Thursday, December 27, 2012

Slate Street Café: A Great Place to Wine & Dine

The night after Christmas I joined the Gonzales family for dinner at Slate Street Café. I had previously met Rafael Gonzales at his Broken Eyes Studio in Los Lunas back in September and was fascinated with his paintings. Do check out his studio when you are next in Los Lunas. I was there to drop off copies of my new wine book, Wines of Enchantment: the Centennial edition, including one that would be a Christmas present for his daughter, Theresa. (See how far I’ll go to sell a couple of books?)

Later Rafael contacted me and wanted to meet my wife and I for dinner in Albuquerque after Christmas; and did I know any good restaurants? Since I do restaurant reviews for Albuquerque Arts & Entertainment magazine, I had plenty of suggestions that I whittled down to four of my favorites and he chose Slate Street Café. The café is a good choice, both for the food and the wine.

Myra Ghattas, the owner provides comfort food made in imaginative ways with fresh ingredients and paired with fine wines. She is also a certified sommelier, and it shows in both her wine list and wines-by-the-glass list.  The wine markups are also modest, proving she understands the value of enjoying wines with her food. She also makes sure her servers are trained and knowledgeable about the food and wine. Our waiter made many thoughtful suggestions, which we took him up on.

Theresa selected a wine from Lake County, California using the Lemberger grape from Washington State. Not to be confused with Limburger cheese. Thankfully it wasn’t smelly on the nose, although the odd name does give some grape growers pause. Steele Winery did something very clever with the name and uses a variation of its ancient name: Blau Frankisch, literally “blue grape from France.” The wine is from Steele Winery’s Shooting Star series and they call the grape Blue Franc. That was when I noticed the label was a blue French Franc. Hmmm, maybe too cute?

The wine had dense tannins and a pleasing mouthfeel, cherry and spices and black pepper. It went well with the bruschetta, one of my favorites at the café, and the Portabella French fries; another favorite. Both appetizers made the rounds at our table of six, followed by accolades for the chef.

I decided on the ribeye to go with the 2010 Kunde Cabernet Sauvignon, a dependable mid-range Cab from Sonoma. The wine exhibits dark fruit with fig-like richness, black pepper, rounded vanilla notes and fine tannins. Kunde is a very consistent winery going back four generations with a fifth ready to take over the 1,850 acre property in the Kenwood region of Sonoma. 

The portions here are generous so when our waiter came back to ask about desserts he was not surprised when we said we had no room left. Good food, good wine and good company made this a very memorable meal.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mediterranean Gourmet: An Intimate Luau

When is a luau, not a luau? The answer is when it is at the Mediterranean Gourmet in Hanalei, Kauai. Having done several reasonably good interpretations of this feast made legendary by the royal luaus of the Kamehameha kings, my wife and I had the good fortune to try an intimate luau at the Mediterranean Gourmet last year while at our timeshare in Princeville, Kauai.

This year was a first for us; returning for a second luau at the Mediterranean Gourmet. We also were celebrating our thirtieth anniversary. That was a first, too. There are four reasons why I recommend this so highly; the location, the food which is always fresh and good, the intimacy which brings us closer to the performers and the Hawaiian family that performs here every year.

Family Hula Halau is authentic, fun to watch and steeped in the traditions of Kauai. Coppin Colburn, the patriarch of the family, is a good musician and performer who connects with his audience as soon as he takes the mike. He also enjoys playing with fire, twirling twin-lit batons so fast a ring of fire appears at each hand. They even performed a special dance to honor our 30th anniversary, which made our celebration even better.

The Mediterranean Gourmet has an imaginative wine list that is well-paired to the cuisine. After our tropical drinks, perfectly made, we ordered a bottle of Don Olegario, Albariño, which soon became two.  This Spanish white is one of my favorite wines. The Albarińo grape comes from the Rias Biaxas region of Spain, which is just above Portugal on the Atlantic coast. The coastal influence yields wines with great acidity, minerality and bold fruit flavors. I’m reminded of French Sancerre when I drink these wines, but at a much lower price point.

Imad Beydoun, the owner, takes personal charge, overseeing that all the dishes are in place and continually replenished. From first pass through the line until last there will be freshly made dishes of Kahlua Pork, various seafood and chicken dishes and an array of Mediterranean cuisine-inspired entrees. The servers are well-trained and attentive, which enhances the intimate feel of this luau.

At the end of their performance, everyone is asked to join hands while we all sing Aloha Oe. If you are not deeply moved by this rendition of one of Hawaii’s most beautiful songs, you should check your pulse. Hearts are warmed, new friends are made, and everyone leaves with their spirits lifted. This is the only luau I’d return to time after time because it is Kauai’s best luau.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bouchons Hanalei Grill & Sushi Bar

Teamwork is usually associated with team sports, but that is one of the things that most impressed me about Bouchons Hanalei Grill and Susi Bar. Everyone seems to be on the same page: making your dining experience fun and delicious from first drink to the last bite of dessert. Located in the town of Hanalei on the north shore of Kauai, it rests in the heart of Hanalei Bay, one of the most picturesque and photographed spots on earth. 

The location and atmosphere are perfect as my wife and I both love fresh seafood and views that include Mt Waialeale, which channels water down its long mountain streams to Hanalei Valley below. I already knew from previous visits that we would enjoy a night out at the grill. The second story restaurant is open to mountain views and fresh sea breezes. One has to be on the beach in Hanalei Bay to get a better perspective of what it’s like to be in this timeless place on Kauai’s North Shore.

Tyler, Chris and Jeffrey run the sushi bar and serve up some of the best raw seafood I’ve ever had. In fact, I seldom go for the sashimi and stick with the less challenging sushi; even when I’m in the islands. Not any more, when I can have Hamachi belly that melts in the mouth and salmon that makes me wonder why I always cook it. The coconut prawn in sauce were divine, and this was after I’d already had their calamari and crab cakes. 

The sashimi and prawn were complimentary and much appreciated as our plan to have appetizers and a drink before making dinner turned into a full dining experience. Besides we were having too much fun to leave early. Bouchons has that affect on folks.

Special cocktails, a good if brief wine list and premium sake choices provide all the accompaniment needed to make it work. After a Chopin martini we settled on glasses of Erath Pinot Gris. Oregon has a way with Pinot Gris, also known as Pinot Grigio that few can rival. Is it really fair that Oregon excels at Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris?

We finished up with a grasshopper pie, a big wedge with fudge dripping down the sides. I felt I was reliving my childhood when Country Club mint chocolate chip was my favorite ice cream. Only this was way better.

Mike at the bar and Mike the waiter sharing their enthusiasm for the place plus our waitresses taking our picture or making recommendations all reinforce what makes this place so special. Teamwork and a love of what they do. This is the number one place to go for great food, atmosphere, and fun. Be part of the team at Bouchons, I guarantee you’ll wish you’d joined sooner. Aloha!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Avoiding heat, dust and a brutishly long line at the Bernalillo Wine Festival

It’s that time of year again and luckily the Bernalillo Wine Festival has a solution for those ghastly long lines. It is now possible to order tickets online and only pay one dollar extra for the privilege of getting in earlier and tasting the wines of 20 wineries. Check the website for all the details. This is very good news, but the organizers can’t do much for the heat. That would be your concern.

That means drinking lots of water along with your wines. Not to worry, it won’t dilute the wines you are drinking, but it will keep heatstroke from being an issue. A ratio of 3 to 1, water to wine is recommended for hot dry days, which is usually what we get at summer’s last gasp. Proper sun protection and hydration can make the festival a lot more fun, so always keep this in mind.

Personally, I’m planning on heading over to Milagro Vineyards in Corrales instead. There will be plenty of shade, places to sit and relax and have good conversations on wine. That plus some of the best wine New Mexico has to offer makes this my choice for Labor Day weekend.

The Hobsons recently released their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. Here are their wine notes: “The wine exhibits aromas of red currant, eucalyptus and mint along with flavors of boysenberry and currant all followed with round tangy acidity and fine tannins on a long finish.“ The wine has been in the bottle for two years after aging two years in French oak. At Milagro, they believe in only releasing wines when they are ready, even if it means holding them out longer than other wineries.

The other reason to go to Milagro is the just released 2010 Zinfandel. If you are one of those that think only California can make a great Zinfandel, think again. This one is bound to change your mind. So come celebrate the end of the harvest, which came earlier this year with good yields and that’s good news. I’ll be there enjoying the fruits of the harvest so maybe I’ll see you there.

Or you could be waiting in a long line in Bernalillo and sucking down water to keep hydrated. It’s your choice after all. Salud!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Winery of the Month: Latúe Bodegas

Latúe Bodegas is the largest organic winery in the world. The 6200 hectares (15,500 acres approx.) of vineyards are managed by over 600 vine growers. Begun as the San Isidro cooperative in 1954, Latúe Bodegas was developed in 2007. The bodegas (winery) makes conventional and organic wines on two entirely separate production lines. The vineyards are located in Castillo-La Mancha in the heart of Spain which is the largest wine region in Spain with over 600 wineries.

I had the honor of doing a presentation of Latúe at the Instituto Cervantes, located in the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC) last month. I did a PowerPoint presentation and led the wine tasting portion which consisted of four very well made wines. Since Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, which is principally set in La Mancha, there was an obvious match between the institute and Latúe Bodegas. One wonders if the fledgling coop in 1954 “dreamed the impossible dream” of becoming the great success story it is now.

Based on my tasting of the four wines, I predict they will also be successful in America.  The soils and weather in Castillo-La Mancha are not too different from our own in New Mexico where many classic Spanish and Italian grape varietals do well. This makes their wines a good match for the New Mexican palate. I’ve paired Latúe Bodegas wines with many local dishes with great success. Below are my tasting notes for the wines. When they are available in our state, I’ll report on it in my newsletter.

2011 Toscar Airen, Castillo-La Mancha, Spain
Airen, or Lairen is the most widely planted white wine grape in Spain and represents 30% of all Spanish wine grapes. The Toscar Airen is a big, aromatic wine with great acidity, body and balance.  I picked up banana peel, wet stone and minerality in the nose and luscious green tropical fruit; green papaya, green banana, unripe mango and ripen banana on the palate. Unlike the actual fruit, the “greenness” of these flavors adds to the appeal and power it presents to the palate.

2011 Pingorote Tempranillo, Castillo-La Mancha, Spain
This is a lighter, fruitier version of this grape, Spain’s signature red wine grape. The purplish red color entices and the bouquet is rich even before swirling, but deepens. The cherry flavor reminded me of Luden’s cherry cough drops, and I mean that in a good way. The tanginess added to its charm. I also got black pepper and spices. The expansive mid-palate moved to cherry cola with light gunpowder-like tannins and a pleasing finish.

2011 Toscar Tempranillo, Castillo-La Mancha, Spain
This is a bigger, meatier Tempranillo with tobacco, earth, plum and cigar box aromas. On the palate black fruit, cassis and velvety tannins expand the mid-palate. The finish was persistent with red and dark fruit and dark chocolate. This is my kind of Tempranillo.

2008 Toscar Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah, Castillo-La Mancha, Spain
Both of these classic French grapes grow extremely well in Spain. A number of French winemakers have purchased land in Spain and have been growing these grapes for some time. Many local grape growers have also embraced these varietals. This is a big red with blueberry, red raspberry and allspice on the nose. On the palate, blueberry compote, cassis with tight tannins with white and black pepper accents and hints of candied cherry on the finish. In Italy the wines using French grapes are called Super Tuscans so I’d have to call this a Super La Mancha.