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Jason and I had a wonderful dining experience at the picturesque Ballard Inn restaurant last night.  We were seated immediately at a romantic two person table near the fireplace.  We took a look at the wine-by-the-glass list and were impressed with the carefully chosen list of fabulous –mostly local- wines.  I ordered a glass of the 2007 Ampelos Rosé of Syrah (gorgeous deep pink color, bright taste –no oak, no malolactic fermentation, nose of citrus, watermelon, florals, mineral qualities, soft tannins).   Ashley, our young but very well informed and professional server, recommended a wine for Jason – the Kaena Hapa (a mouth filling, fruit/spice bonanza of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre – nothing short of WOW).  Kaena (which means “potential for greatness” in Hawaiian) is the personal label made by Mikael Sigouin whose day job is head winemaker at Beckmen. This talented and hardworking young winemaker is officially on my radar as one to watch!  Potential for greatness, indeed!  But, I digress.  Getting back to the food, we started off with two beautifully presented appetizers.  First, room temperature short rib meat with truffle oil served on a bed of watercress, garnished with small dollops of aioli and four purple potato crisps.  I’ve never thought of making a salad out of short rib meat, but this was amazing – moist, flavorful and rich, but not too heavy to eat in the summertime.  And who knew potato chips could be so decorative – and pretty?  Our second appetizer was crispy sweetbreads served with mizuna salad and arugula with macadamia nut pesto.  All the different textures and tastes in this dish blended harmoniously together.  Wow!  Ashley surprised us with a hamachi sashimi appetizer with soy-yuzu vinaigrette which paired beautifully with the Ampelos rosé.  Our entrées arrived soon after we finished the hamachi.  Jason’s entrée was the crispy skin barramundi with chive risotto and soy mushroom broth.  Barramundi is a white fish, though not as delicate in taste or texture as halibut.  Its firm texture and rich taste was complemented well by the chive risotto.  Jason ordered the 2007 Kaena Hapa Blanc (a white Rhone-style blend of  Grenache Blanc and Roussanne – well balanced, elegant, tropical fruit notes, luscious mouth feel and a long finish- only 170 cases made) to go with his fish.

Duck at the Ballard Inn

Duck entree at the Ballard Inn

I ordered the pan seared duck breast with sweet potato purée and balsamic reduction.  I decided that the Kaena Hapa (red) that we had with our appetizers would be wonderful with the duck – and it was!  Dessert was almond panna cotta with strawberries and coconut tuile, and a bottle of 2005 Cold Heaven Late Harvest Viognier (wonderful florals on the nose, rich on the palate with peach, apricot and honey).   Chef Budi Kazali, who was recently won the 2009 Ultimate Chef competition, came out of the kitchen for a few moments to greet diners.   Jason and I were happy to thank Chef Kazali in person for all the amazing food we enjoyed tonight!

2006 Ethan Sangiovese

2006 Ethan Sangiovese

I was in Los Olivos today, so I stopped by the Qupé tasting room to see what Ethan Lindquist was up to.  In addition to the Qupé wines, he was pouring a few wines from his own label, Ethan.  His 2006 Sangiovese is wonderful.  It was so wonderful that I bought a few bottles to take home – as though I need more wine.  I guess I am working out the difference between “need” and “want”.  Well, I clearly wanted the Sangiovese – it is such a good summertime wine.  Plus it is so food friendly you can pair it with practically anything!  The fruit for this wine was grown at the Hearthstone Vineyard in Paso Robles on the west side.  It was aged for 30 months in neutral French oak barrels.  The neutral oak really allows the bright red fruit and spice flavors to shine.  I also bought each of Ethan’s vineyard designate Syrahs.  The first one was the 2006 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah.  The fruit for this wine is from Beckmen’s outstanding, biodynamically grown Purisima Mountain Vineyard block 6.  Ethan went “old school” on this one – the whole clusters of grapes were foot stomped and fermented with native yeast in small open top fermenters.  In order to add many layers of flavors, complexity and a solid tannin structure, the skins and stems were left in contact wine for 4 weeks.  This was made to age – I’d let it sit at least four years.  The second vineyard designate Syrah was the 2006 Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard Syrah.  The fruit was grown in the cool Sta. Rita Hills appellation in Santa Barbara County.  Typical of a cool-climate Syrah, it has notes of white pepper, leather and earth.  Ethan says it is one of the “softest and most elegant Syrahs I have ever made”.  This one can be aged for many years as well…but if you get impatient and open it soon be sure to give it plenty of time to breathe.  For best results decant it AND give it a good hour to open up. Thankfully the Sangiovese doesn’t require any additional aging.  On my way home, I picked up an authentic, super thin crust, Italian style pizza topped with prosciutto and asparagus from Via Vai.  Jason and I shared it with the Sangiovese.   What a wonderful way to end the day!  My only regret is that Ethan made a really small number of cases – only 100 cases of the Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard,75 cases of the Sangiovese and 75 cases of the Purisima Vineyard Syrah.  Get it while you still can!

Tre Anelli tasting room in Los Olivos

Tre Anelli tasting room in Los Olivos (photo credit: Michael Wilsker pixillusion.com)

Tonight is the official debut of Tre Anelli’s two new releases, the 2007 Centellinare (a Super Tuscan style red blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel) and the 2007 Lagrein (a little known varietal that deserves its time in the spotlight).  For more details on these wines, please see this earlier post.  Wine club members gathered in the tasting room to try out these new wines.  Winemaker Brett Escalera was there mingling and answering lots of questions about wine.  Great wine tastes even better with fabulous food and guests were treated to an array of tasty foods from Louise’s Kitchen Table including Carolina-style pork sliders (tender slow-cooked pork shoulder, tangy secret sauce served on dinner roll sized buns with a hint of sweetness – these were soooo good), crab shooters (crab avocado, and tiny heirloom tomatoes served in shot glasses – colorful, tasty and fun to eat), assorted cheeses, salami, and hummus (flavorful and rich with tahini and garlic).   What a wonderful evening – great wine, fabulous food and friends to share it with!

We invited some friends, Shannon and Norene, over for dinner tonight.  Since it was a weeknight, we didn’t have all day to cook – so we used some of our tried and true, easy and fast recipes!  We started with a really colorful and fast raw ahi tuna appetizer.  Simply finely dice sushi-grade ahi tuna and then mix it with a little bit of sesame oil, fresh scallions and sesame seeds.  Serve it with rice crackers. My husband and I have this as a light dinner with a green salad on summer nights when it is too hot to cook.  If you want to make this dish into something with a more formal presentation (as we did for our guests tonight) then simply add a few more steps.  Thinly slice shallots into half rings and lightly flour and fry until crispy, and then set them aside.  Next chop an avocado into small cubes.  Get a small bowl with high sides (we used a ramekin that was about 2.5 inches across) and lightly oil it with sesame oil.  Then spoon in a layer of avocado followed by a layer of ahi – gently press it all into place and then flip the bowl over onto a plate and gently tap until the fish/avocado comes out in pretty dome shape.  Garnish with the fried shallots and serve with rice crackers.  This was lovely with the 2007 Ampelos Rosé of Syrah (my current favorite rosé).  Another easy and fast appetizer that we served was blanched asparagus (thin spears work best) with goat cheese and prosciutto.   Blanch the asparagus and then pat it dry.  Then lay out slice of prosciutto and spread some softened goat cheese on it.  Lay a piece of asparagus on top the prosciutto and roll it all up.  This tasted really good with the lightly oaked 2005 Domaine Alfred Estate Chardonnay that Norene brought.

2005 Domaine Alfred Chardonnay

2005 Domaine Alfred Chardonnay

Dinner was grilled swordfish steaks in a puttanesca sauce with roasted root vegetables.   All the fish we served tonight was from Kanaloa – a great source for fresh fish here in Santa Barbara.  Here is the recipe for the tangy, spicy puttanesca sauce (it is great on pasta too):

¼ cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic
5 anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons capers (drained)
1 can crushed tomatoes (14.5 ounces)
20 Greek (kalamata) olives (in a pinch I’ve substituted green Spanish olives)
6-8 fresh basil leaves
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
Using medium heat, sauté garlic in olive oil for a couple minutes.  Next add the chopped anchovies, capers, tomatoes, chopped olives, oregano and cook until the flavors meld – about 10 to 15 minutes.  If your sauce seems too thin, turn up the heat for a few minutes and allow the liquid from the canned tomatoes to cook off.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Buon Appetito!

Prosecco -Italian Sparkling wine

Prosecco -Italian Sparkling wine

The Sundowner winds are blowing warm, dry air tonight.  With a warm night like this, it seems apropos to take a break and enjoy a glass of cool sparkling wine.  Tonight Jason and I popped open a bottle of Prosecco.  Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) is festive and refreshing.  Plus it is an easy to find and economical alternative to its pricier EU cousin, Champagne.  In fact, our local Trader Joe’s has a nice Prosecco for under $10.00.  Do your part for America’s Economic Stimulus Plan – go buy some Prosecco.   Arrivederci!

Jason and I visited Omaha, Nebraska a few times in the past few years for business.  Just before our first trip, a friend (an Omaha native) recommended that we visit a part of the city called the “Old Market”.  The Old Market is a lively area rich with art studios, restaurants, wine bars and loft apartments.  Back in the mid 1960’s, the Mercer family, owners of many disused warehouses decided to revive the area by turning creating an district of shops, art studios, and restaurants.  This brought a lively and creative community to the area – and the Old Market was born. Each year we look forward to visiting the Old Market and eating at La Buvette a Mercer-owned restaurant and wine store– which looks and feels like a Parisian café complete with the chalkboard menu.  With well priced wines from around the world and an ever-changing menu of seasonal foods, La Buvette is a happening spot all day and well into the night.  My idea of a perfect day in Omaha’s Old Market would be lunch at La Buvette at an outside table.  I’d choose a bottle of wine and then linger over my lunch – savoring every bite.  Then I’d head over to Jackson Street Booksellers and spend some time browsing through the amazing selection amassed by Amanda, the proprietor.  Then in the evening, I’d make sure to go to The Boiler Room restaurant.

The Boiler Room

The Boiler Room

I did just that on a recent trip to Omaha.  Thankfully, I made a reservation because all the tables were full when we arrived. The space is literally a former boiler room (hence the name) with raw brick walls and an industrial feel.   The walls are decorated with large photographs that have been modified to look like paintings.  Chef Paul Kulik, cooked in Europe for many years and also did a stint at the renowned Avec in Chicago.  After years abroad, Kulik an Omaha native, wanted to bring his culinary skills home to the Old Market and open his own restaurant.  I can attest to the fact that Kulik’s dream is a diner’s delight!  His staff is very attentive – but not overbearing – how refreshing!   The Boiler Room even has its own Master Sommelier (one of only about 120 in North America), Jesse Becker.  We enlisted Becker’s help in choosing a Prosecco that would pair well with our appetizers.   Our first course started with luscious celeriac potage with verjus and sorrel.  We also had a plate that combined lamb bacon, a poached egg, braised rhubarb, and parsley salad topped with crème fraiche.  I cannot even express how wonderful this was, the tastes and different textures made eating pure joy!  The entrees were just as impressive.   My tender veal shoulder with cippolini onions and creamy risotto was beautifully presented and tasted wonderful!  We also tried the short rib steak served with rapini – also delightful.  Becker chose a luscious Châteauneuf Du Pape a 2001 La Crau de Ma Mére (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre blend – with red berry and white pepper flavors) for our entrees.  Becker’s wine choice was spot on – and so was EVERYTHING about the Boiler Room.   Go there – it is SO worth a trip to Omaha!

Bonny Doon 2003 Le Cigare Volant

Bonny Doon 2003 Le Cigare Volant

We opened a 2003 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant which is a Chateauneuf Du Pape style blend of Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault.  I got this bottle signed by the eccentric winemaker Randall Grahm at a wine event a few years ago.  Grahm is a really, really interesting character.  With his grey hair pulled back into a ponytail, and wearing John Lennon style glasses, he kind of reminds me of the Egon character from the movie Ghostbusters.  Educated at UC Santa Cruz (my alma mater) and UC Davis, Grahm peppers his sentences with words like “preternatural” and “quixotic”.   He is a wine making philosopher and something of a prankster to boot.   Case in point, after years of problematic corks, a fed up Grahm staged a mock funeral for cork complete with a eulogy delivered by celebrated wine critic Jancis Robinson.  That is a much longer story for another time, but suffice it to say that Grahm is a uniquely entertaining fellow.  After sharing some of Grahm’s finest, Jason and I headed out to try out a new restaurant called Blush.  Located in beautiful Santa Barbara, Blush has a prominent spot on State Street.  To start we tried the beet carpaccio with blue cheese and endive and arugula salad with Meyer lemon vinaigrette.  We also shared the duck confit tart with carmelized onion, and Purple Haze goat cheese.  Both of these were very good.  Jason ordered the leek crusted pork chop with apple, bacon and blue cheese potato rosti and sautéed rainbow chard and green peppercorn sauce.  This tasted good and was perfectly cooked.  I had the herb-glazed halibut with potatoes and fava beans with a horseradish butter sauce.  The halibut had a wonderful texture and went well with the sauce.  Although the food was good, I felt the prices were a little high for a restaurant with a large, prominently displayed television (I had no idea it was even basketball season until eating at Blush).  My feeling on this is that a restaurant cannot be “upscale” or charge “upscale” prices if there is a television visible from the main dining area.  If I had my way, there would be NO televisions visible from restaurant dining rooms – if you MUST watch television while you eat, go to a sports bar.  Nothing really grabbed me on the wine by the glass list so I ordered a gimlet (done properly with freshly squeezed lime juice).  Jason tried out one of the specialty cocktails which was Hangar 1 Buddha’s Hand vodka with grapefruit juice and a spicy pepper.  This was well balanced – the spice of the pepper did not overpower the grapefruit this cocktail.  Later on I ordered an old fashioned, which tasted good, but was served in a martini glass – not an old fashioned glass.  One real problem with the space is that it is quite loud and echos.  The night we were there it was also quite cold with the doors open.  Overall, the service was fine – but we did wait quite a while before anyone took our appetizer order and they do need to work out some kinks at the bar.  The prices seemed aligned with the quality of the food and drinks – but NOT with the atmosphere which is more bar-like with the television and the echos; appetizers, entrées and three cocktails was $120.  This is a difficult time to start a restaurant – but they have a good location.   Hopefully they’ll make it.

We shared a fabulous evening with friends at our home for dinner.  Mikey and Sandra brought a great bottle to share:  2004 Clos du Val Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.  This deep garnet colored wine with flavors of dark berries, baking spices and a hint of vanilla was a real treat!  Clos du Val’s 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the California wines in the infamous Judgment of Paris tasting which took place in 1976.   At this blind tasting event French wine critics judged California Cabernet Sauvignons and French Bordeaux.   They also rated California Chardonnays versus French Burgundies.  In each category the California wineries trounced their French competition – all the while the critics made comments about their favorite wines thinking that they were French.  The critics were surprised – and so was the wine world.  This tasting is credited with putting California wine on the map.  There is a really enthralling book about this tasting – and about some of the winemakers in California in the 1970’s called Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.  These maverick winemakers are pretty fascinating – I highly recommend this book – it’s a great read!  Over the course of this wonderful evening, we opened a number of wonderful bottles.  Our first was the 2006 Vixen Viognier (only 134 cases made – by second generation winemaker Jennifer Gehrs, daughter of Daniel Gehrs).  We also had a library release from Consilience, the 2002 Star Lane Syrah (black cherry, white pepper flavors with a velvety mouthfeel), the 2006 Brochelle Reserve Syrah (plum, dark berries, caramel and spice), and we ended the evening with a bottle of the 2005 Tablas Creek Vin de Paille Sacrerouge (gorgeous dessert wine 100% Mourvedre – flavors of black cherries, chocolate, dates and figs).  Dinner at home with friends

Jason and I shared a fabulous dinner with friends Nicole, Lolly and Lee tonight in Tempe at House of Tricks.  I highly recommend this restaurant / wine bar if you’re in the Tempe/Phoenix Arizona area.  Tricks offers a wonderful selection of wines by the glass and bottles from around the world.  I tried to order a red blend, but our waiter asked if he could suggest a wine.  So, we put ourselves in his hands – Jason and I do this a lot and generally it works beautifully.  The waiter feels good that you trust his guidance and you get the benefit of his vast (one hopes) knowledge of the wine list.  Oddly enough he returned to the table with a Merlot…I thought that his was a strange choice since we were told him we really liked blends.  So, with intervention from our waiter our first bottle was the 2005 Three Doves Merlot.  It had nice raspberry flavors and hints of cocoa on the finish, but I have to admit that I tend to enjoy Merlot more when it is a component in a blend as opposed to a stand-alone varietal.  With that said, it was light enough to pair with the appetizers:   seared fois gras with apple cinnamon chutney, cornbread dust and lavender honey (when fois gras is done right, it is so RIGHT!), vegetarian portabella eggrolls with purple cabbage, daikon radish sprouts, and Mongolian barbeque sauce (sounds like a weird combination, but it was really quite tasty), green chile salmon and shrimp cakes with citrus jicama slaw and smoke yellow pepper remoulade and seafood stuffed poblano pepper with goat cheese, creamy Baja sauce and red pepper coulis.  I really loved these last two because they included fabulous spices that are used in local, Southwestern cooking.   We decided to order another bottle for our wildly varied entrées (we made the decision without help from our well-intentioned waiter), this time we went with a food-friendly, fruit forward Spanish wine with soft tannins, the 2007 Spanish Granrojo Garnacha.   I had an incredibly difficult time making a decision because so many entrées sounded fabulous.   I was really torn between the a) lychee marinated duck breast on pineapple rice with shaved vegetable salad, lychee nuts and spring onions with soy honey reduction and the b) “everything spiced” ahi tuna on toasted couscous with avocado tangerine fennel slaw in ginger chile vinaigrette and white miso sabayon.  Ultimately, I decided on a pumpkin seed crusted filet mignon with potato masa cake, guajillo chile glaze, haricot verts and roasted poblano aioli.  This was so unbelievably good, I passed around tastes to everyone at the table.  I loved how the traditional local flavors of the guajillo and poblano chilies were incorporated into the entire meal.  WOW!  Jason ordered the herb crusted lamb porterhouse with roasted eggplant, garlic whipped Yukon gold potatoes, and star anise au jus.  The earthy, savory side dishes complemented the taste of the lamb perfectly. We topped off our dinner with some lovely desserts and some late harvest wines.  I am not much of a dessert person (I would rather have a glass of Cognac or Armagnac) but everyone at the table loved the sweet ending to our meal.  If you are in the area, definately go check out House of Tricks.  You won’t be disappointed!

I haven’t been sick in years, but somehow I’ve managed to come down with bronchitis, strep throat and ear infection simultaneously.  Since I cannot even taste food, wine is totally lost on me.  In light of this turn of events, I am taking a hiatus until I am feeling better.

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