The Green Fairy

A few weeks ago I made an impulse decision to drive into SF for dinner, which is never a poor decision when looking to liven things up in the midst of a slow week. The problem is I can never decide where to eat! When it comes to trying something new, I get overwhelmed with the options and then slink back to the same old fall-backs (which are nothing to scoff at by any means). But this time I was venturing out with someone that expected me to know the trendy spots in the city and pick something exciting and different. While I have visited Absinthe Brasserie and Bar before, its been a few years, so I felt comfortable choosing to revisit and re-experience this unique eatery.

Decorated in dark French decor and pictures of the little green fairy (or devil) covering the wall, the restaurant was bustling with a high energy crowd when we arrived around 8pm. Tables were scattered throughout the bar area, and we weaved in and out of the diners to get to our table that was located in a separated area just slightly elevated from the bar floor. Absinthe, while being known to serve the obvious choice drink, is also known for their extensive cocktail list that features historic drinks accompanied by an explanation of where in history they have roots. I definitely recommend checking this list out online before visiting, because the choices are detailed and in a face paced environment like this, its good to know your drink of choice right away so you can spend you time drooling and deciding amoungst the food selections.

My drink of choice for the evening was the French '75, a gin based cocktail with a splash of champagne and brandied cherries, named after a WWI piece of artillery. My date's choice was the Daedalus, made mostly of Jameson Irish Whiskey and created by an Irish bartender after he was hit by a Guinness truck. Both drinks were well made and strong in force and flavor. They were the perfect palate teasers to enjoy while we awaited our meal, which began with the Winter pumpkin soup, made with vanilla creme, ginger and topped with toasted pepitas. It was rich and warm with a special combination of flavors that strayed away from your average Winter squash soup. The citrus flavors from the drinks also worked nicely with the vanilla creme in the soup and the combination danced around nicely on the inside of my cheeks. We also shared a wedge of Brillat Savarin, a triple cream from Normandy that has always been a close personal favorite. Combined with the cold, crisp red grapes, this cheese was a special treat, especially watching someone else enjoy and fall in love with it for the first time.

The main courses we chose were the Vaudovan-scented carrot risotto with English and sugar snap peas, along with Machego and Chorizo stuffed Mary's chicken with shelling beans and grilled shisito peppers. The instant attack of zip was fantastic and fun, and the dish's characteristics fit the ambiance of the brasserie perfectly. The risotto was cooked perfectly with just a hint of the al dente crunch and the chicken, cooked with the skin on (and stuffed to the brim) was juicy and soaked through with the essence of chorizo.

The evening's combination of lively flavors and an even more lively crowd left us both quite pleased with the experience and both eager to return again! Suppose when you find places this good, its easy to just keep going back. My favorite part about this restaurant was its proximity to Hotel Biron, favorite wine bar in SF, which made it the perfect choice since walking to the bar was necessary after the cocktails Absinthe serves up! Look out for that green devil!

Can you say "tapas"?

As a fairly new resident to Napa, I have had my work cut out for me when it comes to visiting all of the fine dining establishments the valley has to offer. A little apprehensive at first regarding where to even begin, I asked the more established locals where they choose to dine on a special evening out. I expected answers such as The French Laundry, Bouchon, or Bottega, those being the highly reputable places one hears about when not actually living as a local. But instead, the answer across the board was Zuzu, a funky, easy going, no reservations tapas restaurant located in downtown Napa right on the river. I was told when it comes to choosing a birthday dinner spot or just a casual night out with friends, this is the top choice; I was sold.

My first visit was with an old friend that had also become a new resident of Napa, so we were eager to become cool "locals" as soon as possible. We sauntered in on a Thursday night with no reservations at about 6:30pm and were immediately seated in their cozy dining room that is filled with unique artwork and a lively buzz of people all happily engaged in their food. We ordered a pitcher of their house sangria straight away, which came full of fresh fruits and rich in color; this started the meal off right. The menu selections left no room for disappointment, and narrowing down choices was a difficult task. The nice surprise however was that we would order 6 or 7 different tapas plus wine and still not come close to breaking the bank (almost all the tapas are under $11 each!) The owners insist on using local organic ingredients as much as possible, and try to incorporate several different styles of dishes from around the globe. The wine list reflects an eclectic taste as well, highlighting several smaller regions of Spain that are as unique as the food.

As our meal commenced, we were served our dishes one by one and allowed adequate time to savor each one along with our sangria that went down all too smoothly. We started with salad of pears and arugula, a Spanish pastry with tuna and a fried egg in the middle, and (my favorite) the Bacalao salt cod with white truffle oil. Each dish had its own mix of unique flavors and fresh ingredients to fit the season. We moved along to the lamb dish and sweet corn with bacon only to feel more and more satisfied with every bite. It was a relatively quiet dinner for two girls that usually can't stop chatting when they get together, but we were so impressed and focused in on the food, that we only looked up occasionally to exchange glances of pure bliss.

I have now been back three times in the past 2 months with different groups of people and had the chance to try several different dishes that have been added to the menu as the seasons change. Some of those current favorites are the lima beans with chorizo and saffron, and the queso frito with manchego cheese and roasted poblano chiles. They also offer a different fresh ceviche and paella dish each night that are well worth adding to the mix.

The true highlight of that first evening however was the dessert: Tres Leches with tequila lime sauce paired with a glass of late harvest Garnacha blanca from Priorat, a delectable finish to a perfect meal that literally left me speechless. Zuzu quickly proved to be a spot that is not only a must visit, but a must return, as much as possible!


Hotel Biron- Wine Bar & Art Gallery

What a great local find! This "hotel" is not actually a hotel at all; its an underground, back alley, dimly lit hole in the wall wine bar, and one of the best wine bars I've experienced in the city thus far! A good friend and SF native guided me to this sheek sounding little place, and I was surprised to find the atmosphere to be dark, comfortable, and surprisingly welcoming! Unlike many trendy, urban wine bars, this place had a warmth to it that invited you right in. The tables and chairs were a mishmash of different heights and styles, and to be served you had to order at the small, unassuming bar hidden in the corner. The art changes monthly, allowing the bar to evolve with whichever artists are being represented at the time. During my visit, the walls were covered with some of the most different art I had ever seen (video images of what appeared to be human blood cells and other anatomy magnified to enhance details and shapes). It was unique and memorizing, and left me excited for upcoming artists in the future. (New artists featured the 1st Thursday of every month)
The most impressive feature of this bar, however, was the wine list! Not often is this the case I feel, being that some wine bars try to hide their shortcomings with fancy furniture and "low prices". Hotel Biron on the other hand had a diverse selection of wines from all around the world, and showed no bias toward one region or style over another. They seemed to embrace the foreign styles as well as local favorites, without overcrowding the list with overpriced Napa options. They also offered a great selection of beers and cheeses to complement the wines, which in my opinion is a must!
My selection for the evening consisted of the Serra de Estrella cheese, a Portugese washed rind sheep’s milk, raw walnuts, and a glass of Taltarni Brut Rosé "Tache". The ripeness of the cheese paired perfectly with the dry, crisp flavors of the sparkling wine. This is most definitely going to become a frequented, favorite spot, but hopefully it stays fairly undiscovered and underground, since that attributed to most of its charm! Its a good thing the entrance is hidden in a dark alley behind the neighboring late night, trendy, hot spot wine bar...


Valentine's Day at Viognier Restaurant

What a discovery thanks to! Looking for a place to have a special dinner on Valentine's day can always be a bit of a challenge. Especially for my date and I, who are both quite demanding of our wine to deliver as much satisfaction during the meal as the food. I was referred to use by a family member, and I was so impressed with the way the system works. Much like, you can specify details of the restaurant you are looking for, and find out all the available times for reservations and book online. I stumbled across Viognier Restaurant all too easily since it fit the bill of exactly what I was looking for, and was so aptly named for one of my favorite Rhone varietals. I was able to view the special menu for the evening, and see the options for wine pairing. Perfect!

Upon arriving, we were told our reservation was running a few minutes behind, but that we could enjoy a glass of wine in the bar. The bar area was fairly small, but offered a few high tables to sit for a few moments. The "By the Glass" menu was decent, without being too focused on Napa wines as many Northern California restaurants are. The prices weren't outragous either, with one of my favorite easy to drink wines, Masi Campofiorin Ripasso, Verona, Italy, Corvina Veronese 2004, for only $10.

When our table was ready, we were escorted to a quiet corner table overlooking the plant-filled balcony and given some of the best bread and butter to munch on while waiting. The menu was pre-fixed with a few different options, and we decided on adding the wine pairings as well. Our menu consisted of the following:
  • Local Garden Lettuces - Red Wine Vinagrette, Fresh Goat Chevre, Shaved Carrots with 2007 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc - Russian River Valley, CA
  • Jumbo Lump Crabcake - Apple, Mache, Remoulade with 2005 Gerhard, “Hattenheimer Hassel” Riesling Spätlese - Rheingau, Germany
  • Pan Seared Scallops - Napa Cabbage, Forest Mushrooms, Smoked Bacon with 2007 Wandering Wallaby, “Reserve” Chardonnay - Margaret River, Australia
  • Tenderloin of Prime Beef - Celery Root, Roasted Carrots, Cippolini Onions, Black Pepper with 2005 Terra Valentine Cabernet Sauvignon - Spring Mountain, CA
  • Apple Bread Pudding - Apple Caramel Sauce, Sautéed Apples with 2003 Royal Tokaji, “Red Label” - 5 Puttanyos - Hungary
  • Chocolate Cherry Tart - Peppermint Ice Cream, Cherry Sauce with NV Meyer Family, “Port” - CA

My date and I split everything, as we always do, so that we could try as many things as possible. Favorites of the evening were the Crab cakes and the Scallops (always a seafood lover). The thing I liked about these the most were the wine pairings. The Riesling was a lovely surprise to compliment the crab, offering a citrus and wet stone nose complimented by a crisp, dry, light fruit and high acidity palate. Perfect for the slightly sweet crab! The scallops were delightful with the Chardonnay, and although I am rarely a fan of Chardonnay, this Australian choice complimented well with just a hint of oak that avoided overpowering the bright fruit characteristics of the wine. The subtle melon flavors and creamy mouthfeel made it the perfect match with the mushrooms and bacon.

Though there was some slowness in the service and the overall price ended up being higher than anticipated, this meal was a memorable one for the books. I would recommend this place to anyone traveling through the San Mateo area, especially because it is located above the Draeger's Market which is a fantastic kitchen store that I could spend hours browsing. Stop by and enjoy their open kitchen, French-Californiam fusion cuisine, and award-winning wine list!

Back Wine Bar

After moving back from London in December, I spent a few months living in Sacramento in limbo on my way to San Francisco. Since the last time I lived in this city was well before I was of drinking age, I had to go out and discover some wine spots where I could get my "fix". An old coworker from San Luis Obispo had started working at a newer place called Back Wine Bar in Folsom, CA and it appealed to me because he said it had the same cozy feel as the bar we worked at in SLO. I went out in January to check it out, and was thoroughly impressed!

Although the space is small, they make it work really well by offering lots of bar seating, and cosy little tables along the wall and outside on the patio. It has a sleek, dark look to it with the stainless steel bar and velvety couches, but still offers a welcoming feeling with the warm lighting and warm smiles behind the counter. The Back's, a husband and wife team, run the bar and strive to offer a unique selection of wines, high quality foods, and events to draw the neighborhood in. The bar offers about 30 different wines for tasting or by the glass, and many more available to purchase by the bottle. There are also a few beer available on tap and by the bottle, and thanks to their beer connoisseur staff members, they are usually harder to find selections. But the best part of this bar is the food menu! Along with the traditional meat and cheese plates, they offer mini pizzas, four delectable types of bruschetta, and a seasonal Crème Brulée made from fruits of the season (blood orange the day of my visit).

I joined the mailing list on my first visit, and started hearing about all the events and tastings they offered over the next month. When I heard about their Valentine's Eve tasting of Champagne and oysters, I had to drag my boyfriend out to share in the treats. Everything was so reasonably priced ($0.50 oysters on the half shell and $6.00 glass of Champagne) that I couldn't resist over-indulging. The staff also opened several other bottles from their store and private collections, and were more than happy to share and educate anyone who was interested.

This place is a fabulous addition to the Folsom wine scene, and well worth the trek all the way from downtown Sacramento. Just be careful about driving home!

Unified Wine and Grape Symposium

Today officially concluded the four-day event that is the largest industry gathering in the nation. Hosted by American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) and the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG). This event serves as the wine mecca for information on the current status of the industry, and the latest products being released. For three days the Sacramento Convention Center and all the surrounding hotels fill with industry professionals from around the world who then fill the various conference rooms soaking up as much knowledge as possible. There are general sessions covering the major issues and breakout sessions for each segment of the industry to stay plugged into the current research of the day. There is also a trade show that takes place for two days and it is the best place to see all the latest high tech products and equipment advances that are hitting the market. This year for the first time, there was a fourth day added to the program. It was an 8 hour Aroma Symposium with prestigious speakers from across the globe presenting their research on aroma compounds and complexities, along with a wine tasting for sensory analysis.
As wonderful as all of these official events are, the part of this event that really impresses me is the part that takes place outside of the convention center. Beginning Monday evening, industry friends begin arriving at the adjoining hotels, and immediately head to the lobby bar to start mingling. Each night it gets more crowded with a more diverse mixture of people, all passionate about the same things, and eager to exchange business cards and a laugh. During the week there are also several industry hosted parties at various surrounding restaurants. A favorite of mine includes the Bottle Bash hosted by Wine Business Monthly at Pyramid Brewery. The place fills with people all wanting to share their latest wine and great free food. Other parties that take place later in the evenings, including the notorious Scheid party held at The Park Ultra Lounge, are still full of enthusiastic individuals that manage to make business connections even over a gin and tonic and Britney Spears in the background.
From the moment I crossed J & 13th Street I could feel the buzz. Being from this city and having walked that area many times, I can tell you it never feels as alive and exciting as it does during the week of Unified. Everyone comes to Sacramento with the same idea in mind: to connect with people. Whether it's to hear the state of the industry, buy new products, connect with old friends, or make new networking connections, everyone is about having a good time and commingling over their mutual passion (because everyone in this industry knows it had better be a passion since we don't get into it for the money!) that is wine.
I learned quite a lot this week, and not just about Grenache from the amazing session led by Dr. Patterson of Cal Poly State University, or about the latest web platform from VIN65 that will enhance a winery's website beyond its wildest dreams; I also learned about people and the power of a handshake and your word. No matter how large this industry gets, it will always be a small world for those of us within it, therefore integrity means a lot in this business. It is a business or which I am proud to be a part.
I am glad I was able to share the great times with everyone this week, and I look forward to seeing all of you again next year!


Welcome to my new blog

This blog is going to be a place to share various wine journeys and experiences with everyone. I have kept an extensive blog over the past 7 months of traveling which has been a very personal outlet for me. This blog however will focus more on the educational experiences gained from the various wine adventures and I hope to pass them onto you to learn from as well. Thanks for reading!

Check it out!