The deviled eggs at Dixie (topped with fried chicken liver—genius). Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Why hello there—did ya miss me? I was supposed to be back in your inbox last Friday, but guess who was completely flattened by that utterly evil flu that is making its way to California? People, I am talking six days in bed, a horrid fever, chills, and barely eating. Yes, me! Suffice it to say I will never, ever miss a flu shot again. I’m still at home in my robe coughing like a tragic character out of a Dickens novel, it’s ridiculous. Don’t. Catch. It. At least I dropped a couple of pounds and I’m all caught up on and obsessed with Downton Abbey. I swear, that show was the only good thing in my life this past week (oh yeah, and my mother’s chicken soup).
So it’s a week late, but here is my annual installment of “the bore,” the one time during the year when I become a petulant, bitchy restaurant columnist and complain about 10 things that need to go away this year. Let me tell you, my current state of illness only contributed to my crankypants status. Meow.
I am also pleased to welcome a new writer to tablehopper, Alan Goldfarb, who will be contributing pieces to the wino section a couple of times a month. Today is his introductory piece; we’re happy to have him on board. Also today, a 707 update for you from Heather Irwin. Next Tuesday will be the mega catch-up on the local news issue—a lot has happened the past few weeks, so stand by!
Happy New Year to you all—it’s good to finally feel like a part of it.
Ah yes, it’s a new year, when it’s my annual tradition to kvetch and complain about those annoying little things that got caught in my culinary craw over the past year. I wish there were a shortage of things to write about, but what can I say, this thing practically writes itself.
And before you start wondering where my rants are on choice items like “farm to fork” or truffle oil, you’ll probably find them in previous installments of the bore.
- Our city is starting to look like a coffin made of reclaimed wood. Look, I’m glad you’re not sawing down precious redwood for some two-by-fours for your flooring, but is that reclaimed barn floor from Kentucky really the only design material we have access to?
- Subway tile. (See previous.)
- Mason jars, Weck jars… All these canning jars holding everything from wine to flowers to pickles. It’s all so twee. I am beginning to feel like an extra on Little House on the Prairie. (Can’t wait for the locusts to come.)
- Changing centuries now, let’s look at our current state of lukewarm food. I blame all this damn overcomposing on the plate. There needs to be a coup d’état to overthrow the tyranny of tweezer cuisine. It’s like being served a terrarium: a little soil here, some foraged flowers there, some sponge cake, a dollop of foam, a swath of puree, and voilà, here is your lukewarm plate of food with 15 ingredients, madame. For $29! I am so honored. Look, I’m not against making the plate pretty, but let’s not forget people are eating the food and not just looking at it.
- Servers who greet a table of women with “Hey guys!” This happens far too often. I’m cool with being casual, but we have smarts, beauty, excellent intuition, and bleed every month, so please, show some respect.
- The ampersand. Local food businesses are beginning to sound like a law firm of animals (Animal Firm?): Hog & Rocks. Hops & Hominy. Beast & the Hare. Craftsman & Wolves. Pig & Pie. Unless it’s milk & cookies, let’s give it a rest.
- I sometimes wonder if chefs and restaurant owners have eaten recently off their own plates, with their dining room’s flatware? Because then they would see how the entrée plate is so ginormous that there’s no easy way to rest your knife. I had a bowl of soup with edges that were so high that it was hard to spoon into it—I wondered if it was a joke (nope, it wasn’t). I have also been served desserts with a spoon when the dish clearly required a fork. All I’m asking is this: chefs, look at how your food is being served before you serve it.
- Chef bands.
- Live tweeting. Whether you’re Anthony Bourdain live tweeting one of your shows—or almost as bad—Perez Hilton live tweeting your French Laundry meal, please, enough with the navel-gazing and just focus on the task at hand. Watch your show. Eat your dinner. Shut the eff up.
- Coed bathrooms. Really, they are the worst. And when they don’t have toilet seat covers? Makes me want to bust out a Sharpie and write all over the walls: “A clueless man designed this bathroom.”
Whew, okay, time to put a sock in it. Did I forget a big one? Do you feel like bitching too? Go ahead and email me. XOXO!
As 2012 came to a close, I couldn’t help but reminisce about some of my favorite Sonoma and Napa openings of the year. There’s no doubt that Healdsburg was the center of Sonoma County’s 2012 restaurant action, with four major openings, including CAMPO FINA, BRAVAS, CAFE LUCIA, and PIZZANDO along with the major news of the closure of Michelin-starredCYRUS. Forestville’s BACKYARD and Santa Rosa’s SPINSTER SISTERS, as well as THE THOMAS in Napa and GOOSE AND GANDER in St. Helena are other notable openings. See the whole list of restaurants Wine Country welcomed in 2012.
Speaking of Healdsburg, chefs Ari Rosen (Campo Fina, Scopa), Dustin Valette (Dry Creek Kitchen), Jeff Mall (ZIN), and Mark Stark (Willi’s Seafood, Bravas) host intimate chef’s table dinners at RELISH CULINARY CENTER each Monday night, from January 14th through February 4th. Rosen will kick off the series with his “perfect polenta” and handmade pappardelle pasta on January 14th at 6pm, followed by Valette (vanilla brown-butter pot de crème) on January 21th, Mall on January 28th (Zin-braised Liberty duck), and Stark on February 4th (Maine Lobster rolls). Details online. 14 Matheson St. at Center St., Healdsburg.
BUTCHER AND COOK, the 10-week pop-up restaurant in Santa Rosa (112 Fourth St. at Wilson) run by local butcher Berry Salinas, is now on Friday nights, featuring a $15 prix-fixe dinner (this week: hand pies, veal marrow, sausage and grits, and Meyer lemon cheesecake). There will also be wine and beer by the glass and rockin’ tunes from the North Bay Hootenanny. They’ll still have Sunday fried chicken pickup dinners from 5-7pm. 555 Sebastopol Rd., Santa Rosa.
Adam Parks of Victorian Farmstead Meats joins chef John Lyle for a special chicken and dumplings dinner at the EPICUREAN CONNECTION in Sonoma on January 16th. The three-course meal includes a wine flight, porchetta with winter vegetables, and a fig tart. $75 per person, 6:30pm, 122 West Napa St. at First St., Sonoma, 707-935-7960.
My food quest this week: chilaquiles. They’re a tried-and-true Mexican hangover remedy you’d be hard-pressed not to love. Translated as either “broken-up old sombrero” or “herbs in a chile broth,” they’re a a hearty morning repast of fried corn tortillas given a leisurely bath in salsa or mole. Scramble in some eggs, top with cheese, sour cream, avocados, and a side of beans, and you’re fueled up for the day. Most taquerias serve them for breakfast (and even into lunch), but snazzier spots are also getting in on the action. Some of the best were chef-inspired versions of the classics at VIOLA PASTRY BOUTIQUE (709 Village Court inside Montgomery Village, Santa Rosa, 707-544-8830) and the bright salsa verde rendition at JEFFREY’S HILLSIDE CAFE (2901 4th St. at Farmer’s Lane, Santa Rosa, 707-546-6317). In Sonoma, you can’t beat EL MOLINO CENTRAL (11 Central Ave., Boyes Hot Springs, 707-939-1010), where everything is made from scratch, including the stone-ground masa. See the whole list.
Three new restaurants have opened in Northern Wine Country: Saucy in Ukiah, Aquarelle Cafe and Wine Bar in Boonville, and Hopland Ale House in Hopland. At SAUCY (108 W. Standley St., Ukiah, 707-462-7007), chef Mitchel Mount, an alum of Tra Vigne and La Brea Bakery, has teamed up with restaurateur Cynthia Ariosta and former Iron Horse winemaker/owner Forrest Tancer to create an urban oasis in this emerging restaurant town. The menu features wood-fired pizzas, small plates of meatballs or burrata, a crispy kale Caesar, and pizza “sandwiches” for lunch.
In Boonville, private chef Christina Jones brings together a fusion of flavors to CAFE AQUARELLE (14025 Hwy. 128, Boonville, 707-895-2767). Recent menus include Berkshire pork chops with apple-caramelized onion chutney and buttermilk mashed potatoes ($18), truffle fries with housemade aioli ($8), and skillet prawns with garlic butter and white wine ($13).
The just opened HOPLAND ALE HOUSE (13351 S Hwy 101, Hopland, 707-744-1255) serves up pub classics like Ale House chili, pastrami sandwiches, and chicken tacos.
Alan Goldfarb was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star, where it is said that assignment must be akin to covering Catholicism in Vatican City. He was also the senior editor for AppellationAmerica.com. His work has appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter. He’s the contributor of the chapter “Chewing on Chile” in the Travelers’ Tales book Adventures in Wine. He was also the technical editor for California Wine for Dummies.
He’s a restaurant wine consultant and advises wineries on public relations projects. (For his “Checking Lists” column, he will not promote his clients.) You can listen to his latest appearance on iWine Radio. Have a question or a comment? You can email Alan. He’d love to hear from you.
It was at Benoit in Manhattan a little more than a year ago that I was astonished by what amounted to a sucker punch to the kisser. Perusing the wine list, seeking out the best wine for the best price (which is my proclivity and challenge), I found a Rhône that was priced at $45. Looking around the bistro, I saw on the next table very nice glasses that were thin and sleek. But when I inquired of the server if he would please replace the thick, clunky stemware in front of us, he exclaimed, “I’m sorry, monsieur, but I can only give you those glasses if you had ordered a wine that was at least $100; and you haven’t.” Literal double take, then quasi-laughter, followed by incredulity.
It was the most stunning moment I’ve ever experienced in a restaurant; and this from a satellite property of the renowned Alain Ducasse. What, the server wanted me not to enjoy my paltry little wine in a better glass that would have made the wine better? Yes, glasses do matter; as does the temperature of the wine and the food it’s being paired with.
This, in essence, is what this twice-monthly column will concern itself with: restaurant wine and all of its ramifications, nuances, splendor, and foibles. Wine is an integral component of the restaurant experience; without it or sans a good list that possesses good price-to-quality ratios, without unpretentious, beneficial service, and without no-nonsense utilitarian stemware, a restaurant will not stay above the fray. After all, it’s the profit margin on wine and other alcoholic beverages that bring home the bacon and the offal. The food? There’s hardly any dough in that for a restaurant’s bottom line.
Of the food, are the wines on the list chosen to reflect the cuisine, to elevate it as well as the wine, or was it thrown together willy-nilly as an afterthought? You’d be surprised.
This space will praise restaurant wine programs, as well as call them out for egregiousness such as overpriced, mediocre, label-driven, distributor-centric wines. And nothing gets me going more than what I consider lazy wine training, i.e., a server should know the answer to the question “Is this riesling dry or sweet?” Riesling in particular runs the spectrum from fruity sweet to minerally dry and servers should be trained properly to know the difference. It’s crucial and usually expensive for the drinker, as well as the restaurant.
Is the wine served at the proper temperature? Most wines by the glass are presented way too cold, but at least one can cup the glass for a few minutes to bring the temperature down. A too cold temperature closes the wine in and restrains its flavors. Too warm? That’s a common problem in the Bay Area, especially in the two weeks or so we have our Indian summer. Here, there’s hardly any air-conditioning and most midlevel restaurants don’t have proper storage facilities, subsequently the wines suffer. If the reds are too warm, their fruit is tramped down, and the consumer tastes nothing but tannin (from grape skins) and acidity. Most likely, that wine won’t be ordered again.
Get me started on pricing? Most restaurants have markups of two and a half times wholesale. That’s fair, despite what it might seem to those of us who are not in the business. Two times wholesale, of course, is best, but many establishments bump their take up to three times, while downtown hotels rip the tourist off to the cha-ching of 400 percent margins. It’s the reason why cocktails, which offer more punch (read: alcohol) for the buck, are more popular (much to my consternation) than wine (which is usually “only” 14 to 16 percent alcohol; but that’s another subject for another time).
So as we embark on this exploration of restaurant wine criticism, I’d appreciate your feedback regarding your restaurant wine experiences. Also, at the end of each treatise, I’ll include a wine that I think you’d like, culled from lists from around the globe as I pursue my long, fantastic journey through the world of wine. Hope you enjoy it and it helps explain and enlighten some things.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: 2011 Mas Jullien Rosé, Coteaux du Languedoc This is a big rosé from the south of France, and is perfect for fish or fowl. In fact, rosé has transcended summertime, just as Champagne/sparklers have gone beyond the celebratory paradigm. I had this beauty at Gary Danko in San Francisco recently with lobster risotto and guinea hen with kabocha gnocchi. This Cinsault-Grenache Noir blend has enough substance and backbone that if it were in a blind tasting, it could be taken for a light, albeit well-constructed, Pinot Noir. It’s full of dry fruit flavors, very nuanced, and finishes completely dry. On the list at Danko it’s $50 (pricey for a rosé but still an excellent value) and is $18.50-$23 at retail shops.