20 February 2017

Lela, Bloomington, MN: The kitchen can't do it alone

There's lots to like about Lela, the classy Italian restaurant at the Sheraton Bloomington Hotel. The food ... is amazing. It's creatively prepared and beautifully presented. The flavors are fabulous. The decor is comfortable and modern. The space is open and bright.

Yet, despite all that's attractive about it, my wife and I were let down after our belated Valentine's dinner. It was not a busy evening. We had a reservation for 7:30, but it would not have been necessary. There were many open tables available. (I hope that's not a telling sign.) Still, somehow, the service was slow and inattentive.
A glass of Prosecco and deviled eggs

At first, I dismissed my wife's impatience. We planned to go out to hear music after dinner. But we weren't really in a hurry. So when it took longer than necessary to get a couple glasses of Prosecco, I just said we should relax and go with the flow. Unfortunately, it wasn't just slowness.

We started with an order of Lobster Deviled Eggs. They were so lovely - creamy white eggs, topped by a basil leaf and lobster with a dollop of tarragon aioli. I suppose we both could have eaten off the serving plate. But we asked for individual plates instead. Our server expediently snatched plates from the empty table next to us. That's ok. But for some reason, he seemed compelled to complain to us about what a poor job the busboy had done by not having set our table properly with individual plates. That seemed unprofessional.

Next we ordered a salad to share. It was the Haricot Vert Salad, and when we placed the order, my wife inquired as to whether it contained any cilantro. The server assured us there was not. But it only took one bite to detect the not-at-all subtle sharp pungent flavor of cilantro. Neither of us like it, and she is very sensitive to it. So we always ask and specify "No cilantro." While cilantro wasn't a primary ingredient of the salad, it was topped with micro-greens that included the offending herb. We sent it away and a replacement came back without any of the micro-greens. Oh, and by now, the plates we had used for the deviled eggs had been taken away, new ones had not been brought with the salad, and we had to ask for some.

Not an auspicious way for the meal to proceed. But the salad was excellent. And the presentation was so attractive and unusual. It was served in a wreath-like ring circling the plate.


Happily, our entrees were served without incident. My dish was called carrot agnolotti. The house-made pasta was tender and excellent. On the plate with the pasta was a mound of brilliant orange pickled carrots. The whole thing was delicious. My wife had lobster truffle gnocchi. The gnocchi were fluffy pillows of ricotta bathed in a rich sauce with bits of lobster and beech mushrooms. She enjoyed it very much. While not a large serving, because it was so rich, she couldn't finish it. So she brought some of it home, and I had the pleasure of having it for lunch the next day.

I do have one more complaint. I know it's not the restaurant's fault. But some of the other diners came into the restaurant looking very shabby and unkempt. This is a nice restaurant, not inexpensive, that's trying to maintain a sophisticated appeal. It's not a hotel coffee shop. It would be nice if people would take the effort to dress up a little bit; at least change out of your sweatpants.

I have been to Lela for lunch a couple of times. I don't recall having slow service either of those times. Maybe it was just an off night. Or maybe this is one of those restaurants that's just better for lunch than it is for dinner. Unfortunately, our city does not seem to be a place where sophisticated Italian dining can thrive. I hope Lela makes it.

Agnolotti with pickled carrots
Haricot Vert Salad

13 February 2017

The Commodore, St. Paul, serves a nostalgic journey

My wife and I used to go to the Commodore when we were younger. That would have been in the mid-1970s. For us, the main attraction in those days was live music in a venue that recreated the feel of a classy jazz club. If I remember right, we used to hear the Wolverines Classic Jazz Orchestra play there. Sadly, the Commodore closed in 1978 after a gas explosion and fire.

Dining room at The Commodore, St. Paul
So when the Commodore reopened in late 2015, we were excited to give it a try. But, you know, life happens. So it took us more than a year to finally make our way to St. Paul. We went on a Saturday evening in February with 4 other friends. I'm happy to report that it appears to be successful. It was hard to get a reservation, and the tables were full of enthusiastic diners when we were there.

Any review of this renovated and reinvigorated establishment has to begin with the decor. It's amazing. There are 3 different lounge areas, each with its own bar. Consequently, each lounge is cozy enough to feel intimate. It's easy to contemplate relaxing in any of the lounges, sipping a cocktail, while waiting for your table in the elegant dining room.

Cocktails at the Commodore, by the way, are excellent. They can serve up a classic drink just fine. But the menu features several creative and inviting concoctions. My drink was called Stormy Weather. It was scotch-based with sweet vermouth, a touch of amaro to add a little bite, and something called 'root liqueur.' I was afraid that 'root liqueur' was a code name for root beer, and it did have a root beer essence. But the overall drink was well-balanced and satisfying. It was served in a beautiful coupe glass that had been rinsed with absinthe to give the drink some floral tones.

My wife had a cocktail called 'Dorothy Parker.' She saw it listed on the menu online. But when she perused the menu, it wasn't there. She asked the server who said of course the bartender could make it for her. Apparently the cocktail menu changes regularly, so if you have a favorite that's not on the menu, just ask. My wife's drink, by the way, was served in an elegant martini glass.
Selection of appetizers with cocktails

With the drinks, we ordered several selections from the appetizer section of the menu. We had Parmesan fried risotto, polenta & green tomatoes, and bacon-wrapped dates. All were very creative, attractively presented, and delicious.

Most of us at the table had a salad. Thoughtfully, the Commodore offers a choice of a half serving which is very nice, especially if you've started with some appetizers. I had a wedge salad, which was served with shredded carrots and turnips, thinly sliced radishes, and sesame seeds. It was good, but not particularly memorable. I felt the best salad at our table was the butter lettuce salad, which was excellent.

Everybody at our table was very pleased with their entrees. I had the evening special of braised beef on potato puree. It was excellent.

We all agreed that the Commodore is a great addition to the Twin Cities food scene, and well worth coming to St. Paul to enjoy. The only thing missing - they need to bring back live music. According to some of the news reports when it opened, that is part of the plan. And our table was right next to a stage that would have accommodated a trio or quartet. But so far, the stage is empty. I'm hopeful that we'll see live music there again soon.


Butter lettuce salad tasted as good as it looks

25 January 2017

My Czech Family Vacation, Part I: Plzen and Poland

Great grandfather's house in Karizek
When my brothers picked me up at the Prague airport, there was no time for dilly-dallying. We were already an hour late due to my flight delay in Amsterdam. Nobody was blaming me, but there were plans and schedules to keep. So we made a quick stop at our hotel. I dropped off my luggage. (I was too early to actually check in.) Then the rest of the family loaded into the van and we were off. (If you need some background about the people on this trip, read my Prologue post, click here.)

Our immediate destination was a little town called Karizek, located about 22 miles west of Plzen. That was the town where my great grandfather Josef Krikava lived until the 1870s when he emigrated to the USA. The house where he lived - No. 2 Karizek - is still there. In fact it's still inhabited by members of the family that bought it from Josef. My Mom and Dad had found it many years ago while doing genealogical research. I had never seen it, but I think all of my siblings had seen it on some of their previous trips to the Czech Republic. In fact, they all had been there on this trip before I arrived. But Mom wanted a photo of all of us in front of the house. So that was our mission, and "Mission Accomplished!"

By the time we got done with the photo, it was time to find a place to have lunch. Not far from Karizek (population 45) is the town of Kariz (population 648). My brother Jim told me that Karizek means "little Kariz." A suburb I guess.

We found a cafe called Restaurace U KroftuWhen our family entered the restaurant, we were welcomed by a staff member who was pleased to have an opportunity to practice his English. It was good. But my brother Jim speaks fluent Czech and my Dad's Czech is pretty good. So we got along just fine. Soon I had a mug of cold Czech beer in front of me and a plate of some kind of Czech comfort food. I think it was a beef patty in the middle of a plate of gravy, topped with some sour cream and with a row of hearty bread dumplings along side. This wasn't the best meal I had during my week in the Czech Republic. But it was good and it certainly was very typical of the Czech cuisine that's served in little bars and cafes outside of the major cities.
My 'welcome to Czech' lunch in Kariz

After lunch, we made one more stop, in the town of Beroun. It had a very pretty town square and though it was getting late in the afternoon, there was a market in the square and some of the vendors were still selling. We shopped for a little while and then drove back to our hotel.

In previous blog posts, I've emphasized that when my wife and I travel, we usually prefer to stay in the central city. But for this trip, my family chose a hotel in a Prague suburb of Nebusice. It's the suburb where my brother lives, and we used it as a base for our day trips into the countryside. 

The hotel is Dolce VillaIt is convenient to the Prague airport. I found it to be comfortable and the price was very reasonable. Many of the other guests were English speakers, and Jim told me that the Nebusice suburb has a lot of expats living there. So the hotel gets business from visiting friends and relatives. Consequently, the staff at the hotel, including the restaurant, is used to English guests and I had no trouble being understood. The breakfast each morning was very good with a nice variety of choices on the buffet.

For dinner that night, we ate at a nearby restaurant called Restaurace JeneralkaThe food was good. The d├ęcor was fairly plain. But the staff was friendly, and it was nice place to relax after a day of travel. I had goulash with potato pancakes. I would have rated it higher. But over the next week, I ate at several authentic Czech restaurants, and I came to realize that while my meal at Jeneralka was good, it wasn't really any better than the meals I got at many of the other cafes I ate at during my trip.
Shopping for Polish pottery

Our itinerary for the next day was pretty ambitious. The plan was to drive north across the border into Poland, to a town called Boleslawiec, which is known for its many shops selling painted pottery. Getting there, however, turned out to be quite an adventure. It's supposed to be about 2.5 hours from Prague. But along the way, we discovered that a major bridge was closed and we took a very circuitous detour that actually took us into Germany before crossing the border into Poland at the town of Gorlitz. It ended up taking us about 3.5 hours to get there. 

Fortunately, our GPS system was accurate. But along the way, we drove on some pretty rustic roads and through some very tiny, but quaint, towns. I'm just glad we didn't have any car trouble. 

Shopping in Boleslawiec was fun. We visited several shops and all of us bought beautiful pottery to bring home and use. After a long drive and serious shopping, we all were ready for some lunch. A friendly shopkeeper pointed us toward Piramida, a short distance away. What a great recommendation!

As we entered, we were greeted warmly and seated at a nice table. The host spoke good English, which was fortunate since none of us speak any Polish. The menu offers much variety and lots of tempting choices (and a few odd ball choices, like crocodile steak?!?) To start, Joan and I split a plate of herring with sour cream and onions. These were not wimpy little herring cutlets, like you see in America. No, these were whole fillets, and so delicious. 

As my Mom perused the extensive menu, she was disappointed to note that they didn't have pierogi. "Ah, but madame," our server said with a smile. "It's not on the menu, but we will prepare some for American guests shopping in our town." What a line! My brother and I split a plate of pierogi. They were served with a side plate of salads - carrots, shredded cabbage, cucumbers. It was an excellent meal. I would recommend Piramida to anyone who ventures to Boleslawiec.
Joan and I shared a plate of herring in Poland

For the drive back to Prague, since we knew about the closed bridge, we were able to choose a better route. It still took a long time to get back. At one point, we were driving through a mountain pass and it started to snow. 

When we got back, we all were exhausted. We had dinner that night in the hotel. I had a light meal of fried goat cheese on a salad of lentils and couscous with greens and tomatoes. It was very good. 

My Czech Family Vacation, Prologue

As I trudged out of the Prague airport terminal with my luggage, on a bright sunny morning last November, I spotted two of my brothers waiting in a van to pick me up. I was the straggler, arriving a week late to join my siblings and parents on our first ever whole family vacation.

You see, I'm the oldest of 5 kids. I'm 65 years old, and I'm 17 years older than my youngest brother, Richard. Some of us have traveled together in the past. We even had family vacations before Richard was born. But I left home for college shortly after Richard was born, and we never had a family trip with the 5 siblings and our parents.
At the Prague airport returning home, minus Jim who left earlier

The Czech Republic, really more specifically the region of Bohemia, is our ancestral homeland. All of us have been there in the past; just not all together. Our parents, who are now 88 and 85, traveled there twice a year for 20 years after they retired. One of my brothers, Jim, has an apartment there and lives there much of the time. Jim and another brother, Michael, were in Prague in November 1989 when the Velvet Revolution occurred.

My wife and I have been to the Czech Republic twice, both times before I started writing this blog. The first visit was during hers and my first ever European vacation in 1999. On that trip, we stayed one night with Jim. But since he lives in a suburb (Nebusice) and we prefer to stay in the center city, we moved to a pension after that first night. On our second trip in 2005, we went with my parents. We saw Jim again on that trip, but didn't stay with him. We also took a day trip to Plzen. After I got this blog started, some friends asked about recommendations for Prague. So I wrote a post about those two trips. Click here to read it.

As my parents got older, they eventually quit traveling overseas. So it occurred to Michael and my sister, Joan that they might appreciate taking a trip where they didn't have to worry about the nitty-gritty details. Joan and Mike started to plan the trip and picked a time when Jim would be in Prague. As the plans developed, Richard said he'd like to go too. So now everyone was going to be on the trip except me. 

Unfortunately, on the dates they picked, I already had a trip planned with my wife, and I could not cancel out of it. (That was the trip to California that I wrote about in December. Click here and here to read about that trip.)

And so it was that I flew home from California on the last Sunday of October and the next day left for Prague. Obviously, it's taken me quite a while to figure out how to write about this trip. I think this is the first time in 42 years that I've taken a vacation without my wife. We always plan our trips together. But for this trip, Joan and Michael (and my Mom) did most of the planning. I finally decided to divide the trip into three posts. The first post covers our day trips from Prague. The second post covers an overnight trip we took to Moravia at the far eastern end of the Czech Republic. The third post covers the final day of the trip, the only day I went into Prague.

If you don't want to bother reading the other posts, you can look at a Facebook album I posted after the trip. It's got some commentary along with the photos. Click here.

22 January 2017

Icehouse, Mpls: Inventive music complements inventive menu, drinks

Here's a venue that really has it all.

Located on 'Eat Street' in South Minneapolis, Icehouse is a surefire winner whatever your mood. For my wife and me, the Saturday night dinner show is our usual attraction. The music starts at 6:30 p.m. There's no cover charge. It's usually a duo, occasionally a soloist. The music is restrained enough to accommodate dinner conversation. But the line-up of locally renowned artists assures that you're going to hear some good music as well. When we came last Saturday, the performers were Patrick Harison and James Buckley. Harison plays the button accordion and Buckley plays acoustic bass. They performed a wide variety tunes, mostly jazz, some with Middle Eastern harmonics.

As a music venue, Icehouse is intelligently designed. The stage is in the middle of a big, two-level dining room. We've only ever been seated on the ground floor where there isn't really a bad table for hearing and watching the performers. There may be some tables upstairs where the sight lines are not ideal. But the sound fills the room nicely, so no worries about hearing. There is a back room where we've never been seated. For sure you wouldn't be able to see the band from that room. I don't know how well you'd hear the music from there either.

But Icehouse is more than just a nice music venue. They have a creative drink menu. On our most recent visit, I had a cocktail called Smoke on the Water. It was a scotch-based drink with cynar and other ingredients. I tried looking up the recipe online. But it turns out that "Smoke on the Water" is a fairly common name for a cocktail, and there's quite a wide variation on how it's made. Most of the recipes I saw didn't even include scotch. My wife's cocktail was from the "Rocks" portion of the drinks menu. These are called "sipping shots" and cost only $5. Yes, it was smaller than my cocktail (which cost $13). But it still was an ample drink. Her drink was called "Satan Laughs & Spreads His Wings." She had it on a previous visit and really enjoyed it. That time, for a coaster, the drink was served on one of those little evangelistic religious pamphlets. But last Saturday, it was served on a regular paper napkin.
Duck Platter with a nice Barbera

After we sipped our drinks for a while, we ordered dinner. Honestly, the food menu at Icehouse is equally as varied and creative as the drink menu. We ordered a plate of roasted squash, which we sort of intended to be a starter. But it was was served as a side dish with our meals. The squash was sweetened with maple syrup and sprinkled with smoked nuts which added some nice texture to the dish. For my entree, I ordered a duck platter from the 'Main' section of the menu. It featured 3 different preparations - duck confit, roasted duck breast, and a duck liver foie gras style. These were served on a bed of spaetzle. I thought all 3 preparations were very well done, though when my wife tasted the confit, she felt it was too fatty and she didn't like the foie gras. She picked her meal from the "Sides & Snacks" part of the menu. She had BBQ brisket "burnt ends." It was a smaller portion, but adequate for her, especially since we also had the squash starter. Her only complaint was that the menu indicated that there would be "brussels" which we assumed would be Brussels sprouts. At most, there were only a few leaves from a sprout.

I did have a glass of wine with my duck. Icehouse has a nice selection of wine by the glass as well as by the bottle. I chose an Italian Barbera. It was very good. We've had Barbera in the past that has pronounced tannins. This one didn't and it went very well with the duck.

We found the service at Icehouse to be very accommodating. Our server was attentive, and when we asked for some time to sip our drinks and listen to the music, she left us alone. When we did get around to ordering food, she was very helpful and enthusiastic about the items on the menu.

We left around 9, when the dinner show ended. After dinner, Icehouse transforms into a music bar. Food is still available. But the entertainment tends to be more high energy and not so suited to conversation.

19 December 2016

Travelogue: San Francisco, Oct. 2016 - Rain can't drown this city's charms

My wife and I just can't stay away from San Francisco. We first visited 40+ years ago for our honeymoon. We liked it so much, we moved there for a year. Though we didn't stay, we have made many return visits over the years. It's the city we travel to most often for leisure. So we know it pretty well.

Our October trip was technically a business trip. We did have a meeting on one day. But we extended our stay so that we'd have time to take in our favorite activities and visit some favorite restaurants. One little glitch - it rained. Quite a lot, actually. But we still made our way around the city and visited familiar locales. Some of the others who were involved in the meeting used the opportunity to go to museums. The city has great museums. But on this trip, we didn't join them. Another couple had a break of good luck and went on a harbor cruise - no rain, lucky them. We've been on the harbor cruise before. It's fun.

Lodging: The meeting planner made arrangements for us to stay at the University Club on Nob Hill. It wasn't really the kind of hotel that we would normally consider, and we had some problems there. When we checked into our room, there was a very strong odor that made us think of some kind of cleaning product or solvent. It was not at all tolerable. The management was prompt in addressing the problem. But the scent still lingered, and we left the window open and the ceiling fan running the whole time we were there. Also, this is a private club, and club members are their priority. So one night during our stay, we had planned to go to the bar for a drink before dinner. But the bar was reserved for a members-only event. I must say that we found the staff to be very friendly and helpful. But I wouldn't really recommend the University Club for a SF stay, unless you're really into that kind of experience.
Day or night, a walk along the Embarcadero is fun

Of the many times we've stayed in San Francisco, we've never stayed on Nob Hill. Besides the University Club, which I don't recommend, there are other very nice hotels on the Hill. It's actually a pretty good location. Two blocks down the hill one direction is Chinatown. Three or four blocks down the hill in another direction is Union Square. North Beach is an easy walk as is the Embarcadero and even Fisherman's Wharf ... all down the hill. The trouble is, eventually you have to go back up the hill. And it's steep. By the end of our 3-day stay, we all were tired and sore from hiking up the hill. I decided that if I ever stay on Nob Hill in the future, I'll by a cable car pass for as many days as I'm staying. Then I'll walk down, and just ride the cable car up when I return to the hotel.

Music: SF has a good music scene, and my wife and I have found good live music on each of our visits in the past. This time, we only had one free evening. We went to the Top of the Mark (located on the top floor of the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel). It's a pretty glitzy place with a breathtaking price tag that goes along with the view. On the night we went there (with a group of people) we heard a very entertaining, high energy R&B band. They were great. The drinks were great. The view would have been great, but it was rainy and foggy, so we couldn't see much.
Dinner at Kokkari

Restaurants: Whenever we go to San Francisco, we always have a dilemma about where to eat. Over the years, we enjoyed many really great restaurants, and we're always tempted to go back again. But on the other hand, there are so many good places to eat in the City that we want to try new places. One of our return visits on this trip was an elegant Greek restaurant - Kokkari Estiatorio. I've written about it on this blog; click here to read my past review. Another return visit was at Rose's Cafe for lunch while shopping on Union Street. Click here for my previous post.
The Bay Bridge, after dinner at Waterbar

  • Waterbar - This actually was a return visit for my wife and me. But for some reason, I never wrote a blog post about it. This time, we went with a group of 8. That can be pretty challenging for a restaurant, especially when it's as busy as Waterbar was the night we were there. They did pretty well under the circumstances. We did have to wait a while for our table, even though we had a reservation for 8:30. But once we got seated, everything went quite smoothly. Our server was very patient, accommodating, and professional. It takes a while for 8 people to decide what to eat. Our server hung back, let us take our time, and then swooped in to take our orders when we were ready. The food was excellent, just as it was the other time we ate there. I started with a seafood chowder and for my meal, I ordered scallops served with sweet potato gnocchi. The scallops actually were an appetizer portion, and there were only two of them. It might not have been enough, but my wife share some of her ample portion of tuna. The ambiance is very chic and attractive. The restaurant is located in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. Our table was near a window and we had a gorgeous view of the bridge and the light sculpture by Leo Villareal. As you would expect, the meal was not inexpensive. But it was worthwhile considering the stylish venue and delicious food.
  • The Slanted Door - A friend of mine recommended this Vietnamese restaurant a few years ago. I never seriously considered it. It's located in the Ferry Building, and I expected that it just catered to tourists and passengers arriving on the ferries from around the Bay. Boy was I wrong. We met some relatives there on a rainy Saturday afternoon, their choice. For a table of 6, we ordered several items from the menu and shared all around. It was excellent. Our server was pretty laid back and not particularly attentive. But his recommendations on what to order were great. I would definitely consider a return visit. 
Lunch at the Slanted Door

12 December 2016

Travelogue: Sonoma CA, October 2016 - Rainy weather, wine, and good food

I read somewhere that in the fall of 2016, Northern California had an unusually large number of rainy days. Too bad for us, that's when we were there. While the rainy weather put a damper on some of our planned activities, we still were able to enjoy wine tasting, good restaurants, some live music, and a cozy, comfortable inn. And it didn't rain the whole time. We did have one day of beautiful weather.

Hotel: Our base for this visit was the Inn at SonomaThis was a return visit for my wife and me. The location is ideal. It's a short walk to the Sonoma Plaza which is the bustling heart of this little wine town. And it's easy to get in and out of town from here for wine tasting and other adventures. 

The amenities are very nice. There's a reception every evening with wine and light appetizers. It's a fun way to meet other people and learn about their wine country experiences. Breakfast every morning is delicious and hearty - a great way to begin the day. They do have a few bikes available for guests to borrow. On a previous visit, my wife and I spent an afternoon biking to 3 or 4 wineries that are located within a few miles of the town. The rainy weather precluded a similar biking trek.

The rooms are spacious and comfortable. I only have one quibble. We had a ground floor room facing the parking lot, and the very bright parking lot light kept the room from getting totally dark. The shades block out most of the light. But if the light would annoy you, try to get a room on the back side of the hotel. Lastly, the staff is friendly, helpful, and accommodating. They're knowledgeable and eager to provide tips on things to do.

Music: My wife and I usually try to find venues with live music when we travel. I didn't really expect much for mid-week in Sonoma. But we were delighted to find the Sonoma Speakeasy. It's located in the Mercado building right off the Sonoma Plaza. We stopped in on a Tuesday night after dinner and heard a great blues band. The web site shows that it's closed most Mondays but has music on stage most of the other days of the week. 

Live blues at the Sonoma Speakeasy

Wineries: I've written a separate blog post about our food and wine pairing at Kendall-Jackson. It was a fabulous experience. Click here to read that post.

  • Kenwood Vineyards: This was our first stop on the first day of wine-tasting. We picked it because it's a wine that we've ordered in the past at restaurants. When we arrived, there weren't very many other customers, and the staff person who was serving us was very accommodating. He included a few extra wines that weren't on the menu. One, an estate bottled Cabernet was excellent. But, he advised us, it's a 'teaser' wine, not available for purchase except as part of the wine club. Too bad. We probably would have bought a bottle to bring home.
    Fall colors and ripe grapes
  • Dry Creek Family Wineries Co-op: We were the only customers in the tasting room for almost an hour. Our server was Shawn (or maybe Shaun). He was very friendly, engaging, personable and funny. (We talked about the term Minnesota Nice. He'd never heard of it. He said he was originally from Massachusetts where people are called Mass-holes.) I liked that the tasting room is a co-op jointly owned by several small family wineries. I told Shaun I spent my career working for a co-op. He was impressed,  at least diplomatically. We had trouble finding wines that we could all agree on. I bought a bottle of Zinfandel that I liked.
  • Foppiano Vineyards: As far as a tasting experience, this was a dud. We picked it because my brother-in-law (who was traveling with us) was familiar with the wines and we were driving right by it after lunch. The staff person serving the wine did not have much personality. She tried to make small talk, but it mostly fell flat. Still, my brother-in-law liked the wine and he ended up buying some to bring home.
  • Francis Ford Coppola Winery: Yes, it's a winery. And yes, I've had their wines and liked them. But on this winery visit, we didn't actually taste any of their wine. We brought along a picnic lunch which we ate while sitting outside on the winery's gorgeous courtyard and patio. Then we meandered through the movie gallery and looked at a vast collection of props and items from Coppola's films. And before we left, we took a walk to view the vineyards and the many different varieties of grapes grown there. It was a very nice experience.
  • Ravenswood Winery: This was the best tasting experience of the trip. It was the absolute last winery visit of our trip. It was late in the afternoon, just a half hour before they closed. The sky was blue and the setting sun was casting long shadows into the valley below the hill where the winery is located. Eagles soared overhead. I've had Ravenswood zinfandels in the past, so I knew I'd like them. But it wasn't just me. All of us agreed that these wines were great. (They're motto is "No Wimpy Wines!" Even though it was close to closing, our server brought us onto the patio, sat us in Adirondack chairs and brought us wine to taste. He joked with us and we had a wonderful time. I joined the Ravenswood wine club and can look forward to quarterly deliveries through the year to remind me of our wonderful visit.
We had lots of fun at Ravenswood. No Wimpy Wine!

Restaurants:

  • Sunflower Caffe: When we arrived in Sonoma, it was already past the typical lunch hour. But we were hungry after our travels (and flight delays). The staff at our hotel suggested the Sunflower for lunch. It's located right on the Sonoma Plaza. The food was good. My wife and I each had soup. It was very flavorful and was served with some nice artisan bread. But it was not cheap. $20 for two bowls of soup and no beverage (we drank water). 
  • The Girl and The Fig: My wife and I have eaten here before and we really liked it. It was good again this time, though our appetites for dinner were a bit spoiled by our late lunch and then a few snacks at the hotel afternoon reception. My wife and I split a Brussels sprout salad that was very good. For my entree, I had trout on a carrot puree, and that was excellent. The others had burgers. I really don't know why you'd go to a nice place like this and order a burger. But I guess it's nice to know that they have it on the menu. Everyone did like their burgers.
  • B&V Whiskey Bar: After a day of wine-tasting (including a big lunch), we just wanted a nice, casual place to get something simple for dinner. This place is located right on the Sonoma Plaza. The menu looked good, so we came in. The ambiance was unimpressive, just a sports bar really. I had a panzanella served with fried goat cheese on top. It was very good. My wife had smoked, roasted chicken that was very good and unusual. Service was friendly but not especially attentive.
  • Dry Creek General Store: This is a convenient place to pick up a light lunch to take on a picnic ... which is what we did. My wife and I split a tart from the deli counter. You also can get made-to-order sandwiches. There are picnic tables outside, and we saw groups of bikers stop in for lunch and to take a break from their rides. We gook our lunches down the road to a winery and had a picnic on their grounds. 
    Complementary starter at La Salette
  • La Salette: I was eagerly anticipating our dinner here. It was a return visit for my wife and me; we ate here on a previous trip to Sonoma and really liked it. Part of the appeal is that it's a fairly unusual ethnic menu - Portuguese. Maybe there are Portuguese restaurants in other cities, but not in the ones where I've traveled. We had some really great fish and seafood. I had the whole roasted branzino which was excellent. We did order Portuguese wine. It felt a little odd to order imported wine in the middle of California wine country. But that's what we did.


06 December 2016

Food, wine pairing in the Sonoma Valley

My wife and I have enjoyed California's wine country for many years. We've frequently been wine-tasting in Napa and Sonoma, as well as other areas of the state. Over the years, our preference for Sonoma has grown. I think in general, the wines produced there suit our tastes better. We also like that Sonoma still has many small family wineries, and we've enjoyed visiting many of them. Napa has many small wineries as well. But it seems like the Sonoma Valley is a little more laid back and less touristy than Napa. 

While we've visited many wineries in California over the years, one experience we never had was a food and wine tasting at a winery. In retrospect, that seems like a foolish oversight. It's a truism that having wine with food enhances the experience of both. Yet, at most wineries, the experience usually is all wine, no food (except for sometimes crackers or breadsticks to help clear the palate.) So on our October trip to the Sonoma Valley with my wife's brother and his wife, we wanted to experience a real food/wine pairing.

We picked Kendall-Jackson in the town of Fulton, a little north of Healdsburg. It was our choice for a couple of reasons. First, the menu (which we viewed online before making our reservation) looked great. Second, it was available mid-day on a Tuesday. We were kind of surprised to learn that even wineries that offer food/wine pairings often don't have them available mid-week. 
In the elegant dining hall where the pairing takes place


The Kendall-Jackson estate is impressive and gorgeous. The room where the pairing takes place is like a large, elegant banquet hall in a manor. The table was set formally with an enticing line-up of wine glasses. 

During the experience, we interacted with a wine steward and two chefs. The wine steward poured our samples and provided some tips on what to look for when sipping the wine on its own compared to how it tastes with the food. 

Online, the web site talks about a 7-course experience. That's true, but it's really served in 3 stages. The menu items change regularly, based on what's fresh and in season. So if you look at the online menu, you should not take it too literally. Here's a run-down of the food and wine that we experienced. 


First we were served a sauvignon blanc with fried green tomatoes topped with marinated cherry tomatoes and a dollop of fish roe. The second white wine was chardonnay and that was paired with garden vegetables and cheese on a polenta cake. To demonstrate how the pairing affects the perception of the wine, our wine steward had us mix and match. It was remarkable. None of us is very fond of chardonnay, and our prejudice was reinforced tasting it alone or with the fried green tomato. But with the veggies and polenta cake, it complimented very well. And conversely, as much as we liked the sauvignon blanc, it wasn't nearly as enjoyable when paired with the veggies and polenta. 
White wine pairings

But all of us really prefer red wine, so we were eager to get on with the next set of pairings. First we tasted a pinot noir with duck breast, charred eggplant, and tomato caponata. As a general matter, I don't particularly like pinot noir. But paired with the duck, it was excellent. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed by the next pairing - zinfandel with a barbecued pork belly slider. I love zinfandel, but I wasn't very impressed by this particular zin, and the slider was not something I'd normally order either. The third red wine was cabernet sauvignon paired with lamb tacos, and that was another real winner. 
From the left - duck, slider, lamb taco

Lastly came a platter with two desserts paired with a sweet muscat wine. One dessert was a buttermilk mousse - very creamy and a little tart, a nice contrast to the wine. The second dessert was caramel corn, which was the hit at the table (though I really preferred the mousse. I gave most of my caramel corn to my wife.)
Dessert pairings - buttermilk mousse and caramel corn

It sounds like a lot of wine. I guess it was. But the experience is spread over 60-90 minutes. So we never really felt a buzz from the wine. 

Then, afterwards, we strolled through the gardens surrounding the estate, and that was very relaxing and interesting. You can view the different grape varieties that go into the wine. But they also have a very extensive garden that yields much of the produce served in the tasting. From start to finish, we spent 3 hours at Kendall-Jackson. 

Overall, it's not cheap. But for us, it was probably the most memorable experience from our Sonoma Valley wine vacation.