A perspective on the great salt divide

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
English: A pile of potato chips. These are Utz...
English: A pile of potato chips. These are Utz-brand, grandma’s kettle-cooked style. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As you will probably notice from watching the myriad of (or just myriad, as you prefer) cooking shows on television, chefs tend to use a generous hand when salting their dishes. I do, too.  Do you? My daughter says she can’t seem to duplicate my most delicious dishes – and thinks it’s mainly because she doesn’t put enough salt in them.

Read an article this morning entitled “The Great Salt Divide” on MedPage Today. They interviewed a number of doctors and nutritionists on the role of salt, especially for children, in overall health. Some experts spouted the usual bromides about consuming less.  One made an interesting observation about the potassium-salt balance being an issue:

“In fact, more recently it has been shown that not only is too much salt dangerous but too little salt may also be a concern. Plus, those to [sic] eat too much sodium may not eat enough potassium. Potassium levels that are too low are associated with more adverse cardiac outcomes.”

People. listen to your doctor if you are at risk. But I submit the following information for your consideration:

Selected items of nutrition in a 1 oz. serving of potato chips:

  • Total sodium: 220 mg
  • Total potassium: 320 mg

Doesn’t that look like a nicely balanced food?  Incidentally, corn chips don’t provide this genial balance.

The government says adults need 4.7 grams (4700 mg) of potassium a day.  If my math is right, that means the chips have almost 7% of your daily requirement. That banana you were virtuously thinking about eating offers only just under 9%! A shockingly small difference, isn’t it?

And the recommended level of sodium is 2300 mg per day, which makes the chips not even 10% of that.

Now, since yogurt is also high in potassium, make a dip with it. Greek nonfat tastes great, but regular, full-fat yogurt is measurably higher in potassium (same with milk, by the way). My favorite dip is spicy – plain nonfat Greek yogurt with a generous squirt of sriracha. Dip away – and voila! You’re upping your potassium nicely with your salty chips.

I’m just kidding. This is a food column, not a nutrition source.

And I really do love my chips ‘n’ dip.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Top-drawer dinner special at David Burke’s Primehouse

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

How do you judge the excellence of a steakhouse? Quality of the meat, certainly. The sides matter, of course. But in some cases, more than the food sets one place above another – ambience, wine pairings and service.

That’s where David Burke’s Primehouse, located in The James Hotel at 616 N. Rush St. , stands out. If all the wait staff are as knowledgeable and attentive as was Bryan, our server on a recent visit, this place gets nearly five stars. Plus the wines they paired with our food were truly exceptional. The first one, for example, was a blend of their own vintages that rated a solid four stars.

Primehouse occasionally offers a prix fixe menu with wine pairings at an attractive price compared to ordering a la carte. Once you review the regular menu and look at what you would have been paying, you realize just how attractive the package is.

At any rate, the Primehouse folks select the menu to showcase some of their most popular items. The appetizer, Surf & Turf Dumplings, takes the prize for imaginative use of ordinary ingredients. Two little dumplings – really, deep-fried dough-covered-fillings-on-a-stick – come out beautifully displayed on a pair of square pristine-white plates – set off brilliantly by the restaurant’s subtle mood lighting.

And then comes the taste. Layer upon layer of flavor jumps out as you bite into each dumpling – one made with lobster and roasted lemon chutney, and the other with meltingly tender beef short rib meat seasoned with pickled red onion and spicy mustard. The dish was reminiscent of the finely wrought, multi-layered-flavors in certain Asian delicacies but with a distinctly North American weight to it.

Next came an arugula salad full of almost-bacony flavor from the house-smoked-over-applewood truffle tomatoes, set off with pine nuts and coated lightly with a creamy goat cheese fondue. Nice combo. Especially enjoyed the slight bitterness of the greens with the creamy smoothness of the dressing.

We were taken aback when Bryan delivered the next plate. Three very large chunks of seared, rare ahi tuna sat atop a vegetable mix consisting of preserved fennel, bell peppers, black olives and a few green beans. A more than generous serving of an intriguing combination, though not a favorite for either of us.

Next, the piece de resistance. The auxiliary server arrived with a large char-grilled steak. Bryan was concerned that it might be overdone (we’d requested one serving medium rare and one medium well). We appreciated that he asked to have it taken back so the chef could confirm it was properly cooked to order. While we waited, Bryan explained this is their most popular steak – the bone-in 55-day dry-aged ribeye, and that it hangs in their own dry-aging smokehouse for that many days before it’s sent to the grill.

The steak came back from the kitchen confirmed, and the auxiliary server carved it for us, first in half, and then in slices, giving each of us pieces that conformed to our wished-for doneness. Sides included an aluminum basket of French Fries seasoned with truffle oil and melted Asiago cheese, and a generous helping of Roasted Mushrooms seasoned with shallots, sherry vinegar and herbs and served in a sizzling oval skillet.  While none of these dishes reached beyond good, they were nicely prepared and flavorful.

Throughout the meal both Bryan and the sommelier kept us in generous tastes of the selected paired fine wines. Bryan was also kind enough to write out the list of wines for us:

  • Palette Pinot Noir 2013 (Primehouse’s own blend for sale by request at $75/bottle) – exceptional
  • William Fevre Chablis 2012 – a beautifully balanced, un-oaky Chardonnay
  • Sanford Chardonnay 2013 – Santa Barbara
  • Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – Napa Valley – exceptional

Finally, a composed dessert called Coconut & Mango. Coconut cake, mango semifreddo (softly frozen custard), mango mojito sorbet, and key lime chia seed gelee. Delicious flavors artfully arranged in a plate-size carnival of color variations, textures and shapes and served with a respectable Italian Moscato, this was a winner.

I’ll be back when this fabulous special is available again.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Stuff yourself with the ultimate comfort food – Mac & Cheese Fest

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Sat – Oct 4th – UIC Forum – 12-3pm

English: Slices of macaroni and cheese pizza s...
English: Slices of macaroni and cheese pizza served at CiCi’s restaurant in Rochester, Minnesota (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Who doesn’t love mac & cheese? It was a go-to choice for my kids growing up. I remember being appalled at the amount of butter called for on the Kraft® box, so I always cut that in half and added some grated cheddar cheese. Amazingly, the dish is still a favorite with them, even though they’re long grown up.

My mom used to make her homemade version for us nine kids on our Catholic meatless Fridays. She boiled some good old elbow macaroni ‘til it was mushy, then laced it with a bit of butter (later, when life took one of its strange twists and my milkman dad stopped bringing home free butter, with margarine) and a little bit of grated government-issued American cheese.

No offense, mom-up-in-heaven, the stuff from the box tasted way better.

But soon you and I will have a chance to taste – all we can eat, really – of chef-created new approaches to this glorious food. The first annual Mac & Cheese Chicago Fest to be held Saturday, October 4 at UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Rd., will feature approximately 60 Chicago chefs bringing us their versions of Mac and Cheese. We’ll find dishes direct their restaurant’s menu and/or inspired by their particular culture or family traditions.

Don’t think you’ll see just Kraft-type straight cylindrical or grandma’s curved-stovepipe shapes. These chefs are invited to build their creations from any kind of pasta with any type of cheese. You and a panel of foodies will vote for your favorites – and the winner will take home “The Golden Noodle” award.

Come on out and sample the huge selection of macaroni and cheese entrees, appetizers and sides and wash ‘em all down with craft beers, wines and soft drinks. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland & Northwest Indiana. Below are some of the participating restaurants:

676 Restaurant and Bar
American Junkie
Bar Pastoral
Big G’s Pizza
Barn & Company
Black Rock Pub & Kitchen
Blackfinn Ameripub
BourBonQue
Carlucci Restaurant & Bar
Carnivale
Chicago Q
Connie’s Pizza
deca Restaurant + Bar
Enolo Wine Bar
ESTATE Ultra Bar
Famous Dave’s
Farmhouse Tavern
Fiesta Mexicana Restaurants
Grange Hall Burger Bar
Halsted’s Bar + Grill
Jake Melnick’s
JP Burkes Patio & Tap
Kitty O’Sheas
Meat
Municipal Bar
Orso’s Restaurant
Park Tavern
Puffs of Doom
Real Comfort American Kitchen
Rockit Bar & Grill
RoSal’s
Rudy’s Bar and Grille
Schubas’ Harmony Grill
South Water Kitchen
Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap
State Restaurant
Table Fifty-Two
The Kerryman Bar & Restaurant
The Southern
Ugly Mug Café
Viand Chicago
and more!

To sponsor, contact Cece Gonzales for information at 312.730.8262 or cece@raymiproductions.com.

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

How’d they make it that color? Provence dry rosé wines

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

 

Français : Dégustation de Rosé de Provence
Français : Dégustation de Rosé de Provence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re a baby boomer like me, you remember the time when the term rosé attached to a wine meant an overly sweet, syrupy libation called white zinfandel. To most of us in the U.S. back then, that’s all the rosé there was – unless you were already a serious wine aficionado, which meant, of course, knowing French wines because France was considered the source of good wines.

Today, the rosé movement across the United States is all about crisp, food-friendly pink wines, most of which come from Provence in the south of France. You can learn more from a new book out called Provence Food and Wine: The Art of Living by Viktorija Todorovska, a well-traveled author who writes with love about Provence food and drink and includes recipes she makes at home for her friends.

The book tells about pairing Provence dry rosés with food and tells you where to find these wines outside of Europe. Plus, in case you’re moved to get thee hence, she shares a multitude of tips on where to go and what to do when you’re in that delicious part of the world.

Friends and I recently enjoyed a dinner of Provence wines paired with dishes from Viktorija’s cookbook at the beautifully restored restaurant side (reopened in 2012) of The House of Glunz wine and spirits shop, where they carry a select group of fine wines and spirits. Though many are on the pricier side, you’ll also see baskets of highly rated yet affordable deals. The folks who work there know wines and spirits and can help you pick out just the right bottle to fit your taste and your budget.Description : gamme de couleur de vins rosés d...

Meanwhile, if you’ve tasted many of these beautiful dry rosé wines, you know they’re loaded with character and body and come in a gorgeous variety of pinks and salmons. Ever wonder how they do that?

Well, there’s a whole institute dedicated to it in Provence. Since 1999, experts at the Center for Research and Experimentation on Rosé Wine in Vidauban, Provence, have been studying the question of color. They’ve identified four factors that determine the shade of pink a Provence rosé will exhibit, from light to darker, with more of a purplish hue or one that leans toward coral (i.e., salmon pink). Here they are:  

Grape variety. All Provence rosés are made mainly from red grapes, but some have more pigment in their skins than others. Those yield the darker pinks.

Climatic conditions. Provence is a country of varying terrains, all with distinct differences in temperature, sun, and soil. In a recent five-year experiment, researchers made wines with exactly the same grape varieties and using the same vinification methods. Growing conditions alone produced striking color variations along with variations in acidity, aroma, and flavor. Proof positive that “like great white and red wines, rosé wines are also ‘wines of terroir.’”

Temperature control during winemaking. Temperature control in Provence begins at harvest (conducted at night, when the grapes are their coolest) and includes the use of refrigerated presses, thermo-regulated fermentation tanks, and cold aging facilities — all to preserve the freshness and color of the wine.

→ View video: “The Making of Provence Rosé: Temperature Control

Skin contact time. Finally, what color your finished wine is depends on how long the grape skins are in contact with the clear juices. The shorter the time, the paler the wine. Provence’s palest wines start with pressing grapes right after picking. For deeper-colored rosés, grapes are crushed and then soaked (or macerated) – skins and juice together – for 2 to 20 hours at a specific temperature. Then the pink juice is released into the fermentation tank.

Provence wines are the gold standard for rosé. These winemakers are continually investing in ways to make sure these wines offer beauty, freshness, and balance in a glorious range of colors. For more information visit www.winesofprovence.com and on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

P.S. I like the palest colors the best. ” )

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Byron’s – hot dogs at the White House

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
MrPresident3by5
Byron’s owners Mike & Ann Payne with the POTUS
Only he-men dare!
Only he-men dare!

Did you know the owners of a Chicago legend, Byron’s Hot Dogs, were invited to serve their fare to the President and First Lady at the White House? Yep. Theirs was one of only four restaurants chosen to participate in a picnic-on-the-lawn back in 2011. Byron’s represented the entire Midwest. You go, Chicago Byron’s!

The picture is of the Lord Byron burger – a quadruple burger with cheese on every patty.  Mustard, relish, onion, lettuce, cucumber, green pepper, tomato, pickle and celery salt. Hot peppers on request.  Owner Mike Payne said this was the burger featured on Chicago’s Best television show on Channel 9 – where they asked him to eat one on screen. He couldn’t finish it. Mike said they sell a surprising number of these giant concoctions. Are you up for one? Byron’s also offers normal-sized dogs, burgers and a pretty tasty veggie burger, all with fresh veggies to your taste. Good fries, too. Two locations: 1701 W. Lawrence – the bigger store with lots of indoor seating, and 1017 W. Irving Park – limited stool seating plus an outdoor space that’s heated in winter. Order ahead online.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Pinot Days 2014 coming – highlights of 2013

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
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:

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Double Gold winners – good way to find great wines

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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!

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Sauvignon blancs so good you may switch from red wine

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Goldwater sauvignon blancI’m a fair weather fan. I’m not proud, but that’s how it is. For example, for many decades my last memory of getting excited about baseball was when the Chicago White Sox won the pennant in 1959 (okay, I’m old).

However, I am open-minded. Like a few years later, ahem, in 1995 I was taken to my first baseball game in forever at the then-brand-new stadium of the Cleveland Indians. Within 4 plays-including a super-powered at-bat and an incredible spinning, on-the-fly catch-and-fire to first base – I was on my feet yelling to my companion: “Oh, my God, this isn’t how they played baseball last time I watched!”

Along those lines, I used to think I didn’t much like white wines. The words “sauvignon blanc” pretty much made my mind go blank. I spent many years in comfortable ignorance. But it’s been a long time since I tested white wines, and things seem to have gotten a lot more sophisticated since I last paid attention.

Below are my comments on a few Pasternak Wine Importers selections I tried recently (the notes denote “how much this wine makes my mouth sing!”) and one of Lot18’s sauvignon blancs:

  • Morro Bay (Split Oak Estates) 2009, California. Light, crisp, bright and dry. Delicious served with rich, double-cream D’aufinois cheese (like Brie with pepper). Winemaker says vanilla and pineapple, and here’s the rest.

My verdict: Sensuous and sexy ♪ ♪ ♪

  • La Petite Perriere 2011, France. Dry, rich, well-blended with perfume-y fruit notes, almost oaky like a chardonnay. Winemaker says ripe exotic fruits, refreshing and complex, and here’s the rest.

My verdict: Makes me feel rich ♪ ♪ ♪

  • Goldwater Sauvignon Blanc 2010, New Zealand. Creamy, soft white, a bit less astringent than some sauvignon blancs. Gentle and flavorful. I could easily drink this every summer afternoon and convince myself the rest of the tasks on my agenda don’t matter. Winemaker says rich, ripe fruits and crisp feel, and here’s the rest.

My verdict: Dangerously drinkable ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪

  • Jaja Sauvignon Blanc 2010, France. Crisp, pleasant, light. Winemaker says flowers and blackcurrants and zesty, and here’s the rest.

My verdict: Very nice edition of SB ♪ ♪ ♪

  • Los Vascos 2011, Chile. Smooth, rounded, full-bodied, great with food. Tastes good even with sweet ‘n’ sour dishes. No kidding-I drank it with a meal that included pickled beets and vinegar-dressed slaw! A winner. Winemaker says fruit, spices and persistent, and here’s the rest.

My verdict: Luscious, companionable, easy to drink. ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪

  • Lafite Reserve Speciale Bordeaux Blanc 2010, France. Very smooth and rich. Blend of Semillon and Sauvignon grapes yields rounder flavor. Winemaker says vivacious, full and balanced, and here’s the rest.

My verdict: Gentle and drinkable. A nice introduction to sauvignon blanc for newbies. ♪ ♪ ♪

  • Merlin’s Barrow Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough, New Zealand. Crisp, light, drinkable. Good with light and/or spicy foods. Winemaker says star-bright, green-hued wine leaps from the glass with passion fruit, grapefruit and pineapple perfumes and here’s the rest. (As of this writing the half-case sale on this link is expired, but look for the winemaker’s notes lower on the page).

My verdict: Crisp and delicious alone or with foods. ♪ ♪ ♪

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Creative cuisine at Ceres Table

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Update: Ceres Table is now located at 3124 N. Broadway Street.

Ceres TableCeres Table, 4882 North Clark Street, is located in a modern new building that sits across the street from some very quiet neighbors—a cemetery. It was raining the night we went so we couldn’t take advantage of their charming outdoor sidewalk space lit with tiny white lights on the tree growing through the sidewalk.

It’s off the beaten path for sure. Who knew that a truly gourmet Italian restaurant could be found in a far north corridor of Chicago? But since I’d already been impressed with the creative specials at Ceres Table, when a colleague reported having had an exceptional dining experience I was very pleased to get there for dinner one evening.

The décor is austere. Nice materials in clean lines, with no tablecloths or curtains—perhaps designed to help diners focus on the food. As the menu tells us, Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest (and also of mother love), was reputedly born in Sicily, like Giuseppe Scurato, the owner and chef at Ceres Table. We were happy to meet the chef very briefly after our hostess/server had seated us.

The menu here is clearly a reflection of its chef’s inspirations. Just a single example of an appetizer—squash blossoms, battered and fried and stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies—lets you know you’re not dealing with a typical red-sauce Italian restaurant. How about saffron rice balls stuffed with braised goat, peas and taleggio cheese? A strictly Italian cheese made using a technique called smear ripening—a unique method also used with a French favorite of mine, port du salut—I find just reading about taleggio cheese makes me want to go back and try that appetizer. And that’s true of any number of other unique dishes we didn’t have a chance to try that night.

We are assuredly not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

Our server explained the menu—appetizers on the left, main courses on the right. Partway down the left side I found my appetizer of choice: shrimp crudo, made with laughing bird shrimp (environmentally friendly crustaceans recommended in a NY Times article) marinated—rather like a ceviche—in a citrus vinaigrette with clementines, hot peppers, celery leaves and fennel. The dish was served down the center of a beautiful rectangular plate and was deliciously refreshing.

My companion started with the seafood salad, a mixture of unique fruits of the sea that were cooked just until firm, not toughened, and included shrimp, mussels, claims, seppia (cuttlefish—a favorite in Italy), and baby octopus, all seasoned with parsley pesto and lemon. This dish is all about the seafood, so the seasoning definitely takes a subordinate place. We ordered a Malbec from Argentina that was decently priced and very good, though perhaps a little heavy for the dishes we chose.

Our main courses arrived in good time. But we were surprised, while waiting, to hear our server describing to the table next to us some specials of the evening that we hadn’t heard about, including fresh green beans which I’d have loved to try had I known. As we hadn’t felt particularly welcomed when we first arrived, this extra omission made us feel a little left out. Yet my companion, who’d eaten here a few weeks previously, reported having had excellent and attentive service, so your experience may depend on the night you go.

My friend ordered the grilled quail which came marinated and grilled. The quail—with those little tiny bones!—was tasty but a touch overdone. She really enjoyed the small serving of panzanella salad—a salad made out of bread!—that came with it.

My main course, the seafood mixed grill, was a standout. A generous slab of meaty swordfish had an ever-so-slightly rubbery texture but great taste. The accompanying seppia and gulf prawns were delightfully seasoned, had a bit of spice, and were perfectly cooked. The sambuca roasted potato slices were positively mouth-watering. The frisee (chicory) leaves on top made a just-right, crunchy-bitter complement to the succulent seafood and potatoes. The chef came out to check on us during our main courses—I only hope someday he’ll share how he prepares this dish!

We were excited about the dessert menu and had a hard time choosing. My friend, a die-hard devotee of raspberries and chocolate, chose the ice cream sandwich. Described as chocolate cookies and raspberry ice cream with hot fudge and chocolate chips, the two dainty sandwiches were filled with vanilla ice cream with real raspberries. Everything tasted good, but the chocolate cookies were frozen almost too hard to cut through. The suggested pairing of Prosecco di Valdobbiadene was a perfect complement.

When I saw “corn cake” on the menu my curiosity got the better of me. I’ve always loved good corn bread that was a little sweet, so I thought I couldn’t go wrong with this. The corn cake was, indeed, sweet but also meltingly tender, rich and fine-crumbed. It was served with dribbles of cilantro oil—a taste I thought might be overwhelming but was instead very subtle—and with several puffs of caramel popcorn tossed on the plate. Very original. I enjoyed every bite and scraped the plate to get the last taste. The suggested pairing of Niepoort 20-year-old port put the whole experience over the top.

  1. Examiner.com, Barbara Payne, http://www.examiner.com/lady-boomer-in-chicago/indulge-yourself-at-ceres-table-restaurant
  2. Wikipedia, Taleggio cheese, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taleggio_cheese
  3. New York Times, Florence Fabricant, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/dining/11shrimp.html
  4. Wikipedia, Cuttlefish, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuttlefish
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Lovin' how Chicago does it!