend of 80% Nerello Mascalese and 20% Nerello Cappuccio), 2005 Benanti Rosso Il Monovintigno (100% Nerello Mascalese) Sicilia IGT, and 2007 Passopisciaro (Nerello Mascalese) Sicilia IGT. All three wines were a joy to drink with food. The $16 Benanti Rosso di Verzella just has amazing QPR. The $36 Il Monovitigno was my fave - more concentrated, serious, darker, with a hair of funky character, while the $32 Passopisciaro walked the line between the two, the most elegant of the trio - concentrated yet light, and still just a touch tannic. (Side note: Passopisciaro also makes an eye-openingly good unoaked 100% Sicilian Chardonnay called "Guardiola", which in a blind tasting could easily pass for a Chablis). Janscis Robinson, the world's most famous wine writer and influencer, too raved about the wines of Etna, and Passopisciaro in particular, as early as 2004 (read her account here).

I guess there are two takeaways for me:

1. Wines of impressive quality are coming out of Sicily's Mount Etna. While they will not make me abandon Burgundy or Barolo, these wines cannot be ignored. Something magical is happening there.

2. While I love the stereotypical white wine + seafood pairing, the Nerello Mascalese grape from Mount Enta just brings something edgy to the party that white wines cannot match - it is gastronomically and intellectually a must-have accompaniment to seafood that will impress both wine newbies and wine snobs alike.

Watch it, drink it - it is grand cru territory in the making, my friends.

For a more complete write-up of Mt. Etna wines, there is also an excellent "The Wines of Mt. Etna in Sicily: Wine's Next Big Thing?" overview at

Monday, July 12, 2010

Pork belly ravioli with 2000 Oddero Barolo "Vigna Rionda" - heaven or hell?!

Well, I guess when you put ground pork belly inside a thick-skinned ravioli, and then drop a generous helping of crispy guanciale (pork cheek bacon), deep-fried sage, and cheese on top, and serve the whole thing in a bath of brown-sugar and butter sauce, the health freaks will have a heart attack just hearing about it.

So I suppose the only way to survive the overdose is by washing it all down with Oddero 2000 Barolo "Vigna Rionda" from the sexy 2000 vintage - a wine so intense, so layered, so "gamey jerky meets iodiney seaweed" but in a good way with so much character amid the most voluptuous Barolo texture, that it's hard to really tell ahead what will disappear first - the bottle of the Barolo or the bowl of the ravioli. One of the most perfect food and wine matches to ever cross my palate - if that's not worth dying for... Hell yeah! - this is the ultimate "gourmet comfort" sin food. Live well die happy, my friends!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Flying under-the-radar at Ridge Monte Bello

They've been making these wines since the 70's, staying true to the principles of purity and balance, respecting the history of the grapes, being a reference point of American wine making. Recently I had a chance to re-visit Ridge. Another great experience, once again re-affirming that this local Santa Cruz Mountains winery not only has the world-class chops but also the soul.

For the 2nd installment of Ridge blogger tasting, Chris Watkins, the tasting room manager at Ridge Monte Bello, lined up an array of under-the-radar low-production (under 1000 cases) "Advanced Tasting Program" wines from Ridge that sell out to devout members without ever hitting retail - all Rhone varietals, for which Ridge obviously has a soft spot, but not a soft palate.

This time we focused on multiple vintages of 100% Carignane, 50/50 Syrah/Grenache blends (Southern Rhone style), Syrah/Viognier (Northern Rhone style) blends, and 100 Petite Sirah.

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Monday, July 5, 2010

Happy 4th of July with American wines!

I stopped by the 4th of July backyard bbq party at Julie's. The Palo Alto local winos gathered en masse to give tribute to our founding fathers and to enjoy another gorgeous summer afternoon. A sort of a free for all, everyone brought wine, some brought food. Tom grilled a large whole rosemary-infused salmon, served with Dan's world's creamiest mashed potatoes, and a few fixins from various culinary wiz's.

In this quintessential of all American holidays, what wine was I to bring but the quintessential American wine - a Zinfandel. And not just any Zin, a quintessential American Zin at a whopping 16.5% alcohol (yeeeehaaaaa) from Turley!

There is a time and a place, ladies and gents. Dehlinger Pinot and a Mendocino County Syrah went super-nice with the 4th of July fare. Zins were excellent with carrot cake and blueberries fresh from Julie's 6ft-tall blueberry bushes. A really good 2002 Chambolle-Musigny red Burgundy was like a tuxedo-dressed English aristocrat at a a rowdy Texas rodeo.

This one time a year, I blessed the good foresight of American founding fathers of wine to have started a revolution in the 60's and 70's so that today we could enjoy the fruits of our own country. Sweet and comforting, they tasted so right!

I wanted to wish everyone a very happy 4th of July. This holiday is very meaningful to me, for I feel blessed to be living here. Especially for us hi-techies who wanted to leave a mark on the world, and could never realize our dreams in the old country. In no other place but the USA, could such a diverse multi-national group of talents as we have in the Silicon Valley come together and work side-by-side without prejudice.

Happy 4th!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Spanish wine from California with canned Riga Sprats fish

No tennis for me this morning. I tore my Achilles tendon playing soccer. My neighbor Enoch, an urgent care doctor, stopped by last night to check on me. Rona had just picked up her sis from the airport - everyone converged on Domaine du Chevsky around 11pm.

Limping around, I improvised, and pulled out a bottle of 2005 Tejada - a local California wine (from Lake County, north of Calistoga and Healdsburg) given to me by Allen, a tennis compadre whose friend makes this wine. Cool bottle. I was thinking I needed something full bodied, warm and ripe, since it gets pretty cold in Palo Alto at night, even in the 80-degree-by-day summer. We were going to sip, rather than eat, so an interesting new world red felt right.

The owners are from Spain, the wine is made from Garnacha and Temperanillo. Often with California's warm climate and parkerization tendencies, domestic wines tend to be over-ripe, alcoholic, and lacking character. Frankly, I was sort of counting on that. Remarkably not this wine. From the get-go, the nose was barn-yardy (a good sign!) and pâté-like. The wine tasted very Spanish to me - excellent acidity, medium body, some nice layers of bitter cherry flavors, a touch of spice, I would not have guessed new world. Who knows - maybe Lake County is the new home of Spanish varietals! (except they are probably the only family growing these grapes there?!) This was not a sippy kind of wine. I needed food.

The wine begged for tapa-like funky protein. Salumi, pork pâté?... I didn't have... A light bulb went off - out of the cupboard I pulled out a can of Riga Sprats - voila! - a Russian classic, sold in all Euro/Russian stores, quite a delicacy. No Russian Jew should ever be without one! Sardine-like but much more smoked, canned in oil, this thing is delicious with a generous squeeze of lemon (fresh from my tree). Maybe not a super-intuitive match, but I was quite proud of my sommelier muscle, as this turned out a cool combo. The acidity in the wine went nicely with the lemon, the barnyardiness - with the smoky pâté-like fishiness, the red cut nicely through the oil base. Sometimes a red can make fish taste metallic - but hello(!) this was tin-can fish, get it?

Ooh what an excellent midnight snack. The man with the limp was quite proud, the crowd pleased, the bottle and the can happily empty.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Burrata salad with Beaujolais

What happens when you get creative with the freshest bestest ingredients for a salad aimed to serve a merry group of gourmet winos on a balmy summer day in Palo Alto?

Roasted peppers, peeled
Toasted rustic bread
Ripe juicy heirloom tomatoes
Green olives
Spicy red peppers
Toasted pine nuts
Generous amount of burrata
Extra virgin olive oil and a touch of vinegar

All sliced, soaked together and served with a bottle of 2006 Beaujolais.
Oh, even me, normally lukewarm about Beaujolais (either "nouveau" or the more serious "cru") screamed in happy joy, going for yet another helping.

2006 was not a very good vintage for Beaujolais, following the very highly acclaimed 2005 (spectacular vintage throughout France). Nonetheless, I found the less fruity, cooler 2006 to be more to my liking over the more aggressive and concentrated 2005's. The non-tannic, dusty cherry spice tasted like a more rustic version of Burgundian Pinot Noir and went effortlessly with the kaleidoscope of molten flavors in the salad.

Many thanks to Ash G. for this salad invention, which he agreed to share with the world, and to Sandy C. for the unexpected but very very good wine match.

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