Friday, April 29, 2011

An Enchanted Evening - Spencer's Restaurant & Kosta Browne Wines

Spencer's Restaurant is a Palm Springs institution favored by locals, snowbirds, and  tourists alike.  Nestled against the beautiful Santa Rosa mountains, Spencer's is one of the most versatile restaurants around, equally enjoyable for lunch, brunch or a romantic evening on the patio.  But it truly excels as the venue for a magical Spring evening’s wine pairing dinner.  Especially when Executive Chef Eric Wadlund has paired with Mike Browne, co-founder and winemaker of Kosta Browne Winery, producer of small lot, exceptional Pinot Noir.

Eric has always been one of my favorite desert chefs, going back to the days when he was Executive Chef at Jimmy Schmidt's The Rattlesnake and then at Azur by Le Bernardin at the La Quinta Resort.  After a stint at his own innovative restaurant, Beefsteak, Eric was  brought in as Spencer’s Executive Chef and Director of Operations by owner Harold Matzner.  Eric is also co-author of a cookbook with Henry Fenwick titled "Palm Springs Flavors."

Kosta Browne wines are coveted by Pinot Noir lovers, and nearly impossible to obtain.  I was on their allocation wait list for five years before I received the best news of February 2010.  My long wait was over; I was entitled to an allocation from the Spring release! 

The event promised to be really, really special for this was the first wine dinner in desert history to feature Kosta Browne Winery and Mike Browne, his own self, was making a rare appearance.  No way this passionate food and Pinot lover was missing this event!  So what does a girl do when her companion has given up wine, cocktails and liquor of all kinds for an extended Lent?  She calls her best foodie friends for a night on the town, complete with a designated driver.  (Okay, so it's not so bad when your other half gives up wine and cocktails if he agrees to be a designated driver!)  Too excited to wait for the 6:30 dinner, Kimberly and I met Susan at Spencer’s for a pre-event libation at the bar. 

Kimberly is a fellow Negroni lover, and several were ordered after a discussion about its origins and the best way to make it, along with a comparison to the controversial Italian liquor, Fernet Branca.   For me, the Negroni is a perfect summer drink, ice cold, great color, with just the right amount of bitterness.

All too quickly the magic hour had arrived.  Kimberly, Susan and I were seated with Judy and Harold just in time for the hors d’oeuvres, a trio of Croque Monsieur-- salmon, prosciutto, and caviar in crispy toasts filled with ooey, gooey cheese.   Schramsburg Sparkling Rose was paired to complement the Croque Monsieurs and to cleanse the palate in preparation for the evening’s superstar wines from Kosta Browne.  What a fantastic way to start the festivities! 

Our table was filled with giggles and eager anticipation as the first glass of Pinot Noir was poured. A 2005 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, glittered in our glasses.  The bouquet was strong and sexy, but the taste was elegant, ladylike and feminine (“ELF”) -- characteristics represented by the ladies at our table. 
Mike Browne describing the pinot
 The aroma of  roasted tomato and garlic was soon wafting through the air as the first course was presented, an olive oil poached Alaskan Halibut served on an eggplant-heirloom-potato tart with tomato-garlic-beef jus.  This dish  brought out all the rich flavors of the Pinot while tantalizing our palates with its complex flavors.

Next up was a Wild Salmon Fillet accompanied by spicy bacon, braised pork belly, roasted shallots, white bean puree and red beet sauce.  In my opinion, Emeril is right.  Everything is better with pork or pork by-products, and this dish was no exception.  Paired with the 2007 Kosta Browne, Pinot Noir, Gary's Vineyard, it was a match made in Heaven.  (2007 was a particularly spectacular year for California Pinot's, so if you are in a quandary about what to select from the wine list, and do not want to enlist the help of the sommelier, you can't go too wrong choosing this vintage of Pinot.)

My favorite poultry is duck.  I love duck and think A Christmas Story got it right:  duck is a great substitute for turkey at Christmas or any other time.  But I am petrified to cook it at home, so it is one of my many restaurant indulgences.  When I saw that Eric had Sautéed Sonoma Duck Breast and Foie Gras Pate on this evening’s menu, I was dialing Spencer's faster than I can order from Nordstrom online.  The duck was succulent and tender, and was accompanied by beautiful buttered cabbage with rye crisps and black truffle-port sauce.  To complement this spectacular dish, we were served what one nameless person at our table pegged as "sex in a glass with a hint of barnyard bouquet" or, to everyone else, the 2008 Kosta Browne, Pinot Noir, Gap's Crown.   Too fantastic for words!

No wine dinner, particularly one prepared by Eric, is complete without a little red meat, and our next course did not disappoint.  Grilled herb crusted Kobe beef tenderloin with Yukon gold potato sticks, preserved red wine mushrooms and a thyme veal stock.  A 2006 Kosta Browne, Pinot Noir, 4-Barrel, brought out the beautiful, slightly earthy undertones of the Kobe beef.  This wine is a blend  from four special barrels that are identified from 70 different lots of Pinot Noir.  On the palate, this wine is dark and brooding with cassis, blackberry and sweet plum with a hint of earthiness, supportive acid and a dusting of cocoa.  Or in layperson terms:  pure pleasure in a glass.

By now our table was giddy from great wine, great food and the bonhomie it generated.  In fact, our designated driver, sitting alone in the bar and sipping mournfully from a glass of Pellegrino, had  texted us to "keep the noise down,” such was our fervor.  And we were not alone in our enthusiasm as the room emanated the energy of people who were totally immersed in an enjoyable occasion.  So it was with some reluctance that we greeted the final course, a Chocolate Three Berry Napoleon with mini-cookies.  A wonderful dish to end a truly enchanted evening.  After extra  splashes of wine were served and consumed,  we said au revoir and made plans for the next gastronomic experience.

As our designated driver spirited us home, I closed my eyes and dreamed that Eric and Mike will reunite for another wine pairing dinner and that I will be privileged to join them with my group of ELF's.

A very special thanks to Harold G. who was the perfect dinner companion to a group of four ladies, who surprised us all when he graciously treated the entire table to this exquisite dinner!

Spencer's Restaurant
701 West Baristo Road
Palm Springs, CA 92262

Monday, April 25, 2011

Surf, Sand and Sapphire

Every once in a while you find a real gem during your travels. The kind of place you can't wait to return to and, when you do, it is as good as you remember it.

For me, that place is Sapphire Restaurant in Laguna Beach.  Sapphire is located at the historic Pottery Shack site at the end of a fun array of stores (including my favorite book store).   From the moment you arrive, feelings of tranquility, warmth and hospitality surround you.  Not to mention the ocean views are pretty darn good too!

I've not dined inside the restaurant itself for the patio is generally available if you go at non-peak hours or during the off season.  The patio is also pet-friendly, so not only do you have gourmet food and great views of the Pacific, you can enjoy it with your best friend too!  However, be prepared to be convivial and charming for there is communal seating if you have not made a reservation or they are very busy.

It was a beautiful day at the beach, the type appropriate for hedonistic pleasures, so I ordered a Sans Permis.  Many are fans of Mimosas.  True, they are enjoyable, but nothing compares to the unique flavors and elegance of a Sans Permis.  I immediately fell in love with this late-morning cocktail, so I inquired about its ingredients and process.   Sapphire’s mixologist uses local honey, infuses it with lavender and orange rind, and lets it sit at least one day before using.  After the honey is properly infused, a little bit is drizzled into the bowl of a champagne glass and spread by straw to give it a nice light coat. Then an ounce of Cointreau is added to the glass and topped by Cava (a Spanish sparkling wine).  Trust me, the next time you want to kick up lunch or brunch, this is the way to go.

The weekend Brunch Menu – called “Global Cuisine” -- is a feast of options, and if you can't make up your mind I'd recommend The Brunch Box which is "5 Different Tastes in a Surprise Presentation" paired with a Mimosa or Bloody Mary and coffee for $24.50.    

I had been dreaming about the Crazy Cobb Salad since my last visit.  You probably think this does not sound very original and why would I be raving about gourmet food and then order a salad?   But this is not an ordinary Cobb salad; it is a Crazy Cobb Salad filled with Lobster, Chicken, Scallops, Shrimp, Smoked Pork, and Baby Vegetables and lightly dressed with a Creamy Tarragon Dressing.  When the Mamas and the Pappas wrote “California Dreamin’,” they may have been thinking about a salad just like this one.  The Crazy Cobb Salad is as Southern California as the Beach Boys, roller blading along the Strand and Venice Beach.  I can almost smell the salt water as I write these words.  Yum!

But Sapphire is not a one trick salad bar.  My unnamed companion ordered the Southern-Fried Chicken Salad, which is another absolutely delectable dish. The fried chicken is cooked to perfection!  Crisp but not oily; moist but not bland.   The fried chicken is perfectly complimented by Baby Field Greens, Pecans, Roast Corn, Dried Cranberries and a Buttermilk-Ranch Dressing.

It's an early lunch as we are attending a dinner party that night, but our server somehow manages to convince us to try the Pavlova.  No, he was not administering a psychological test and the source for the dish’s name is unknown to me.  But the dessert turns out to be a light, fluffy, golden meringue dancing on a bed of fresh berries.  Pure bliss.

Sapphire has extensive lunch, brunch and dinner menus, along with a wonderfully thoughtful cocktail and wine list.  If you want to enjoy great food, but prefer to do so surfside, you are in luck for the adjacent Sapphire's Pantry has a great selection of salads, sandwiches, cheeses, breads and wine to make your picnic special.

Sapphire Restaurant Laguna Beach
1200 Pacific Coast Highway
Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Pet Friendly Patio

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Lazy Ox Canteen

More than one year of dreaming fulfilled.  Expectations exceeded.  The Lazy Ox Canteen was everything S. Irene Vrbalia, LA Times Food Critic, stated in her review on December 21, 2009.  Ever since reading her review, I've been itching to go and scheming about how we could fit it into every excursion into Los Angeles we've taken.  Finally, I was the triumphant victor, and The Lazy Ox Canteen the recipient of my splendiferous victory.

Too eager to wait to lunch at the regular noon hour, an 11:30 reservation was made, and after touring Little Tokyo on foot we arrived at our destination. Sleek exterior and a ruggedly trendy interior draw diners in, just like a moth to the flame.  Chalkboards filled with the day’s delicacies were clouding my judgment.  Was it possible to just order one of everything?

Fortunately, our server saved the day and told us the chalkboard lists the dinner specialties and we would have to return to try out those gems.  ( I love a person who supports my personal agenda of always returning for another meal at an intriguing restaurant!)  

The lunch menu (which includes the ample wine list) was presented, and suddenly we were negotiating with each other about what would be tried.  My lunch companion is an attorney and a darn good negotiator, if you are wondering why something as simple as lunch requires a negotiation.  Plus, he knows my penchant for ordering everything of interest on a menu and was paying for the meal.  The lunchtime settlement reached, the order was placed, and the meal commenced.

First Plate - Pig Ear "Chicharon" with Pickles, Radish & Horseradish.  This was my first experience with Pig Ear and I found it a complex dish and a study in textures.  Soft, crispy, crunchy, warm, cool, with a hint of heat!  Definitely a must try when you visit.

Second Plate - Crispy Surf Clams with Caper & Pickle Aioli.  Oh my God! Possibly the world's replacement for calamari.  I've never had anything fried that was so light and delicate.  A definite conundrum for the health conscious!

Third Plate - (and most likely to be recreated at my home)  Green Barley Salad with Cucumber, Feta & Sherry Vinegar.  This is the perfect summer dish.  We demolished this dish while oohing and aahing over how great it will taste during the 110+ degree summer weather we encounter in the Palm Springs area.

Fourth Plate - Pork & Beef Ragu with Egg Pasta & Fried Egg.  If a photo is worth a 1000 words, then the aroma of this dish is worth a 1000 bites.

Finale - Rice Pudding.   A favorite at our house and not to be missed.  The perfect end to the perfect lunch.

The Lazy Ox Canteen
Located in Historic Little Tokyo
241 South San Pedro Street
Little Tokyo, Downtown L.A., 90012

L.A. Times Review

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Romancing the Date

A little afternoon romance never hurt anyone, especially when it includes the date of one's choice.   After a week of fashion at El Paseo Fashion Week 2011, it was time to move from eye candy to real food from famous chefs who were highly decorated in their own right. 

For the first time ever, Food & Wine Festival Palm Desert presented "Romancing the Plate with the Perfect Date."   A stellar line-up of chefs, led by James Beard award-winning chef Jimmy Schmidt and Duff Goldman of Food Network's popular Ace of Cakes show, created dishes inspired by the lowly, succulent, but often misunderstood date.  I was a little skeptical about this at first as dates are hardly de riguer in gourmet cooking.  But I was won over on first bite.  Dates might be the "truffle of the desert."

The event was emceed by Andie Hubka of Cooking with Class, who also served the first course, an amuse bouche of Blue Cheese and Almond Stuffed California Dates with Chive Oil accompanied by a glass of Korbel Sweet Cuvee sparkling wine.  

Palates ready, the next course Vietnamese Beef & Noodle Soup in a Duck & Date Broth that was paired with a 2009 Sonoma-Cutrer Sonoma Coast Chardonnay.  I am a huge fan of Pho, but this was an unexpected combination and one that should be tried again.  This dish was prepared by Chef Scott Robertson of New Leaf Catering.

Do "re and mi" follow Pho?  Maybe, but in this case it was the fabulous chef Jimmy Schmidt who prepared Roasted Wild Salmon, topped with Deglet Noor Dates Chanterelle & Arugula, and plumped Celeriac Ravioli with Date Emulsion.  Though a menu was in front of me, and Chef Jimmy Schmidt had just shown us the Celery Root, I was blown away by the Celeriac Ravioli and almost forgot that it was not pasta.  This dish was paired with the ever -versatile 2007 Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.  Delicious!!   Jimmy Schmidt's food is phenomenal and alone was worth the price of admission.

The moment most people were waiting for was now at hand.  The finale.  The end.  Dessert! This had to be spectacular and no one was disappointed.  Duff Goldman prepared Pear Ginger Spice Cake with Khadrawl Date Sauce & Chinese Citrus Chantilly Cream paired with Korbel Sweet Rose'.  A new Thanksgiving Classic emerged.  And, best of all for me who suffers from migraine headaches, not one bit of chocolate was needed to create a most delicious and memorable dish.

For more information on Dates or the recipes for the items listed please visit
Andie Hubka with Chef Jimmy Schmidt as he explains the Celery Root

Andre Carthen, Food & Entertainment Expert
Kathy Ireland Worldwide
(He makes a mean Mandarin Spice Martini too!)