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November 10, 2010

Why Portland won the last 4 of 6 Food & Wine Best New Chef awards


Source: PDX Eater

I’m so very proud of my hometown’s ascension to the national food scene over the past few years.  The latest news:  Castagna chef Matt Lightner picked up a 2010 Best New Chef Award in NYC from Food and Wine magazine.

Is it uncanny that four of the past six awards have gone to Portland chefs?  I say no.  The potential has always been there, but historically, it lacked a few catalysts that the bigger cities had.  When I left the Pacific Northwest in 1997, the food scene was emerging — but slowly at best.  San Francisco, L.A. and Manhattan were so far ahead.  And Portland was a waifish sibling to Seattle.

So what changed?  I think there are three major catalysts:

1) The big-city-to-PDX diaspora. Since the late 1990s, big-city kids have been coming to Portland in droves in search of a higher-quality lifestyle.   With them, they brought home equity gains and worldly appetites — and formed a dining-out critical mass that Portland historically lacked.

2) Portland became known as a spot for low-cost restaurant innovation. The rosy American dream of “opening up a restaurant” is so much more possible in Portland than it is in New York.  In Portland, a mid-level big-city chef can open her own shop much earlier in her career.  So many talented chefs who could cook in any city decided to call Portland home.  And if the first venture can’t be done on credit cards, Portland’s wealthy (aka angel investors) don’t need a venture capital partner to bankroll the next Pok Pok.

3) Local sourcing came back en vogue. It’s well known that some of the world’s best dirt and water is within 200 miles of Portland.  But this didn’t matter much between 1950-1990.  During this time,  the supermarket and corporate farm concepts ruled, so uniformed-sized pink tomatoes and iceberg lettuce from Albertson’s were the norm.  Once small farms came back in vogue, Portland was in a better position than practically any other city in the nation for local agriculture.

But today the Rose City is bustling with food.  So much that I have only dined at four of Eater’s 38 top restaurants.


November 9, 2010

Veuve Clicquot loses to a $16 sparkler in my blind tastings

It’s no secret that I’m usually not a buyer of well-marketed and well-branded wines. I like the smaller outfits and the underdogs.

As a rule, if a wine company is placing advertising in Cosmopolitan, or is selling its bottles in a cute little lace-up sock (see image, below), I assume that I am paying too much for what I get.

A great example of overpriced wines are many of the low-end(!) offerings from the top 10 Champagne houses of France. The yellow-label Veuve Clicquot has such awesome brand power, that most folks, who are willing to pay $100 for bubbly in a restaurant, will pick it first.

About 3-4 times per year, this Veuve shows up at my house. Don’t get me wrong, I like this wine. But I believe it’s almost triple the cost it should be.


To prove a point — and introduce my guests to some amazing wine values — I usually open the yellow Veuve together with one of my favorite Cremants (non-Champagne AOC French sparkling wines) from regions such as Limoux or Bourgogne. Then I serve them to dinner party guests — blind and side by side — and ask them to simply choose one would they rather drink.

I’ll be honest, this is not the most scientific process. But the results are very consistent with one taste-off in particular: about 70% of folks will prefer the Jean-Louis Denois Brut NV over the Veuve.

That said, I though I’d share with you some of my favorite non-Champagne sparklers from France:

Denois Brut

Jean-Louis Denois Brut “Tradition” ($16)

This is the one that beats the Veuve Clicquot yellow label in my casual blind tastings and the one I served at my wedding. The guests were uniformly pleased. “JLD” has a brut style, with flavors of nuts and berries, vanilla and toast.


Cremant de Bourgogne Rosé, Perle d’Aurore, Louis Bouillot ($14)

A nice example of a rosé here. Blackcurrant and strawberry notes. This is a huge crowd pleaser, and I have even ordered it for large events full of snooty wine drinkers. Everyone loves it.

J. Laurens Brut Cremant de Limoux ($13)

Light and crisp, this sparkling wine has a nose of yeast and green apple. It’s got minerality and pears too. Quite different than the Denois, but just as likeable.


October 21, 2010

Corkscrew FAIL

I used to be into high ceremony and flashy accessories when it came to opening wine.

When having guests over, I would proudly walk over to my laminated box full of glitzy accessories and conduct the ritual that I thought ‘serious’ wine drinkers should perform — you know, the foil cutter, an antique wine funnel and my Rabbit corkscrew.

Due to serious design flaws, I junked all but one of these wine openers.

Honestly, I chose all of my wine accessories for form over function, thinking function was pretty much the same.  One night, this strategy really bit me in the ass. My suave wine opening attempts failed miserably three times in a row. And with each successive gaffe, I earned an increasing amount of laughter from my friends — the exact opposite response I was trying to elicit!

This comedy of errors ended with my Rabbit exploding into bits, ejecting a metal spring into one guest’s risotto while leaving the screw still in the cork! At that point, one of my guests started impersonating Elmer Fudd in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, singing “kill the wabbit…Kill The Wabbit….KILL THE WABBIT…”

Once all the hoots and howls subsided, I still had the issue of opening the bottle with the screw lodged in the cork. Luckily, I had a small pair of vice grips in the garage to bail me out.

Fast forward to the next morning. While trying to put my Rabbit back together, I realized that this wasn’t the first time my glitzy wine accessories had failed me.

At that point, I decided to hit the reset button on my collection and buy a whole new set of accessories. If something had failed on more than once occasion, I junked it…ergo, 2/3 of my accessories collection was gone including a Rabbit, a large mounted brass opener and a French Laguiole.

My new go-to set of tools:

  • A $0.69 sieve to replace my $200 antique wine filter. I found the sieve at a dollar store. It completely outperformed the antique filter, which had large holes instead of fine mesh. I sold the antique on eBay and bought more wine.
  • A Pulltap Waiter’s Corkscrew, which replaces EVERYTHING ELSE. Yes, the sturdy and perfectly functional Pulltap (image right), found in the pocket of most wine-serving waiters walking around restaurants today. This thing works like a dream, and you can buy it for a song ($4-6).  I gave away the other dozen wine openers to Goodwill.
    My new (old) rule for wine accessories: form follows function. And, luckily function doesn’t usually cost more than $5.

Out of curiosity, I’d love to know where my readers stand on wine accessories.  How many do you have?  Does function follow form?  Why?


Hot value wine region: Coteaux du Languedoc

For most Americans, France’s Coteaux du Languedoc region is below their value wine radar.  That’s because CdL made nothing but plonk for decades and because the sub appellations (and their varietals) are usually hard to pronounce.  But recently, the region’s winemakers have put their attention to quality over quantity and have started turning out some memorable wines.

If you are unfamiliar with the wines of Coteaux du Languedoc, I highly recommend you find a knowledgeable retailer who can put a few good examples in your cart, such as these from K&L Wines:Guillemarine picpoul

negly2006 Chateau de la Negly Cuvee de la Falaise (CdL, La Clape). $12.99.  Think Cotes du Rhone red.  Negly is an awesome producer and this blend is no exception.  Made up of 55% grenache and 55% syrah, pair this with summer barbecue of beef and pork.

2008 Domaine de Guillemarine (CdL, Picpoul de Pinet). $8.99.  The grape is picpoul blanc, which supposedly means ‘lip stinger.’  Serve this in place of the next bottle of sauvingon blanc you plan to pour, and it may just become your summertime house white.  I served it three times in the past month and the crowds were wowed.  The best pairings were oysters on the half shell and a melon salad.

About My Picks:  I try every wine I mention in the section.  I would never recommend a value wine that I wouldn’t proudly serve at my house.  And I usually spend my own money, they are not samples.


October 20, 2010

5 tips to keep Whole Foods from becoming ‘whole paycheck’

I’m guessing that 90% of Whole Foods customers have made the ‘Whole Paycheck’ complaint at least once in the past 10 years.  Why not?  This crack gets a laugh.

Me?  I’m starting to get irritated.  Because what I’m realizing is that the complaint comes from lazy shoppers.  Here is my take on why the Whole Paycheck phenomenon occurs in the first place, and some tips on how to keep your extra cash out of their hungry till and in a better place – like your IRA:

1. Shopping Manogamy. When I hear the WP joke, I always ask:  “So, do you do the majority of your shopping at Whole Foods?”  The answer is often a sheepish ‘yes’ followed by a ‘but’…  “But it such a better shopping experience than Safeway.”  Or, “When I have a dinner party, I only need to go to one place… it has Mt. Tam AND Tallegio…”  Whatever.  If you only shop at Whole Foods, I can’t help you.

2. Buying ‘Flintstonian’ portions of meat.

The U.S. is still reeling from its meat-abundance issues that started in the 1950s.  Check out the photo to the right.  Whole Foods prides itself on offering premium cuts and sizing, evidenced by this bone-in pork loin chop clocking at 15 ounces.  But does that mean everyone at your table need one?    At my dinner parties and everyday meals, I try to keep meat portions down to about 4-5 ounces, and load up the plate with reasonably priced vegetables and starches.

3. Lust-driven produce selection.

Buying in season is always a good idea, but not enough at Whole Foods’ pricing schemes are downright clever.  Even in San Francisco, when asparagus is being harvested 20 miles away in Pescadero, it can range between $1.99 and $7.99 a pound!  If priced at the top end, why not lay off the asparagus until the next trip, when the price will likely improve?

4. Staple price UN-consciousness. This is the one that drives our coupon-clipping ancestors to stir in their graves.  If you are a normal working professional, you probably have no idea how much sphagetti sauce should cost.   If so, avoid buying staples at Whole Foods –skip the aisles in the middle of the store.  Or if you have an iPhone, get Red Laser to at least get a price comparison before you drop it in the shopping basket.

5. Too lazy/not enough time to prep ‘whole foods’ yourself. A whole pineapple costs $2.99.  A tub of pineapple ready to eat  is $8-9. Marinated meats see about the same markup. I’ll leave it to you to assess your skill set and available time to figure out what things are worth taking on from the original form.  But if you commit to just an hour of prep time a week, you will do wonders for your food bill – and likely bump up the nutritional quality of what you are eating during the week.

Disclosure:  While I’m hardly a shill for Whole Foods, I do shop there once a week to the tune of about $50-75 per trip.  For a store chain, there is consistently no better produce and meat under one roof.  But you won’t find me in their middle aisles, nor pushing a large cart that includes all the staple items… isn’t that what Safeway Home Delivery is for?


November 1, 2009

Holiday wine – pairing to the people

Ugh.  The first holiday wine pairing request just came in…which ones will go best with a Thanksgiving dinner featuring thyme-roasted turkey with gingered-cranberry stuffing?  My answer: beer and Boone’s Farm.  Gewurztraminer and Coke.  Pinot and Pelligrino.

I know that’s a wacky answer.  But I’m serious.  Thanksgiving dinner is NOT the place to play a headdy wine-to-food pairing game.  You can do that with a small group of oenophiles at another time.

Thanksgiving wine pairing

I usually skip the complicated wine plan at Thanksgiving, and spend more time preparing classic dishes with perfect technique.

Instead, the more important task at hand is similar to that of serving wine at most large parties — put a decent variety of wines out to please the guests (with diverse palates), and don’t break the bank.

Here’s why:

  • If your holiday gatherings are like mine, you’ve got a hodgepodge of drinkers at best.  Trying to please everyone’s palate, especially with different tastes and levels of sophistication, is a mighty task that would give any sommelier a headache.
  • Dinner is usually served potluck and family style rather than as a 5-course meal.  That makes for a lot of different flavors mish-mashed on one plate and careful pairings will easily get lost.
  • Aunt Edna probably doesn’t have the glassware in her china cabinet to support the tasting of a broad selection of wines during the meal.  Heck, it might even be Styrofoam cups!

So if you have a typical gathering where you are serving drinks to dozen or so friends and family, I suggest you pick a few $7-15 reds and whites, and then figure soda, beer, and bubbly water for the folks who don’t drink wine.  Open them all at once, keep your snobby wine talk to a minimum…then eat, drink, and be merry!