Tikal – Patriota 2008

In December 2001, I went to Argentina for my very first time and I fell in love with this country and especially, Mendoza. This city is very special for many reasons, the many tree lined streets that are closed off to traffic, the friendly people, and the wines from this region rival many from around the world. If you drive west for several hours you will see the mightly Aconcagua with ancient ruins along the way. Sidenote, stop for parilla along the highway coming back to Mendoza because you will be hungry. In Mendoza there is no shortage of good restuarants and my personal favorite, Sopelsa’s Ice Cream. This ice cream shop is the absolute best in the world especially with the abundance of fresh milk from Argentina’s famous cows. Also, the world does evolves around good food, wine, and ice cream.

This the first part of three, describing wines that remind me of this trip. My criteria is that they are afforable, drinkable, and have a distinct flavor. The first wine is a Malbec and Bonarda mix and these two grapes are very representative of this region. As you may know, Malbec grapes orginated from France, but flourished in the Mendozan climate and soil. Malbec has really come to fame in the recent 5-7 years and I think it has a permanent spot in the wine section of any location. Bonarda, until recently, was Argentina’s most abundant wine making grape. The result are two grape varieties that have been used for many years by the wine makers of Mendoza.

The Tikal – Patriota 2008 was a fantastic start for my wine memory lane. Once you open the bottle you will notice it’s deep purple color  and warm aroma. This is a very full bodied wine with a lot of body and character. With the mix of Bonarda grapes you get a very fruity taste with a ton of flavor from your first sip. What I love the most about this wine is the long and very satisfying finish giving you a reason to savor every drink. Serve it with pork or beef, or even a pizza because this wine can be served during any day of the week without breaking your wallet. Since it does have a pleasant finish you can drink it without any food and really enjoy a glass by the fireplace during a cold evening.

I have since gone out and bought two more bottles of Patriota because of its afordability, and richness this bottle of wine provides. . It may be a full bodied big wine, but you will have an enjoyable time drinking it.

Prices range from $15-$19/ bottle and you can see the winery and bottle detail at this link……. (TIKAL 2008)

In the works: Dinner Party Menu

I am going to have a dinner party, but the only problem is, I don’t know when.  Being proactive, I am already working on my menu for a 6 to 7 course tasting menu.  Here it is, and I will update this as time goes on. In the past I have done 2 menus, a vegetarian and a regular menu but this time I want to go upscale on one menu and try to hit it out of the park. The main theme is very Asian, but with European influences.

1st Course : Halibut Ceviche – 2 ways

Halibut with Sweat Pea Wasabi Sprinkled with Shaved Daikon

White-Soy-Yuzu marinated Halibut, Seaweed, and Spiced “Rice Crispies”

2nd Course: Almond, garlic, and grapes gazpacho

3rd Course: My Version of the Spring Roll

– pounded shrimp glazed with olive oil infused with thai peppers and layered with cucumber and

foie gras and then wrapped in rice paper. Served with a spicy shrimp sambal.

4th Course: Caviar Nestled in Linguine with Warm Sea Urchin Sauce

5th Course: Spicy Dumpling w/ Quail Egg

with Seared Black Cod in a Chorizo Broth

The dumpling is influenced with Spanish style sausage tucked in a Chinese package and the cod is cooked in a Chinese style with a Spanish broth.

6th Course: “Bacon and Eggs”

Crispy Pork Belly and Baby Calamari Basquaise Sauce served along a Poached Egg

7th Course: “Peanut Butter and Jelly”

Peanut Butter Truffles &

Yuzu and Concord Grape Jellies

Served with a Cappuccino Semifredo

The Plumed Horse – Saratoga, CA

Background:

You would think that going to a restaurant with a Michelin star you would expect a great meal, but at The Plumed Horse it was a surprisingly fantastic meal. I have seen this restaurant in Saratoga at least 100 times as I love climbing Highway 9 on my road bike. Before the remodel, the restaurant looked to be stuffy and old with its awning. It was unappealing to enter, and perhaps it was purely a figment of my imagination, but it prevented me from wanting to go.

Fast forward 25 years, and I had an urge to have a great meal with my wife and wanted a culinary experience.  As a home cook it’s important that the food be very good, but also inspirational for me to integrate into my cooking. The resulting meal was inspiring, visually pleasing, and it rewarded you with a great evening.

The Thoughts on Selection:

After perusing the 2010 Michelin guide, I saw several restaurants that I wanted to go. French Laundry, which is nearly impossible to get into unless you have a day to live, and God decides to make your reservation for you. There is Fleur de Lys, (my long time favorite) but we had previously eaten there.  Gary Danko is too loud, so we ended up picking COI, but Saturday night in North Beach wasn’t thrilling me. So I changed the reservation to Manresa in Los Gatos based on it’s Michelin 2 stars. My wife wasn’t thrilled with the menu at Manresa, so I broke through my past stereotype, and changed the reservation for the third time, to The Plumed Horse. When I then looked at the website and the menu, I was very excited about my decision.

The service: The front staff was nice and they quickly sat us. Normally I would expect a restaurant to really charm you to make you feel special. You are about to drop big money and I didn’t get that special feeling, but it was nice enough. We were lucky to get a 4 top table which allowed us to sit closer together rather than sitting across from each other which is very nice for conversation. Our server and sommelier was Jeremy, and the first thing he did was asked about any food allergies. He also did a great job in introducing us to the menu, and the tasting menus with wine pairings. We picked the 7 course tasting menu with wine pairings, and he gave us a head start on our 1st wine, NV Chandon Etoile Rose, from Sonoma/Napa.

Advice: When we arrived at 8:30 p.m. it was pretty loud inside the dining room, but as the dinner continued it became quieter as other guests left. If you want a more romantic or intimate dinner, arrive later than early.

The Meal:

First Course:

Hawaiian Ahi Tuna Tartare

Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, quail egg, toasted brioche

This was one of the lightest and tastiest tuna tartares that I have had in a long time. The tuna was perfectly prepared and had an essence of the sea, a very pleasant and refreshing start. Then with the creaminess of the quail egg and texture and salt from the caviar, this was a perfect start. The pairing with the Chandon Etoile emphasized the tartare by elevating the substance of the dish with a moderately bold and lovely wine.

Wine Pairing : NV Chandon Etoile Rose, Somoma/Napa

Second Course:

Black Pepper & Parmesan Souffle

Dungeness crab & Uni fondue

This was one of the hightlights of the entire meal for me. The soufflé was perfect, but the Uni fondue with crab was out of this world. I could eat this dish every single day it was that good. The fondue as it entered the soufflé created this chowder in a bowl, but with complex flavors and a stick to your ribs satisfaction. The third course is as good, but if you went to the bar and ordered just this one dish, and one glass of “GVR” you would be very happy. Paired with this dish was a white wine from South Coast Winery in Temecula, and it was as noteworthy as the savory dish. The wine was crisp, had a long and rewarding finish, and really empowered the dish to ultimate highs. As of today, I am going to buy several of these bottles to add to our cellar and it registers as one of my favorite white wines.

Wine Pairing : 2008 South Coast Winery “GVR” Temecula, California

Third Course:

Seared Artisan Foie Gras

Black princess grapes, cayenne & molasses peanuts

When you see foie gras on the menu, you are instantly excited about eating something so decadent. When a dish comes to your table many times your eyes are treated to a great looking dish. As our third course arrived we saw this piece of foie, but we were rewarded with a smell of grandma’s home baked pie. The scent was so warm and cozy it was nearly impossible to eat it. Tasting it was a reward for sacrificing our remembrance of our pasts. I don’t eat foie very often, and this ranks among the top. To illustrate how much we liked the foie, we forgot to drink the Riesling with the meal. Fortunately, the wine was a brilliant finish to the dish and was very satisfying.

Wine Pairing : 2004 Dr. Loosen “Wehlener Sonnenuhr” Auslese, Reisling, Germany.

Fourth Course:

Slow cooked Alaskan Black Cod

Smoked duck, matsutaki mushrooms, watercress

There are a couple of reasons that I like this dish, first, the cod is from Alaska where it’s sustainable and fished responsibly. It is nice to see a Michelin star restaurant care about the ingredients and prepare a beautiful fish dish without sacrifice. The second reason is that cod is a very light and pleasant fish. The dish itself was good and it offered a good step away from the foie dish before, but there was enough texture from the fish, duck, and mushrooms. Paired with a very good wine it was a skillful way to get you over the hump for the tasting menu.

Wine Pairing : 1996 Christophe Violot-Guillemard “Beaune Clos du Roi” 1er Cru, Pomard, France

Fifth Course:

Mishima Ranch Kobe, charred rare

Yuzu kohsu, braised rutabaga, ox tail croquette

Now we’re talking. The Kobe beef was perfectly prepared and with a touch of the yuzu kohsu there was a dash of spice. Mixed with the oxtail croquette you had a wide range of flavors that paired very well together. Perhaps the oxtail could have been left out as it has a different flavor profile than the kobe.

The cabernet that was poured with the fifth course was a perfect illustration of why cabernet tastes so good. A richness, long thoughtful finish, and delicious aroma brought out the best from this dish. I dare to say that this wine made this course above average and without a thoughtful wine pairing the taste and importance of the kobe could have been lost.

Wine Pairing : 1999 Thunder Mountain “Doc’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon

Sixth Course:

Point Reyes blue cheese

Pear mostarda, chestnut honey, graham cracker

By now, you are getting seriously full and on the limit of needing a cab to get home. This dish really opened up your palette for one more dish and despite it “petite” stature it really kicked in good. A small spread of the blue cheese dipped with the graham cracker while brushing some honey along with it was a powerful combination. The Gewürztraminer made the powerful blue cheese go away nicely. Normally, I don’t like Gewürztraminer due to it’s sweetness, but our sommelier mentioned that late harvest means that the sweetness is tapered. He was right. I’m still not a Gewürztraminer fan, but at least I know there is a time and place for all wines.

Wine Pairing : 2006 Littorai “Lemon’s Folley” Gewürztraminer (Late Harvest), Sonoma Coast

Seventh Course:

Valrhona Chocolate Soufflé

Conrado Farms Black Mission Figs, crème anglaise

I ate every bite of this dessert and the soufflé with crème anglaise was very  good. I like Valrhona chocolate for it’s dark and bold taste, but I was hoping for something a little more inventive on the dessert realm. Never-the-less, it was a very gratifying dessert, and the port was a perfect pairing with this dessert.

Wine Pairing : Port

Summary:

The Plumed Horse is a great place to go because everything is well executed, the dining room is beautiful, and the service was always thoughtful and unobtrusive. The also have ala carte menu and a vegetarian tasting menu that allows  a wide range of flexibility with your meal.  In addition to the restaurant they have a beautiful bar with fireplace. Michelin Guide just awarded them another 1 star for 2011. Congratulations to The Plumed Horse.

Reservations are available through OpenTable or at:

14555 Big Basin Way
Saratoga, CA 95070-6013
(408) 867-4711

http://www.plumedhorse.com/

Here are the highlight wines from the dinner.

2004 Dr. Loosen “Wehlener Sonnenuhr” Auslese, Reisling, Germany

2008 South Coast Winery “GVR” Temecula, California

1999 Thunder Mountain “Doc’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon

How Homemade Pesto Made a 3 year-old Proud

Ever since my daughter was 1 1/2, Alessandra has loved to “pretend” cook in her play kitchen, and while I cooked lunch or dinner. She often dons her paper chef’s hat and apron in the process of preparing her cooking surface, a $20 plastic IKEA table sitting in our kitchen. Alessandra is pretty serious, and she will repeatedly request that I call her chef. She then methodically asks me to get her a bowl or pan, spoon, and spatula. I use the word “ask”, but think of Gordon Ramsey. She’s a demanding cookie.

We often go to my mother’s for dinner and one of the things she will cook is homemade pesto with fusilli.  Alessandra loves this pesto sauce and store bought pesto doesn’t come close. So I thought making our own pesto would be great cooking project. This would give Alessandra an opportunity to make her own dinner and we could include the leftovers for her school lunch. Below are the ingredients we used.

From the Food Network Website : (link)

Ingredients

  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino cheese or favorite type of cheese such as Parmesan Reggiano. I prefer Pecorino because of the subtle but noticeable saltiness of the cheese.

Directions

Combine the basil, garlic, and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 1/2 cup of the oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Season with salt and pepper. If using immediately, add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth. Transfer the pesto to a large serving bowl and mix in the cheese. For the first time, we only put in 1 clove of garlic since my daughter is only 3, but normally garlic is an important ingredient.

Except for chopping the stems off the basil, Alessandra did everything herself. She respected the power of the food processor and listened carefully to instructions. Knowing that her pesto sauce would go on her plate was good motivation for diligence. In the end, she poured just enough oil to get a pesto consistency and we poured it into a bowl. Seeing how much she cared about making this sauce was heart warming and proud to watch.

For the final step, we added the cheese and we knew it was ready when Alessandra looked at this green glob of sauce, took a small spoon and very very carefully took a taste.  When she smiled and said, “It tastes so good, just like grandmas.” She proudly ate her pesto sauce and pasta for three days afterwards.

As a father, it was one my favorite father/daughter moments. For Alessandra, it created a desire to cook and to be proud of her own creations.

This Devil Is Smooth – Charles Smith 2009 Merlot The Velvet Devil

After my bottle of Kung Fu Girl Riesling from Charles Smith Wines, which my wife drank 95% of and asked for it again, I wanted to try a different selection. I am a big fan of affordable and enjoyable wines, and the 2009 The Velvet Devil Merlot fits that bill with a retail price of $12-$13.

Let me start of by saying that if you are turned off from drinking Merlots after watching the 2004 movie “Sideways”, then let me shed some light. There was a reason that Miles didn’t like Merlot and it wasn’t because of the taste. In the book, his ex-wife loved Merlot and to see somebody else drink the wine was excruciatingly painful for Miles. It was the most viewed movie trailer for the movie and not surprisingly, Merlot wine sales went down dramatically.

I also think that Merlot has suffered from mediocre offerings from wineries in order to get something on the shelf, allowing them to concentrate on Cabernets or other signature wines. Other varietals may also have better food pairings options, but Merlot is a great wine if done right. Charles Smith’s Velvet Devil has risen from the Merlot varietals ashes and is a great drink. Here are the tasting notes from the winery.

The Velvet Devil was very smooth and a joy to drink. I will offer a small tidbit of advice with this bottle. Open it, and let it breath for about 5 to 10 minutes before drinking it. Once the wine has gotten some air it will be very nice to drink. My wife who doesn’t enjoy Merlot at all was skeptical when she took a drink, and the first words that came out of her mouth were, “hmmm smooth”. She is a tough nut to crack and the devil did it. This is a pleasant drinking wine made for an enjoyable evening when you want a glass with or without food.

Kung Fu Girl Riesling Is No Bully 2009

On a recent road trip I saw a bottle of Kung Fu Girl, and I loved the label art and especially the price. Since I didn’t know anything about the wine I passed and bought a familiar bottle since we were entertaining.

Fortunately, that label stuck in my head for months and I finally had to look it up on the internet. For $12, it was rated 90 by Wine Spectator, and now I was kicking myself for not buying it. So I looked and looked, and I finally found a bottle of the 2009 Kung Fu Girl Riesling at Whole Foods.

This wine is 100% from the Columbia Valley in WA from a single vineyard. I love single vineyard wines because there will always be a consistency in taste from year to year. Of course, there are other factors, but you are getting grapes from the same vine year after year. That works out great if you like the wine and for a bottle that costs $12, that’s an incredible attribute. If you want to read the wine tasting notes from the winery you can read them here and the website to the winery is here: Charles Smith Wines.

I don’t normally drink white wine, but this wine was fantastic. It was smooth and crisp with a very pleasant fruity aroma. I paired it with a spicy dish and it cut through the heat with remarkable ease. If I had to pair it with salmon or a dish normally served with a chardonnay I wouldn’t hesitate a second to serve Kung Fu Girl Riesling. It would be a lighter tasting companion, and yet, it has enough depth to make it memorable with a good meal. I also think this wine would be great by itself while talking with friends. It’s versatile, friendly, good tasting, and non-pretentious.

Whoever is their graphic artist deserves a commission because without that cool label I wouldn’t have looked it up. Never-the-less, Charles Smith has a new fan. After looking up more info on the internet, he was Food and Wine’s 2009 winemaker of the year. So you are getting a lot of bang for the dollar.

Charles Smith Winery’s view is that people buy wine to drink immediately and I once read that the average time a bottle is “owned” by the new owner is less than an hour. If you bought Kung Fu Girl Riesling don’t worry about wine storage, because it’s ready to drink now. I am now looking forward to trying out their other wines, such as Velvet Devil.

Cassoulet – Very French and Very Comforting

Almost 20 years ago one of my best friends, Mike Caceres, worked front of the house for a Napa restaurant, and his brother was the chef. I had always wanted to work on the line and experience life in the professional kitchen. During the week I worked my finance job, and on Friday afternoons I would drive up to Napa and work for free on weekends. It was one of the hardest, but one of the coolest experiences of my life. It has helped me professionally inside and outside of the kitchen and business office.

There were two dishes on the menu that changed my style of cooking forever. Those dishes were Coq au Vin and Cassoulet. Many people think of French food as being fancy, delicate, saucy, and “foo foo”, but few people realize how many comforting French food can be. The Cassoulet reached me at many different levels for many reasons. Cassoulet broke my preconceived ideas of French food, and to make white beans taste so good was special. As a kid I was victim to being fed cans of Pork and Bean, which turned me off to the thought of eating beans again. To see this dish in my early 20’s was a big breakout on how to properly cook beans. The end result is a large dutch oven stacked with Great Northern Bean packed with bacon, sausage, duck confit / pork / or chicken. If you take any of those components out and eat it alone, you will be very satisfied, but when you put them all together it becomes a soulful and filling dish. On the menu we had steak, but I would always pick the Cassoulet if I had the chance.

My latest attempt at Cassoulet was inspired by Thomas Keller, chef and owner of the legendary French Laundry. The restaurant has been voted best restaurant in the world, not once, but twice.

Here is the link to the recipe: Thomas Keller Cassoulet

Here are some comments on the recipe:
– There is about 30-40 minutes of prep, but it’s worth it.
– The panko bread crumbs and baguette toppings are very important and really bring out a lot of taste.
– Season generously. There is a lot of liquid in this dish and it will take away a lot of salt. To prevent it from being bland, salt (kosher) and pepper it well.

Here are some notes where I had to deviate slightly from the recipe:
– Since I do not have a slow cooker, I used my Le Creuset 5 Qt Oval Dutch Oven placing it in the oven at 225 degrees for 6 hours. Just make sure the pork easily falls apart to determine if you are done.
– I would suggest cutting the pork shoulder into 8 pieces to allow the meat to cook a little faster to insure it falls apart.
– To cook the beans quickly, put the beans in the pot and put enough water to fill it up and cover the beans by 3 inches. Bring to a boil for 2 minutes, cover, and take off heat. Let it set for an hour and then drain. Refill the pot with the beans, fill it up with water to cover the beans by 3”, bring to a boil, and then turn down heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain and set aside.
– Once you are ready to put the meat with the beans separate the beans to make it easier. Place a layer of beans in the pot, and then place the meat and tomatoes, and then cover up with the remaining beans. Give it a stir to incorporate the tomatoes throughout.

Wine Pairings:
– In progress