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Bayside Panzanella

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Last summer I took my family to Hog Island for the first time. The event was part of a week-long thirtieth birthday celebration, and I had made the reservation months in advance (as one needs to). None of them really knew what they were getting into but they knew there were oysters involved and that’s all that really mattered at the time. Since my family hadn’t yet moved to Northern California, they were visiting from New York and they rented a minivan for the week. So my parents and I, my brother, his girlfriend (Hillz) and her sister (Livy) all piled into the car, trucking a leaky cooler full of beer and wine, a dozen sausages, the makings of a panzanella salad and a few picnic supplies. We set out towards the coast – Tomales Bay, to be exact – along a winding, cliffside road that made my vertigo-suffering mother and carsick ridden girls lose a bit of faith in me. I kept insisting, “it’s just around the corner, we’re so close, I promise it will be worth it…” but they couldn’t believe that something could be so good to make this treacherous ride worth the trip. Then we finally got there, and it sunk in: we were in oyster Heaven.

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IMG_6355Last weekend the same crew made the trip again, our second year in a row of what will be a long-standing tradition. This time was a little different in that everyone was more prepared. The cooler was in tip-top shape, filled to the brim with light beers and oyster-friendly wines like Rosé, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and sparklers; we bought pre-cooked sausage links from Costco and Fatted Calf that wouldn’t burst over a direct flame; we had a table cloth and ample plastic picnic supplies, including a cutting board, grill tools and an oil brush (we’ll get to that). We were pros now.

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Livy requested that I make the same panzanella salad again, and I couldn’t deny that I was already planning to do it. It’s the ideal grill-picnic salad because you can prepare the tomatoes at home and put them in a sealed container to marinate while you make the drive, then put the other ingredients in the cooler to keep them fresh, and use the oil from the marinade to coat the bread before grilling. Perfection!

Panzanella Salad with Fresh Ricotta (serves 8 as a side dish, 4 as a main)

  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • Salt
  • 2 pounds assorted heirloom tomatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 loaf ciabatta bread, sliced in half lengthwise
  • 10 oz arugula
  • 5 ounces fresh ricotta, crumbled

On a cutting board, using the flat side of a chef’s knife, mash the garlic clove to a paste with a pinch of salt; transfer to a large container. Add the tomatoes, onion, vinegar and the 3/4 cup of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover and let the mixture stand at room temperature, stirring a few times, for at least 1 hour or up to 2 hours.

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Using an oil brush, generously apply the oil from the marinade to each side of the ciabatta. Grill the bread, oil side down, for about 7 minutes, or until brown and crispy, then flip to the other side and grill for 3 more minutes. Once cool, slice into 1½-inch chunks. Transfer the tomato mixture to a large platter and top with arugula and ricotta, then toss to combine. Top with the grilled bread chunks and serve.

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This is the perfect salad to serve alongside a tray of four dozen shucked oysters, as a prelude to a heartier protein like sausage or another grilled meat. But if that’s not quite your plan, it also goes well with just about anything you would find at a cook-out. The freshness and acidity is great for a hot summer day, but it’s still substantial enough of a salad to soak up a booze-filled afternoon. You could swap the ricotta for burrata, but personally I think the ricotta keeps it nice and light whereas burrata might make the dish too heavy.

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And if you’re an oyster-lover and Northern California is accessible to you, make Hog Island your day trip destination. It’s truly the best place in the world to consume oysters, and my father still has a hard time describing it to people who have never been. It definitely has a Maine-like East Coast vibe that appeals to my family of transplants, but to me it’s as California as California gets.

Local Innovation at The Bewildered Pig

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Last week I traveled to Mendocino with Canuck for an early birthday celebration! He let me do the majority of the planning – including two breweries (no, I don’t just drink wine) – but did suggest a dinner spot in Philo for our first night of the trip: The Bewildered Pig. I trust Canuck’s picks, especially when it comes to food, and after checking out their menu and hearing that his friend from culinary school is the sous chef, I got pretty excited about this place.

The Bewildered Pig is the brainchild of Chef Janelle Weaver and her partner, Daniel. After spending several years as an executive chef at a prestigious Napa winery, Janelle ventured out on her own culinary endeavor with the goal to create an unpretentious restaurant with a large focus on farm to fork, sourcing everything locally (their pigs come from down the street) and from their own gardens. The dishes are elegant yet casual, refined yet rustic, sophisticated yet simple; dualities that I learned Janelle possesses herself after chatting with her throughout the course of the night.

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The wine list is a combination of selections from Anderson Valley and Sonoma County and an extensive list of Old World favorites. Keeping with the local theme, I selected the 2014 Balo “Suitcase 828” Estate Pinot Noir. The wine was more feminine on the nose, with aromas of white flowers, bright red fruit and an element of freshness. But the palate was bold and earthy, reflecting more of a masculine tone. One of the things I love most about Pinot Noir (especially Pinots from Anderson Valley) is how androgynous it can be, which makes it a versatile wine for food pairings. Sure enough, it paired perfectly with nearly everything that we ate.

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We started off the evening with a delectable amuse-bouche from the kitchen: Penny Royal Laychee Crostini with a Pea & Fava Pistou. (Side note: Penny Royal is a local farm and creamery that offers tours and tastings Thursday through Monday in their new shop on Hwy 128. They make a variety of cheeses that are also available at one of my favorite Philo wineries, Navarro Vineyards.) Our delicious cheesy bite was followed by a house made Mendocino County Heritage Pork country pâté with Dijon mustard and shallot chutney – the perfect combination of salty, sweet and spicy.

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On to the vegetables. Canuck selected “Celebration of Carrots” and I chose an assortment of seasoned radishes with salt and butter. The radishes were simple yet so satisfying, and it felt good to eat some raw vegetables after an afternoon of beer tasting (be sure to stop in Anderson Valley Brewery on your way into Philo). The carrot plate was indeed a celebration and quite possibly the best vegetable dish I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. The plate is composed of a seven different uses and varieties of carrots: confit tiny Thumbelina and French, pickled rainbow, housemade carrot crackers, fried carrot fronds, carrot top pesto and garlic aioli. I talked about this dish to anyone who would listen for several days. I’m still holding out hope that Canuck will find a way to recreate it…

And as if those were not enough starters, we picked two more to share: smoked local black cod potato salad, and Gulf prawns with garlic lemon aioli and what Janelle and her team affectionately call “fluff,” an array of herbs, flowers and stuff. The cod is local (Princess Seafood out of Fort Bragg) and smoked by Angelo’s in Sonoma. It’s served with heirloom potatoes, confited in olive oil, and fresh shaved Petit Teton horseradish, bloomed mustard seeds, whipped crème fraîche, herbs, watercress… and probably a few other amazing things that I am missing. Not only was it beautifully presented (like all of the evening’s dishes), but the combination of flavors was beautiful to eat.

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Last but not least, we each ordered the Lamb Duo (despite the fact that Canuck usually prefers not to order the same thing as his dining partner). It was written on the menu with all of my favorite Spring things so it was impossible to resist. In hindsight, we agreed that it easily could have been shared considering the amount of food we had leading up to our entrées, but we still managed to finish the majority of our dishes. The Lamb Duo was composed of lamb loin and confit cap, sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi, fresh tarragon, chives, lemon zest, fava beans, asparagus, fava leaf and garlic puree, served with a lamb anise hyssop reduction. I never imagined that all of these things could exist so cohesively on one plate, but it was near perfection.

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If you don’t already have enough reasons to visit Anderson Valley – the plethora of unique and inexpensive wineries, fishing along the Redwood lined highway, bountiful farms and orchards, whimsical seaside villages, adorable inns and a brewery in a town with their own made up language – add this dining experience to the list. The Bewildered Pig is truly a destination restaurant, worth every mile traveled, and I intend to make it a regular pilgrimage. In fact, I can’t wait to go back and see what other seasonal items they have on their fantastic menu.

Big thanks to Janelle, Izzy and the entire team for such a memorable evening!

Ad Libbing It

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I’m sure many of you have heard of the famed Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, and more recently the $300,000 worth of wine that was stolen from the prized cellar, and recovered in North Carolina shortly after. This happened on Christmas Day, days after Keller closed The French Laundry for four months for renovations. During the closure Keller opened a pop-up in Silverado Resort called Ad Lib, which was recently extended through October (and possibly beyond). Initially it was hard to get a reservation, but things have since settled down and you can usually get in on a Monday or Thursday without too much advance planning (or you can be like me and book a reservation six weeks in advance). I finally had my long-awaited first Thomas Keller dining experience last week and it was everything I hoped it would be and more.

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I was worried that Ad Lib might be stuffy and too fancy (à la The French Laundry) but it certainly had its own character, which was far from stuffy. Maybe it’s the young, flirty staff or the retro menu, but it has a very fun, laid back vibe to it that really puts the diners at ease. It also helped that my dining companions were three fabulously entertaining foodie fems: Miriam, Space Cadet, and MaeMae.

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We had a fantastic view of the golf course at Silverado Resort

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While the wine list at Ad Lib is quite impressive, we preferred to bring our own bottles and pay the $50 corkage fee (which was still far below any bottle we would have purchased). MaeMae brought a 2005 Mumm DVX Cuvée, which was the perfect start to the evening. And Miriam brought a Pine Ridge Epitome Cabernet Sauvignon, which she had previously used a Coravin on about a year ago, so we were taking a bit of a gamble with it. It was obvious some wine had been removed from the bottle so we told the sommelier that we had used the Coravin on the wine before we left – you know, to make sure that it was drinkable. I don’t know why we felt the need to lie, but in the words of Space Cadet, “our credibility came down to our cork. If it turned out to be corked, we would not only be caught in a lie but we would lose our credibility as badass industry bitches.” Thankfully, the wine was perfect.

Even the bread was beautiful! And melt-in-your-mouth flakey.

Even the bread was beautiful! And melt-in-your-mouth flakey.

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We wanted to try as much food as possible without overdoing it, so I suggested ordering family style. We easily agreed on two orders of Caesar salad, a side of mac-n-cheese, a side of wilted greens, filet of salmon, chicken schnitzel, and beef wellington (serves two). The Caesar salad is prepared and served table side – sometimes by Keller himself if he’s around. Our salad artist for the evening was a lovely young lady named Erica, a newbie to Napa who is slated to work at The French Laundry once her stint at Ad Lib is up. She started by seasoning the salad bowl with peeled garlic, then she prepared the dressing using anchovy paste, an egg, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Space Cadet actually filmed it, which I encourage you to watch until you get bored (you might want to mute the sound unless you want to be subjected to our our snarky banter).

We had requested the sides to come out separately, before the entrées, but they began to bring out the beef wellington after they cleared our salad plates. There was some whispering and they quickly slid the cart away, but we all caught a glimpse of the drama. Apparently our silly server, Louie “made a mistake”. Clearly it worked out in his favor (and the rest of the kitchen staff) because they had an extra beef wellington to chow down on. In any case, they quickly corrected their error and brought out our mac-n-cheese and wilted greens. The mac was so yummy and surprisingly light, and the greens were perfectly seasoned. It made for a nice middle course before our much-anticipated main courses.

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The beef wellington was beautiful. They prepared it with a mushroom paté between the beef and the pastry, instead of the traditional foie gras. This made the dish lighter but also gave it an earthy quality, and the moisture from the mushrooms made the beef even more tender. It was outstanding. I was also a big fan of the salmon filet, which was cooked to perfection with a crisp exterior and coated in a delicious lemon-dill burre blanc. The schnitzel was pretty yummy, but a little too salty if you ask me.

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As we were finishing our entrées we noticed the waitstaff carrying what looked like a torch to a nearby table, and we realized it was someone’s birthday. Space Cadet spoke up and mentioned that her birthday was a few weeks ago, and that she would appreciate a sparkling surprise. Well, the staff must have been thoroughly entertained by us because they indeed brought us a slice of seven layer coconut cake with a sparkler in it, in addition to banoffee trifle and Tahitian vanilla bean crème brûlée – all of which they graciously comped. It was the perfect finish to a glorious evening of fine dining – with a little bit of ad lib, indeed.

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One Night at Animal

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I spent this New Years Eve in Los Angeles with my friend, KJ. We agreed that the best way to spend the night would be over a gluttonous dinner, preceded and followed by some delicious champagne. Since we were staying in West Hollywood, I suggested going to one of my favorite LA restaurants, Animal. I had only dined here once previously, but had also been to their other restaurant, Son of a Gun. I remembered being enchanted by their unique menus, and was very impressed with the wine selection. So naturally, it was the perfect fit for our New Years Eve meal!

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Animal’s menu is made of many small dishes that are meant to be shared, and luckily for me, KJ is as adventurous of an eater as I am. We poured over the menu for what seemed like half an hour before finally deciding on six choice dishes: chicken liver toast, jack rabbit larb, rib-eye carpaccio, farrotto with katsoubushi, sweetbreads, and veal tongue. It was the perfect combination of proteins and flavors.

Chicken liver toast

Chicken liver toast

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Jack rabbit larb, long beans, herbs, thai chili, crispy shallots

Rib-eye carpaccio, savoy cabbage, sesame, kochukaru

Rib-eye carpaccio, savoy cabbage, sesame, kochukaru

I brought a 2007 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages to enjoy the meal with, and while it may not have paired perfectly with everything it was certainly a delicious wine. We sipped on some Bordeaux Blanc and Macon-Milly-Lamartine while we let the red open up in the decanter, and they paired excellently with our first few dishes.

veal tongue, gherkin pickle, salmon roe, black mustard

veal tongue, gherkin pickle, salmon roe, black mustard, rye croutons, creme fraiche

Anson Mills green farrotto, katsoubushi, fine herbs, fleur de sel

Anson Mills green farrotto, katsoubushi, fine herbs, fleur de sel

"honey walnut" sweetbreads, JW's black sriracha, chili threads, scallions

“honey walnut” sweetbreads, JW’s black sriracha, chili threads, scallions

My favorite dish was the veal tongue. They prepared it like a piece of pastrami, served with pickled gherkins, salmon roe, and black mustard. When you put a little bit of everything in one bite, it was perfection. My second favorite dish was the farrotto: a porridge like dish topped with katsoubushi, or dried, fermented fish flakes – the same thing used in my favorite Japanese dish, Okonomiyaki. Even though I was nearly full by the time it came out, I couldn’t stop eating it. The rest of the dishes were also excellent, with the sweetbreads being my least favorite because the deep fried batter took away a bit from the meat flavor.

Although we were stuffed to the gills, our waiter convinced us to splurge for the cheesecake pudding with passionfruit, which was surprisingly light and airy. No regrets! How can you not finish off a meal like this with something sweet?

cheesecake pudding, passionfruit, strawberry, graham

cheesecake pudding, passionfruit, strawberry, graham

The wait staff matched the outstanding quality of the ingredients and presentation, and at no point did we feel rushed to leave our table (we stayed for 2.5 hrs) – which meant a lot on New Years Eve! If you’re in LA, I highly recommend visiting West Hollywood to check out this fantastic restaurant. And be sure to order the veal tongue!

Secrets of The Wine Room

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As long as I can remember, my father’s home wine cellar – or as we call it in my family, “the wine room” – has been an integral part of my understanding of wine collecting and aging. Although I have been in the wine room hundreds of times, it wasn’t until this week that I was able to get the full “tour” of the wine room, by my father himself.

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When my parents moved to the suburbs of New York from Southern California in 1989, my father transferred about 1,100 bottles of wine, which he was previously storing in commercial lockers around San Diego. Although there were many reasons my parents ultimately chose to settle in their current house, they were particularly attracted to the basement – a feature that didn’t really exist in California. Included in the partially finished basement, which is an entire footprint of the home, is a 8′ x 30′ passive cellar that is perfect for wine storage.

The central a/c duct running through the wine room.

The central a/c duct running through the wine room.

A “passive cellar” means that you do not need a temperature and humidity control system, because you rely on mostly on natural underground surroundings. Although my father has equipped the cellar with an air conditioning unit, he only turns it on if it’s really hot for a few days. In 1996 my parents renovated the back of the house (kitchen, family room, living room, and deck), adding central air conditioning to the main floor, with the central duct running through the ceiling of the cellar out of necessity. This placement provides another level of coolness to the wine room.

A wooden map of the racks

A wooden map of the racks

With the optimal temperature setting achieved, there was one other major component that my father sought to perfect: the organization. Let me just say, my father is quite obsessive; in this case, it works to his advantage. When you walk into the cellar, there are three sets of short, long racks on the left side, labeled A, B and C. My father purchased these racks from a liquor store that went out of business. Within each rack are 12 columns, so each is labeled A1, A2, and so forth up to A12 – likewise with the B and C racks. He keeps the most expensive wines closest to the floor, where it’s the coolest. On the right side of the cellar are four sets of tall wooden racks (hand-built by my father using a kit) labeled D, E, F and G. These wines are organized by Low, Middle and High – so DL would signify wines in the lower part of the rack, while DM is the middle and DH is the top, as is the same with the E, F and G racks. In addition to these racks are about 30-40 wine crates that are labeled alphabetically with single and double letters (A, AA, B, BB, etc). When he runs through the double letters and reaches ZZ, he will start again with AAA.

Standing in front of racks E, F and G

Standing in front of racks E, F and G

Showing a Chappellet from Rack D

Showing a Chappellet from Rack D

One of the wine crates, filled with Pine Ridge - his latest obsession.

One of the wine crates, filled with Pine Ridge and Chappellet Napa Cabs

To keep track of all the wines in these racks and boxes, my father uses a database  that my mother designed for him in 1993, using Filemaker Pro. The database includes the following columns, which he edits every couple of months based on the hand-written notes he takes several times a week.

  • Winery (i.e. Chappellet)
  • Vintage (i.e. 2005)
  • Type (i.e. Cabernet)
  • Location (i.e. B3)
  • Quantity (i.e. 5 bts)
  • Aging (i.e. 10-15 yrs)
  • Purchase Price (i.e. $45)
  • Current Value (i.e. $75)
  • Compare to (i.e. 2007 Chappellet Cab)
  • Comments (any notes and observations of the wine with the date that he tastes it)

The whole database adds a level of organization to his collection that is a “reflection of my brain”, as my father puts it, which is exactly something that a neuroscientist would say. Besides acting as an inventory of all the wines he owns (past and present), the database helps to locate a particular wine that he is looking for, in a room that can appear to be a mess from an outside perspective. In the case of my brother and me, we know that we are allowed to pull any wine from the top of the A section for every day drinking; whereas we would be in serious trouble with my father if we just grabbed a bottle from the bottom of C.

Inventory, with the latest handwritten notes

Inventory, with the latest handwritten notes

This brings me to the collection itself. Before getting into the actual wines that exist in the wine room, I must start with a brief history of how my father started purchasing wine. His interest began when he was in grad school, and evolved because of his collector’s mentality. When he would go to the store, he would buy two bottles of a single wine; one to drink and one to save. As he began to earn more money, he started buying by the half or full case. He bought several cases of Bordeaux and Napa Cab from 1985 and 1988 (my and my brother’s birth years, respectively), anticipating that his children would eventually appreciate wine in the way he did (good prediction, dad). His taste started with European wines, then shifted to a California palate while he was living in San Diego, and now he’s gone back to Old World style (France, Italy, Spain) but still maintains a love for Napa Cab and Oregon Pinot.

He currently has about 1100 bottles (he dropped down to 750 when my brother and I were in college), about half of which are Napa Cabs. Second are Chateauneuf du Pape, then Brunello (he only started collecting these about 3-4 years ago, and has a love for their earthy minerality and ability to pair well with food), with the rest of his collection making up a variety of Bordeaux, Pinot Noir, California Rhones, Zinfandel, and Spanish wines that are all in the $50 range. He has about 40-50 whites at any given time, as well as a few Ports.

Racks B and C

Racks B and C

As I mentioned earlier, Rack A is made up of reasonable priced wines that are for every day drinking. Rack B and C are a selection of his Rhone varietal wines (both domestic and French), with some Napa Cabs and Bordeaux closer to the floor. Rack D holds magnums of domestic Pinot and Cabernet, and Rack E is filled with domestic Pinot, Cab and Merlot, as well as some Old World Northrern Rhones on the bottom, including a 1990 Hermitage that’s worth $500. He keeps sparkling wines and Brunello in Rack F, and whites and Spanish reds and whites in Rack G.

Said Hermitage.

Said Hermitage.

A large portion of his Napa wines are made up of Ridge, Chappellet, Chateau Montelena, Joseph Phelps, Forman and Robert Craig. His Chateauneuf du Pape collection includes wines from Le Vieux Donjon, Domain Saint Prefert, Pierre Usseglio, and Beaucastel. His most prized wine is a 1971 Barolo given to him and signed by Francis Crick, whom he knew when he was working at Salk Institute in the 80’s. Some other high-value wines include a 1985 First Growth Chateau Margeaux Bordeaux, a 1985 Forman Magnum (which we plan to drink some time in 2015 for my 30th birthday), and a 1988 Double Magnum Chateauneuf du Pape, which my father says “probably should have been drunk 10 years ago.”

1988 Double Magnum of

1988 Double Magnum of Beaucastel

One of the Christmas wines

One of the Christmas wines

During my tour of the wine room he was quick to show me all the wines that we would be drinking over our holiday meals: 2011 Caymus Special Select, 2007 St. Prefert-Favier Chateauneuf du Pape, 2004 Hewitt Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2010 Robert Craig Affinity to name a few). But it’s not just the holiday dinners that he puts this kind of thought into; nearly every night of the year my father will ask my mother, “What’s for dinner?” and then he will go downstairs and pick out the best wine to pair with the meal. This is his favorite part of having such a vast collection, and one can see where I got my love of wine and food pairing.

Opening his latest shipment from Napa.

Opening his latest shipment from Napa.

Needless to say, the collection is quite astonishing – both in its coded organization as well as its volume and eclectic variety. There will come a day when he will stop replenishing the collection, and eventually my brother and I will inherit some of his most prized wines. But I don’t see that day coming any time soon. And in the meantime I’m happy to admire, learn, and partake in the “research.”

A Meal Fit for Foodie Friends

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I spent this past weekend with some friends at a beautiful property in Calistoga, drinking (too much) wine, playing Boys vs. Girls celebrity, and eating delicious homemade food. We split up the meals over the weekend, and I was in charge of dinner on Saturday night. With one vegetarian, two marathoners, a culinary school grad, and three slightly drunk men – all of whom are foodies – I had quite the meal to prepare. Fortunately, I was able to come up with something that pleased everyone!

Luckily, the sun came out for us all weekend.

Luckily, the sun came out for us all weekend.

Grilled Portobello Mushrooms 

  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme
  • 1 TB dried oregano
  • 1 TB Dijon mustard
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 portobello mushrooms

Combine first 6 ingredients and whisk together until combined. Pour over mushrooms in a sealed container or ziploc bag and refrigerate for 2 hours. Grill over medium-high heat for 4 minutes on each side. 

Grilled Dijon Peppercorn Flank Steak (serves 8)

  • 2/3 cup Dijon mustard
  • ¼ cup Soy Sauce
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
  • 2 teaspoons grated ginger
  • 1 ½ teaspoons coarsely crushed black peppercorns
  • 3-4 lbs flank steak

Combine first 6 ingredients in a large bowl. Coat the steaks with the marinade, then transfer to a sealed ziploc bag and refrigerate overnight. Bring to room temperature one hour before grilling. Grill over high heat for 5 minutes on each side. Let sit for 15 minutes, then slice against the grain and transfer to a serving platter.

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Rosemary Potatoes (serves 8)

  • 6 medium yellow potatoes, diced
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 TB chopped rosemary
  • 1 TB chopped thyme
  • kosher salt and ground pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Toss potatoes with olive oil, herbs, salt and pepper. Spread in a single, even layer on a baking sheet (you will need two sheets) and bake for 25 minutes, tossing half way through.

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Kale and Brussels Sprout Salad (serves 8)

  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 TB Dijon mustard
  • 1 TB chopped shallots
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1/4 tsp ground pepper
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/3 cup olive oil, plus 1/2 tsp
  • 2 large bunches of kale, chopped
  • 8 oz shaved Brussels sprouts
  • 1/2 cup almonds, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup grated pecorino
  • 2 avocados, diced

Whisk together lemon juice, mustard, shallots, garlic, pepper and salt. Let sit for about an hour to let the flavors meld together. Meanwhile, heat 1 tsp olive oil in a nonstick pan over a medium-low flame. Add almonds and sauté until toasted, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and wrap in tin foil to keep warm. Add the remaining oil to the lemon-Dijon mixture and whisk until combined into a smooth dressing. In a large salad bowl, combine kale, Brussels sprouts, almonds, Pecorino and avocados. Toss with dressing and serve.

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These dishes went great together, and the overall meal had a very clean, warm feel to it. After a toast with sparkling Rosé (naturally), we served a 2006 Napa Cab and a 2008 Super Tuscan blend. Both were big, powerful wines that paired well with the herbaceous flavors. And best of all, I made all my hungry friends very happy!

St. Clair Brown Winery

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I have been meaning to post about my favorite neighborhood spot, St. Clair Brown Winery, for a long time. To be honest, I think I was putting it off because I’m afraid of the place getting over-crowded. But I can’t hold back my love any longer; people must know about this local winery and test kitchen. If you’re anything like me, you will join the membership after your second or third visit – which will most likely be in the span of one week.

My first visit to St. Clair Brown took place before I even moved to Downtown Napa. I was taking measurements at my now apartment with Whitey, and we ventured three blocks down the street for some lunch and wine. I had heard about St Clair Brown from another friend a few days prior, so I was more than excited when I realized it was a mere five minute walk from my apartment. We feasted on a delicious lunch of farro salad, hummus, Burrata with strawberries, and of course, Rosé. I was hooked.

Garden

Owners Laina Brown and Elaine St. Clair have built an extensive garden in front of the property, leading back to a patio adorned with umbrellas and strings of small lights, then opens up into the greenhouse-like kitchen with windows for walls. The inviting space can seat up to 30 on the patio, and another 8 or so inside. On a hot day the umbrellas are a welcome accessory, but at sunset the sky fills with pink clouds and makes a beautiful backdrop to the twinkling lights. But it’s the garden that plays the biggest role in this winery and test kitchen.

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kitchen

The garden features seasonal and year-round greens, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers. The majority of the menu is vegetarian and is sourced from the garden, and you can even pick which greens are used in your order, such as the farro salad – one of my favorite items on the menu (for obvious reasons). The rest of the menu components are purchased from local purveyors and combined with items from the garden to give it a true farm-to-fork feeling.

hummus

farro salad

I’ve ordered the hummus nearly every time that I’ve visited, and I now have a hard time eating any other kind of hummus. They blend peanuts into it to give it a nutty flavor, and top it with a layer of lemon-infused olive oil, then serve it with a Model Bakery sliced baguette. Chef Norma Whitt has also created a seasonal Burrata dish (so far I’ve seen it served with fresh strawberries, tomatoes, or orange and fennel), as well as a pork rillette with apricot chutney. Naturally, the menu features seasonal produce, so I have been enjoying bowls of their gazpacho the past few weeks but I am excited to see the debut of autumnal dishes in the coming month.

Chardonnay

And let’s not forget about the most important part of St. Clair Brown: the wines. Winemaker Elaine St. Clair has strong relationships with several independent growers throughout the valley, so she is able to source small, high-quality vineyard lots from Oak Knoll, Coombsville and other areas of Napa Valley. The portfolio includes Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rosé, Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a sweet Muscat. My favorites are the Rosé (which is currently sold out), the Syrah and the Chardonnay. Admitedly, I wasn’t a fan of the Chardonnay when I first tasted it but it’s since grown on me and become one of my go-to selections.

The wine and food at St. Clair Brown is unique and delicious, but it’s the friendly staff that really makes the experience special. They make you feel like you are in your backyard, enjoying a home cooked meal with a glass of your favorite wine. And now that I am a club member, I can take advantage of my perks (free glass of wine, 10% discount on all menu items) every time I visit, and especially on Tuesday’s Locals Night when all glasses of wine are half off.

Sunset at St Clair Brown

This space is a preview of what is to come. Elaine and Laina are working to open a full service restaurant, brewery and winery across the street in their warehouse space in the next couple of years. In the meantime, if you find yourself in the area and you’re looking for a lunch-wine tasting combo, this is your spot. It won’t break the bank, it’s down to earth with healthy, fresh food that will fill you up without giving you that after-lunch wine-induced sleepiness. And if you’re a local, be sure to check them out on Tuesday night. You will probably see me there.

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