Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays!

'Tis the season to reflect on the past, anticipate the future, appreciate our blessings and loved ones, and enjoy food fit for the holidays. Here's a brief list of some of the things I love about this time of year.

Sweetened hot drinks - hot chocolate, gingerbread latte, apple cider

Baked goodies

Wine and champagne

Seasonal decor - glass ornaments, twinkling lights, furry stockings

Warm soup

Snow ... or maybe just powdered sugar
Carols that you start humming spontaneously

And of course, family and friends. Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Italians Crack Open DNA Secrets of Pinot Noir"

By Ben Hirschler
Tue Dec 18, 8:59 PM ET

Original story here

Italian scientists have cracked open the genetic make-up of Pinot Noir, responsible for the great red wines of Burgundy, in a breakthrough that may lead to hardier vines and cheaper fine wines.

The researchers said on Wednesday they had found more than 2 million genetic variants within the Pinot Noir grape, providing winegrowers with a "treasure trove" in the hunt for new strains. Pinot Noir, made famous by the 2004 film "Sideways," has been dubbed the "heartbreak grape" because it is so difficult to grow and susceptible to disease.

Understanding what makes up the variety at the DNA level means it may now be possible to breed disease-resistant grapes without sacrificing taste, according to Riccardo Velasco, head of genetics at the Istituto Agrario San Michele all'Adige.

"Discovering these 2 million molecular markers is a tremendous tool which will help in the breeding not only of Pinot Noir but every cultivated grape variety," he said in an interview.

While the genome of Pinot Noir has been mapped in draft form before, Velasco and his team are the first to catalogue the myriad single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, found scattered amongst its 30,000 genes. SNPs are single-letter changes in the genetic code.

The Italian team have also identified a large number of genes related to disease resistance, 289 of which contain SNPs, they reported in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.

Brian Dilkes of the University of California said this information was a "treasure trove" which should fast-track the traditional breeding selection process.

"When I told sommelier Andrew Meadows about this recently, his reaction was, 'Good! I would love to offer a decent Pinot for less than $30'," Dilkes said.

There are no plans to introduce artificially genetically modified grapes into some of the world's most revered vineyards.

"We're not interested in GMOs (genetically modified organisms). GMOs are not allowed in Europe and would not be accepted in the grape world, which is extremely conservative," Velasco said.

His full paper is freely available on the Internet at

Brunch at Tra Vigne

The last of my Napa posts for now - photos from our brunch at Tra Vigne.

A quiet place for a meal

Ouvo Benedetto All' Italiana - Italian-style eggs benedict with poached eggs, crispy pancetta, and basil hollandaise ($12.95)

Frittata Tra Vigne - smoked chicken, leeks, crimini mushrooms, and fontina cheese ($10.95)

Pasticcio di Costata di Bue - slow braised beef short ribs hash with poached eggs and sun dried tomato pesto ($12.75)

Tra Vigne
1050 Charter Oak Avenue
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-4444

Monday, December 17, 2007

Terra - Heaven on Earth

It's hard to stay grounded while eating at Terra. Chef Hiro Sone's classic European dishes, intricately balanced with Asian flavors and impeccably presented, make him a culinary hero in my book. My meal here was absolutely spectacular.

Thanks to Lauren for shooting the photos and noting the names and prices of our dishes. I apologize if the photos are somewhat dark - the lighting in the restaurant wasn't great, and I can only do so much on Photoshop.

Robert Mondavi 2003 Merlot
Always a solid choice for food

Tartar of hamachi with hijiki (a sea veggie) and yuzu (a citrus fruit) viniagrette ($16.50)
Very fresh fish and beautiful presentation

Lobster chowder with sweet corn and potatoes ($14.50)
Beats every chowder and lobster bisque I've ever had, hands down

Grilled quail on sweet corn and chanterelle mushroom risotto with truffles ($29)
Juicy and tender quail, great balance with the texture of the risotto

Grilled Maine lobster and scallops with lemon garlic paisley butter ($32)
Seafood lovers' delight

Liberty Farm Duck "Three Ways" - shredded duck meat crispy roll, seared duck breast, and duck pate with mushroom sauce ($28.50)
A winning trio for the best entree of the meal

Tiramisu ($8)
Not as rich and creamy as I'd like, but very creative interpretation

With such an innovative menu, wonderful staff, cozy ambiance, and top rated wine list, Terra is the perfect place for an intimate and memorable meal in wine country. My only complaint is that the restaurant isn't closer to where I live, so I could go more often!

Terra Restaurant
1345 Railroad Avenue
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-8931

Friday, December 14, 2007

Napa Wineries!

I've decided that my ultimate dream wedding would take place in Napa. We'd have the ceremony and read our vows in a pretty vineyard on a warm spring day, then follow up at a reception overflowing with champagne (Chandon seems like a good choice), and finally, dinner at one of the many great restaurants there, or perhaps a winery that could accommodate all the tables. And of course, an impressive wine list at each venue. And flowers. And maybe a mini orchestra, which could include my many musically-talented friends.

Of course, there's only an infinitesimal chance of my wedding actually turning out like this, but it's still nice to imagine.

On my Napa trip a few months ago, I came across several wineries and wines that would be perfect for my dream wedding. One of the things I love about going to wine country is that there's so much more than just wine that's waiting to be experienced. Each winery has its own approach to making the nectar of the gods, as well as its own unique history, architecture, and marketing style.

Our first stop was Darioush, a gorgeous winery reminiscent of a Persian palace (indeed, the owner's first name is Darioush, which is also the name of Persia's most famous ruler). The entrance was bold but inviting, with 16 free-standing columns and water fountains with floating lily pads. The building itself was constructed from some kind of yellow-colored stone, and the interior featured ancient Persian sketches, modern Italian furniture, and a 20-foot-high wall of cascading water. Pretty fit for a king, in my opinion.

The wines were very promising as well. Darioush specializes in Bordeaux reds, along with Shiraz and Chardonnay. Very solid Cabernet Sauvignon from 2004 and 2005.

Silver Oak was a pleasant stop on the trip. The winery only produces Cabernet and had two current releases for tasting - 2002 from Napa Valley and 2003 from Alexander Valley. Ten bucks will get you a generous pour of both wines, along with a complimentary souvenir wine glass.

I always try to stop at V. Sattui when I'm in Napa. The winery reminds me of a quaint little cottage, with a pretty picnic area. Plus I'm in love with their sweet wines, including their Muscat and their award-winning Gamay Rouge (I would really love to have this at my wedding reception). The winery is family-owned without any distributors, so their wines are only available from the winery.

My favorite winery overall for the trip was Joseph Phelps. We attended a personal tasting seminar where the instructor taught us ways to taste and make notes consistently, using a variety of whites and reds from the winery. The Insignia is JP's finest signature wine, with the 2004 release selling for $200 per bottle now. But what really stood out for me was their Le Mistral, which had me chirping to the heavens (in my mind, of course). Delicious blackberry and cherry flavors, balanced amount of tannins, aged in French oak barrels. And it's a great investment at $40 per bottle.

Pine Ridge was another beautiful winery, although I didn't do the tour and tasting because we were a few short on the reservations. While waiting for some of my friends, I walked around through part of their vineyard.

My friends loved the tour, and judging from the photos, it looked like a really beautiful winery. The most amazing part? Naturally-insulated, underground volcanic caves, lined with over 4,600 French oak barrels filled with wine for aging. And the caves are lit and structured in a way that make them pretty romantic, in my opinion.

Now wouldn't that make a nice setting for a wedding dinner?

Our last stop on the trip was the renowned Opus One, the child of the creative forces of Robert Mondavi and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild. Just like its wine, the architecture and interior design of the winery reflect a blend of classical European and contemporary Californian elements.

After a tour, we sat on the balcony level and sipped on their 2003 vintage while enjoying the view.

Overall, a wonderful trip. Even if I won't get my dream wedding in Napa :)

Special thanks to Lauren for some of these photos.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tomato Bisque At SF Soup Company

Since I'm starting to get sick and craving some warm soup for my sore throat, I'm posting a pic of the delish tomato bisque from the SF Soup Company.

$4.61 for 12oz and $5.53 for 16oz

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

First Seating At Palomino

While Palomino is great for lunch and happy hour, I recently discovered their First Seating special - a $20 three-course meal from 5-6pm everyday. At a price like that, you can't really go wrong.

So with a few friends and a bottle of V. Sattui Dry Johannisberg Riesling in hand (corkage was $10), I went to see what Palomino had to offer at that hour.

The three-course dinner included:
(1) Caesar salad, field greens, or a cup of soup
(2) Choice of dinner entree
(3) Sorbet or ice cream
(4) Coffee, tea, or soda

We all started with the portabella mushroom soup, which was my favorite dish overall. The soup was very rich, creamy, and just bursting with mushroom flavors.

Portabella Mushroom Soup: Fresh portabella and crimini mushrooms, caramelized onion, cayenne, fresh leeks, sherry cream (normally $7)

I also ordered a dish of tomato bruschetta for the table, since it just looked so good. Very tasty, with fresh tomatoes and lots of olive oil.

Tomato Bruschetta: Roasted garlic, fresh garlic, basil, extra virgin olive oil ($8.50)

I was in a pasta mood, so I ordered the lobster ravioli, which featured large sheets of saffron pasta stuffed with tender lobster, topped with lobster cream sauce and mascarpone cheese. These were probably the largest ravioli I'd ever had!

Lobster Ravioli: Fresh sheets of saffron pasta, lobster, bay scallop and tarragon filling, lobster cream sauce, herb mascarpone (normally $20)

My friends ordered the crab cakes duo and the braised short ribs with ragout, which also tasted pretty good.

Crab Cakes Duo: Watercress with salsa verde and garlic aïoli, orzo mushroom duxelles with artichoke tartar, tomato basil salsa (normally $26 for a trio)

Braised Beef Short Rib with Tomato-Mushroom Ragout and Fettuccine (normally $21)

I ended my meal with a cup of sorbet and some great coffee.

As you can see from the prices I quoted, the entrees alone would've normally cost us over $20 each, so the First Seating price was an excellent deal. It's definitely a good place to go for a nice, unpretentious dinner on a budget.

345 Spear Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 512-7400

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Zuni Cafe

Not quite sure what all the fuss was about this place. The service was slow, the clams were oversalted, and the pasta was undercooked. But I might go back because it's open until midnight on Tuesday through Saturday, and it might be a better alternative than fast food (on some nights). Plus, they made a great burger and fries.

The burger featured focaccia bread, great beef (they did medium rare just right), and gruyere cheese. It was surprisingly good, especially considering the other letdowns of the night. But at $17.75, it seemed a bit pricey for people like me who just love to order a double-double and a milkshake at In-N-Out.

The shoestring fries, however, were delicious. Super thin, fried to crisp perfection, and only six bucks for a towering, Jenga-like stack.

Zuni Cafe
1658 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 552-2522

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Joy of Sake

Last month, I attended The Joy of Sake event at the San Francisco Hilton. The Joy of Sake is the largest sake-tasting event outside of Japan, and it's been held annually since 2001. This year, the event was held in San Francisco, Honolulu, and New York on different dates. Usually the event costs $70 per person, but luckily for me, my friend and former college housemate Lauren got two free passes from one of the chefs who was serving food there. The photos in this entry were taken by him (and click on his name to check out his awesome food and adventure blog).

Sake, typically referred to as "rice wine," is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from multiple stage of rice fermentation. After fermentation is complete, grain solids are filtered out, except in the case of nigori sake. Different types of brewing methods lead to different types of sake, each with their own special characteristics. Generally, sake is not aged (although you can find some in the market that are) and isn't meant to be aged like a nice bottle of red wine. It can be served cold or hot, although generally I like it served cold, because heat tends to mask the flavors (which is why a lot of restaurants use bad quality sake to serve hot).

There are several varieties of sake:
1. Junmai - Made from rice only, with no additives or distilled alcohol. The rice can be polished to any degree.
2. Ginjo - The rice is polished by 40% or less.
3. Daiginjo - The rice is polished to 50% or less. Generally, the higher the degree of polishing on the rice, the more complex the resulting sake.
4. You can also add the word "junmai" before "ginjo" and "daiginjo" if no alcohol is added to the sake.
5. Namazake - Unpasteurized sake

At The Joy of Sake, a total of 302 sakes from 144 breweries were available for tasting. The sheer number of sakes was pretty astonishing. Lauren knows a lot about sake, so he did the navigating. We developed a system where we moved several cups along a table so we could quickly fill them using the handy pipettes, taste the sakes, and pour our leftovers into a "waste" cup. This allowed us to maximize the number of sakes we could try in the limited amount of time.

I liken sake tasting to wine tasting, in that you're judging the same things - aroma, taste, balance, aftertaste, and overall impressions. And just like wine, aromas and flavors can change, and you may like a sake that the person next to you just hates. It really depends on personal preference. I generally like medium-bodied sakes with light, earthy flavors and a smooth finish; I find them easier to drink but they still go great with sashimi. Nigoris are great too, provided they're not too sweet and the unfiltered grains aren't too big.

In addition to all the sakes, 14 great Japanese restaurants from the Bay Area (including Ozumo, Kyo-Ya, and Hana) served appetizers. Our chef friend who got us in for free was from Betelnut. Below is his dish - salmon sashimi in a lemon ponzu sauce. The sauce was light enough to complement the salmon, but simple enough so that it didn't overpower the fresh taste of the fish. Definitely my favorite appetizer at the event.

Overall we didn't even try a third of all the sakes (or maybe Lauren did, since he was shuffling among the sake tables while I was attempting to try all the appetizers). I was a little disappointed that they weren't selling any of the sakes at the event. A lot of them you couldn't even get in the US. But I guess that encouraged people to remember which brands they really liked.

The ones that I jotted down as noteworthy were:
- Yamagata Sanga
- Kamoizumi Komekome (from Hiroshima)
- Mu Sake (daiginjo was the best)
- Kamoizumi Shusen Junmai ("Three Dots")
- Okunomatsu Ginjo
- Okunomatsu Tokubetsu Junmai

I also tried a sake that cost $1,000 for a bottle, according to the representative. It was called Okunomatsu Daiginjo Shizukusake Juhachidai Ihei (yes, it's a mouthful), and it was so damn good and well-balanced, but I don't think I'd ever pay that much money for a bottle. Plus, Lauren did some research after and we now believe it actually only goes for about $100 to $200 for a bottle. Perhaps the rep was lying to us or he couldn't convert yen to US dollars properly. But he was cute, so we'll forgive him.

Okunomatsu Daiginjo Shizukusake Juhachidai Ihei

Overall it was a great event, and I'm glad I got a chance to go! Thanks Lauren!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A&B Chinese Restaurant ... And Wrapping Up NYC

Considering that I was in NYC to visit family, I ate quite a bit of Chinese food while I was there. I have to say that the Chinese food there tastes better and fresher than what we have in SF, so my tummy was quite happy. Here are some photos from A&B Chinese Restaurant, where I had a lovely meal with my relatives. We ordered many of the classic Cantonese-style dinner dishes.

Clams in black bean sauce

Fresh seafood in a crisp egg noodle "nest"

Prawns in mayonnaise with walnuts and broccoli

This is only a sampling of the feast we had. Also not pictured is this simple but fantastic soup boiled from a fresh fish - my favorite kind of soup because all you taste is the sweetness of the fish.

A&B Chinese Restaurant
6812 Bay Parkway
Brooklyn, New York, 11204
(718) 837-3888

Since this is the last of my NYC entries, I'll add a short list of other notable places I went to where the photos didn't turn out quite so well or where I just forgot to take photos.

- Pommes Frites (123 2nd Avenue): Wonderful thick Belgian fries with a variety of scrumptious dipping sauces (e.g., pomegranate teriyaki, roasted garlic mayo, honey mustard mayo). Ask for samples before you order so you can see what you like!

- El Quijote (226 W 23rd Street): Great Spanish seafood and tapas. I was especially impressed with their mussels, as well as their filet of sole, pictured below, which was cooked in their mysterious but tasty "green sauce."

- Rickshaw Dumpling Bar: Go get their Watermelonade during the summer. It's like drilling a hole into a watermelon and sipping from it through a straw.

And with that, I'll bid good-bye to New York ... next up, notes from my recent sake tasting event in SF!