Archive for the Wine Dinners Category

SOLA – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Sola, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on November 24, 2010 by ballymote

 It had been way too long since my wine loving buddies, Gerry B. and John G., and myself got together for one of our wine dinners. Last night we met up for a six P.M. reservation at Sola on Lancaster Ave. in Bryn Mawr, PA.  The parking was a little tricky but once we found some spots we were at a table in the fashionable, upscale dining spot. Some nice piano music, just a decibel or two louder than it should have been, provided a nice backdrop for our meal.

Our server, Marina, was both personable and efficient. She opened our wines. There were no specials to recite so she told us a few of her favorites. Sola offers a tempting Prix Fixe Dinner at $40.00 which features a salad,  appetizer, entree and dessert. The regular menu has more than a few items that caught our interest and it was apparent from the start that choosing just one was not going to be an easy task.

 As usual, we had a wonderful array of good wines with us. Sola charges a minimal $2.00 corkage charge, which, I believe, is donated to a charity. In return they offer excellent stemware and we had separate glasses for each of our four wines. It was hard to pick a wine of the night from this group which included, a 2005 EMH/Black Cat Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps the sole survivor of several Black Cat cabs we purchased while visiting Merrill Lindquist during our October Napa trip. This one was dark ruby in the glass and drinking only slightly less well than the fabulous 2007. We also had another souvenir from our trip, a 2008 Bella Vineyards, Lily Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Zinfandel, chock full of pepper and spice and plenty of dark cherries and plums. Gerry B. had also bought his last 1999 Chappallet Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, which we had all raved about on a prior wine dinner. It was still great but not performing quite as well as we had remembered. Our final wine was one that none of us was familiar with but one which certainly held its own even in this group. It was a 2008 Mad Hatter, Napa Valley Red Wine. It’s tough to find much info on this wine although it appears to be made by the folks at Dancing Hares wines (where Andy Erikson, winemaker for Screaming Eagle, presides and may be responsible for the Mad Hatter) and sells for about $55.00 which is well above its current $29.99 price at PA State Stores. The wines were great and I am happy to report, so was the food served at Sola.

Gerry and John each had the Pan Seared Fois Gras, house cured duck prosciutto, poached Seckel Pear, toasted pistachio and port reduction. Gerry thought it tasted great while not quite being as stellar as Gilmores.

I wanted to try the Lobster and Pumpkin Bisque but made a last-minute switch to the Carmelized Onion and Gruyere Tart, baby frissee, pancetta lardons, aged Jerz-hazelnut vinnegrette. This was an unusual item that had a unique flavor. I had sworn off all food items containing the word “frissee” but I totally enjoyed the taste of this appetizer. Ya just never know.

For his entree, John G. selected the Herb Marinated Veal Tenderloin, kabocha squash tart (does one EVER tire of kabocha squash tarts?), crispy sweetbreads, truffle oil, red wine braised purple cabbage and sherry jus. The veal was done to medium perfection and John thought the dish was excellent.

Gerry ordered the Australian Lamb Two Ways, braised shoulder, hand-made gnocchi with English peas, ricotta grilled loin, ratatouille and mango chutney. Gerry loved this dish and insisted I try the stew like portion and although I am not a big lamb fan, this really was outstanding.

 I certainly had no complaints about my entree. I chose the Seared Diver Sea Scallops, carmelized salsify golden raisins, Meyer lemon and Israeli cous cous, with a smoked tomato butter, pine nuts and shaved botarga. The presentation was picture perfect and the scallops with the sauce created a mouth-watering taste sensation. The entree was light and full of flavor. If I had any regret at all it was that I did not have a Pinot Noir to drink with the scallops.

The three of us were enjoying great conversation and sampling the quartet of excellent wines so it only made sense to extend the meal by ordering from the dessert menu.

The trio of goodies above are from left to right, my Espresso-Brown Sugar Gelato. Like Gerry mentioned, “what’s not to like about Espresso and brown sugar”. This was light and yummy. John was no less pleased with his Roasted Banana Creme Brulee with orange-ginger biscotti. Gerry may have made the best choice as he went with the dessert offered on the Prix Fixe menu and the one that Marina declared her “absolute favorite”, the White Chocolate, Golden Raisin & Coconut Bread Pudding with caramel sauce and macerated strawberries. This one was just a plate-full of gooey goodness.

With our tummies full and the wines nearly gone it was time to end this wonderful dinner. Sola is a bit on the pricey side but it certainly delivers value for the money. As I headed home and Gerry and John finished their post-dinner cigar it was evident that a return to Sola would definitely be in our future plans.

FIENI RISTORANTE – BYOB

Posted in Fieni's Ristorante, Uncategorized, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2010 by ballymote

 Fieni’s is located on Burnt Mill Rd. just a block or two from the Echelon Mall. It’s not a name that I hear often but we had been there on at least one other occasion and on this Friday evening, Joe and Carol B., and Sue and Jerry C. joined my wife, Kathy, and I at this local BYOB. We managed to squeeze into the last parking spot available out back and were shown to a nice round table in the back corner of the restaurant.

We looked at the menu as our wines were opened and Marco, our server, related the evening “specials”. Fieni’s has a pretty extensive menu with lots of pasta, chicken and veal offerings and there were also several interesting “specials” . We enjoyed the bread and oil and after careful deliberation it appeared as if all of us were able to settle on something that we would enjoy.

 Our wines on this November evening were as follows: I had a 2001 Ferrari-Carano “Siena”, Sonoma County, CA, more recent bottlings of this red blend feature a Sangiovese/Malbec blend but this older version is Sangiovese, Cabernet and a dash of Merlot. The cork was very dry and did not pull easily forcing us to push it back into the bottle. The wine took some time to come around and although very smooth the flavors were quite subdued and overall, a bit disappointing.  Jerry C. had the always dependable, 2009 Folie a Deux, Menage a Trois. This tasty red blend sells over one million cases a year and is one of the most popular red wines sold in America. Joe B., henceforth known as “Mr. Malbec”, arrived with a 2006 Punta Final, “Riserva” Malbec. I didn’t get to taste this one but Joe thought it was very good.

 I started off my meal with a cup of Crab and Carrot soup. It was served piping hot but lacked a lot of flavor. There was little in the way of crab visible and the base stock seemed like something off of a store shelf. It just sounded better than it actually tasted. Others began their meal with a Caesar’s Salad.

I fared much better with my entree, one of the evening “specials”. The Chicken Franchi consisted of two perfectly cooked chicken filets, tender and tasty and topped with crabmeat, tomato, fontina cheese and champagne sauce. It was accompanied by two lobster ravioli in a pesto cream sauce. The pasta portion of the dish was bit bland but that was forgivable because the chicken was excellent.

Jerry and Joe both zeroed in on the fish with Jerry choosing the Salmon while Joe went with the Tilapia. Both entrees were topped with shrimp and served with a veggie and mashed potato. When I checked Jerry’s plate there wasn’t a speck remaining, always a good sign that he liked what used to be on the plate.

Carol and Sue selected another chicken dish. This one was the Chicken Cremolate, twin chicken breasts, sauteed with shallots and mushrooms and topped with a cognac and cream sauce. This one was served with green beans and potatoes. They both seemed to enjoy their choice.

 Kathy was not in a very adventurous mood and went with the Pollo Parmagiana, lightly breaded chicken breasts topped with tomato and parmesan cheese.  Green beans and potatoes completed the dish. She thought about taking one of the chicken breasts  home for later but remembered we had a lot of food in the fridge already and finished her meal.

 We had pretty much decided we were going to skip dessert when we foolishly allowed Marco to show us the dessert tray. His tempting descriptions and offer to supply spoons for sharing allowed us to choose two concoctions from the tray. I can’t even remember what went into the dish on the left but we kept passing it around and enjoying it.

The item on the right was a cheesecake which was light and flavorful and a very nice sized portion so that 6 people were quite content with the two desserts.

Ristorante Fieni is a well run restaurant with good food and friendly servers and is certainly worthy of a visit.

WEST SIDE GRAVY – (BYOB)

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, West Side Gravy, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2010 by ballymote

 We finally made it. After reading F Scott and Zelda’s reviews and spending countless hours drooling about the menu, our group of eight hungry diners converged on the Collingswood eatery, the second “label” for renown Chef Alex Capasso of Blackbird fame.

It may be difficult to secure reservations at Blackbird on a Friday or Saturday evening. It will not be difficult to get a table at West Side Gravy on those same nights. In a way, that’s a shame. Let’s begin by explaining what West Side Gravy is NOT. It is not a full service, fine dining restaurant. That’s what Blackbird, Nunzio’s, Il Fiore, Casona and a host of other Collingswood restaurants are. West Side Gravy is a fun place for some interesting and well-prepared comfort food, served by some very nice people at reasonable prices.

 Our server, Allie, was one of those very nice people and she made us feel comfortable from the very beginning. She was attentive and charming and after opening our wines and puzzling over why we open four bottles and none of us share with each other (a story for another day), she recited the evening “specials” from every category on the menu. We pointed out to Allie, that first time diners at West Side Gravy should not be entitled to evening “specials” as there is plenty to choose from on the regular menu.

 My wine for the evening was something that was recommended by Charlie Beatty at Canals BottleStop in Marlton. The 2007 Fidelity, Alexander Valley, Crazy Creek Estate, Red Wine was a nice blend of 81% Merlot and 19% Cab Franc. Both my wife, Kathy, and I thought it was excellent with the cab franc giving a little bite to the softer merlot. It’s not a fruit bomb it’s just filled with nice cherry and chocolate flavors and at about $15.00 this one drinks like a wine at 3 times it’s cost. Tom and Barbara T. had just returned from a vacation in WIlliamsburg, VA and they had with them a wine they wanted me to try. I agreed and was prepared to try and find nice words to express my dislike for virtually any U. S. wines from outside of  California, Oregon or Washington State. However, this one, 2008 Williamsburg Winery Susan Constant Red Wine wasn’t bad. It wasn’t very complex but the taste was pretty good with some nice fruit flavors and a soft mouthfeel. Unlike other local wineries who charge big bucks for their wines, this one is under $10.00.

We all had a hard time making our selections but the guys decided to split a couple of appetizers.

We split the West Side Fries with Pinot Noir gravy and the Cheesesteak Eggrolls. The fries were nicely done with a portion size that would be fine for two people. The gravy was great but I should have poured it on my fries instead of dipping each one. The cheesesteak eggrolls were really good. There were four nice sized pieces so we each had one for ourselves. Four of them would almost make a meal and they came with a tasty horseradish sauce for dipping..

A couple of folks ordered the Sweet Potato Soup which they voted OK…but nothing special. The Fried Green Tomatoes were also seen as having too much breading.

 Gerry B. and my wife both went for the Buttermilk Fried Chicken, potato salad with smoked bacon dressing and house-made cole slaw. Kathy asked them if she could have all white meat and they complied with her request. Both thought the chicken was tasty and the potato salad and cole slaw were good.

Joe and Carol both had one of the “specials”, the braised short ribs with mashed potatoes and baby spinach. The dish was topped with crispy onion rings and a nice gravy and both enjoyed it.

 I always have a hard time staying away from any meatloaf dish I see on a menu and this time was no exception. This one came served over creamy mashed potatoes and I had them replace the peas with the baby spinach. Three generous slices of excellent house recipe meat loaf was topped with the delicious West Side Gravy. I was happy with my choice.

Barbara had the West Side Club, house-roasted turkey breast, smoked bacon, lettuce, marinated tomato, herb mayo on cranberry-pecan bread and served with house-made waffle chips. Barb liked her sandwich but she loved her waffle chips, We all sampled them and agreed they were very good.

 Sue C. had the Mushroom Sandwich, grilled portabello with baby arugula, grilled onions, marinated tomato served on a multi-grain bun with a side of macaroni salad

We had pretty much eaten as much as we could when Allie began to tempt us with offerings from the dessert menu. We gave in and decided we would split two items between the eight of us when all of a sudden, a bevy of desserts appears, many compliments of Alex and Siobhan, the two talented chefs who both stopped by to say “hi”. This was a very nice gesture and we all got to try several of their creations.

I don’t have a copy of the dessert menu so I can only accurately describe the one I spent the most time getting totally familiar with and that would be the “Snickers” dish above which was sinfully delicious. Allie’s favorite, the butterscotch pudding with caramelized bananas also drew a lot of compliments from our group.

In writing this review, and even prior to our first visit, I had read a lot about West Side Gravy. Almost every article and blog post I have seen mentions the same bewildering fact. There is a distinct lack of patronage on most nights. I am at a total loss as to why that is. A few theories I might offer would be, having dined at Blackfish patrons are expecting a similar meal. It’s not that kind of place. It could be that the place is a little too big for what they are doing. Most of the restaurants in Collingswood are fairly small and tables are crammed together. West Side Gravy is in the old Woolworths 5 & 10 Building and it is cavernous. If  they were just opening I could understand the sparse crowds but it’s been a few months now and the reviews are good and they certainly deserve a better fate. Personally, I think this type of dining has a place in a town with so many eating choices. At the very least, you should give it a try. The food is good and the prices are even better.

TRE FAMIGLIA – BYOB (2nd Review)

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Tre Famiglia (2nd Review), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on October 28, 2010 by ballymote

 A surprise call from our friend’s Gerry and JoAnn B. led to the four of us gathering last Saturday evening at Tre Famiglia in Haddonfield, NJ to celebrate my wife, Kathy’s birthday. We hadn’t seen them since our return from Napa as they were an integral part of our wine country sextet. We had some of the wines that Gerry had bought in Napa with us and I dug up something from my cellar.

Gerry had two bottles from Mayo Family. This was one of the places we visited during our week in Napa/Sonoma. The first bottle was the one that was awarded the “Best in Class” Award at this years Sonoma County Harvest Fair. We actually tasted this wine during a visit to that fair back on October 3rd. This was the 2007 Mayo Family, Sonoma Valley, Los Chamizal Vineyard, Meritage. This one is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cab franc and is a very nice wine at its $30 price tag. It was not Gerry’s favorite, however, that award went to his other wine, the 2008 Mayo Family, Russian River Valley, Ricci Vineyard, Zinfandel. My wife, Kathy, now has company as prior to this, she was our only true, blue zinfandel lover. I have to admit, this one is very tasty and worth the $50.00 price tag. My contribution, which I thought finished third on this evening, although I think Gerry preferred it to the “Meritage”, was the 2000 Simi Reserve, Alexander Valley, Canernet Sauvignon. This 10 year old cab took some time to open up but when it did it had a nice array of black fruits with smooth tannins and some chocolate notes on the finish.

Kathy and I have been to Tre Famiglia a few times and I reviewed it very favorably on our last visit in May. At that time we had a nice round table in the side room. Gerry and Joann are from the western suburbs of Philly and this was their first visit to this classy Italian bistro (can a bistro be Italian?). Tonight we were seated in tight quarters. It was a Saturday night and the restaurant was packed.

 Our server, Joseph, recited a laundry list of specials that may have included more items than the actual menu. I have to confess that in the beginning I felt rushed. We had a lot to talk about. I had pictures to show them from the trip and it just seemed we were hurried to place our order. The feeling went away as the night progressed and it may have just been an unwarranted notion on my part.

With so many choices I chose the Mozzarella Fritti, Panko breaded wedge of mozzarella, pan seared on a bed of pomadoro sauce. One word….DELISH! Great texture and lots of flavor. This was not your usual fried mozzarella sticks.

Kathy had the Mussells Possilippo, steamed in a white garlic sauce. I don’t think Kathy has ever met a mussell she didn’t like and these were pretty good.

Gerry ordered something from the “special appetizer” list and it appeared to be a charcuterie type of dish with some tomatoes, olives, red peppers, mozzarella, and prosciutto on a bed of arugula. This looked like a nice presentation and a great way to start off his meal.

I believe Joann’s starter was also one of the “specials”. It appeared to be fresh greens with scallops and olives with a topping of shaved pecorino romano. We discussed our trip, sipped our wines and looked forward to our entrees which were soon to appear. Once again, I believe all four of us made our selection from the many evening “specials”

Gerry had the Shrimp and Pasta Fra Diavolo. This was a perfect match for his zinfandel with nice big pieces of shrimp in a tangy sauce.

Joann had the veal chop Porterhouse topped with shrimp and crabmeat and served over black truffled red bliss mashed potatoes and veggies.

Kathy also had a big veal chop. Hers was char-broiled and served over a bed of polenta with a side of broccoli rabe. She finished as much as she could and, lucky for me, there was enough left over that I was able to combine my leftovers with hers for another meal on Monday evening.

I had the Braised Short Ribs which was also served over polenta with a side of veggies. The meat was very tender. Perhaps, not quite as flavorful as I would have hoped, but still very good. The fact that we saved half our meal left us room for dessert.

 Kathy had the Apple Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream. Looked good. Tasted good.

    Gerry had the Chocolate Chip Cannoli and, unlike the last one we had, this one had plenty of chocolate chips.

 Joann had the Chocolate Tartufo, the familiar hard shell chocolate with vanilla/chocolate gelato and a cherry in the middle. It’s one of those desserts that is impossible to screw up because ALL the parts are great.

       I had a simple dish of banana gelato with crisp sugar cookies. It was good but it was too much banana. I should have ordered the Tartufo!

Overall, it was a nice dinner experience and Joseph was kind enough to write out the specials so that I wouldn’t draw a complete blank without menu support to help me when I wrote this review.

Tre Famiglia has a nice following and it’s one of those places where you can always count on a good meal.

   
 

CALIFORNIA DINNERS #8 – IZZY’S STEAKS AND CHOPS (SAN FRANCISCO)

Posted in Izzy's Steaks and Chops (San Francisco), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on October 24, 2010 by ballymote

 Our last evening on the West Coast and we are following the recommendation of our absent friend, John G., and heading to Izzy’s for some steaks prior to our “red eye” flight back to Philly. We had just concluded a spectacular day in the city by the bay with a tour of Alcatraz and an awe-inspiring performance by the U. S. Navy’s Blue Angels as they performed their feats of fearless flying over the bay which was jammed packed with hundreds of boats.

We had certainly worked up an appetite and when our taxi driver dropped us off on Steiner Street we entered Izzy’s and were escorted to our upstairs table for a round of drinks while we waited for Gerry and Joann to arrive separately.

Legend has it that Izzy was a very generous saloon keeper in this area at the turn of the century (19th) and his place was always known to be a place where strangers were welcomed and they could find a hearty meal at reasonable prices. The current prices at Izzy’s still seem to be reasonable.

We still weren’t sure if we were going to be happy with our meal but we knew from the very beginning that our wives’ were happy with our server, Nate. It’s so embarrassing to us as males to be viewed by the opposite sex as simply “eye candy”. Anyway, Nate did a good job of keeping them entertained and seeing that our dinner service was first-class.

Gerry and Joann arrived with one the bottles that we had purchased as a group from Del Dotto following our tour of the caves. The story behind this 2007 Del Dotto, Vineyard 887, St. Helena, Cabernet Sauvignon is that Steven Wynn, the Las Vegas casino mogul, tasted this wine from the barrel and wanted two barrels for a private party. It turned out there was only one barrel available so he had it blended with another barrel he liked so that all of the guests would be drinking the same wine. Our bottles were from a small lot that remained after the Wynn purchase. Is it true? Who knows, but the story is good and the wine is even better!

Most of us started our meal with the old reliable wedge with bacon and Maytag Blue Cheese. This salad, in my opinion, is a little bit like chocolate chip cookies, it’s very hard to make a bad one and there are simply varying degrees of goodness to them. This one was pretty good but not the absolute best.

I am going to have to venture a guess that it was Joe B. who did not join the rest of us in choosing the Maytag Salad. He had created a week-long history of ordering the local tomatoes and I think his final dinner included one last order of the local produce. Once again, they looked nice and fresh and had that just-picked appearance.

Appetizers out of the way, it was now time to eat some meat. I think we all went for a filet mignon of some type.

 Most had the filet with a side of baked potatoes and carrots and onions. Everyone seemed pleased with their filets.

I had my filet “blackened” and ordered it with Izzy’s Own Potatoes and Creamed Spinach. I love great sides with a steak and these were very good. I had ordered my filet done “medium” which was a first for me as I ALWAYS ask for medium-well. We agreed that my steak arrived medium-rare and I ate it anyway and thought it was good. I don’t think I am ready to make this a permanent change but I can certainly now stay with medium. The blackening added an extra flavor touch to my entree.

 Gerry isn’t a filet fan so he ordered the Bone-in Ribeye.  He was a little disappointed in the quality of the meat as there was quite a bit of “gristle” throughout.  He still managed to consume most of the dish which may have simply meant that, like the rest of us, he was hungry, Overall, we enjoyed our final West Coast dinner at Izzy’s. Our trip was coming to an end and we headed to the airport for our flight home. Gerry and Joann were staying on for a couple more days, including attending the Eagles – 49er’s game the next day at Candlestick.

We all felt it was a wonderful trip and if any of you are out in the San Francisco area and happen to run across six hearts lying somewhere near the Bay….they are probably ours!

CALIFORNIA DINNER #7 – CHARCUTERIE (HEALDSBURG)

Posted in Restaurant Charcuterie (Healdsburg), Uncategorized, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2010 by ballymote

 Our main reason for dining here on a Friday evening was that our first choice, The Dry Creek Kitchen, had no tables available until 10:00 P.M. Still, it looked like a good place and had lots of good reviews so once seated at our window table we looked forward to our last meal in wine country,

We had just completed a wonderful day which included a great tour of Bella Winery and Caves followed by a visit with our friend, Scott Lindstrom-Dake at his Thumbprint Cellars Tasting Room just across the street from Charcuterie .

We picked up a couple of bottles to have with our dinner as corkage here was a reasonable $15.00 per bottle. We had the 2007 Thumbprint Cellars “Threesome”. This erotically named wine contains equal parts of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cab franc. Our other bottle was the 2007 Thumbprint, Ramazotti Vineyard, Syrah. Both of these wines were very good although Thumbprint wines can quite often be found back East at lower prices that what they are sold for in Sonoma.

We began the meal with a couple of enticing appetizers. I have to confess that two weeks after the actual dinner I can’t recall exactly who ordered what but on the left is the Baked Nut-Crusted Brie with roasted garlic served with crostini. It wasn’t bad. On the right is “The Charcuterie Plate”, featuring Rosette de Lyon Salami, Duck Rillette, Pork Pepper Pate, Garlic Salami, olives and cornichons. I’m not a big “charcuterie” fan so I can’t tell you whether this was good or not. I did not hear raves from around the table.

Each of our dinners came with a choice of soup or salad. I believe the soup was another pumpkin squash which seems to be on most menus out here at this time of the year. Both the soup and salad were fine. As for entrees the six of us found three that drew our interest.

 A couple of folks chose the Chicken Strips Piccata over Rigatoni Pasta with white wine lemon, tomatoes and caper sauce. It looked good but no one seemed excited about it and I think there was an overall disappointment with this dish.

Whatever degree of disappointment was shared by the Chicken Strip Piccata people, it could not match the disappointment that my wife, Kathy felt toward her choice which was one of the “specials” on that evening. She had ordered the Roasted Double Cut Pork Chops, stuffed with sweet corn, roasted Bermuda onions, tomato and fresh herb and served with brussel sprouts and garlic mashed potatoes. She had to send the entire meal back as the pork chop was undercooked. She waited a lengthy time for its return and her only regret is that it DID return. She clearly remembers this dish as the worst of the entire trip.

 It would only be fitting that I join the others in bashing my entree but I’m afraid I can’t do that. I absolutely LOVED my choice of the Fusilli Pasta with Smoked Chicken, sun-dried tomatoes served in a basil creme sauce. It may just be one of the more memorable entrees of the entire trip. The sauce was perfect, the chicken tender and flavorful and the pasta cooked perfectly. I’m hungry all over again just writing about it.

So, you can see there were mixed opinions about Charcuterie.

We closed out the meal with a few yummy desserts, chocolate cake with mocha ice cream, some nice chocolate profiteroles and some mocha chip ice cream on its own.

Not the best meal of the trip for many but, I thought my entree was certainly a contender.

CALIFORNIA DINNER #6 – CYRUS (HEALDSBURG)

Posted in Cyrus (Healdsburg), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2010 by ballymote

 For a lot of people coming to wine country, it’s a coin flip. The French Laundry or Cyrus. Both of these restaurants represent the best that the two valleys have to offer in the way of fine dining. Thomas Keller’s French Laundry is the heavyweight champion of Napa while Chef Douglas Keane’s Cyrus in Healdsburg reigns as the premier haven for “foodies” in Sonoma. It’s probably a little tougher to get a reservation at TFL but both will set you back some serious sheckles by the time you get your final tab. I had mentioned in a review that I did on TripAdvisor. com that we chose Cyrus because the bank would only lend us enough using our homes for collateral to afford Cyrus. The question thus becomes…..it it worth it?

Cyrus is an elegant restaurant. From the moment you are seated the catering begins. There are immediate choices to be made. Do we pass on the Champagne & Caviar Cart? We do. Do we want the five or nine course Tasting Menu. We opt for the five. Would we be including the wine pairings with each course? We choose to forego this and each choose our own wines to accompany the courses. My wife and I select glasses of red and white. For the white we have the 2008 Ramey, Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay, for our red we have the 2006 Copain, Hawks Butte, Syrah, Yorkville Highlands. Both wines are excellent and we each have two glasses of both which served as the perfect amount for our food. Gerry and Joann went with a nice half-bottle of the 2006 Chateau de Beaucastle, Chateauneuf du Pape. Tough to go wrong with that one. Joe and Carol had an Italian wine, not sure of the producer but it was a Rosso di Montalcino.

It has been exactly two weeks since our dinner at Cyrus and I have given a lot of thought as to how I was going to do this review. I’ve decided the review will be from only my point of view on what I had to eat and how I felt about the entire dining experience at Cyrus. At the end I will give my reasons for this variance in style.

An amuse bouche tower relating to the taste sensations of sour, sweet, salty, bitter, pungent and umami was presented. Each just a quick burst of one of these flavors.

It should be noted that each food item presented was worthy of a matted and framed picture. The kitchen does a masterful job of plating each dish for dramatic effect.

My first course was a beautiful Thai Lobster and Greek Salad.

This was followed by

Foie Gras Torchon with Fig and Pistachio, and Buttermilk Biscuit. Looks good, tasted better.

I should point out that throughout the evening we were constantly offered their wonderful fresh bread and rolls. I probably had six of them they were so good.

This is the Sugar Pie Pumpkin Soup, Chestnut Confit and Toasted Pepitas.

 Medai (Japanese Butterfish) with Sweet Corn and Scallions, Lemon Verbena. This was very light and flavorful. One of my favorites.

Sweet Corn and Black Truffle Risotto. Another delicious highlight of the meal, beautifully presented.

 Crispy Poussin with Potato Mousseline and Haricots Verts, Fine Herbs. Exquisitely cooked, fresh chicken.

I’ll show both desserts here as I had the first and my wife had the second.

This is my Mint Chocolate Chip, Lemongrass and Grains of Paradise, Hot Chocolate. Prettier than it really was. My wife’s red Velvet Cake. Must everything be deconstructed??

We were sent home with a Mignardise, a nicely boxed and very tasty Brownie which got to live for three more days before I had it with a morning cup of coffee.

So there it is, dinner at Cyrus. It’s not unlike going to the theatre. You have your main server who is assisted by a never-ending parade of assistants and busboys who are constantly removing plates and silverware and replacing them with shiny new utensils. It’s apparent they have performed this routine hundreds if not thousands of times. Was it the best meal I have ever had? No, only the most expensive. That’s not a complaint. I think you are paying for a food experience. One of our group ran into Georges Perrier, Chef/Owner of Philadelphia’s legendary Le Bec Fin restaurant, the week after our return. He mentioned to the Chef that he had been to Cyrus the prior week and that he hadn’t been blown away by the food. In his inimitable French accent Georges replied “ahhhhh..you have to learn to enjoy the moment” And that is probably better than I could have put it. Cyrus is about enjoying the moment. I did. The others will have to speak for themselves….in the comment section here, if they so choose!!

CALIFORNIA DINNER #5 – THE HOT BOX GRILL (SONOMA)

Posted in The Hot Box Grill (Sonoma), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on October 21, 2010 by ballymote

This isn’t one of those Wine Country restaurants that you read a lot about. In all of my weeks and months of research I never once heard of it. We would never have even noticed it perched on the left side of the road on Rt 12 as you head out of Sonoma. We were there on Wednesday evening only because it was recommended to us by Chef Max Porter-Elliott at the Mayo Family Winery Reserve Tasting Room. Thank you, Max, good choice!!

Let me start by saying that The Hot Box Grill is small. I’d say it seats maybe 30 or 35 people. We made a reservation for 8:00 P.M. but our table still wasn’t open so we sat outside for a while and were offered a complimentary glass of wine.

I had a glass of something I had never heard of, the 2006 Idle Cellars, “Laddie’s Vineyard”, Syrah. This one was produced a mile or two up the road in Sonoma. It was full flavored and delicious with peppery notes of dark spices and deep black berries. This was a good start, a wine I had never heard of at a dining spot I had never heard of, either.

Once seated, our server, Tomas, made us feel welcome. He produced some warm bread and drew our attention to the huge blackboard that takes up almost all of the back wall. On it are listed the evening “specials”. Tomas read them out for us for the benefit of those in our group who can’t read (you know who you are!)

We had pretty much decided to make this a “no wine” night so, having finished my complimentary Syrah, I moved to one of the local sodas while others went with beers. I remember Joe B. had a Scrimshaw Pilsner from North Coast Brewing Company.

We started off, as usual, with appetizers and there was a lot to choose from on the menu.

 Jerry and Joe had the Heirloom Tomato Salad, I think this made the third straight night for local tomatoes so I guess Joe thought the California version was on a par with New Jersey. Joann had a very interesting Trout Mousse with home-made fennel crackers. Carol, Kathy and I had the Pear salad, with Point Reyes Blue Cheese, hazelnuts and whole grain mustard vinaigrette. Everything was tasty and fresh and we were now looking forward to our main course.

Jerry’s was an interesting choice, he ordered the Deep fried cornish game hen, sweet potato gratin, hot box hot sauce, Norm’s cole slaw. He really enjoyed his meal. The hen was prepared nicely with a crisp coating and the sauce was just right for the dish.

Kathy had one of the night’s “specials” the Orichetta and Cheese, the tiny little pasta swirls were cooked to perfection and the tangy cheese was excellent.

Carol and Joe B. both went with the Seared pork tenderloin, apple/bacon pan sauce, celery root puree, butternut squash, brussel sprouts. Like just about everything else we ate this one was a first class effort. It’s obvious that Chef Norman Owens, the original chef at the wildly popular Cafe LaHaye in Sonoma is on his way toward another winning food mecca.

JoAnn had the Crispy chicken paillard, arugula, fingerling potatoes, baby artichoke, sweet onion soubisse. The sauce looked wonderful and the little noises of satisfaction which I heard coming from her direction was evidence enough that she liked the dish.

I thought about the chicken, I wanted the chicken, I ordered the Grilled spice rubbed hanger steak, duck fat fries, béarnaise sauce, seasonal veggies. The veggies were fine, the hanger steak was very good, the duck fat fries were DEEEEEEEEELICIOUS! Finally, fries with substance and flavor on the west coast. I have been looking for these all week.

There is something to be said for expectations. Last night, at Bottega, we had high expectations and were let down. Tonight, at this virtually nondescript little dining spot, we expected little and were highly impressed. We evn decided to have dessert.

On the left, we have the California” Ice Cream pie, Grapenuts crust, rum raisin ice cream, meringue

On the right is the Chocolate Mousse Banana Cake. We had a bunch of forks and together we made quick work of both of these yummy sweet morsels.

We came away from the Hot Box Grill with our hunger satiated and full of the good vibes generated by this soon to be discovered Sonoma restaurant.

CALIFORNIA DINNER #4 BOTTEGA (YOUNTVILLE)

Posted in Bottega (Yountville), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by ballymote

There was little doubt at any time in the planning stages of this trip that Bottega was going to be one our destinations. All of us were anxious to experience the culinary skills of Owner/Chef Michael Chiarella (Food Network TV star). We arrived much too early for our 8:00 P.M. reservation (my fault, as I had thought we were scheduled for 7:00 P.M.). We did some window shopping which is all one can do in both Napa and Sonoma after 5:00 in the evening. It makes no sense to me, or the rest of us, why shops would close at 5:00 P.M. when this would be the perfect time to cater to the tourists who have spent the day visiting wineries and are looking to fill the hours prior to dinner with some shopping. We sat on the terrace for a while and had a drink and soon we were seated at our table in the chic, fashionable eatery.

Once again we had brought with us a bottle we had purchased earlier. Tonight it was the 2006 EMH/Black Cat Cabernet Sauvignon, just a shade less appealing than last night’s 2007 vintage but still a wonderful wine. From the Bottega wine list we chose one of Michael Chiarella’s own wines, the 2006 Chiarella Family Vineyards,  “Eileen”,Cabernet Sauvignon. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of this wine and it was also reasonably priced on the wine list at only a few dollars above retail.

Before I even start on what we ate I should probably say that none of us considered this a great dining experience. It’s even a little hard to pinpoint why. The food, overall, was good, not great, the service a little slow and it felt like we were one of many tables that our server had and we certainly had our turn but it felt like “our turn”. 

For starters I had the Burrata Caprese, Joe had the House-cured salumi and some of the others had the Butternut squash soup with creme fraise and pumpkin seeds. Carol had a spinach filled ravioli for her pasta dish .

What Gerry had for his pasta dish, his wife Joann had as her entree,

  • House-made egg pappardelle veal, pork & porcini mushroom Bolognese, rosemary, parmigiano-reggiano. I tasted it and thought it was very good, Gerry liked it, too, but Joann felt it was rather bland.
  •  

    For my entree I had the Toasted Trade Spice Fulton Valley Chicken Breast sweet corn & potato velutata, arugula & shaved corn salad, sherry vinegar pan sauce. It was pretty good. Joe had one of the fish “specials”, I believe it was halibut. He thought it was fine.

    Carol and Kathy both chose the Smoked & Braised Natural Short Ribs preserved Meyer-lemon spinach, smokey jus. Carol thought it was good, Kathy was disappointed. Although the meat was tender she felt it lacked flavor. We also ordered the truffled fries for the table. I had read more than one review claiming “the truffle fries are to die for”. You die for them. I’m not; they were just OK.  As I mentioned earlier, there was just something about the entire meal that made everything slightly unfulfilling. It may be that we went in with expectations set too high. Chef Michael walked thru the dining room and stopped at a few tables but much to Carol B.’s dismay (she’s a huge fan) he didn’t get to our table. Eventually, he changed from his white Chef jacket and sat with some friends to enjoy his own meal. As we were walking out, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind posing for a photo. Carol was mortified that I would disturb him while he was eating. She is totally correct. It is NOT something I should have done but, he was very gracious and got up and told Carol and my wife, Kathy that, “it’s no trouble at all”

    Michael Chiarella was very nice to take the time to pose with us. He also makes a very nice Cabernet. I also have read enough reviews on Bottega to know that it’s usually a great dining experience. We just didn’t feel it on this particular night.

    CALIFORNIA DINNERS #3 – AD HOC (YOUNTVILLE)

    Posted in Ad Hoc (Yountville), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on October 19, 2010 by ballymote

    Our Monday night dinner took us to Thomas Keller’s (Chef Owner of The French Laundry) other restaurant, Ad Hoc. This is a unique dining spot in that it features just one dinner menu each night. It usually features an appetizer, a main course, a cheese course and a dessert. On this particular Monday evening they were featuring their famous Buttermilk Fried Chicken which customarily is served every other Monday.

    Unlike here in the Philly/South Jersey area there are NO BYOB’s in California and corkage charges are applied when you bring your own bottle to any of the restaurants. Some of them will waive the corkage on a one for one basis. In other words, if you buy one bottle from their wine list you can bring one bottle of your own and the corkage fee is waived. That’s what we did at Ad Hoc bringing a 2007 EMH/Black Cat Cabernet Sauvignon which we had purchased earlier in the day while visiting the winery. We purchased a 2006 Dillon Vineyard, Chardonnay which was produced right here in Yountville, from the Ad Hoc wine list. The Chardonnay went well with our starter and the cheese course while the Cabernet was perfect with the fried chicken.

    We all started with the Panzanella Salad, heirloom tomatoes from the French Laundry garden, english cucumbers, palladin croutons, kalamata olives, shaved red onion and basil cream. This was a very tasty rendition filled with absolutely the freshest of veggies. Joe B. in particular really appreciated the quality of the produce.

    Our waiter, Dan, and the hostess, Julia were everywhere, delivering plates of food and making sure all of the guests had what they needed. There is a nice relaxed atmosphere at Ad Hoc that goes a long way toward making the dining experience enjoyable.

     Once the salad plates were cleared we were presented with a heaping bowl of Buttermilk Fried Chicken served nice and hot with a family style bowl of duck fat potatoes, roasted bell peppers, savoy cabbage and shaved fennel slaw to complete the evening’s feast.

     The chicken was delicious, the potatoes very good, but we pretty much all agreed that the shaved fennel cole slaw was very bland. It wasn’t enough to put a real damper on the meal but it was a bit surprising that it lacked any flavor.

    The cheese course was  interesting, a Cana de Cabra, which is a soft Spanish goat’s milk cheese, was accompanied with lola rosa, late summer melons and toasted pistachios and the salad-cheese combo was very good.

    The meal was topped off with a tasty dessert.

    Raspberries – n -Cream Sorbet with an elephant ear cookie. Great flavors on the sorbet, crisp and light cookie and the meal was complete. At $49.00 per person it’s a pretty good deal, especially for Napa.

    I’d say we were three for three in the good dinner department with all six of us looking forward to the next one.

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