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


  1. Wow! fun to read the 'story' of the evening.
    You did a great job of describing it all. We did
    have a wonderful time! (Next time tell me when you are taking my photo, I look a little like a witch!)

  2. Great blog. Sounds like you all had a lot of fun. Bettina