Category Archives: cocktails

New holiday drink tradition

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The drink is called Good Memories. I made it last night and can see just why they gave it that name. I also got a kick out of my friends trying to guess what was in this delicious ice-cream-and-liquor delight – it’s a fooler. The combination of ingredients is so unusual and the flavor so unique, I’m guessing even a professional bartender might have trouble figuring it out. I can tell you I will be offering this to guests all this season as my new alternative-to-eggnog holiday drink tradition. Thank you, Bombay Sapphire!

You need several liquors, but don’t think they’ll go to waste. You might even want to make an occasional one of these just to treat yourself. Recipe below.

GOOD MEMORIES

  • 1.75 oz  Bombay Sapphire Gin (aromatic, sightly sweeter-than-regular Bombay gin – check out their gorgeous distillery)

    Make Good Memories this holiday season
    Make Good Memories this holiday season
  • 1 oz spiced rum (I used Capt Morgan’s 1671 blend)
  • 1 scoop Hazelnut ice cream (if you use Ben & Jerry’s Hazed & Confused you’ll end up with a bunch of tiny chocolate pieces in the bottom of the glass – not the end of the world, but smoother is nicer; next time I’ll try Talenti Hazelnut Gelato)
  • 0.5 oz  cherry brandy (I used Kirschwasser)
  • a dash of Jerry Thomas bitters (I left this out because I couldn’t find it, but if you can, it will make the drink even more aromatic and mysteriously flavorful)
  • Cinnamon

Method: Put the first four ingredients into a shaker or a big pitcher. Then either shake or blend with a stick blender ’til it’s creamy and smooth. No need to add ice. The ice cream will melt into the drink, chilling it out perfectly. Pour into either stemmed wine glasses or small cups with handles – you don’t want the warmth of your hand thinning the drink too much. Then stir in a dash of Bitters  and grate or sprinkle some cinnamon on top.

Now go make some good memories this holiday.

“It’s a delicious martini-style cocktail perfect for Christmas, with hazelnut notes and cloves, all surrounded with cinnamon aroma, cherries, and vanilla from the rum. It’s a cold blend that has a floral body from the Bombay Sapphire Gin, that warms you up in the cold. It is also perfect for a summery Christmas on a fantastic tropical island. Enjoy responsibly! Salute!”Created by Bombay Sapphire NY’s Most Imaginative Bartender Winner, Vincenzo Cangemi of Ovest Pizzoteca & Bar in NYC.

And here’s the next one I’ll be featuring. Stay tuned!

The Yuletide Martini (with cranberry sauce!)
The Yuletide Martini (with cranberry sauce!)

 

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Cool tips n tricks for Halloween at home – plus a dozen Chicago Halloween parties

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Nadia G tells it like it is for Halloween parties
Nadia G tells it like it is for Halloween parties

Nadia G., the popular Food Network show host, was writing comedy at an early age, has moved up fast in the world of TV and happily offers her own take on how to “do” Halloween right. Following are her top party ideas and Halloween recipes that will make your party the hot spot Halloween favorite.

  1. Try decorating your buffet with genuine old stuff – like broken dolls you find at a thrift store. Headless,  armless, blackened eyes, whatever.
  2. Present your party spread on a bloodstained tablecloth! Get your hands on a white sheet and have some gruesome fun staining it with theatrical blood handprints and splatters!
  3. Lighting is everything, so replace your crummy lightbulbs with red ones, and light lots of black candles to create a spooky (and sexy) ambiance.
  4. Fill a surgical glove with water and freeze, use this creepy
    Nadia's "severed hand" looks great in a Witches Brew cocktail punch
    Nadia’s “severed hand” looks great in a Witches Brew cocktail punch – See recipe below

    “severed hand” to cool your punch bowl!

  5. Stay away from generic “scary” props like cheesy spiderwebs.
    Try: blood red roses, mice, pictures of Phil Spector… Use your imagination!
  6. Finished planning your party and playlist? Try making some  of Nadia’s coffin-shaped grilled cheese sandwiches for the buffet. And then check out all her other Spooky Recipes!

Find out more about celebrity chef Nadia G.

And here’s where to buy cool Halloween costumes.

Jack-o-lantern
Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

BUT, if you’re just not in the mood to throw your own bash, here are a few tips for outside Halloween fun in Chicago:

  • From pub crawls to boat cruises or just regular Halloween parties at bars, check out EventBrite’s listing.
  • Consider the masks-mandatory (you can buy one at the door) upscale Halloween bash going on at the just-opened River North SHAY nightclub, 222 W. Ontario.
  • Bar Takito, 201 N. Morgan St. (at Lake) in the West Loop celebrates Halloween. Special $5 menu including $5 margaritas and food items will be available to any guest wearing a costume on Friday, October 31 and Saturday, November 1. Try their Sangre Del Toro (or “Blood of the Bull”) cocktail.
  • Newport Bar & Grill, 1344 W. Newport in Lakeview, hosts a Halloween costume party Friday October 31. A $500 cash prize for the “Best Group Costume” – $200 cash for “Best Individual Costume”. The bar will feature a live DJ all night long and offer $4 Craft Drafts, $4 Fireball shots, $5 Three Olive cocktails and $5 Bacardi bombs. An optional $20 package will be available from 9 p.m. – 12 a.m.
  • Masked Halloween wine tasting –  Taste eight different varietals and wine a prize for guessing the most correct. WineBar at Plum Market, Inside Plum Market Old Town, 1233 N. Wells St.
  • Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar, 626 N. State St., is putting on its traditional Halloween Wine Bash on Thursday, October 30, 7 to 9 pm. $25 gets you a selection of beer, wine and delicious Italian-with-the-Quartino-touch fare, along with music and (of course) a Halloween costume contest!
  • Bar on Buena, 910 W. Buena, EVIL TWIN DEVIL’S NIGHT EVIL COSTUME BASH on Thursday, October 30th (Devil’s Night!). 7pm – til ?? – a night of frightening flicks, macabre music, spooky spirits. Prizes for the most evil costumes include VIP Blackhawks tickets, BOB Gift Certificates, Beer Swag and more.
  • Chicago Q, 1160 N. Dearborn St., an upscale barbeque place with a gorgeous wood-paneled bar, gets in the Halloween spirit, this October 31 with the Spooky q Potion cocktail ($12 – Bourbon, Cinnamon Simple Syrup and Apple Cider served on the rocks with a gummy worm garnish).
  • Plymouth Restaurant & Bar, 327 S. Plymouth Court,  on Friday, October 31, serves up a complimentary buffet full of Swamp Dip and Cheesy Freddy Fingers. Wash it down with Blue Moon pints for $4.00 and Pama Pomegranate Martinis for $5.00, and The Scary Night drink special for $5.00. Costumes encouraged.

*Spooky Halloween cocktails include Witches Brew punch:

Witches Brew

  • 4 oz. Once Upon a Vine® Fairest Chardonnay
  • 2 oz. Pear nectar
  • 1 oz. Lime juice
  • .5 oz. Simple syrup
  • 3 Sprigs of thyme

Directions: Shake ingredients in a cocktail shaker and strain into a chilled glass.

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Go North to Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Michigan

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Ever been to Northern Michigan? I just went there for the first time recently, and I can tell you it’s beautiful country. It’s a delightful place to escape from Chicago’s intensity for a bit. Happily, there’s a cool resort – owned and operated by the Chippewa and Ottawa Indian tribes – near Traverse City that’s got everything you need for a real retreat. It’s called Grand Traverse Resort & Spa.

Three golf courses – all respectably difficult – grace the property. The outdoor pool has its own food service (in season). The fully equipped health club is huge – 100,000 square feet – and includes five beautifully maintained indoor tennis courts, two indoor pools and two hot tubs open early to late, a full fitness center with machines, weights and classes, and a childcare center called the Cub House.

Also, on premises you have three restaurants (read about Aerie here) and a whole little avenue of shopping pleasures. MudPie offers delightful gifts and fun fashions and accessories. Dylan’s Candy Bar has a host of sweet treats and fun little gifts for kids. Tumbleweeds carries toys and games for kids of all ages. Plus there’s an American Spoon shop with fabulously creative jams, sauces, and more.

Plus, you can always visit the Turtle Creek Casino down the road if you’re one who enjoys gambling. Plus you can visit nearby National Forests – Huron-Manistee, sample good food in Traverse City (Amical), visit lighthouses and wineries. You will not be bored.

By the way, this part of Michigan is about to receive millions of dollars for repair and resurfacing highways and byways. So if you’ve ever been in this area and run into some difficult traffic or roads, you should find smoother sailing soon.

Don’t take the highway up there. Rather take the scenic route up Route 31 (the trip is seven-ish hours) and stop in one or two of the little lakeside towns (starting from closest to Traverse City): Frankfort, Manistee, Ludington, Muskegon and Saugatuck are all charming places to get a meal or a drink. Crowded in the summer, but still fun to see even off-season.

It was my first time in Northern Michigan – and I’m hoping I’ll be back again soon.

 

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Lovely restaurant in Northern Michigan resort

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I love to feel welcome and elegant when I travel. The restaurant on the 16th floor of the tower at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa made me feel just that way on a recent visit. Called Aerie, it surely is – an airy delight. Graceful panels of ceiling-to-floor, white, lacy fabric separate the space informally. A wall of curvy booths offers cozy accommodations for small parties. The space was completely redone in 2007 by Simeone Deary Design Group of Chicago.

Walls of glass – 360 degrees around – let in the view of Lake Michigan bays and expansive Northern Michigan woodlands. And bathe patrons in the rays of the setting sun when the hour is right.

The evening we arrived for dinner it was still early, so the place was flooded with bright sunshine – too bright for comfort at many tables. Our host was gracious about letting us walk around to find a table with a little shade – and we were delighted to find a perfect spot.

We studied the menu over cocktails and asked for our server’s recommendations. As soon as we ordered, an amuse bouche arrived consisting of two tiny cups of rich lobster bisque drizzled with vanilla chorizo oil and fresh squeezed lime juice and topped with lime zest and micro greens. What a tempting way to introduce a new soup being added to the menu.

GT scallop appCheyenne, our server, had highly recommended the scallops, so we ordered the scallop appetizer. The julienned vegetables were crisp and delicious, the scallops tender and full of flavor. The sauce – well, we had to ask for bread so we could soak it all up.  She told us she was bringing us bread with the next course, but we couldn’t wait.

For main courses we had a fish and a steak entree, respectively. Nicely cooked – fish moist, steak done to order, my broccoli rabe, crisp – though my side mash and sauce were not favorites.

GT fish

GT steak

 

 

 

 

For dessert we studied the complex creations on offer and decided we just wanted some ice cream. Cheyenne consulted the chef and, eh, voilá, he kindly agreed to our request. Out came a delightful presentation of three different flavored scoops plus a small helping of pot de creme (each from one of the desserts on the menu) on a beautiful, crisply white four-section serving plate. We were thrilled – and loved the combination of flavors. We are hoping they’ll put this on their menu for future visits!

GT ice cream dessert

We were pleased with the wine recommendations and delighted with our experience. Cheyenne was attentive and friendly throughout. It was also fun to learn that one of the new Sous Chefs in the kitchen here, Nick Battista, worked with legendary Chef Charlie Trotter at his eponymous restaurant in Chicago before its untimely closing.

More about Chef de Cuisine William Matthews (Chef Bill) and stories about his culinary domain in another article.  Oh, and the wonderful spa, too.

When you next visit Traverse City for golf or gambling or whatever, treat yourself to a magnificent view and a good meal at Aerie in the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa.  A pleasant 7 hours from Chicago via Route 31 up the coast – and much prettier than the highway. Don’t use Google Maps’ directions; call the Resort at 800.236.1577 for nicer alternatives.

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Celebrity chef Graham Elliot talks about #sierramistcollab

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Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman and “MasterChef” judge Graham Elliot celebrate art and Chicago culture at the preview of the Sierra Mist® Exquisite Collaboration Billboard Project on September 17, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The billboard – a collaborative effort between five local Chicago artists – will be photographed and placed in 15 locations throughout the city in late September.
Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman and “MasterChef” judge Graham Elliot celebrate art and Chicago culture at the preview of the Sierra Mist® Exquisite Collaboration Billboard Project on September 17, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The billboard – a collaborative effort between five local Chicago artists – will be photographed and placed in 15 locations throughout the city in late September.

Graham arrived cool as a cucumber, dressed in his, as he described them, poured-into-them-can’t-get-any-tighter lime green pants, and rarin’ to go. We sat down just before the opening night of the Sierra Mist art-food-music Collaborative Project to relaunch one of PepsiCo“s flagship products, Sierra Mist. Removing his trademark white-framed glasses. he fired off quick and sure answers to a few questions about his partnership in this project.

1. How did Sierra Mist choose you to work with them on this?

The idea of showcasing the synergy and relationship between art and food – how it all comes together – I always try to be at the forefront of that. I don’t want to say I was the obvious choice, but I do believe in it. I take my culinary team to the museum to get inspired by color and shapes. And I believe nothing is more important than the journey to find your own voice. You never want to copy.

2. What has been the most fun about this partnership?

Having the artistic freedom to come up with these dishes. It would be easy [for Pepsico] to say it has to be this way, it has to be super user-friendly. Instead, I’ve had carte blanche. If I want to do something with lime and coconut with citrus accents, that’s okay. The fewer parameters set, the more creative you are allowed to be.

3. What has been the biggest challenge?

To have all this freedom! You want to do something because you want to reach an audience. But you just want to be sure people will like them – you don’t want to be so artsy that you’re just out there.

4. Will your Bistro be featuring any of the dishes you’ve created and for how long?

Yeah, maybe the soup – it’s coconut-cauliflower with lime. As we get into the colder weather something like that would be good. It will stay on the menu as long as people keep ordering it.

5. What would you like to tell readers and other chefs about using Sierra Mist (or any soda) in cooking?

When you look at soda, it has a mouth feel, this effervescence, that works well with cocktails. Then there is the flavor of the soda itself. Sierra mist has a lemon-lime flavor – and I think lemongrass, ginger, cilantro. I think Thailand. I think cranberries – cooking them down and reducing the soda to make a glaze.

Just like at home, you try to unlearn things from the past, and never turn your nose up at new ideas.

I can tell you this: I didn’t get to taste the soup, but if the cranberry dipping sauce he made that night is any indication, I can’t wait to try that soup for what I know will be an intense flavor hit. Join the conversation – #sierramistcollab – and get to the free closing night party tonight! You’re invited.

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Have gin – and portable bar bag – will travel

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Are your friends always asking you to mix the cocktails at parties? Are you the one they call on for new and exciting cocktail ideas? Thanks to the House of Bombay, you’ve got a brand new taste in gin to play with.

Bombay Sapphire has been around fBombay Sapphire East and bagor 25 years as a superpremium London Dry Gin choice. But now comes Bombay Sapphire East, just being introduced in the U.S. It favors the flavors of Asia – infused with crisp Thai lemongrass and spicy Vietnamese Black Peppercorns. I made myself a Gin & Tonic with it the other day and was astonished at how exotic and refreshing it tasted.

And while you’re at it, here’s an idea on how to become a modern-day Paladin – have bar bag, will travel. If you’re in the market for a showy, classy set of bar tools you can transport as needed, check out the Barking Irons Bartending Bag ($495). It was inspired by Bombay Sapphire and features that trademark blue bottle color in the waxed lining.

Just for fun, try these classic cocktail recipes using this unusual new gin.

Gin & Tonic Reimagined

  • 1 ½ oz Bombay Sapphire East Gin
  • 3 oz Fevertree tonic
  • Lime wedge (or lemongrass, juniper, coriander, or cassia bark)

Method: Press lemongrass stem and lime wedge into base of an old-fashioned glass. Fill with ice and build. Garnish: Lime wedge, lemongrass stem

Sapphire Peppered Peach Tea Collins

  • 1 ½ oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin
  • ¾ oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
  • ½ oz. Simple Syrup
  • 1 ½ oz. Peach Iced Tea
  • Pinch of Black Pepper
  • Club Soda

Build with ice in a Collins/Highball glass. Top with club soda. Garnish with peach slice and lemon twist.

Bombay Negroni

  • 1 part Campari
  • 1 part Bombay Sapphire
  • 1 part MARTINI Gran Lusso

Stir the ingredients over ice. Strain into a lowball glass with a large chunk of ice. Garnish with an orange slices.

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Pinot Days 2014 coming – highlights of 2013

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Fess Parker wine wearing a coonskin hat at Pinot Days 2013!
Fess Parker wine wearing a coonskin hat at Pinot Days 2013!

I’m excited that Pinot Days 2014 is coming to Chicago again – I really enjoyed the wines I tasted in 2013.  Mark your calendar now for April 26 at Navy Pier, from 2 to 5 pm. Believe it or not, this winter will be over before we know it! The festival goes on for days before that party – with Winemaker Dinners, “Meet the Winemaker” pinot and food pairings at local wine bars and restaurants, and tastings at boutique retail stores.

This year more than 50 wineries will come to Chicago to “paint the town pinot.” Then, it all culminates with the Grand Festival at beautiful Navy Pier. To help you get an idea of what you can look forward to at Pinot Days festival 2014, here are some notes from what I experienced at the Pinot Days 2013.

Lucky for me, I have an oenophile son-in-law. I mean this is a guy who actually absorbs what he reads in Wine Spectator. So I emailed him the list of wineries that would be represented and he made some picks. As a result of his educated suggestions, I’d say this was one of the best wine tastings I can remember. Of course I ended up tasting several wines that were so high-end I had to bend at the knees to hoist the price tags. But hey, what better way to get to know these beauties!

Pinot Days Chicago 2013 was packed with celebrity wineries. From bubblies to deep, dark reds, from high-end beauties for $60 and $75 a bottle to more affordable reserves, the selection was huge, the wine-pourers friendly, and the atmosphere relaxed. More notes from Pinot Days Chicago 2013: My 5-star pick: Miner Family 2011 “777” Rosella ($75). Some of my 4-star picks:

And here are a few of the other memorable pinot noir tastes available at last year’s Pinot Days:

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Double Gold winners – good way to find great wines

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DG - Wollersheim dry rieslingSan Francisco invented this challenge and in 2013, its 33rd year, more than 1400 wineries entered 4500+ products from 29 states and 30 countries. Since the San Francisco International Wine Competition folks took the 2013 winners on the road to major cities across the country, I’m sharing my notes on some of the Double Gold winners that stood out.

The Double Gold Winner of the overall competition (as judged by 52 of the wine industry’s best palates) came from a not-far-from-Chicago winery. How about that? American winemaking has sure come a long way. Even the tres haute magazine Wine Spectator says France is rapidly losing its mystique as the mecca of the winemaking universe. The day is nearly upon us when serving your guests a fine “blanc de blancs” (what sparkling wines have to call themselves when they’re not made in the Champagne region of France) will have precisely the same cachet as pouring champagne.

Wollersheim Winery, maker of the winning wine, is located at 7876 Hwy. 188 in a little town called Prairie du Sac, a few miles from Madison, WI. They took the grand prize with a still white wine, a dry Riesling. While I normally think of Rieslings as the white that’s a-little-too-sweet-for-dry-wine-drinkers wine, this one is titled “dry” and tasted deliciously light with barely a hint of sweetness. A masterful blending.

And here are a few among the other Double Gold winners that I particularly enjoyed.

Puma Road 2011 Chardonnay from Pedregal Vineyard in Paicines, San Benito County. This is the only white wine that I gave 5 stars to, even though the judges chose D&L Carinalli Vineyards 2011 Estate Chardonnay as the Best Chardonnary of the show. Both retail for about $20, so pick one or both and decide what you think.

Here’s an interesting twist. The wine chosen Best Merlot – Villa Yambol 2011 Merlot from Thracian Valley, Bulgaria – retails for about $8 and garners only 3 stars on the popular Vivino wine app. Could be the price is so reasonable because the Bulgarians are just trying to gain a foothold in the international wine market. I remember when South American wines were dirt cheap. Not so much these days since their quality has finally been widely recognized.

I’m delighted to report I could agree wholeheartedly with the judges’ choice of Best Cabernet Sauvignon (my favorite grape). A big 5 stars to Rocca Family Vineyards 20009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Grigsby Vineyard, Yountville. Beautifully balanced, complex with a long finish (which I take to mean it keeps tasting good even after you swallow it).

And I gave 4 stars to the wine they designated Best Bordeaux Blend <$25, the Antucura 2008 Calcura, Red Bordeaux Blend from Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina (there’s that South American quality). Blended from Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec (a bunch of my favorite grapes), it retails for about $20.

The wine chosen as Best Red in Show was the J. Lohr 2009 Premium Bordeaux Blend, Cuvee POM Paso Robles, CA. I thought it had a tinge of sweetness, which surprised me in such a fine wine. But it was also exceedingly well balanced – creatively blended of Merlot and Cabernet Franc but with tiny additions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot (never heard of this one so here’s some info) – and very easy to drink. Not that I’d be likely to over-indulge at $50 a bottle. Still, a wine worthy of a truly special occasion.

One notable 4-stars-from-me wine was the McManis Family Vineyards 2011 Petite Sirah, CA with its ripe taste of blueberries. Sweet-ish, but not sweet ($11). And if you like prosecco very light taste and light bubbles, the Best Prosecco in Show was Zonin Prosecco from Veneto, Italy ($15). It had more body than I typically feel in prosecco. I liked it but much prefer the blanc de blancs and champagne for my wine bubbles.

The white wine chosen as Best Sauvignon Blanc was Matua 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, supposedly the first sauvignon blanc ever grown in NZ, but I gave it only 3 stars. I am willing to try it again compare to one of my favorites, Goldwater sauvignon blanc, also from NZ.

You could, of course, also get the Top 100 Wines edition of Wine Spectator and start tasting in your price range. Whichever way you go, the only real answer to “what’s best” is to taste for yourself. Great way to start the new year, so have fun!

 

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Making wine – it’s all about science, art and love

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SG_Mike_Trujillo2Tall, fit and handsome. Silver-tinged sideburns. Relaxed, warm and friendly. Mike Trujillo is the face ofSequoia Grove Winery—and the heart behind its unique wines. He exudes the same classic aura as the Sequoia Grove (SG) wines he personally oversees. It’s nice to meet a winemaker in person—and a cool way to identify great wines.

Sequioa Grove Winery, created under the guidance of legendary Napa consultant Andre Tchelistcheff, nestles in a stand of redwoods in Napa Valley and has been creating wines since 1982 when Mike first joined the effort. Now the estate has truly flowered under his leadership as president and head winemaker.

A master winemaker in the making
Mike comes by his winemaking talent naturally. Having grown up helping his father on their 3000-acre farm in Colorado, he learned at an early age about how soil, climate, pests and critters affect living, growing plants. He first started out in college in an engineering program, so it never occurred to him he’d end up applying all his hard-earned farming knowledge to the fine art of winemaking. Now, 31 years after a fateful road trip, he’s taking Sequoia Grove estate wines to new heights.

It all started one day when Mike and some buddies were on a break from college. During a road trip to Napa Valley destiny intervened when they were asked to help out in the cellar at Sequoia Grove where they were visiting. Out in the vineyards and living the life, Mike caught the wine bug—bad and, as it turns out, permanently.

Working closely with Tchelistcheff and the owner, Mike paid close attention as they refined Sequoia Grove’s cabernets and chardonnays. Later he worked for a time on the Domaine Carneros estate. Realizing he was in the business for life, Mike enrolled at the University of California at Davis to study winemaking in that extension program. He says winemaking uses all the skills he developed both in farming and in engineering—planning and executing irrigation and designing and laying out the vineyards being among the biggest challenges.

Thinking big from the start, Mike launched his career by creating Karl Lawrence – his own brand of Cabernet wine. He was using SG facilities and building a following. Then in 2001 when the founder of SG retired and the Kopf family partners took over ownership, they recruited Mike to head the operation. His first goal was to incorporate some of the more modern approaches to winemaking. His dream was to make SG wines bigger, not in the sense of higher alcohol content but of being more expressive of their place of origin, the Rutherford Bench region of Napa Valley.

Secrets of a master winemaker
You couldn’t ask for a better location than the soil of Rutherford and its micro-climate—what time of day the sun shines on the grapes, for example, and how the ocean affects them. So Mike spent the first few years upgrading the quality of the grapes. “You’ve got to have great grapes to make great wine,” he said. He had acres replanted within a quarter mile of the winery, and he used the first new fruit from the Sequoia Grove vineyards in the Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 vintage. He also uses grapes from a few select trusted growers nearby, such as Gary Morisoli, Beckstoffer Vineyards, Healy Vineyards, Stagecoach Vineyards, and a few more. Mike said, “At Sequoia Grove, we concentrate on putting the bling in the bottle—and that starts in the vineyards.”

Then there’s the precise moment of picking. Do the grapes have that certain something? Only a well-developed instinct can tell you when they’re right, and long experience deepens and broadens your knowledge. How tightly are the grapes clinging to the vines? When you shake the vines, how many grapes fall off? What do you do when it rains all season, or when an overwhelming influx of some insect or critter attacks your vines? The best answers aren’t always the stuff you learn in school.

Next steps in the winemaking are crushing and pressing the fruit, skins and pulp, to create the must. Then fermentation, clarifying, aging and bottling. Takes a lot of experience to know when the flavor, aroma and color are perfect for your intended wine—tasting is essential at every step.

And then there’s blending. Mike drew a simple arc and talked about how it’s done (see photo). If there’s a flavor in a wine that’s too strong—represented by spikes rising above the arc—it can be fixed by blending with other wines. But when something is missing in a wine—some element falls below the curve—it’s generally too late by this stage. Those kinds of weaknesses need to have been “fixed” by getting it right from the start, from soil to grapes to must and so on.

Re-imagining chardonnay
One of Mike’s goals was to produce a unique Chardonnay. “I wanted to make a more food complementary wine,” Mike said. His aim was to create a wine that “doesn’t bombard you with butter and oak flavors before you get to the food.” Instead he describes his 2009 vintage Carneros Chardonnay as establishing a “true partnership with the gourmet food you love to eat.” With just a tiny touch of the sharpness of, for example, a sauvignon blanc, this lovely wine sits easy on the palate, gently inviting you to relax and enjoy the warm, soft, full flavor with your lobster or scallops. And since this Chardonnay comprises only 8% of their production, it’s a special find.

Making the most of Cabernet Sauvignon
Mike’s next goal was to work his magic on the grape this area of Napa is famed for—Cabernet Sauvignon. With contributions of several types of grapes from several Rutherford vineyards—Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot—Mike makes a wine that is artfully blended each year and aged to produce the flavor and approachability you’ll find in all their Cabernets.

While the Rutherford area of Napa is well-known for fine Cabernet wines like Silver Oak, SG’s signature Napa Valley Cabernet continues to make its own high mark in the world of fine wines. Their 2009 vintage was a truly beautiful wine, and they made just over 17,000 cases for worldwide distribution, so we’re talking a comparative treasure. You can get it at Chicago Cut Steakhouse and other fine Chicago restaurants (see ***list below).

A breakthrough in fine red wine
After a few years at the helm, Mike decided it was time to step way out of the box and create a wine that broke the rules. He selected the finest lots of a given vintage of Cabernet and then blended those with primarily Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Not quite enough Cabernet to be called a Cabernet (requires 75%), the new wine needed a name of its own. So Mike picked it: Cambium. The 2008 vintage is a wine that’s impossibly complex and rich. You just want to let it caress your senses long after each sip—I’ve never had a wine before that kept talking to me all the way down. Yet it pairs beautifully with the prime aged beef and sweet, rich crab meat served at Chicago Cut—and works fabulously with their Bearnaise butter sauce and lightly sautéed fresh spinach, too.

Mike works with Molly Hill, his fellow SG winemaker, each year to create these deeply flavored, complex and satisfying wines. And when he’s not tasting and tweaking—or training his daughter Sophia, age 7 (see photo) in the fine points of wine blending—Mike happily works with fellow winemakers and vintners in the area to foster the mission of the Rutherford Dust Society. Their goal is to promote only the highest quality in grapes and in wines and to strengthen people’s connection with the soil and land of Rutherford that’s so uniquely suited to these pursuits.

If you haven’t tried a really special wine in a while, you can’t go wrong with one of these Sequoia Grove beauties. And if you’re visiting Napa Valley, Mike says Sequoia Grove is a really laid back place. Don’t hesitate to stop by.
***Failing a trip to Rutherford, you can get some SG wines in the Chicago area at the fine restaurants listed below.

Chicago locations:

Hugo’s, 1024 N. Rush St.
Chicago Yacht Club, 400 E. Monroe St.
Chicago Cut Steakhouse, 300 N. Lasalle St.
Rosebud on Rush, 55 E. Superior St.
Rosebud Prime, 1 S. Dearborn St.
Levy Restaurants, 1901 W. Madison St.
Gibsons Steak House, 1028 N. Rush St.
Sunda, 110 W. Illinois St.
Shulas Steak House, 301 E. North Water St.
Socca, 3301 N. Clark St.
Signature Room, 875 N. Michigan Ave.
Capitol Grill, 633 N. St. Clair St.

Suburban locations:

Bastas, Peoria Heights
Clubhouse, Oak Brook
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Des Plaines
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Oak Brook
Glen Oaks Country Club, Glen Ellyn
Riverside Golf Club, Riverside
Potters Place, Naperville
Mecenat, Western Springs

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Quay Restaurant – riverside dining and drinks

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Quay restaurantYou walk in from the busy street, up a few stairs to the front bar of Quay Restaurant and Lounge. Nice sports bar atmosphere with dozens of televisions in case you get bored or want to watch a game with friends. But if you’re not into that, all the passersby on their way to Navy Pier keep the sidewalk view lively on weekends.

Décor is clean and modern, and then you notice a striking feature—a seemingly endless wall sculpted in wavy ridges that lines the entire left side of the restaurant. Despite occasional interruptions where another texture like, say, a rough-hewn wood beam, breaks the line, the wall carries your eye from the front bar all the way to the mirror at the end of the passage that makes the wall seem even longer.

We asked for the room with a view, so our host led us down the long hall to the quay-side lounge. On the way we passed the dining room. It was low-key with warm subtle lighting emanating from great columns enclosed with diffusing material that looked like bronze-y capiz shell. Tables were arranged with generous space between them, and the atmosphere looked quiet and casually elegant.

Later we noticed a shell theme in the bathroom, too, where floors are inlaid with iridescent white shell-looking tiles—a unique look that, combined with the row of stainless steel sinks lining a mirrored wall, makes you feel you’re in an elegant hotel powder room rather than a restaurant bathroom.

The quay-side lounge sits across the width of the restaurant, looking out onto trees lining a small branch of the Chicago River, and has its own bar. It reminded me of someone’s modern but comfortable back porch—bright with sunlight and airy with open windows (it was one of those gorgeous late-summer days in Chicago). The window view is lined with tables for two, and along the wall are several cozy bright-orange couch-and-table setups that seat two to six people. One of Chicago’s popular architectural boat tours has its landing right at the foot of stairs that come out the back of Quay’s lounge. While we lunched we watched the boat fill up, take off, and return.

In the spirit of coziness we sat in a couch nook. The drink list has a nice selection of decently priced reds and whites, some good ones by the glass, as well as beers and liquors to satisfy almost any taste. The bottle of the Santa Margherita, Alto Pinot Grigio we ordered was beautifully chilled; it tasted of the joys of a warm summer day.

Our waitperson worked hard at opening the bottle using the waiter’s corkscrew—it looked like she might not make it so I suggested she set it down on the couch to steady it. She said, no, we have to learn to do it this way; I practice on all my friends! That was the kind of friendly, relaxed attitude of everyone in the restaurant; yet we got totally professional service throughout our visit.

We trusted our server’s recommendations for appetizers and were not disappointed. We shared an order of the mussels steamed in Chicago’s own 312 Ale—dark, rich broth with lemongrass and chives that we couldn’t get enough of. We dipped the several kinds of bread in it and then asked to keep it on the table to dip our potatoes and more bread in during our meal. The roasted beet salad was simple and good—the light, white vinaigrette dressing went very well with the bitterness of the watercress and arugula and the sweetness of the red onion and beets.

My companion ordered the salmon with smoky beans, bacon and rapini (also known as broccoli rabe or broccolini). The salmon was perfectly cooked; the beans salty and flavorful, a surprisingly nice combination, and the deep green crisp-cooked vegetable had a bitter touch that complimented the richness of the beans.

I ordered the Seafood BLT—it sounded so original. And it was. A generous mixture of little shrimps and scallop and crab chunks, dressed with a pink roasted red pepper mayo that tasted deliciously homemade, was served with bacon on thick slices of toasted brioche. Num. It came with a massive portion of nicely browned though slightly dry French fries that I couldn’t finish. In fact I couldn’t eat all the sandwich either. So I asked for a doggie bag—and ate the remainder for dinner that night.

Since we’d heard that Quay had a fabulous pastry chef, we opted for dessert. After our server gave us a lively and enthusiastic description of each option, we selected the goat cheese cream cheesecake and the Banana Tres Leche cake. My friend enjoyed the dense cake soaked in custard, topped with whipped cream and served with roasted pineapple and a light caramel sauce. But it couldn’t compare to my dessert.

It’s hard to describe how delicious that goat cheese item was—the goat cheese mixture sat in a perfectly rounded mold atop a wafer thin slice of what I think was white chocolate, with homemade peach jam smeared out from one edge in the nouveau cuisine approach to presentation and a line of peach jam topped with almond crumble out from the other edge. Light yet rich, sweet and tart, smooth and crunchy—a feast of contrasting textures and flavors that I will go back for. I secretly wanted to lick my plate clean like I used to do with ice cream when I was a little kid. The baklava straw topping it and the dark Rainier cherries on the side almost seemed like afterthoughts. The dish was a masterpiece even without them.

By the way, the descriptions for each item on the Quay menu are unusually helpful—unlike many menus that leave you wondering what they really mean. And we appreciated the extra “color” our server supplied in her explanations.

Address: 465 E. Illinois. Look for the elegant black awning out on Illinois—Quay is located in the huge red brick building known as the River East Arts Center.

Phone: 312.981.8400,  Email: info@quaychicago.com

Parking: Across the street underground and Quay will validate your ticket so you’ll pay only $10 (for up to four hours).

CTA/walk:  Half a mile from Michigan or catch the CTA bus 29 at Illinois to Navy Pier.

This place is definitely worth a trip—if for the goat cheese cream cheesecake alone!

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