Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Road Trip to Napa Pt. 2 (Santa Cruz/Cupertino - Los Altos Grill)

After lunch at Artisan, we raced up the 101 freeway for our appointment at Ridge Vineyards located in Cupertino, CA. Founded in the 60's the winery has two locations, one off the Monte Bello Ridge (hence the name) and one farther into the Santa Cruz mountains. Ridge is famous for placing 5th in the  Judgment of Paris, in 1976 as well as winning 1st in the subsequent followup in 1996, with their wine Monte Bello. A blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Petite Verdot, and Cabernet Franc, the wines are main in a way for it to live long and prosper. 
Our meeting was with Caleb, the viticulturalist at Ridge Vineyards and good friend of a local wine buddy, to give us a driving tour of the Ridge Vineyards as well as a tour of the facility (and tasting of Monte Bello of course ;) ). The vineyard is situated over 2,500 sq ft above sea level and has a view of all of the Bay. 

After going to the tallest point at Ridge, we decided to explore their deepest point... the cellar built in the 1800's. They encourage the use of this moldy, dark cellar due to their belief that the limestone imparts a certain characteristic that you normally do not get.

Going down the stairs felt like entering a horror movie. The whole room was completely dark and when the lights turned on, it only illuminated certain areas of the room holding barrels... and it was a very very large room.

After leaving the horror show, we entered the room where the Monte Bello magic happens.

We tasted through 3 barrels of the 08 Monte Bello (sorry no concrete notes) some zins and finally an 05 Monte Bello. All quite yummy... not for everyone but a great wine in a less opulent style.

After the tasting, we headed on down the mountain for dinner with Josh Beck of Rhys at Los Altos Grill, a Hillstone property (ala Houston's). This particular restaurant centers on more of a Tex-Mex fare... a lot of lime, cilantro, deep earthy flavors opposed to Houston's which is centered around American fare. It still has the typical Prime Rib that most Hillstone restaurants have, but the other stuff is pretty tasty for the price.

We started off with some salads and their skillet baked corn bread.

Their skillet corn bread seems to be cooked with lime, jalapeno, and tons of corn kernels. You get a really light sour/spicy bite to it that is mixed in with the sweetness of the corn. It's actually pretty nice flavor wise. Texture wise, it was fluffy and fresh, what more could you ask for?

Then we had a few servings of their Nice Little House Salad

There is nothing little about this salad. Giant chunks of hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, goat cheese mixed in with wild greens and a light vinaigrette. Delightfully refreshing, especially with some nice aged Krug *nom*

Outside of their restaurant is a big wood fire rotisserie grill, which they have cooked up chicken and pork chops.. which were both ordered today. Slow roasted till juicy and tender... the notes below are a product of my dining compatriots who eat meat (I won't be eating meat till the next day.. and with good reason!)

First up the Banderas Style Roasted Chicken

It's served with green rice and spiced refried beans. The rice had the PERFECT amount of lime with just enough acidity to match the spice on the beans. The cilantro is fresh and imparts just enough flavor to accompany a very tender and flavorful piece of chicken. Highly recommended.

Next up the Rotisserie Pork Chop

Served on a bed of mash potato, the pork chop was about 2.5 inches thick. It was a real monstrosity. Moist and succulent, the slow roast allows the fat to render in the pork and create a really flavor packed piece of meat.

Then the Vegetarian Burger
Unlike most places with a weirdly form mesh of veggie and tofu, the Grill finely chops an assortment of vegetables and packs it tightly together. After about a hour in the burger finally started to fall apart but this was truly a novel concept.

Obligatory order of the prime rib.

To finish it off, the five of us split an Oreo Ice Cream Sandwich
When the waiter was telling us the desserts, I told him "You had me at Oreo". And damnit, if it wasn't something magical. Crushed oreo cookie sandwiching rich vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup... all I needed was a giant class of ice cold milk to finish the meal off.

I really liked the restaurant, the Hillstone Group puts out some good stuff at reasonable prices. Topping it off is ZERO corkage ... so ten bottles for the five of us was pretty awesome at zero dollars.

The next morning, we finally head into Napa for 4 days of fun in vineyards and sun!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Road Trip to Napa,CA Wine Country Pt 1.

Sorry for the recent lull in posting, As a celebration for the end of the Bar Exam, I took an absolutely stellar road trip up to Napa with my buddy Dan. Five nights of awesomeness that was increased by generosity from friends, winemakers, and owners of winery/restaurants. This set of trip photos/details will have wine notes, food notes, pictures of scenery/food/wine and all the goodness that come from a delightful trip to Napa.

Day 1

I stayed overnight at Chateau Kimmer in San Luis Obispo. After enjoying a few glasses of the 2005 Clos De Papes (which is a very well made wine.. closed up a bit but the monster wants to be UNLEASHED) I slept on the grandest of sofas and drifted away until the morning wake up call at 8am.... Dan telling me to wake up.

We were making a few stops on Day 1 as we travel up the 101 freeway to Napa. Our first stop was in Paso Robles at Saxum Winery. Justin Smith is the winemaker/owner of Saxum and is making some pretty stupendous wines if not the best wines in the Paso Robles region. A farmer by trade he makes wines from the neighboring vineyards as well as his own James Berry Vineyard.

Vineyard from another angle

One section of the vineyard, Bone Rock , sits on top of a giant prehistoric whale vertebra

If you've ever wanted to handle a whale vertebra bone.. there's your chance.

We sampled the 07 Lineup and tasted a few things in barrel and I can easily say this is the best Saxum Justin has produced yet.

  • 2005 Saxum 44 Month Barrel Age James Berry Vineyard - USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles (8/19/2009)

    In bottle
    A powerful nose of fresh raspberry, pomegranate, and fresh bread that hit your right in the nose like a sledgehammer. Needed about a hour in the bottle to open up but when it did it was probably the most "complex" Saxum I've yet to taste. Deep dark fruit core with prominent notes of cigar, forest floor and some light floral on the finish. The finish went on for eons, with layers and layers of complexity.

    We saved half a bottle for the next day and the secondary characteristics gave way to strong fruit and minerality. I preferred it a hour in... a lot of the guys preferred the next day.
  • 2007 Saxum Broken Stones - USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles (8/19/2009)

    in bottle
    A light airy nose of cedar and ripe red fruit. Chalky tannins on the palate with a slim mid palate of red fruit that requires some time to resolve . Some tobacco notes on the finish with just a tinge of oak.
  • 2007 Saxum James Berry Vineyard - USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles (8/19/2009)

    IN bottle:
    WOWSER what a freaking wine. A little hint of heat that disappeared after a few minutes in the glass. Beautifully concentrated bright red fruit with notes of violet and a touch of oak. On the palate you get just loads and loads of fresh picked fruit with a raspberry finish that goes on for days. There is great acidity with a fresh minerality that is nothing like the bigger almost "jammy" 06 James berry. This wine is incredibly clean and fresh and easily top of the heap.
  • 2007 Saxum Syrah Booker Vineyard - USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles

    in bottle
    wine needs a ton of time in bottle and I'm glad Justin doesn't release it for awhile. It has a spice box, red fruit nose with fresh strawberries with lean fruit on the palate that's really closed up.
After chit chatting with Justin for awhile and getting to know a really cool down to earth winemaker of one of the most popular wineries in California, he suggested we get lunch at Artisan in Paso Robles central.

This restaurant would be well suited in any major metropolitan city. It is well appointed, open aired space with an open air kitchen. The restaurant prides itself in the use of organic produce and wild caught/sustainable meats.

Fresh innovative cuisine with specialty ingredients and a very budget friendly wine list. They have a few specials each day that range from a tomato soup with roasted pork belly and grilled cheese sandwiches.

We arrived 5 minutes after they opened and were promptly seated. They were still baking the bread when we arrived but the 8 extra minutes we waited for bread service was well worth it.

A crunchy loaf of hot french bread *drool*, the perfect vessel to carbo load after some wine drinking and the soon to be long 4 hour drive up to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

To further add onto our carb fest, Dan and I both ordered sandwiches that were utterly delicious.

Cuban Sandwich, slow roasted berkshire pork, country ham, emmentaler, sweet potato fries

A pile of freshly roasted meat layered with house made pickles of Zucchini and Squash served with crunchy sweet potato fries. To quote: "meaty pieces of ham that tasted like they were dipped in honey and then baked to NEAR crispness."

I asked for a dish of the pickles to snack on. They aren't your standard "crisp" sandwich pickles but more of a sweet acidic kick with a soft texture.

Gruyère and Comté Grilled Cheese, pesto aioli, hen of the woods, challah toast, asparagus salad

A thick piece of buttered Challah toast stuffed to the gills with "hen of the woods" (also known as Maitake mushrooms) with a few thick slices of tomato, gruyere, and comte. All perfectly formed together with a flavor explosion of rich garlic from the pesto sauce and earthiness from the mushrooms and the cheese with some freshness that's imparted by the tomato. My only negative about this dish would be the thickness of the toast. It was almost a bit overwhelming and I felt it took away from the sandwich itself due to the dough-iness of the bread.

Altogether this was an excellent and filling stop before the start of our journey. The creative hand that is used to guide even these sandwiches is evident and the freshness/uniqueness of the ingredients were welcome and appreciated.

Pt2 coming up VERY soon... we make our way up to Cupertino and the Santa Cruz mountains for a vineyard tour of Ridge winery.. and dinner with Josh Beck of Ridge in Los Alimos!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Wally's 6th Annual Central Coast Wine and Food Celebration

After this initial splurge of text, this post is going to be light on words, heavy heavy heavy on pictures.

I recently attended the Central Coast Wine and Food Celebration at Wally's Wines and Spirits in Los Angeles. The event is held for the Michael Bonaccorsi UC Davis Scholarship Fund annually and features a plethora of restaurants and wineries from Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, and Los Angeles. All the wineries offered up auction lots of Magnums and 3L's of their library wines.

I came to help Larry Schafer of Tercero Wines pour at the event and as always he brought more than enough wine to pour for the masses. Some of the wineries were MAJOR cop outs and brought their simplest wines. Guess they didn't think they needed to impress anyone.. ? *COUGH* Sea Smoke Cellars *COUGH* Thank you for bringing only your Chardonnay which people cannot even BUY if they wanted to due to it being a gift wine to loyal customers (or if you've purchased enough wine and they've given you the PRIVILEGE of buying a Magnum of the chard).

Fortunately working with Larry, you don't see that cheap-assness cause he brought bottles to spare.

Each of his wines x multiple servings as well as barrel tastes from his VERY soon to be bottled 07 line. If you're a fan of well made Rhone wines, Larry is the guy to see. Rather affordable, sub $25 from his wine club.. best deal on the market IMHO for central coast Rhones.

The event attracted a few hundred people that were standing around, eating in 90+ degree weather. I was melting. Fortunately I came in as "ITB" and got to wander around before the general public came in.


11:45am and the horde waiting to get in


Madhouse! Madhouse indeed!

Before the Madhouse descended on us, I got to take a few pictures of the set up for the food. A large list of restaurants from
  • Spago
  • Cut
  • Hitching Post
  • Ballard Inn
  • Full of Life Flat Bread
  • Bouchon (Santa Barbara)
  • Brother's
  • Lucques
  • Hungry Cat
  • Campanile
  • Street
  • Pizzeria/Osteria Mozza
  • and a few more!
Here's some prep pics before everyone was ready to serve!

The Wolfgang Puck Crew chopping up some berries for dessert

Full of Life Flatbread starting up their oven

Mozza's very elaborate display

Street prepping their wonderfully put together Asian inspired dish

Some people pulled a Top Chef Masters and complained that Street was using store bought shells, but I could not care less ;)

Started off the day with a mixed concoction of Grape fruit juice, vodka, "absinthe" from Hungry Cat

Moved on to a fresh sweet corn salad, with mixed greens, and cherry tomatoes from Cut

Then a Rock Crab claw with a chili verde sauce from Comme Ca

A creamy gazpacho with a lightly cooked quail egg from Lucques

Dungeness crab with micro greens over a chilled cucumber from Bouchon

Paani Puri (spiced potatoe, chutney and sprout beans, in a crispy puff and drenched in yogurt-cilantro water) from Street

RIDICULOUSLY FATTY breadsticks wrapped with truffle butter and cured ham. Freaking ridiculous. I got a heart attack smelling it.

Yellowtail with mustard greens and a pickled salsa from Campanile

Baked Oysters from Hungry Cat

Prime Rib tacos with a light avocado sauce from Brother's

Vegetarian flat bread from Full of Life Flatbread

Mouth Watering "ham and cheese" sandwich from Pasolivo

Grilled Korean style Kobe Beef "tacos" with Soba Noodles from Spago

Pulled Pork Sliders from Comme Ca

Slow braised Pork Shoulder from Ballard Inn
Steak sandwich with home made spiced ketchup from Hitching Post

uh.. lil fried balls from Comme Ca with a lemon custard sauce and plum sauce

Butterscotch pudding with a dash of sea salt from Osteria Mozza

Fresh ice cream from Spago

All in all a vastly fulfilling day foodwise. The wine showing wasn't that spectacular but the food was pretty much top notch for the amount of portions they had to put out. There were still 4-5 more dishes I didn't take pictures of that were still very good.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Michelle's Pancakes


Tucked away in a non-descript shopping plaza with numerous other small Chinese restaurants, I probably never would have stumbled across Michelle's Pancakes... But it caught my attention (and the attention of many others), thanks to a recent L.A. Times Article. http://www.latimes.com/features/food/la-fo-find15-2009jul15,0,1798170.story

As touted on the outside windows, Michelle's does not use MSG, all their products are hand-made, and they use less salt, less oil, thinner wrapping, and more juicy filling.

Michelle's Pancakes is small endeavor, with only 9 tables. Soon after opening (around 11:18 A.M. on a Saturday and the place normally opens at 11 AM), all the tables were already filled, and a line started forming outside. The parking lot is also small, and filled by 11 A.M. as well- we parked in a 10-minute spot. They also sell their baos and dumplings to-go, but on Saturday, they didn't have any frozen baos available (only dumplings).

Onward to the food... a purchase of three "entrees" (baos, dumplings, wontons) will entitle you to a free cold dish. Our choice? Their "all-variety eggplant" with a special red sauce.

The eggplant was simply boiled (it seemed), and then slathered with the tangy red sauce on top (which tasted like a mix of ketchup, ginger, and a little sweetness but had no heat). It was a nice contrast to the forthcoming dishes, which were pan-fried.

They had these great sauces on the side to pair with the various dumplings, wontons, potstickers. On the left is a garlic/soy sauce-oyster sauce (maybe?) mixture; on the right is a chili oil mixture. The left sauce was thick and pungent (in a good way), infused with lots of garlic. The chili oil wasn't too spicy, but added a nice kick. I mixed both together, and dipped the various dishes in the sauce mixture, including the eggplant (above).

The first dish to arrive was the pan-fried postickers, filled with pork and cabbage. They appeared more healthy than the normal pan-fried ones, but still had a little oil (after all, how to pan-fry without oil?!). The filling was meaty, but not thick and the wrapper was chewy. Here is a nice little explanation on the differences btwn potsticks and wontons and dumplings, even though I use them interchangably to refer to "that yummy thing that has a wrapper and a filling inside." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumpling#Chinese_Cuisine

Here is a close-up of the filling...

The wontons arrived next, in a broth filled with cilantro and green onions. The filling was supposed to be pork and si gua, or in english, called luffa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigua_%28vegetable%29). However, there was little to no si gua taste, which was a little disappointing. Least likely to recommend this dish. Sorry, no photo!

The baos filled with beef, carrot, and white onion came next. These were the highlight of the meal-- succulent beef filling, encased with a firm but yielding dough. Be careful biting into these-- they are hot, and the juice from the filling will squirt out! As recommended by the LA Times reviewer, take a small nibble, suck out the juice, and then proceed to eat the rest. It's too bad they didn't have the frozen variety of these or other baos, to-go.

Of course, the obligatory filling picture...

The last to arrive was the green onion pancake. Most Chinese places I've been to make a pretty decent green onion pancake, and this was no different. I did notice that this one wasn't as oily or salty as the others, which I appreciated.

With tax and tip, it came to a little over $30, for three people. Not the cheapest fare in the area, given that one could have pho, or Chinese lunch special, but still pretty economical. However, if you are sensitive to MSG, or prefer things with less oil and salt, this may be your place! Also, despite what many Yelp reviewers said, service was attentive on our visit-- the tea pot was refilled quickly, and the manager/owner even came over to ask how everything was and how we liked it.

Michelle's Pancakes
706 W. Las Tunas Drive, No. B3-B4
San Gabriel, CA
(626) 293-8098