Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Good wine with Turkey

From last Thursday's Thanksgiving feast, all I can say is...

Turkey with Pinot Noir. For me - from Burgundy, of course. Robert Chevillon's 2006 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Les Bousselots" 1er Cru is so seductively perfumey, it undresses you with one whiff! No need to get overly creative, my friends. Perfection is perfect!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Celebrate Dungeness crab season with magnificent German Riesling Kabinett

In the morning the kitchen still smells like crabs. In a good, fresh, oceany way. The belly feels light, the mind satisfied. We spent the whole Friday exploring Half Moon Bay - visiting the Pillar Point Harbor where we bought 3 of the freshest, right out of the ocean, 2-lbs. dungeness crabs (only $3.50/lb!), ate catch-of-the-day fisherman's stew and fish-and-chips right on the ocean front, and strolled along the beaches and lawns on a crisp, sunny, picture-perfect day after Thanksgiving.

And at night, we steamed those monsters and gobbled all 6 lbs., with just a little dipping sauce and the most amazing pairing of a German off-dry Riesling.

The purity of that meal and the combination of the flavors of the fresh, light, subtly sweet crab meat, the tangy Chinese black Chinkiang vinegar and wasabi dipping sauce, and a Kabinett level 2006 Schloss Schonborn Riesling from one of the absolute top vineyards in Rheingau, Germany - Erbacher Marcobrunn, was proof that food-and-wine pairing is not just bullshit that pretentious wine snobs have invented to make themselves sound more important. Rona, Song, and I were in food heaven!

The magnificent off-dry Riesling tasted like a combination of crystal clear mountain spring water, delicious candied green apples and citrus peel, crushed minerals, precise saline acidity, and an echo of rubber that is a hallmark of Riesling. Just the smell of the wine in the kitchen full of oceany scents was intoxicatingly good. I'd hoped that the sweetness in the Riesling would accentuate the crab. And it did. But I'd never imagined how well all the elements in the wine would match the wasabi and vinegar sauce - something magical transpired in that union that made all of us grunt and burp in delight. The ladies consumed everything - including the green, liquidy "crab miso" (the umami-rich innards, roe, and brain that actually tastes miso-like and is highly prized in Asia).

That's it - that's the meal, and that's the day. It took 15 minutes to steam, and 2.5 hours to work through the body parts. In the end, full not stuffed, and oh so grateful for the dungeness crab season in Northern California, we vowed to never buy them again at Ranch 99 and be back at the Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay next weekend.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Roero - the forgotten cousin of Barolo & Barbaresco, and oh - the dungeness crab cioppino frenzy

Amazingly, even serious winos don't seem to know Roero. Specifically Roero red wine, made from Nebbiolo, and in many vintages just as elegant, intense, and charming as Barolo and Barbaresco. A neighboring appellation (DOCG since 2004), Roero is better recognized for their white Arneis wine - the most famous white wine export of Piedmonte, which I love on its own right. But it's the red that I am happy for so many others to overlook, thus keeping prices down for those in the know. Here is a very good article on Roero from the Dehli Wine Club (of all places!). A quick excerpt is telling:
The aging periods required by law are significantly different - Barolo needs to undergo 3 years, while Barbaresco can age only for 2 years. Roero can do with a year and a half as it can be released on July 1, second year after harvesting. So the Barolo and Barbaresco producers would claim that Nebbiolo grape requires long aging to tame the tannins... The young Roero is too tannic, closed and not drinkable - so are Barolo and Barbaresco even when they are released. Nebbiolo turns softer slowly, adding complexity. But as the aging goes from 5-10 years, the difference between the discernible complexity for average drinkers also goes down. Naturally, Barolo and Barbaresco will age and live a lot longer, but Roero from good year can easily last 10-15 years or more.

Not sure if there is anyone in Roero making better Nebbiolo than Malvira.
I brought a bottle of their fantastic 2001 "Mombeltramo" for my friend Scott's (who is an absolutely spectacular gourmet chef) first dungeness crab dinner of the season. Dungeness crabs arrive every year in November, and are one of the glories of living in Northern California. Scott gets his directly off fishing boats in Half Moon Bay, cuts them in half and cleans while they are still live (butcher!), makes his slightly spicy cioppino sauce with bits of fish, and then stews the crabs in the sauce not for very long.

It's important to cut the crabs while they are still live, in order to keep the meat as soft and sweet as possible. He likes to eat dangerously, no doubt. If you cook them live, Scott tells me they release some sort of chemical as they heat up and don't taste as good.

Over the years, Scott has "scientifically" determined that nothing goes better with his dungeness goodness than a magnum of Tempier's Bandol Rosé. I attest - it's a wonderful marriage.

But what does it have to do with Roero?

Well, when foodies & winos get together, cioppino is just an excuse. First comes a Champagne starter - one of my faves - 1988 Rare Vintage Veuve Clicquot - so nutty, almondy, a bit oxidative, and incredibly energetic (due to late disgorgement) - this wine stops folks in their tracks and demands notice.

With palates primed, smells of the crab emanating, salivas flowing freely (what an image!), the cioppino is finally served. Eating these babies is a messy and lengthy affair, but all so satisfying. And why hurry?, let the guests work for it, by struggling through every single juicy morsel buried deep inside the sharp shell! In the end, not a shred of crab meat or the sauce for that matter, is left - all devoured in a shark feeding frenzy. Oh, what a marvel of culinary delight! Scott The Meticulous has really perfected this dish over the years. If you have the patience to crack, this is a dish worth getting on the waiting list for.

"In the end, not a shred of crab meat or the sauce for that matter, is left - all devoured in a shark feeding frenzy."

Then comes the second course - braised oxtail. Oh my goodness - Ed & Mimi really hit the spot with that one. First, they slow-cooked it for hours in a rich tomato-based stock.

By the time we ate it, the meat was disintegrating at the touch of a fork, the cartilage melting in my mouth, delicious baby carrots and mushrooms, perfection with several aged Nebbiolos!

Scott featured Vietti's Castiglione 1999 and 2001. Everyone was charmed with the 1999. Next to it, the 2001 tasted young and brash, coming from a stronger vintage, and seemed to need a few more years - amazing for an "entry-level" Barolo in the venerable Vietti's lineup.

Just like Barbaresco, despite popular wisdom, is not necessarily lighter or more feminine than Barolo, so is Roero not necessarily lighter than either Barolo or Barbaresco. The 2001 Malvira was fully resolved, packed a bigger punch than either of the Viettis, and with enormous aromatic appeal, the wine seemed at the peak of its drinkability. It served as a transition to the wonderful truffle and goat cheeses (courtesy of Cynthia), which echoed back and forth with the Roero in an endless resonance of harmony and delight.

And to think, this is just the beginning of the crab season, with so many wonders yet to come!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Austrian sparkling wine (Sekt) knocks my socks off on Thanksgiving

If you've never had an Austrian sparkling wine (called "Sekt" in Austria and Germany), then you are like me. Or more precisely like I used to be until today's Thanksgiving dinner when I tried my first bottle. And boy, what a wine! For years, I've been searching for a wine that goes with Russian cold appetizers (salads, cured meats and fish, all kinds of salty, vinegary, and savory goodies), and this most excellent sparkler fit the bill perfectly. Perhaps it's the relative similarity of Russian, German, and Austrian cuisines that makes Austria's wines suit the Russian table?

My family were impressed (not an easy feat for a gang used to drinking everything from Shaoxing rice wine to tequila to vodka). Wiener Gemischter Satz Sekt is not the type you are likely to see even in the most esoteric wine shops (but check wine-searcher.com, this wine costs ~$30-35), and is yet another fabulous find in my recent chain of Austrian revelations!

Vienna is the only capital in the world that has vineyards within its frontiers. The traditional wine from Vienna is the "Wiener Gemischte Satz" - a field blend of Austrian white grape varieties. This wine was only sold in the Viennese wine bistros until in 2003 Richard Zahel, the "father of Viennese Gemischte Satz" (according to his website) began marketing it more broadly. Today Zahel’s "Gemischter Satz" is offered in 4 different styles. The Premium Wine "Nussberg Grande Reserve" consists of 9 old Austrian varieties like Grüner Veltliner, Rotgipfler, Zierfandler, Traminer and others. In 2007, Zahel created Gemischter Satz Sekt, a Champagne style sparkling wine made à la Mèthode Traditionelle (traditional method of Champagne, i.e. second fermentation in the bottle) with grapes harvested and co-fermented from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Traminer from the famous Viennese Nussberg vineyards (shown in the Vienna wine map on the right). Fine bubbles, medium weight, nice balance between fruit and acid. This is the type of sparkling wine that can convince those who "don't get" Champagne to give sparkling another chance. Even after the fizz subsides, the remaining still wine tastes good!

After drinking 3 different Austrian wines in the last week, I am shocked that these superbly food-friendly, well-made wines have been under my radar for this long. While I don't see them knocking Burgundy or Barolo off their high horses, these Austrians are a delight to drink for those of us who enjoy not just trophies but everyday honest-to-goodness bottles that don't break the wallet. In this Thanksgiving season, that is something to be thankful for. Here is to the obscurity of the wonderful wines of Austria. How long will that last?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Food-friendly Austrian wines - "Zweigelt and Rotgipfler walk into a bar"...

The Refuge's Reuben: pastrami, sauerkraut, melted swiss, russian dressing, toasted rye.

I have a newfound respect for Austrian wines. Austrian? What?!

Rona and I picked up her sis from the airport, and stopped by at the Refuge in San Carlos. Last time their amazing pastrami sandwich sang chorus with a Borgueil, a Loire red wine made from Cabernet Franc. This time, I tempted fate even more, and brought a totally obscure Austrian red - 2008 Blauer Zweigelt from Anita and Hans Nittnaus. I mean who ever drinks Austrian reds?!!! For around $15/bottle, at the low 12.5% alcohol, the wine is more versatile than, say, a Borgueil, nicely balanced in a European (rather than Californian) sort of way (meaning you can taste veggie and fruit), medium-body, reminiscent of a cool climate Pinot Noir but with darker fruit and touch of spiciness. In other words - really really great with the Refuge's menu!

Blauer Zweigelt is an Austrian grape variety that's a cross of relatively obscure but very distinctive Blaufrankisch grape (exemplified by Moric - one of staples of Wine & Spirits Magazine's top 100 wineries of the year, great with charcuterie) and totally obscure St. Laurent grape, from the same family as Pinot Noir. I can also see this wine pairing nicely with lots of pan-Asian cuisine. I finished the bottle two days later with a slice of chocolate cake - a spectacular match, and it was as fresh as the moment I opened it.

The previous bottle I'd had was a white made from Rotgipfler grape - another obscure grape variety from Austria. Stadlmann Tagelsteiner Rotgipfler 2008 (13.5% alc) was a Gruner Veltliner-like white wine, with clear focus, clean, unoaked, expressive fruit flavors, and hint of white pepper. A versatile wine, like Zweigelt above, Rotgipfler goes exceptionally well with curry (particularly, vegetable, seafood, or chicken curry).

Another Austrian - a sparkler (Sekt) - is going to be popped for the Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. Come to papa!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sparkling at J Vineyards, Russian River Valley

Not everything that sparkles in California is gold. Sometimes it's J!

With the holiday season approaching, I found myself in Healdsburg in the heart of Sonoma County a week ago speaking at a technology growth and innovation conference. Meeting many cool and impressive techies and social media gurus was a lot of fun. That, plus a picture-perfect 80-degree weather in the middle of November put me in a groovy mood. So on the way back to Palo Alto, I felt like sparkling wine.

Sonoma county is relatively well known for a number of reputable sparkling wine producers, who make bubblies in the traditional Champagne method (i.e. second fermentation in the bottle). In my mind, with all due respect to all other methods of getting CO2 into a wine, the method of Champagne is the only way to go for any serious drinkin'! And while nothing touches Champagne itself (with the exception of perhaps Italy's Franciacorta and Trento DOC), our traditional method domestics from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, such as Roederer Estate, Domaine Chandon, Mumm, Domaine Carneros, Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer, are not bad at all, and offer really delicious and cheaper alternatives, and a sense of patriotism.

One of the names that immediately popped in my head was J. I'd enjoyed their bubblies in the past, as well as wonderful food & wine pairings at their Signature Bar and the Bubble Room. Located just 10 min down the road from Healdsburg, in Russian River Valley, J Vineyards are well known for good quality and very elegant bottles. Founded in 1986 by Judy Jordan (thus "J") the daughter of Jordan Winery's founder Tom Jordan, they initially focused entirely on sparkling wine. While other California houses have expanded their sparkling production, J have actually been reducing theirs, as they've tried to assert themselves as a world-class expert in Pinot Noir. Let sparkling wine be more of a boutique item for J, let the French mega-brand-controlled estates churn out volume. Truth be told, sparkling wine is still a specialty item in America, drunk primarily on special occasions and holidays, thus the demand is relatively lower than in France where it's treated more as a versatile food wine - a notion I subscribe to wholeheartedly. On the other hand, America's love affair with Pinot Noir seems at all-time high, with Russian River Valley in Sonoma, Santa-Rita Hills in Central Coast, and Willamette Valley in Oregon carrying significant prestige in the eyes of the American (and even Asian) consumer. So why not try to elevate J's Pinot into the same elite ranks as Williams Selyem, Rochioli, and Gary Farrell?! -- all near-cult Pinot entities that made grand reputations on the soils of the Russian River Valley (or RRV), and in turn applied the strengths of their own brands to make "RRV" a brand name as well.

I tried the 2006 Nicole's Vineyard RRV Pinot Noir - and it was as good as any I've had from Sonoma County, wonderfully textured, with nothing sticking out. But for anyone who's read this blog for any duration of time, you'd know that being a huge Burgundy fan, I need that acid, earth, and veggie. None of that typical sweet balsamic (sensuous?) stuff that enchants millions (sorry, my friends), ever since Sideways.

So I dropped by and met with J Vineyards PR Director George Rose, as well as their winemaker George Bursick, who prior to J had been a founding member and winemaker for 22 years at Ferrari-Carano winery.

Iron Chevsky and George Bursick, the winemaker at J Vineyards since 2006, holding a magnum of J Brut, in front of designer wall which represents the Russian River, the sparkles of the bubbles in J wines, and the soils of the Russian River Valley.

We went through the lineup of their entry-level "Cuvée 20" NV Brut ($22), NV Rose ($30), 2002 Vintage Brut ($40), and 1999 Late Disgorged (after 9 years of cellaring) Vintage Brut ($65). All made from the locally grown classical Champagne varieties - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. In a word, wonderful wines, great acidity, but also nice roundness. The vintage bruts showed the anticipated yeastiness and brioche, and the '99 in particular hinted at nuttiness that I so enjoy in more mature sparklers. Their Cuvée 20 is the bestseller - they make about 23000 cases, and it flies. I was not surprised because for ~$17 (if you search on wine-searcher.com), it really tasted very good! It boggles my mind that if we can achieve such great acidity in the local sparkling wines, why can't we have some of that in those damn still whites and reds?! It's got to be you - the sweet-toothed consumer!

During the tasting, I brought up a topic of disclosing disgorgement dates on labels. Most Champagne producers don't to it, but many wine lovers absolutely want to know how old a non-vintage Champagne is. Some wine collectors, in fact, will not buy sparkling wine without knowing the vintages and percentages of the constituent wines in the blend and the disgorgement dates. At J, this question apparently had never come up, especially given they don't even put a label on their designer-shaped bottle. Traditionally, Champagne and other sparkling wine producers have a "house style" for each of their non-vintage cuvées that is supposed to be so consistent from year to year (via blending multiple vintages together) that the question of dates is not necessary. That's a theory that serious winos take with a grain of salt. Plus, as a consumer I want to know how old a non-vintage wine I am looking at is? Without any reference date, a cynic in me says - that's an unfair advantage to the retailer - if they have something that's been sitting there for years past its prime. The impression I got from J is that they envision their bubblies to be consumed relatively soon upon release, and if they wanted you to wait, they would hold on to those bottles, as they do with their vintage bruts.

Now I was in a positively good mood, and with J having awakened my taste buds, headed to a highly-Zagat-rated Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar in Santa Rosa. Perhaps after a recent trip to the fantasic Pizzeria Delfina in the city, my expectations for good pizza had gone up way too much. And Rosso utterly disappointed with both their pizzas and their wines. About the only good thing there was the super fresh and large (it looked like it was on steroids!) arugula, which Rona and I devoured to suppress the rough flavors of the pizza and the alcoholic tasting, low-acid, Zin-like Sangiovese (2008 or 2009, Italy) that they were nice enough to swap for a lighter and fresher Nero D'Avola (tolerable, but far from enjoyable). Shocking - a Sicilian Nero D'Avola being lighter and fresher than Tuscan Sangio!

Ah, but the weather, with the help of the delicious arugula, and the fresh memories of J's bruts and the sharp folks at the conference outweighed the momentary despair of the offended foodie, as Rona and I headed to our next stop to pick up the long-awaited shipment of 1996 Henriot Des Enchanteleurs - one of the greatest Champagnes of all.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Drinking Alsatian at San Francisco Wine School

On Tuesday last week, I dropped in on the first (ever) session of the newly minted San Francisco Wine School. Their introductory course was France. I had previously announced the opening of the school on this blog (see here), but wanted to check for myself what it'd be like, before I really stuck my neck out and put the Iron Chevsky seal of approval on these guys.

On the second floor of a swanky'ish old Hotel Triton in the super-happening downtown area close to the Union Square, I walked into a cozy room with a small group of students, and two wine Jedi presiding. One of them - Maureen Downey, specializes in managing wine collections and wine auctions (her copious credentials can be seen here.) The other - David Glancy is a Master Sommelier and a long-time educator and department chair in the Professional Culinary Institute in Campbell, CA. Both were incredibly knowledgeable.

The first class focused on Alsace, a region that is supposed to be the easiest to understand in France, because it has the fewest appellations and complications. Personally, I've always skirted Alsace without ever getting deep into it. An occasional masterpiece Riesling (Cuvée Ste. Catherine, $40-60, in particular) from Weinbach has kept Alsace alive for me, but otherwise it's been a bit of a food pairing puzzle. (Perhaps I should eat more sauerkraut?!) Maureen led the class with tons of extra-curricular knowledge and splashes of humor. David poured some interesting wines, which confirmed to me that taste-wise it is not an easy region to figure out, but that their Rieslings (I really enjoyed Albert Boxler Grand Cru Sommerberg 2004, $50-60) can indeed be very very good, and have a different (somehow more "grown-up" ?) aspect to them than German Rieslings. More alcohol than Germans? Drier? Something different and worth exploring. Personally, I stay away from the sweet and bubbly versions of anything Alsatian. The reds can get geeks excited, especially over a pastrami sandwich. The Pinot Noir we tried (Remy Gresser Brandhof, 2008) reminded me of a cross between Frappato (fruity, medium-bodied red from Sicily) and Beaujolais.

I asked David about the $895 price tag for the course - certainly not chump change. He pointed out that a course at PCI where he teaches is almost $9000, and those classes are filled.

Because this group of students were all serious about wine, the class got deep quick. I appreciated David's ability as an experienced Master Sommelier to offer very original and insightful food pairing suggestions for the various wines. I could see that the instructors easily managed to span topics suitable for both wine newbies and experienced wine professionals. I can say with confidence that if you are serious about understanding French wine, this class is for you. The next go-around will start in January 2011. For schedule details and contact info, click here. Voila!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

White truffle decadence with Barbaresco

If you've never had white truffles, oh well... Splurge! Don't let the looks deceive you - it's one of those life's pleasures along with cod liver, duck fat, pork belly, foie gras, and sushi that must be experienced for the amazing umami that just makes you happy. Don't confuse white truffles with black truffles or chocolate truffles. White truffles are extremely rare and prized pretty much at the very top of the food chain, found in the woods of Piedmonte (Northern Italy) by specially trained dogs, and sold for thousands of $$ per kilo. They come each year around October/November, and they are devoured quickly, no matter the cost.

The other day I talked about impressive but not inspiring. Last night the annual white truffle menu at Donato Enoteca delivered bliss in full inspiring glory at a fraction of what one'd pay some place else. I brought a bottle of 2003 Roagna Barbaresco Paje from a much maligned 2003 vintage, and it had plenty of acidity and wonderful aromatics that echoed the scents of truffles on my plate. It was perhaps leaner and more austere than I would have expected, especially considering the over-ripe vintage. It might have needed more decanting or just more cellaring. Wine Advocate's Antonio Galloni gave it 95 points and said this:
The 2003 Barbaresco Paje is an insanely beautiful, huge wine loaded with fruit. Amazingly, the 2003 Paje remains almost primary, with little development of tertiary aromas and flavors. The tannins are almost impossibly elegant for a wine from this torrid vintage and the level of freshness is unmatched by any other 2003 Barbaresco. The wine's inner perfume and sweet, plump core of fruit hint at a hot vintage, but the balance here is simply mind-blowing. Subtle suggestions of menthol, smoke, tar and spices come to life on the finish. The Paje is made from vines in excess of 20 years old. This is the Barbaresco of the vintage. In 2003 Roagna sacrificed their top lots (usually destined for the Riservas) to strengthen this entry-level bottling, and it shows. Anticipated maturity: 2013-2028. Score: 95. —Antonio Galloni, October 2009.

The 2001 Moccagatta Bric Balin Barbaresco that Eric had on hand at the restaurant was tastier in every respect - more complete and balanced, rounder and fuller, brighter, more intense, more nuanced, and just damn sexy wine that easily beat the pants off the Roagna, in my opinion. Once again, it's hard to argue with a good producer from a great vintage! I am glad I have more of this wine in my cellar.

The dinner started with carne crudo - minced raw beef, topped with white truffles. OMFG! It tasted like a decadent pate with an incredibly elegant truffle flavor. Just melted in my mouth, along with all my troubles.

Donato's ravioli are always amazing, but this time his raviolo (a single huge one) topped with white truffles and with runny egg yolk and soft ricotta cheese inside was heavenly!

White truffle risotto was ethereal!

And the combo of white truffles with veal, fingerling potatoes and mushrooms was magnificent. The veal juice, the earthiness of mushrooms, the sweetness of the potatoes, and the intoxicating delicacy of the white truffles paired with the Moccagatta Barbaresco were like a perfectly synchronized, inspired pair of Olympic figure skaters doing a performance of their lives!

Oh, white truffles with Barbaresco - life doesn't get much better than that! Thank you, Donato!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cyrus impresses but fails to inspire

Much acclaimed 2-Michelin-star restaurant, Cyrus is Healdsburg's attempted answer to French Laundry in Yountville (3 Michelin stars) and Manresa in Los Gatos (2 Michelin stars). Almost 400 Yelp reviews with average of 4.5 rating, and plenty of exalted awards and articles found on the web sing praises to Cyrus. Open less than five years, Cyrus and Chef Douglass Keane (ex-Gary Danko and Jardiniere) have each amassed numerous accolades in addition to their 2 Michelin stars - four stars from Michael Bauer at the San Francisco Chronicle, Gourmet Magazines’ Top Fifty Restaurants, Esquire Magazine’s Chef of the Year, Food and Wine Magazines Best New Chef and most recently, James Beard Award Best Chef Pacific.

Rona and I went to Cyrus for her birthday. Impeccable service, super interesting and excellent wine pairings, wine-savvy staff, classy understated atmosphere, and impressive albeit somewhat overly Japanese-influenced food (if I wanted Japanese, I'd go for a Kaiseki restaurant like Keygetsu instead.)

Our official 5-course menu is below. It was a nice touch for the restaurant to hand us a personalized menu at the end of the meal.

Sweet corn and white truffle risotto was the most successful dish on the menu, with the runner-up - cognac glazed pork belly paired with a glass of excellent 2002 Lopez de Heredia "Viña Bosconia" Rioja Reserva red. I liked the elegant, creamy, and not too thick billi-bi (mussel) soup paired with Sherry (Equipo Navazos "La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada #10"), while Rona thought that the lobster bisque from Old Port Lobster Shack in Redwood City was infinitely better. (I disagree). The bright, floral, gingery and slightly white-peppery Gruner Veltliner Smaragd from Austria (2007, Nikolaihof Im Weingebirge) was delicious with the well-prepared seared medai (Japanese butterfish). The beautiful looking strip loin of beef was not very flavorful, and some of the dishes failed to walk the line between bland and exaggerated. The best thing about the dinner were the recommended wine pairings (for ~$100 additional fee). I am glad I did not bring my own bottle, as it would never have offered as much variety and excitement as the array of respectably mature Sherry, 2002 Chablis, 2007 Gruner Veltliner, 2002 Rioja, and a 1945 Rivesaltes (Roussillon).

I've only been there once, and may perhaps never be there again, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, although I appear to be not the only one. When I pay $400 for dinner for two, I look to be inspired. But there is a difference between impressive and inspiring. A well executed and duly complex dish can impress, but only extra-ordinary will inspire. Like the famous Arpege style farm egg at Manresa. I don't care how "creative" the dish is - to inspire, it must touch not just your stomach but your soul, and possess out-of-this-world indescribable flavor that strikes a balance between power and elegance (like Plumed Horse's truffle Camembert cheese fondue with duck fat fried fingerling potatoes). On that account, in my opinion, Cyrus aims high but ultimately misses the mark.

To be honest, I find myself more often inspired by simpler, homier efforts. Luckily, we see a trend of master chefs opening casual eateries with the same great quality as their flagship restaurants but with a different goal - to serve foods they want to eat themselves. These are comfort food classics often from their childhood, dishes that don't require scientific preparation or molecular gastronomy, but still feature the best seasonal, local produce they can find. Chefs' home cooking is what themselves and their loyal foodie fans reach for, exhausted by the stuffy air of their "high-end" restaurants that are certainly fabulous once in a while, but offer neither the value nor the joy of an expertly prepared fried chicken or braised beef short ribs with garlic mashed potatoes. Perhaps started by the iconic Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, when he dreamed up Ad Hoc in Yountville in 2006. Or by Craig Stoll, when he opened Pizzeria Delfina next to his famous Restaurant Delfina in San Francisco in 2006. Carried on by Bobby Stuckey (ex-French Laundry sommelier) of Boulder, Colorado, Frasca (one of the top Italian restaurants in the nation) opening a pizzeria and a cafe nearby, and Gary Danko's upcoming burger joint on Ghirardelli Square in the city, perhaps they are all just continuing what has always made good sense, but makes even better one during the current economic times when foodies still seek amazing food but without all the pomp and expense of the suit-and-tie establishments.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Eating well in unexpected places

In the heart of Healdsburg, right there on the charming main plaza, tourist traps abound. The famous Oakville Grocery at the corner, full inside and out, is but a Whole-Foods-like shadow of its authentic self along highway 29 in Oakville that still draws me during visits to Napa Valley. But hidden behind yet another quaint-ish bookstore is a gem of a place called Bovolo, that is a foodie's delight. Founded by John Stewart and his wife Duskie Estes, famous for their high-end Cali-Italian Zazu restaurant in Santa Rosa, and perhaps even more so for her brief appearance in season 3 of the Food Network's The Next Iron Chef, Bovolo is Zazu's sister restaurant that adapts the Cali-Italian theme to a chill and unpretentious cafe that's no ordinary bookstore coffee shop. Opened in 2005, Bovolo's pork cheek sandwich was voted in the Top 5 Sandwiches in the Bay Area by San Francisco Magazine. I had to check for myself, and I was not disappointed. On the contrary, not only was this spectacular sandwich loaded with fall-apart-at-the-touch-of-a-fork pork cheek, roasted peppers and salsa verde on a grilled bun with a side of zesty olives, but Rona's simple looking salad of spinach with house-made black pig bacon cubes was extraordinary as well.

Sitting out in the back patio of the book store, I felt miles away from the touristy center plaza. I managed a few peeks at the dishes at a table nearby - a platter of salumi, another of crispy bacon, a decadent looking thick macaroni and cheese - simple things that looked like a million bucks - an Asian family at the table chewed and nodded approvingly. Knowing that no casual tourist would ever discover this hidden spot made the meal ever more enjoyable on the perfect 80-degree day in mid November.

I ordered a glass of Argentinian Torrontes (Aymara, 2009) with my sandwich. It's an unusual pairing. The clerk recommended a Zin (what else in Sonoma county!), but on such a brilliantly warm and spotlessly sunny day, I politely declined. It felt like a white! The full bodied Torrontes tasted of jasmin and ripe lychees, and (unlike most of the local white wines, despite what their marketing department would have you believe) had excellent acidity. The fruitiness worked great with the pork, while the acidity refreshed the palate before the next succulent bite.

What is particularly interesting about this place is the whole set-up in the back of a bookstore. It appears to be a new phenomenon: gourmet eats can be had in places you'd least expect - a roaming food truck, the back of a touristy bookstore, a gift shop at a national park, or a cafe in a museum.

Example of the latter is Cool Cafe at the back of the Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, next to a souvenir shop. Jesse Cool is considered by many the Alice Waters of the SF Peninsula. Her Cool Cafe (and several other restaurants) serve only fresh, in-season, organic and local ingredients. Her grilled grass-fed beef burger with caramelized onions, chipotle aioli on a potato bun is excellent. I also tried her grilled chicken sandwich and the pulled pork sandwich, and both had unique twists, and were very good. Sit back, relax, grab one of those delightful sandwiches, and feel very smart out there on a veranda at the back of the cafe, looking over the lush green lawn, the famous Rodin sculptures and the ornate buildings of the venerable Stanford campus, knowing that only Stanford intellectuals and real hard-core foodies frequent here.

Is this a trend, a movement? I think so. Chefs opening their comfort food eateries away from beaten paths, where even the knowledge of such gems means you are an "insider". Just ask the hoards of rabid fans following food trucks on twitter.

Where can you find more spots like Bovolo and Cool Cafe? Let us know where your favorite hidden gems are.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Iron Chevsky on Celebrity Wine Review TV

I told you what happened a month ago.

When Hollywood-based Celebrity Wine Review rolled into the City by the Bay to throw the "roaring 20's" vintage dress-up party in Hotel Rex, I was invited as a wine blogger and a bit of a tech celebrity, to rub shoulders with Charity and Desiree, the two Hollywood starlets who host this unique wine entertainment venture. And rub shoulders I did! It was totally goofy and a bloody great time! Move over, Gary Vaynerchuk!

Now watch the first ever clip of Iron Chevsky on Celebrity Wine Review TV. Would there be more to come...? If so, know this: in the future, I promise to be the serious old self, a seasoned wine expert that you've come to know and love.... NOT!

P.S. Don't know about you, but I sure wasn't focusing on the wine, if you know what I mean. Just kidding :)

Friday, November 12, 2010

San Francisco Wine School launching French wine program

San Francisco Wine School is launching a French wine program in partnership with French Wine Society - an organization that I have been a member of for several years. They are known for high-quality French wine curriculum, and I try to attend every new event they bring to San Francisco.

The French Wine School program starts on Tuesday, Nov 16, and includes 6 classes that painstakingly go through each major wine region of France. I took a similar class years ago when I was a staunch California wine fanatic and I didn't "get" French or Italian wine. The class opened my eyes and completely changed my appreciation of "old world" wine and France, in particular, and got me onto an amazing wine journey that I find myself on now.

In my opinion, for anyone who is eager to grow from a casual wine drinker to a wine aficionado, or for those who still don't "get" French wine, this type of class is a must.

Fall 2010 Class Schedule

(Tuesday & Thursday 6pm-8:30pm)
All classes in Hotel Triton’s Creative Zone

Tue 11/16 (Alsace) & Thu 11/18 (Burgundy)
Tue 11/23 (Beaujolais)*
Tue 12/7 (Bordeaux) & Thu 12/9 (Loire)
Tue 12/14 (Champagne) & Thu 12/16 (Rhone)
Tue 12/21 (South of France)*
Tue 1/11 FWS Exam
Note: Thu 11/25, Tue 11/30, Thu 12/2 and Thu 12/23, Tue 12/28, Thu 12/30, Tue 1/4 and Thu 1/6 are skipped due to the holidays.

Location: Hotel Triton
Address: 342 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94108
Date: Tuesdays and Thursdays
Tuesday, November 16th to Tuesday, January 11th
Time: From 6:00 PM to 8:30 PM
Cost: $895.00

Email: fws@sanfranciscowineschool.com
Phone: 415-779-2FWS (415-779-2397)

Make sure you tell them you saw this here on the Iron Chevsky Wine Blog, to get the extra special treatment :) Note: I get $0 referral fees or kick-backs for doing this.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Innovation Summit 2010, Nov 12-14, Healdsburg, CA

This Saturday, Nov 13, I will be keynoting at a unique conference, put together by Partners for Growth & Innovation in Healdsburg, Sonoma wine country. I will tell a story spanning from the early days in Soviet Union, to the founding of Ask Jeeves and to the executive position at one of the fastest-growing startups in the Valley - YouSendIt - and the role innovation, hard work and perseverance have played in that.

Innovation Summit 2010: Creating an Innovative Ecosystem is my kind of conference - tech talk by day, wine talk by night, along with wine tours, wine dinners, and a lot of good-natured hanging out, eating, drinking, and thought exchange.

Nightly "fireside wine chats" will touch on the topics on wine biz, innovative farming, wine making, and social media.

The complete 3-day conference agenda is here.

The following should give you a taste:

Green Winery Tours in Dry Creek Valley: Sbragia (they are releasing a wine with football great Joe Montana next February, called Montaggia), Michel Schlumberger, Truett Hurst.

Friday evening: Art Show at Healdsburg's Studio Diva, to see Susan Preston of Preston Winery's, first public show, followed by a country style dinner of Frogmore Shrimp Stew, Harvest Fair award winning dishes, and Key Lime Pie, prepared by Sean Thomas, the Zinful Chef. The evening food and wine talk will be given by Sean's father, Richard L. Thomas, wine columnist of Vine Wise, at North Bay Biz, and co-founder of the first viticulture program in Sonoma County, 30 years ago, after obtaining his degree in wine, from U.C. Davis. A keynote talk at dinner to formally kickoff the Innovation Summit 2010, will be given by Nilofer Merchant, author of The New How. Rounding up the evening will be guitar playing by talented Victor Tsaran, and a Fireside Chat with Jeff Fowle, President of Agchat Foundation, and Gina Riner of Limerick Lane Winery, who will also be pouring their award winning wines for the group.

Full day of conference, including a visit by Seghesio winery CEO, Pete Seghesio, to talk about the history of Sonoma County, and their innovative wine making, dating back to the late 1800's. Dinner for Saturday night: Seghesio Wine Release & Pasta Party, prepared by the women of the winery. Then, back to the Krug Event Center, to enjoy a musical performance of Jazz, Latin/Brazilian, Funk, Blues, and World Music, by the talented Larry Vuckovich Ensemble.

I will be hosting the Saturday fireside wine chat, with speakers, Shana Ray of Two Five Media, William Allen of Simple Hedonism's, Margot Sinclair Savelle of Write for Wine, and Frank Gutierrez of Wagner Family of Wine/Caymus Vineyards, who will also be pouring their award winning wines.

Sponsor Showcase, and optional post event organized leisure wine touring in the Dry Creek Valley, and Alexander Valley AVA's.

Closing gathering or drop-in wine tasting on Sunday eve for those returning to the Bay Area will be held at Cellars of Sonoma in Santa Rosa - they only pour and sell boutique, small lot wines, not available in the traditional marketplace.

Join me and check it out!

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