Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Eating my way through the Windy City and Burbank's answer to Chicago

Value of the week!

I often wonder how much more I would weigh if I still lived in Chicago.  Taking a road trip for the Bears Chargers game last week, I realized once again that my old friends in Chicago really know how to eat.  Besides the incredible aged prime sirloin steaks (you can't beat prime, corn fed, Midwestern beef) there are a number of Chicago style culinary creations that the Windy City can call their own.

Chicago's Best Deep Dish
1)  Chicago Style Pizza - I've been to Boston and New York and tried their pie (no need to mention LA in this discussion).  Nothing compares to the deep dish Chicago Style Pizza at Gino's East.  This was the last thing I needed after tailgating on lamb chops, grilled squid, tri-tip sandwiches, stuffed mushrooms and sucking down Blue Moon beers at the game, but a coveted table for ten at Gino's was impossible to pass up.  While the thin crust is good, I indulged on the deep dish with Italian sausage, pepperoni and green peppers.  The crust is exactly as I remembered it - buttery, melt in your mouth delicious.  One other bonus at Gino's Pizza - you can write on the walls of the restaurant, just not in the pristine bathrooms.
Al's - Certainly one of the best Beef's around

2) and 3)  The Chicago style hot dog and polish sausage sandwich.  It has to be Vienna Beef, that's clearly the number one brand in Chicago, but the real key is what's on a Chicago style dog or polish.  My personal favorite is Wolfy's on Peterson Avenue.  Served on a traditional bun, the juicy Chicago dog or polish (even more juicy, definitely not health food) is typically served with mustard (never ketchup) green relish, kosher dill pickles, hot peppers (if you dare) and tomatoes. There is something about the combination that makes my mouth water, especially when accompanied by crispy, salty, hot Wolfy's french fries.

4)  Italian Sausage Sandwich - Grilled over an open flame, there are probably 1000 restaurants in Chicago who do it well, but I continue to gravitate to the same place - the classic - Al's Beef.  The fire grilled Italian Sausage is served on an roll with marinated bell peppers, fried in oil.  Top it off with hot Italian peppers - also known as Giardiera (Il Primo brand being the world's best).

Serious Contender for #1 Beef
5)  Italian Beef Sandwich - When I arrived in Chicago, my brother had already been to Al's Beef.  He had one waiting for me at the hotel.  This is a uniquely Chicago sandwich and if you go to Chicago, you must try a "beef.'  The sandwich consists of thin sliced roast beef that's typically heated in garlic seasoned beef broth, served on a sandwich roll.  I have my beef sweet (with green peppers) hot (with Giardiera mix) and wet (the whole bun is dipped in the juice to maximize flavor). There really is nothing else like it. 

Again, there are many great Italian Beef sandwich places in Chicago, but Al's is the best - Mr. Beef, right around the corner, offers an excellent version as well.  Mr. Beef does get points for ambiance, as the long picnic bench seating in the back room offers a nice spot to converse with the locals.

Believe it or not - Al's could be coming to your town sometime in the future.  The company is actively franchising stores, including a recent opening in Athens, Georgia.  In the meantime, actor Joe Montegna's place, Taste Chicago, provides a quick fix of Chicago style cuisine in Burbank.

I've tried Taste Chicago's Italian Beef and it is right up there with top ten percent in Chicago. In fact, on a weekly basis,  my Italian Beef savvy co-workers visit Taste Chicago for lunch.  They need their fix. TC's hot dog and polish are authentic Chicago style - but I haven't tried the pizza at Taste Chicago.  After all, the buttery flavor of Gino's crust is still ingrained in my taste buds two weeks later, so I'm good for now. 

Mr. Beef deserves some props, so here is our Wine Pairing of the Week:  A Mr. Beef Italian Beef Sandwich with a nice bottle of  Francis Coppola Claret Diamond '09.  A very nicely balanced Bordeaux Style wine that's bold and rich - hold up very nicely to that flavorful Italian Beef sandwich.  The Francis Coppola Claret Diamond '09 is available from our friends at Bevmo, Total Wine and wine.com.                      

Our Value Wine of the Week is also very well priced at both Bevmo and Wine.com.  Bogle Chardonnay 2010.  We're talking under $10 here for a Chardonnay that starts out soft, finishes crisp. Great wine for those leftover turkey dishes.

What book am I listening to while trying to find a parking spot in the crowded malls?  Shock Wave by John Sandford.  Easy to follow, fast paced detective story - perfect for Holiday gridlock!

If you drive a lot, or if reading just wears you out, you have to try Audible. I am thoroughly addicted to the Audible downloads program. Check out the amazing introductory offer from our friends at Audible.com that you can access from this page. I’m personally cranking through a book each week. I'm addicted!

Awesome coffee your office should be drinking:  Peet's House Blend.  Avaialble from Gourmet Coffee Service - Southrn California's #1 Office Refreshment Specialist.  http://www.gourmetcoffeeservice.com/

Thursday, November 17, 2011

An Amazing Discovery in Healdsburg - JCB and the Barrel

It was a tough decision, trying to figure out where to taste wine around the village square of one Sonoma County's coolest towns, Healdsburg.  I already knew where I was going to eat lunch, since I was craving Mexican food, missing So Cal a little apparently.

My Very Own Barrel!
There it was - a little out of place - a little over the top - gleaming, stylish, sophisticated - adorned with black, gold, mirrors and chandeliers - in the little hamlet of Healdsburg - the JCB Tasting Room.  The staff was friendly enough, welcoming even.  Happy to pour generously (and complimentary) once it was learned we were wine club members at Buena Vista.  At JCB - short for Jean-Charles Boisset - they pour some wonderful high end wines; a collection of rare numbered wines "composed" by Jean-Charles himself.  I can't even tell you what we tasted, but number 11 was good...I think.  Or was it 7? Actually, they were all very nice and elegantly presented by Jess in the tasting room. This is something you are just going to have to experience yourself.  Besides, I was totally preoccupied with the idea of having my own barrel and now I've got one.

It turns out that JCB owns about twenty vineyards and is quite the innovator.  Buena Vista in Sonoma, Raymond in Santa Helena and Deloach in Santa Rosa are all owned by JCB.  I am a huge Buena Vista fan - so JCB was good for me from the get go.  When I saw the little oak barrel in the corner and learned I could take it home with me - I was enamored.

The concept is called "barrel to barrel."  Please don't call it box wine, but in reality, that's exactly what it is.  High end - direct from the barrel - wine in a box, tapped out of little barrel that becomes the centerpiece of any party.  The barrel is fun and best of all - the wine is excellent.  So far, the 3 liter recyclable eco-pouches (that's four bottles) are being offered by Raymond and Deloach.  It's part of JCB's commitment to the environment.

At a party - this barrel gets action!
The 3 liter barrel runs about $220.  The wines are lightly filtered and truly deliver a "from the cellar" texture and taste. The eco-bag protects against oxidation, reduces packaging and the carbon footprint.  Once opened, the wine stays fresh for six to eight weeks.  At a party, you can expect to "reload the barrel" after 30 minutes as your enthralled guests won't be able to stay away from it.

So far, I've enjoyed the Deloach 2009 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and the 2009 Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon.  Both were very enjoyable and if you drink wines on a regular basis (like nightly) the barrel is quite convenient as well. I'm told that a Zin and another Pinot are on the way right now.  Jeffrey Colton of the JCB team has provided an amazing level of personal service.

We love our barrel.

The view from my sidewalk table...
By the way - when it was time for lunch - I had three Carne Asada Tacos that were nothing less than a Mexican flavor explosion.  The only difference between this place on the edge of the Healdsburg square and the best Mexican food places in LA - El Sombrero serves wine.  They also feature a flaming selection of salsas which along with the complimentary chips - it's not a bad way to "tweak your palate" for more trips to the tasting rooms. 

In reality, El Sombrero was the perfect contrast after the highly stylized tasting room at JCB.  Both worthy of visiting again.

Wine and Food Pairing of the Week:  Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 and the new Porcini Rubbed Filet Mignon from Flemings Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar.  The notes from wine.com:
"Supple and creamy-textured, with mocha, ripe plum and cherry flavors that show touches of tobacco, espresso and underbrush. Full-bodied, gaining tannic traction on the finish, elegant and readily approachable. Drink now through 2018."

As for the Porcini Rubbed Filet Mignon from Flemings Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar. It's Delicious. The usual fine Flemings prime beef, aged up to four weeks, expertly prepared.  The Porcini rub only brings out the flavor of the juicy, center cut filet mignon.

The Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is available from our friends at Bevmo, Total Wine and Wine.com.  It is consistantly good, one vintage after another.

Wine Value of the Week:  Lake Sonoma Zinfandel '08.  Nice and Jammy like any good Zin. Bevmo has it under $10 right now - which is unbelievable.

What I'm Listening to on the Crowded LA Freeways: Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva. For me, it started a little slow, but now I'm gripped (hands to the wheel).

If you drive a lot, or if reading just wears you out, you have to try Audible. I am thoroughly addicted to the Audible downloads program. Check out the amazing introductory offer from our friends at Audible.com that you can access from this page. I’m personally cranking through a book each week.  I'm addicted!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Wine Tasting and Shopping Can be Expensive

Nickel & Nickel is a beautiful ranch-like winery

One of the dangers of wine tasting is that you might end up shopping while you are tasting.  When the incredible half case of  Nickel & Nickel Cabernet arrived, I remembered what a great time we had visiting the vineyard and how elegant the wine tasting was (bread sticks, cheese and all), but I sure didn't remember ordering the cabs!  Turns out it was simply the October shipment of  "Club Cabernet," two bottles of three outstanding single vineyard cabs from Nickel & Nickel.
As we sat in the dining room of the historic John C. Sullenger House at the Nickel & Nickel winery, the personalized tasting menu was a testament to the winery's attention to detail.  2007 versions of the CC Ranch, Copper Streak, Martin Stelling and Vogt Vineyard Cabernet were served along with various gourmet cheese selections,  Italian Cow's Milk, Extra Aged Gouda and a smooth Bohemian Goat Cheese. Nickel & Nickel, founded by the partners of Far Niete to create nothing but single vineyard wines, offers some of the most captivating cabs in a most memorable setting. The generous tasting leads to a gregarious group at the table.

From the recent shipment, so far I've tried only the 2008 State Ranch, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from a 23 acre Yountville vineyard. I'm going to cellar the second bottle for at least another year, as it can only get better, but the first bottle provided vibrant flavors, including berry and cherry.  As the wine maker's notes suggest, "The vintage's tannins are so supple and fine that they are quite polished." After about 30 minutes in the decanter on the table of Maestro's Newport Coast, the wine was silky smooth, getting rave reactions, well deserved, from the three wine drinkers who were enjoying this lovely selection that I had carried in.

The nice folks at Maestro's waived the $25 per bottle corkage fee. Why?  When you bring in great wines and allow the wine steward to do the tasting after decanting, they appreciate that. In this case, the mission was to determine whether we should drink the Kelham 2001 Cabernet first, or the 2008 State Ranch from Nickel & Nickel.  Conclusion - The Kelham was ready (and unbelievable); the State Ranch Cab needed some heavy breathing.  It was ultimately, superb.

Next week - I'll finally get to write about our amazing discovery in historic Healdsburg - up in beautiful Sonoma County.

Wine and Food Pairing of the Week:  Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 and a nice lean filet mignon from Morton's Steakhouse.  It's a splurge, but the Duckhorn Cab is an intense and flavorful wine, very impressive and only gets better with age, but who can wait?  As for the filet mignon, Morton's does it right. Not too fatty, lean and flavorful. My wife likes the petite version.  You can find the Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 well priced at Bevmo and from our friends at wine.com.

Value Wine of the Week:  Acacia Carneros Chardonnay 2009.  This on target Chardonnay is a great deal - often under $15.  It's crisp - not too much oak and you can taste peach and apple overtones. Refreshing and always well priced at Bevmo and from our friends at wine.com.

What I’m listening to on the crowded LA Freeways:  Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.  Sorry if you saw the movie.  It was terrible.  The book - and the audio rendition - is fantastic.

If you drive a lot, or if reading just wears you out, you have to try Audible. I am thoroughly addicted to the Audible downloads program. Check out the amazing introductory offer from our friends at Audible.com that you can access from this page. I’m personally cranking through a book each week.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Discovering Windsor - Can I really eat like this?

When we flew into an airport named for my favorite cartoonist of all time, I knew it would be good.  The direct flight from LAX to Sonoma's County's Charles M Shultz Airport was too convenient...although driving from LA instead of taking the prop plane would have probably taken an extra hour and a half.  By the way, it was $63 one way on Alaska Air - great deal.

Never having been deep into Sonoma County, I had no idea what I was in for.  This trip was all about discovery - and what a discovery it was.  The people of Sonoma County can get testy about Napa and rightfully so - Sonoma has so much to offer.

We actually stayed in Windsor at a well appointed timeshare property.  The two bedroom and two bath unit was perfect for two couples.  As described on the property's website,  "Adjacent to WorldMark Windsor is the challenging Windsor Golf Course, host to six PGA Nike events. Windsor is also home to more than 1,000 acres of regional parkland and is the liftoff point of the annual Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic."  It's a beautiful setting and for golfers, a challenging track.

From the patio at Charlie's - Nice View!

Upon our arrival, we immediately walked a block to find our way to a table overlooking the golf course at Charlie's.  We could not get enough of the Gorgonzola Truffle Fries - Crispy Skin on Fries tossed with Rosemary, Lemon Zest, Garlic, Gorgonzola Cheese and Truffle Oil.  After two bottles of the '06 Mariner Dry Creek Vineyard Meritage, our party concluded that this was a wonderful venue for catching up with old friends.  We managed to return to Charlie's later in the weekend. Never made it here for dinner, but I can tell you that Charlie's is the ticket for wine and appetizers or for lunch (with wine of course).

Before a day of wine tasting, there is no better spot in town for breakfast than KC's Downtown Grill - which sits on a corner overlooking the Windsor Town Green.  This has to be one of the top breakfast places in the world (this is not an overstatement). I had the Greek Omelet one day and the Denver the next. What really blew me away was the fact that breakfast is served with either a fresh Buttermilk Biscuit or a large piece of Raspberry Strudel (a breakfast in itself) along with potatoes and toast.  The is the kind of place I want to try for lunch and dinner - it's real food!  After some of the hip "Celebrity Chef California Fusion Cuisine" places I've been to, I really appreciate the flavor, quality and service of a place like KC's Downtown Grill. 

We haven't even left Windsor yet.  The next edition will talk about the elegant tasting room that my wife and I walked into on the charming Healdsburg town square. It was there that we discovered the ultimate wine server for people who entertain.  Hint:  It's Eco friendly and it's something that you can roll! 

Wine and Food Pairing of the Week:   2009 La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay with garlic marinated grilled shrimp.  We visited the La Crema tasting room on the Healdsburg town square and for the sake of research and development at home, we tried the La Crema/Shrimp combo and it was superb!    The 2009 La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is available from our friends at Wine.com and Bevmo in Southern California.  Wonderful wine for under $20.00. The oak is subtle - which is why we enjoyed it so much.

Here are the Winemaker's Notes from Wine.com:

The 2009 vintage of Sonoma Coast Chardonnay opens with an intriguing interplay of lively citrus and subtle toasted oak, laced with just a kiss of butterscotch. The palate is round and nutty, with flavors of yellow apple and orange adding lushness, while well-balanced acidity creates a lovely vibrancy. Hints of vanilla and caramel add richness and texture to a long, fresh finish. 

Value Wine of the Week:
2008 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon  - We picked this gem from the Colombia Valley in Washington State and it's priced right at both Wine.com and Bevmo. If you enjoy a Cab that really throws some flavors at you like jammy fruits, chocolate, with a little peppery overtone, you'll love it.

Here are the Winemaker's Notes from Wine.com:

Sourced from Columbia Valley vineyards in eastern Washington including our Cold Creek, Canoe Ridge Estate and Indian Wells vineyards. Our goal with the Columbia Valley Cabernet is to highlight concentrated Washington red fruit in an accessible style. This is our inviting Cab with plenty of complexity and structure with silky tannins. It's also very versatile with food--try it with beef, pork or pasta.

What I’m listening to on the crowded LA Freeways:  Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.  What an amazing story.

If you drive a lot, or if reading just wears you out, you have to try Audible. I am thoroughly addicted to the Audible downloads program. Check out the amazing introductory offer from our friends at Audible.com that you can access from this page. I’m personally cranking through a book each week.