Sunday, August 28, 2011

Gilt Taste - Guilty Pleasures

The “Dog Days of August” here in the desert are hard on a Culinary Diva.  The best restaurants are closed, the weekly farmers’ market is but a memory, and “freshness” is not a word associated with the produce at the local supermarkets.  The highlight of my day is the trip to the mailbox in hope for the latest issue of Food and Wine or the Chef’s Catalogue.  Heck, I am overjoyed to receive the Omaha Steaks mailer.

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon an Internet solution to my summer doldrums.  Gilt Taste is a purveyor of gourmet food items grown, raised, harvested or picked from across the country.  At the click of the mouse, I can have transported directly to my home such treats as black garlic, New Zealand roasting rabbits, Mikuni Wild Harvest mushrooms and finger limes or Bryan Flannery’s fine selection of meats.  These are wonderful products, carefully packaged and express delivered to ensure that freshness is a condition and not merely an aspiration. 

Sasha the Wonder Dog, preparing for another hot day in August!

But by far the most exciting product is the CSA Box that has become the basis for a culinary challenge to pass away the hot August days and nights.  The CSA Box is filled to the brim with a chef’s selection of seasonal vegetables from the rich soils of Ohio, near Lake Erie.  Its arrival signals a Christmas-like moment when the package is opened to reveal the treasure inside.  For those who remember the television food show Ready, Set, Cook, think of this box as containing the surprise ingredients from which you craft a meal.  Some of the ingredients are readily recognizable but of a variety and quality not found locally here in the desert.  I have eaten squash blossoms in restaurants but never seen them at Jensen’s or Ralph’s.  I did not know carrots came in such a rainbow of colors.  And I had no idea that lettuce could be so fragrant and enticing.

Several words of caution:  one, as we all know, Internet shopping is addictive and Gilt Taste can lead to a serious strain on one’s credit card.  Two, shipments are coming directly from the producers and delivery information is sometimes inaccurate (Gilt Taste is working on this).  On at least two occasions a delivery was made before I received an e-mail alert that a shipment was coming.  If you live in Alaska, this might not be such a problem.  But here in the desert, packages left out in 100+ degree weather don’t fare well.  So my intrepid companion was made to stand daily watch until the deliveries were made, a situation he found tiresome.  Three, the produce is fresh and not sitting around in someone’s warehouse.  So there can be delays in shipment.  If you need something for a dinner party in two days, you might end up disappointed.

Here is my photographic tribute to the CSA Farm Fresh Produce that has made me one happy Culinary Diva this August:

To purchase your own CSA Farm Fresh Produce and other quality products from Gilt Taste:

To purchase Chesapeake Blue Crabs:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

She's Got Champagne Eyes.....

"There comes a time in every woman's life when the only thing that helps is a glass of Champagne." - Bette Davis

Ain’t that the truth!  There is just something about the whole Champagne experience that is invigorating, whether after a long day at work, participating in the pre-dawn sales at Neiman Marcus, or celebrating that long-awaited promotion, engagement or wedding.  Maybe it is the bubbles caressing one’s nose, or the ritual that attends the opening of a bottle and the pouring of the wine.  Or maybe it is the naughty inference one can draw from a Champagne coupe that allegedly was modeled on the breast of Marie Antoinette. 

For centuries, Champagne has been associated with luxury, festivities and rites of passage.  But at POP Champagne & Dessert Bar, this effervescent sensory sensation is showcased for what it is:  an exceptional aperitif or accompaniment to most any food or dessert.

My companion and I were walking the streets of Old Town Pasadena recently, killing time before our dinner reservation at a local bistro, when we spotted POP’s unique sign.  The evening was warm and sunny, our reservation was not for another hour, and so with nary a spoken word we weaved our way through passing traffic to the entrance of POP.  Stepping into POP evokes images of a Roaring Twenties speakeasy, and you expect to see Ernest Hemingway holding court at a back table with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  Art deco lighting softly illuminates exposed brick walls festooned with empty gold frames, plush, royal purple booths that provide an intimate environment for their occupants, and a large, beautiful bar.  The rest of the space contains tables covered in black linens and decorated with elegant orchids.  Modern day speakeasy music adds to the ambiance of POP. 

It was Happy Hour and the bar was jammed with young, lively patrons partaking of the generous Happy Hour specials and many tables and booths were already occupied by a generational cross section of people obviously enjoying themselves.  When we said we merely wanted a glass of Champagne, we were told a table was available for an hour and we readily accepted.  Kudos to the front desk staff for accommodating us rather than turning us away.  We only intended to have one glass and be on our way, so a time constraint was perfectly appropriate and acceptable.

There are more than one hundred Champagne houses and untold sparkling wine producers, and a fair number of them are represented on POP’s uncommon wine list.  My companion and I like to think we know something about wine, but POP’s wine list made us pause and try to conjure information from past issues of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.  Sure, there are the old standbys like Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon, and these are sold by the bottle.  But for the most part, POP’s wine list offers an intriguing representation of smaller producers, so some professional guidance is needed.  Fortunately, POP’s smartly dressed staff is as knowledgeable as it is personable and is there to guide your journey through the mysteries of the wine list.  Caryn was our designated Champagne Guide for the evening and her bubbly personality was well suited to the occasion.  We wanted to compare Champagne styles, so she paired a Bollinger Special Cuvee with a Paul Bara Brut Reserve Bouzy.  With a clink of our Champagne flutes, our journey began.

Champagne functions wells as an aperitif.  But like most French wines, it functions best with food.  Mindful of our impending dinner reservation, we resisted the temptation of appetizers.  For a brief while, that is, until we succumbed to the sight and smell of plates on nearby tables.  Caryn recommended a couple of her favorite items, we selected one, and before long Brie Toast with Chardonnay Soaked Raisins was served. This dish was a complete and utterly wonderful surprise.  Deconstructed, raisins, brie and chardonnay have a readily discernible taste.  But combined in this dish they assumed a harmonious blend of taste and texture that would make a blind identification of the ingredients quite challenging.  The depth of flavor was scintillating:  first, the chardonnay soaked golden raisins were soft, juicy and gave off a hint of seductive vanilla and lavender, followed by the silky texture of the brie, all the while supported by the crunch and slight char of the toast.  And each of the Champagnes admirably complimented this dish. 

I don’t know if caused by this dish or the Champagne, or both, but by now I had lost my willpower and sense of time.  Boldly we asked Caryn to select two sparkling wines from regions outside the United States and she brought a German Rosé and Spanish Cava.   The Latitude 50 Sekt Troken Rosé (Sekt is a German Sparkling Wine) is a dry sparkling rosé from Germany made from portugeiser (a grape variety, not a reference to an old Portuguese wine grower), dornfelder, and pinot noir.  Though it is pale salmon in color, this sparkling wine is surprisingly complex with a good dose of minerality that I like.  My first time trying a German sparkling wine, and I’m hooked!  (You can order online at )  Next up was a playful Spanish Cava:  the Raventos Cava Reserva Rosedo ’07 Penedes.  This is a fresh, concentrated, deliciously dynamic bubbly whose scent is slightly reminiscent of a grass field in the Mediterranean on a warm, summer day.  Another winner and a wine I will order again. 

Yash Youseffi, the general manager, suggested that with these two sparkling wines we try the Cherry Heirloom & Roma Tomato & Basil Bruschetta on Parmesan Crostini.  This was a match made in Heaven as both of the sparkling wines stood up well against the acidity of the bruschetta.  What surprised me about this bruschetta was the use of heirloom cherry tomatoes.  Pure bliss.  The bruschetta was light, had the right balance of acidity and fruit and tasted as if the tomatoes had just been picked.  Clearly the chef at POP cares about the ingredients used, and each dish reflects a level of sophistication that was not expected at a champagne and dessert bar.

POP has quite an extensive dinner and dessert menu to match the large Champagne inventory (all of which can be seen online).  POP offers Champagne flights, Happy Hour, brunch on the second Sunday of every month, music on Thursday and Sunday, and private events.  Also, there are still wines and glamorous specialty wine cocktails.  For those men who think Champagne (or wine in general) is only for women or to be consumed when forced at special occasions, read about Jay McInerney's wine adventure in Bacchus & Me, particularly the chapter on Champagne.  Otherwise, POP has an interesting selection of domestic and imported beers, most of which appear to be from boutique breweries. 

Visit POP the next time you are in Old Town Pasadena.  The atmosphere is warm and inviting--a throw back in time--with staff that will make the experience memorable.  Reservations are important, so plan ahead.  Or just whisper at the door:  “Christy sent me.” 

á votre santé!

POP Champagne & Dessert Bar
33 E. Union Street
Pasadena, CA 91103
Phone 626-795-1295

Thursday, August 4, 2011

French Laundry

“No” is not a word I like to hear in a culinary context.  And hearing “no” over and over again is enough to discourage even the most intrepid foodie.  But the word merely makes me resolute when uttered by the reservationist at the illustrious, nearly mythical restaurant named The French Laundry.

The French Laundry is a perennial resident on Restaurant Magazine’s list of the top 50 restaurants in the world, and was designated by that publication in 2003 and 2004 as the very best.  The French Laundry is located in Yountville, right in the middle of the Napa Valley.  Over the years, my companion and I have tried many times for reservations.  Admittedly, we have not tried “dialing for dollars” three months in advance which is when reservations are opened.  That would require too much advance planning for us.  But we have tried various means without success when in the Napa Valley.  For instance, my companion once was doing a walkabout around Yountville at 4:00 a.m. and was drawn into the kitchen of The French Laundry by the smell of fresh bakery goods.  Although he was offered coffee and fresh croissants, and had a nice chat with Thomas Keller, he was not rewarded with a reservation for his insomnia. 

We have dined with great delight in Thomas Keller’s other three eating establishments in Yountville:  Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and Ad Hoc.  Bouchon is a bistro style restaurant with wonderful shellfish and a menu with excellent variety and appeal.  Bouchon Bakery purveys a panoply of fresh baked pastries, cakes, breads and the like.  Its devotees line up before the opening just to ensure first dibs.  And Ad Hoc is incredibly unique in that the daily menu is prix fixe and contains one, and only one, selection for each course.  Unless you have checked out the website in advance, you don’t know what is being served until you sit down.  You always hope for fried chicken but are never disappointed with what is served. 

On my recent trip to the Napa Valley, I was able to stroll through the gardens of The French Laundry.  It is here that Thomas Keller grows much of the produce used in his restaurants.  It is the closest I have been to a coveted table and I thought those of you who tend home gardens will draw inspiration from seeing some of the photos I took.  For many of you—perhaps me included—it may be the closest you will ever get to a table at The French Laundry.

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

6534 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Ad Hoc
6476 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599