Saturday, May 30, 2009

Shameless Plugs: Boyd Family Vineyards and The Smoked Olive

Hey all! I'm checking out for a week of vacation (hopefully with lots of downtime to devote to whipping up new recipes), but before I go MIA, just wanted to pass along a couple of shameless plugs - things or places you should know about!
  1. Boyd Family Vineyards: This is my friends Joan and Stan's gorgeous estate winery in the heart of Napa's Oak Knoll District (pictured above). I went to their 09 release party today (live Zydeco! Wine/food pairings up the wazoo! Gorgeous views! Beautiful people!) - and really enjoyed bellying up to the many bars and sipping the wares. My fave of the day: 2006 Big Ranch Cuvee. A blend of all estate-grown grapes (Cab, Cab Franc, Merlot and Syrah). I enjoyed my glass paired with a grilled lamb burger slider, topped with feta and arugula. Delish! Check out their website - join their mailing list - order their wines!
  2. The Smoked Olive: You're going to get sick of seeing recipes on this blog featuring my latest find, but what can I say? I'm obsessed. The Smoked Olive is a brand of wood-smoked premium California extra-virgin olive oils. The oils haven't been simply injected with smoke flavors, the oils themselves have actually been smoked. Like over real wood. Not sure how they do it (patent pending!), but man, the result is out of this world. Imagine a smoky BBQ flavor permeating the oil, with different nuances depending on the wood (my favorite: pecan wood). The Smoked Olive is the only smoked olive oil being made in the U.S., and they've only been in business for 7 months (keep an eye out - they won't be a secret for long). You can find them at the Napa Farmers Market (and others in the Bay Area), or order their products online. But do it - this stuff is crazy good! And like I said - recipes forthcoming...

Monday, May 25, 2009

More than a Sandwich: Grilled Veggie Stacker with Sriracha Spread on Gluten-Free Sprouted Seed Bread

I have my friend Kristin to thank, in part, for this sandwich. She's a fabulous cook, who happens to know all too well about the gluten-free lifestyle. A week or so ago, she came to me extolling the virtues of the baked goods from a local gluten-free bakery, the Grindstone Bakery in Sonoma County. Specifically, she said that I needed to try their bread, the likes of which she found to be exceptional (and that's saying a lot - gluten free breads often, shall we say, leave a lot to be desired in terms of mouthfeel and texture, despite great flavor). She said she had made a sandwich using the bread, and that the bread played a starring role, not just the usual supporting role that bread takes as it thrusts its fillings into the limelight.

So I trudged off like a good little soldier to find me a loaf, and came home with the heaviest hunk of dough I think I've ever held in my hands (one beautiful, small loaf weighs in at a hefty 24 ounces!). I opted for a "sprouted seeds" variety, made of organic quinoa and millet, and rolled in sprouted pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds.

The packaging has this to say: "At Grindstone we have returned to ancient bread making methods because we belive that food has a memory: if you treat it kindly, it will treat your body the same way. Hands for mixing, kneading and shaping sough; an old stone mill for gentle grinding of the whole grains; the ancient method of slow natural fermentation, and a custom wood-fired brick oven: those are the tools we use to make our loaves of love."

There was no doubt that the loaf was gorgeous; I was certainly intrigued. But what kind of sandwich to make? I'm rarely a sandwich kind of person; but even so, knew that my go-to PB&J just wasn't the right fit. And then I stumbled upon this:

A stunning heap of squash at the farmers market. Gorgeous orbs and obelisks of numerous shapes and varieties. I knew on the spot I had to purchase a couple, and a lightbulb went off: a grilled veggie sandwich would fit the bill nicely. I walked away with a two eight-ball squash (one green, one yellow), and rounded out the ingredient list with red bell pepper, Anaheim chile, portobello mushroom and red onion, and dreamed up a simple, spicy sriracha spread to slather on for good measure.

It turned out to be sublime. The smoky, charred veggies held up to the tangy, substantial bread, and the sriracha spread just gave everything a nice kick. And the bread was unique, for sure. Dense, toothy, and full of flavor and crunch. I had toasted the bread slabs on the grill as well, so the whole sandwich was warm and hearty - but incredibly healthy.

If you live in the area, it's worth seeking out the bread. But don't despair if you're nowhere near Sonoma County! This sandwich would still be excellent on any good artisan loaf out there. So the next time you fire up the grill, load it up with veggies and dig in!

Grilled Veggie Stacker with Sriracha Spread on Gluten-Free Sprouted Seed Bread
(makes 3-4 sandwiches)
  • 1 loaf Grindstone Bakery sprouted seed bread, sliced
  • 2 eight-ball squash, sliced
  • 1 portobello mushroom
  • 2 Anaheim chiles
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 red onion, sliced thick
  • Olive oil, for coating
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 4 ounces (half a brick) of cream cheese (lite variety ok too!), room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon +/- sriracha pepper sauce
Start by roasting the red bell pepper and Anaheim chiles over high heat on the grill until the skins are blackened and blistered all over. Pull from the grill and immediately put into a plastic bag (this will help sweat the skin away from the flesh of the peppers so it can easily be peeled away). Once cool enough to handle, remove skins and slice.

Lightly coat the mushroom, squash slices and red onion with olive oil; season with salt and pepper, to taste. Grill over medium heat until tender. Slice the mushroom (I like to cook portobellos whole and slice them when they are cooked - it makes for easier grilling).

Lightly brush the bread slices with olive oil; grill until heated through.

For the sriracha spread, cream together the cream cheese and sriracha sauce. Remember, a little of the sriracha goes a long way, so add a little as you go until the spread reaches your desired level of heat.

To assemble the sandwiches, slather one or both of the pieces of bread with the sriracha spread, then layer with the veggies.

Cherry On Top: Grilled Pork Chops with Cherry Zinfandel Sauce

It's cherry season! Cherries are one of my favorite fruits, hands down, and I relish this time of year when I can get them fresh. In my neck of the woods, cherry stands sprout up on street corners, and my fingernails wear the tell-tale pink stain of the fruit's dark red juice.

I'm always looking for ways to incorporate cherries into just about anything, and this recipe has no inspiration other than that. I had big, fat pork chops in the fridge; a fresh pint basket of cherries in my market basket; and half a bottle of day-old zinfandel on the counter. Voila! A recipe is born.

After making the sauce (and spooning up every last drop!), I can tell you that it would be delicious on many things other than pork - chicken, duck, beef.... cardboard (grin!). Reduce it even more (from a sauce into more of a glaze), and it would even be a wonderful dessert topper (like ice cream, or pound cake). One thing is for sure - anything is sweeter with a cherry on top! Enjoy!

Grilled Pork Chops with Cherry Zinfandel Sauce
(makes enough sauce for two servings, but you can double accordingly)
  • 2 thick-cut boneless pork chops, seasoned with salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup zinfandel wine
  • 1 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2+ heaping tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 cup sweet cherries (such as Bing), pitted and halved
Season the chops with salt and pepper to taste; grill until the chops reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees (remove from grill at about 155 degrees; allow meat to rest and come up to its final temperature of 160).

For the sauce, combine the zinfandel and the balsamic vinegar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a low boil; reduce heat and bring down to a simmer. When the liquid has reduced by half (approximately +/-20 minutes), add the butter and sugar and stir as they melt (taste the sauce at this point; add a dash more sugar if it's still too tart). Once melted, add the sour cream and whisk vigorously to incorporate. Add the cherries. Let the sauce continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until it has reduced enough to coat a spoon without breaking. Serve over the top of the chops. Mmm.

Roasted Baby Golden Beets with Honey Glaze

This is a locavore dish if ever there was one! I got some beautiful baby golden beets at the farmers market, and roasted them up with a glaze made from Napa Valley honey (Marshall's Farm Honey), and a local walnut oil being made just over the hill in Woodland (La Tourangelle).

The beets are oh-so-delicious on their own (how I managed the first 30+ years of my life not liking beets makes me sad...), but I included them in a salad made simply of arugula (also from the farmers market), Sonoma goat cheese (Laura Chenel chevre), and a walnut/lemon vinaigrette. Divine....

Roasted Baby Golden Beets with Honey Glaze
  • Baby golden beets, trimmed, cleaned and sliced in half
  • Honey
  • Walnut oil (olive oil will also work)
  • Salt, to taste
In a mixing bowl, add equal parts honey and oil, whisking well to combine (1/4 cup of each makes enough glaze for a small batch of beets). Add beets; toss to coat and sprinkle with salt to season. Lay beets out on a foil-lined baking tray and place in a preheated 400-degree oven. Roast for approximately 15-20 minutes (or until tender), turning once. Extra glaze can be brushed on the beets during roasting. Good served both hot and cold.

So Smooth: Plan now to savor the flavors of summer smoothies all year long

The amount of fruit that finds its way to our house these days is ridiculous. It's a wonderful dilemma to have! But, there is no way that Ran and I can consume all of it before it goes bad, so I'm planning now to stockpile the juicy taste of summer in the form of fruit purees, and load my freezer to the hilt.

It's easy to do: simply throw fruit in a blender (mix and match as you like!), whir until smooth, and store individual servings in plastic Ziploc bags (you don't even need a fancy food sealer). Throw the bags in the freezer, and you've got the taste of summer available all year long for sauces, fillings, and maybe best of all: smoothie starters!

I'm a big fan of smoothies: healthy, delicious, inexpensive and super easy to make in a flash. And although you can find fruit smoothie recipes out there loaded with added sugars and calories, I much prefer the stripped-down, naked models where the fruit is the star. The following recipe is sort of a basic template from which I vary the ingredients according to what I have on hand and what is in season (or in my freezer!). So play with it as you will, but do play!

Honey Vanilla Fruit Smoothie (makes 2 large smoothies)
  • 2 cups fruit puree (pictured: strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and peach)
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 1 banana
  • 1 6-ounce container of honey-flavored Greek yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 6 ice cubes
  • Optional: 1 +/- tablespoon agave syrup (if the smoothie is too tart to your liking)
Throw it all in a blender, hit the button. Blend until smooth.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

In Anticipation of Summer: Tomato, Herb and Cheese Tart

I recently found myself in the awesome position of having a huge heap of beautiful, ripe hothouse tomatoes - and only three days in which I could consume them before taking off for vacation. During this time of year when tomatoes are not in season, these gorgeous red, orange and yellow orbs were juicy, flavorful cherished gems - a foreshadowing of summer. Not wanting them to go to waste, I promptly ate one apple-style with a sprinkling of salt, and then set out concocting this recipe to use up a few more. There's not much to say about it, except that it's easy, delicious, and beautiful - a stunning centerpiece for any meal. Enjoy.

Tomato, Herb and Cheese Tart
  • 1 frozen pie crust (if you're ambitious enough to make your own pie crust, more power to you!)
  • 3 large tomatoes, sliced thin
  • 3 large tomatoes, diced small
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 ounce goat cheese, dime-sized pieces
  • 6-10 large basil leaves, chopped (more or less, to taste)
  • 2-4 sprigs of rosemary, leaves stripped and chopped (more or less, to taste)
  • freshly ground pepper, to taste
Precook the pie crust according to package directions, until the crust has taken on a golden color and is firm on the bottom.

Lay the sliced tomatoes out on paper towels and sprinkle them with salt. The salt will help to leech away much of the moisture. Pat dry and repeat several times until the slices are fairly dry. Place the diced tomatoes in a colander and sprinkle with salt, also to help remove excess moisture. Let the tomatoes drain for a good 20 minutes.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs and egg whites. Add the cream, chopped herbs, Parmesan cheese and diced tomatoes (use your hands to squeeze out any excess moisture from the tomatoes that wasn't drained in the colander); stir to combine.

To assemble the tart, place the diced tomato mixture in the precooked crust; distribute evenly. Tuck the coins of goat cheese into the mixture, distributing evenly throughout. Arrange the sliced tomatoes on top in a decorative pattern. Return tart to a preheated 300-degree oven and bake for 1 hour, or until center is cooked through. If the edges of the crust start to get too dark, cover with foil. Remove from heat and allow to cool and fully set before serving.

And So It Begins: Summer Soirees in Napa Valley

Warm weather in Napa Valley signals pretty much one thing: parties! Right about now, you'd be hard pressed to find a weekend where winery open houses, release parties, passport events and the like don't dominate the calendar. What's a girl to do? Get out amongst them, of course!

This weekend, coming off of a nasty cold that caused me to have to cancel a bicycle trip to Yosemite, I consoled myself by finding fun in my own backyard. Ran and I caught wind of a winery open house taking place in downtown Napa, where promises of oysters on the half shell sealed the deal.

The winery was new to us. Called Twenty Rows, which according to its website specializes in "wonderful wines at an incredible value, crafted from carefully selected grapes to reflect the distinctions of the varietal." Turns out from what I could gather that Twenty Rows is the largest winery production facility in downtown Napa (as opposed to simply a tasting room, of which there are many), and it's actually a second, newer label from the folks that make Vinoce, some lovely premium Napa Valley wines from the Mt. Veeder appellation. Twenty Rows is new to the space, and I'm guessing the open house was a way to introduce themselves to the neighborhood. To that I say: good, good move!

We arrived in sweltering, unseasonably hot 105-degree weather to find that the party was taking place in the cellar - a welcome 55-degree respite - and were immediately handed glasses of crisp, cool Sauvignon Blanc. Actually - I can't even say we were handed glasses of wine - we were handed empty glasses and told to help ourselves to the open bottles chilling on ice. Even better!

The place was hopping. I couldn't begin to estimate how many people were there, but it was packed, and the buzz was festive. They had turned the cellar into a hip lounge: food stations and pouring bars throughout the room; bistro tables and couch-y lounge areas perfect for conversation; low lighting provided by lots of candles (hence - my lack of photos - all I had with me was the iPhone with its lousy built-in camera). Of course, Ran was busy making new friends right and left, so it wasn't long before we were festively buzzing ourselves.

And the promise of oysters that lured me there? Delivered! To my delight, several of my favorite merchants from Napa's Oxbow Public Market were on hand sampling their wares: Hog Island Oyster Company, The Model Bakery, The Cheese Merchant, and The Fatted Calf.

After slurping down a couple of oysters drowned in Hog Island's famous Hog Wash (recipe below), I beelined it for the cheese table, where Ricardo (my new best friend) introduced me to some fromage. If you're looking for something new, I recommend giving these three a try (delicious all!):
  • Piave vecchio from Italy (a dense aged cheese; slightly sweet, intense flavor - similar to a Parmigiano Reggiano)
  • Ewephoria, a sheep's milk gouda-style cheese from Holland (nutty and buttery - it was my favorite of the day)
  • Napping Goat, also from Holland and also in the gouda style, but made from goat's milk (and my tasting notes reveal nothing other than YUM!)
By then the sauv blanc in my glass was gone, so I moved on to The Grappler 2006, a zinfandel blend that is likely to become a staple in our household. It was spicy and juicy and jammy and all those wonderful flavors you get in a big zin blend. I liked it so much that I only tasted the other two wines (a merlot and a cabernet) - but was content to keep my glass full with The Grappler.

It didn't hurt that The Grappler was a perfect complement to the charcuterie from The Fatted Calf. As if the cheese and oysters weren't enough, the samples coming from The Fatted Calf were over the top: fresh-sliced prosciuttio, mortadella, and my favorite: bresaola, a traditional Italian air-dried beef salumi made with local grass-fed beef that is rubbed with red wine as it cures. Mm, mm good.

So, that was how we beat the heat this weekend. The food, the wine, the new friends... staying home from Yosemite turned out not to be so bad after all.

Hog Island Oyster Company's Hog Wash
  • 1/2 cup natural rice vinegar
  • 1/2 cup seasoned rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons choped shallots
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1 jalepeno, seeded and diced
  • juice of 1 lime

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Eating My Way Through Portland: This Town is Tasty!

Let's just say that when Ran and I decided to head to Portland, Oregon for a little mini-vacation, the last thing that entered into the equation was a culinary adventure. Hiking? Sure. Sightseeing? Of course. R&R? Mandatory. But some of the best dining experiences of our lives? Hardly. But that is what we found on our five-day escape. Excellent fare, service that generally exceeded all expectations, and beverages that packed a world-class punch. It was foodie overload - the likes of which I don't really need to revisit any time soon! (Two days later, I'm still full!)

Mother Nature rolled out the red carpet for our visit, and the normally drizzly Pacific Northwest was resplendent with sunshine and temperate climes. Perfect street-wandering weather, which was fortunate since we were staying in the heart of downtown and exploring on foot.

Save for our dinner reservations at a couple hot new restaurants (more on that in my "Living to The Nines" post!), there were actually only two food-related items on my short list of things to do: 1 - eat lunch at one of Portland's famed street food carts, and 2 - visit the oft-celebrated Voodoo Doughnut shop. I managed only one of the two.... turns out that a whole host of other unexpected delights got in the way!

One of the unexpected delights came at Pazzo Ristoranti, where we found ourselves for lunch on our first day in town. Since I travel to Portland fairly often for business, I was familiar with the restaurant and knew we could get a tasty, healthy meal since I'd eaten there many times before and knew the drill.

But this time around, we had the Ned factor.

Ned was our server, and he turned our meal into a memorable experience - a foreshadowing of our days to come. First of all, the food was excellent. My salad was exactly like something I would make at home (spinach salad with grilled chicken, pinenuts, sun-dried tomatoes and currants, with a kalamata olive vinaigrette). What surprised me was the portion size - it was HUGE! I think I easily had an entire half chicken piled atop my greens. I took the majority of it to go - unheard of for me, since I can down a normal entree-sized chicken salad without blinking an eye.

But I digress - back to the Ned factor.

Since we were in Oregon, we were eager to get familiar with the local wines. It's Pinot heaven up there (Gris and Noir), and Pazzo's wine list was brimming with local selections. As Ran is often want to do, we played a little bit of "stump the wine guy"; he's always interested to find out the extent of the waitstaff's wine knowledge - not to be critical, but A) - to gauge how a restaurant factors wine into the dining experience - and B) - to see if we can learn something new.

The question posed to Ned was: "What is the difference between a Pinot Gris and a Pinot Grigio?" Not only did Ned know the answer (Pinot Grigios are Italian wines made from the Pinot Gris grape), but he went on to expound on their stylistic differences from a winemaking standpoint. He then brought complimentary samples of both wines to our table so we could do a taste test for ourselves. It was this gesture and attention to detail that set the tone for our entire trip. (BTW - I liked the fruit-forward Oregon Pinot Gris; Ran was partial to the stony Italian Pinot Grigio.) Thanks to Ned - we were off to a great start!

We commenced sampling lots of local wines in the coming days, and of course there were a couple of standouts that I would recommend wholeheartedly:
  • Lange Estate 2007 Pinot Gris Reserve
  • Domain Serene 2006 Pinot Noir
  • Erath 2005 Pinot Noir
  • Chehelem 2005 Pinot Noir
  • Adelsheim 2006 Ribbon Springs Vineyard Pinot Noir
Among all the wine sampling we did, we certainly had to give craft brews their due as well! Despite the world-renown wine country in its backyard, Portland is a beer town, through and through. It seems as though there is scarcely a square mile within the city limits without a brew pub. Ran actually got to visit a couple more breweries than I (he made it to Full Sail and the McMenamin's Brewery at Edgefield), but we both made it to BridgePort Brewery in the Pearl District for some beer tasting. I got the sampler (why try one when you can try them all?) - Ran stuck to the cask-conditioned IPA for which the brewery is known.

I guess you could say we weren't ever thirsty!

And we certainly weren't ever hungry. Which is why I never did make it to the first of my two spots to check out, the street food carts. Portland has this wonderful and diverse collection of food stands, randomly scattered across the city. In the downtown area, there are several clusters of these funky food carts lining the edges of public parking lots, and you can get your fill of anything and everything: Mexican, Thai, Middle Eastern or Greek food; coffee, pastries, salads or vegan fare... you name it, the sky is the limit. Two of the carts held special appeal: the homemade soups and grilled cheese sandwiches at Savor, and the Czech pork schnitzelwich at Tabor. Alas, I walked by both on several occasions, and just had to keep on walking because I was stuffed at the seams.

But despite being stuffed at the seams for pretty much the duration of our stay, I was bound and determined to get to the Voodoo Doughnut shop. It has been on my list of places to check out for years; let's just say that its reputation precedes it. I am far from a doughnut kind of gal - I really couldn't care less. But when you hear tales of maple doughnuts topped with actual strips of bacon, or blood-red jelly filled voodoo doll-shaped doughnuts impaled with pretzel sticks... well, you have to go simply out of curiosity. Right?

So I did. Bright and early on our last day in town, I made my way over and through the scattered bedrolls of the homeless that camp out in the vestibules and alleyways in the neighborhood, and found myself in one of the oddest doughnut shops on the planet. It's tiny - it's grimy - it's painted black. A certain counter-culture sort of flocks to it, and it's even a pretty notorious place for weddings (weddings?). As Ran said, "there were enough bad vibes in there to start a voodoo factory" (chuckle chuckle). The surly girl behind the counter didn't so much as utter a word - just looked at me with impatient eyes, and waited with barely concealed annoyance until I fumbled through the menu of dozens of unique choices.

I went with the obvious - opting to get some of Voodoo's most well-known novelty doughnuts: the vampire and bacon ones described above, as well as some cereal-topped sugar bombs (that's right - Cap'n Crunch and Fruit Loop-topped doughnuts!). And despite the non-existent customer service, I found myself happy. For some reason, to finally tick off Voodoo from my list was satisfying. And I have to give them credit - the doughnuts were good. Really good. I had a nibble here and there (for quality control, of course), and then we gave them all away. The three street urchins that were the recipients of the pink box couldn't have been more overjoyed.

Does that count as paying it forward? :)

Eating My Way Through Portland: Living to The Nines

Disclaimer: The following post is going to read like a love letter. Like a fawning, punch-drunk, school girl getting her first taste of puppy love. The bloom is still on the rose; fairies, angels and unicorns are all real. I apologize in advance for a lot of food minutiae, but I just couldn't help it. Nuf said; you've been warned.

The view from the roof of The Nines Hotel

When traveling, it's not really Ran's and my style to stay in luxury hotels and eat out at the finest restaurants every night. We'd just as soon be in a campground enjoying a flame-cooked meal under the stars. We're certainly used to luxury on occasion - we live in Napa Valley, for crying out loud - but vacation for us usually means venturing out into nature and getting some dirt under our fingernails. But I tell you - sometimes it's nice to see how the other half lives.

For this trip, we stayed at The Nines Hotel, Portland's newest luxury hotel in the heart of downtown, right on Pioneer Courthouse Square. We found ourselves there because a good friend, Matt Christianson, had just accepted the position of The Nines' Executive Chef, overseeing all of the hotel's dining operations. His purview includes both of the property's HOT new restaurants, Urban Farmer and Departure, as well as all banquets, catering, room service, etc. To say that he is "The Man" is putting it lightly. We had always planned to go and eat at Matt's restaurants while we were there, but at his wife's urging (also a dear friend - thanks Katie!) and Matt's connections, we booked our stay at the hotel as well.

Chef Matt Christianson

To say that we lived and breathed The Nines lifestyle is an understatement. The entire hotel is beautifully appointed, including our room, which looked out over the soaring central atrium that is occupied by Urban Farmer.

Urban Farmer, birds-eye view

And the elevators - if you know how to use them - take you to the stars, literally. Departure is located on the top level, and features several rooftop bar/lounge areas. If I ever wondered where all the beautiful people in Portland were, it quickly became obvious that this was the place. There were more Manolo Blahniks than Tevas in the room - and that's saying something for that part of the world.

But the food... ah the food...


Our first dining experience was at Departure, where we came off the elevator to this futuristic, sleek interior fashioned after a spaceship, pulsing to the lively throngs of standing-room-only happy hour conversation. We found a spot at one of the rooftop lounges to sit back with a specialty cocktail and take it all in until we were seated for dinner.

Right off the bat, we had amazing drinks in our hands. Ran had a martini (extra olives), and I had a fruity sangria unlike anything I've ever had before, made with red wine, lychee, yuzu juice (Japanese lime juice) and blackberry - so refreshing and perfect to enjoy as we basked in the warm evening glow.

Once we were seated, the evening just kept getting better and better. Not only did the hostess accommodate our request to have a larger table, ready to seat four friends who were coming later in the evening for drinks and dessert, she put us at what we considered to be the best table in the place. Departure specializes in small tapas-style plates, with worldly flavors largely influenced by Asia; I wanted one of literally everything on the menu! To our delight, however, Chef de Cuisine Bryan Emperor was taking care of our menu selections for the evening, helping us to navigate through the myriad choices and making sure we didn't miss any of the highlights.

And the highlights were many! I can't possibly list all of the dishes we had, but a couple really made an impression.

For instance, our Mikado Oniwa Salads arrived beautifully arranged in tiny clay flower pots, with gorgeous edible petunias peeking from amongst the greens. Each one had the appearance of a perfect little potted plant. It's an idea I guarantee I will copy for a dinner party someday - it was stunning. And of course, delicious (you dipped the leaves by hand in the Sweet Ginger Karashi dressing served on the side).

Another couple dishes with a lot of wow factor:
  • Bluefin Maguro Katsu, a.k.a. Tuna Pops - perfect cubes of rice cracker-crusted bluefin tuna belly on a stick, seared and served with a curry dipping sauce and topped with a Thai herb salad.
  • Ishiyaki Steak - strips of wagyu strip steak cooked tableside on a sizzling river rock that had been heated to 500 degrees, and served with yuzu and cilantro pesto.
  • Kobe Meatballs - Kobe beef combined with foie gras, rolled in panko, cooked to a crispy exterior but with a melty interior, and served with tonkatsu sauce and shaved green onions.
  • Hamasashi - Hamachi sashimi with white truffle oil and fleur de sel, served on ice in which a cryovacced light bulb had been embedded to light the dish from below.
And the hits just kept on coming... mini pork shui mai (dumplings), whole shrimp har gau (in a light tempura), Tori No Tatsuta Age (Japanese style hot wings)... and that was just scratching the surface. Everything was perfectly proportioned - one or two bites, enough to give you a taste and keep you wanting more.

And the cocktails... boy, a person could drown in the amazing concoctions and overflowing sake. To wit - the Spring Awakening: vodka, fresh citrus, orange blossom, mandarin and mango. The China Sea: Shochu, sake, muddled cucumber, fresh citrus. We also had an excellent sake served out of the tiniest of little cans - yes, cans. I guess sake served in cans is declasse in Japan, but from what I read, it's all the rage up and down the big U.S. coastal cities. The sake is called Funaguchi Kikusui, and according to, it "has a bold flavor profile and a strong impact along with a slightly lingering finish. It’s a honjozo and an excellent example of what brewers can achieve when they add a bit of distilled alcohol at the end of the brewing process to enhance and expand flavor profiles." Yea - whatever he said! (All I know is that it was good!)

By the time our friends arrived for dessert, we were in the thick of it and enjoying every minute. Our server, Larissa, couldn't have been more professional and fun. She welcomed our friends, and rolled with our every request. We got three desserts to share, and again, were surprised at every turn. One of the desserts was a Fried Ginger Cream creation - certainly the most unique dish of the night. I'm not sure what moleculer gastronomy technique was used to attain the finished product, but imagine pastry cream in the shape of a cube, deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. Indescribable - but wonderful.

Deep breath... that was just night one!

Urban Farmer

The second day, I got to spend some time with Katie. Part of our itinerary included an impromptu lunch at Urban Farmer, where I got my first taste of what was to come that night when Ran and I went back for dinner to celebrate his birthday. Urban Farmer is billed as a modern steakhouse, and it was as different from Departure as could be, but no less special. The space itself is sumptuous and stylish, in an open loft sort of way. It's divided into sections - lots of individual lounge areas for guests to enjoy even if they are not dining at the restaurant; a long community table for drop-in patrons; a "pantry" area where diners are seated among the restaurants own house-canned fruits and vegetables (and yes, they use the inventory!); and a "porch" that gives you the feel of eating out on your deck.

One of the lounge areas

The Pantry

I knew we were going to have a big, special meal that night, so I opted for lighter fare at lunch. On Katie's recommendation, I got the beet salad. It was a huge portion of roasted beets with red quinoa, bulgar, parsley, and a walnut vinaigrette - my kind of meal. I went easy on it - not wanting to spoil my appetite for later, but it was a treat to sit there with the chef's wife (I got the kitchen tour!).

That evening, Ran and I sat in a sumptuous booth on the porch and again were treated to a parade of the chef's delights. We started off with one of the restaurant's signature cocktails, an "Oh, Harry," featuring house-made moonshine, sweet vermouth and grenadine. It packed a wallop, but was delicious.

Matt was at the stoves, so he had us simply order what we wanted, but then he filled in the holes with any "must-haves." We went with a surf and turf theme - I got a halibut dish that came with a vibrant pea puree; Ran got a 16-ounce corn-fed New York Prime steak. (We can now say that we know what a $50 steak tastes like. Verdict: pretty darn good.)

For starters and sides, we had a bison carpaccio with an oyster on the half shell; individual corn bread loaves baked in cans (adorable); a rich, beefy onion soup poured tableside and generously flecked with fresh mederira-soaked Oregon truffles; a twice-baked potato tart (imagine creamy mashed potatoes, roasted fingerling potatoes, bacon and sour cream nestled in a flakey, buttery tart crust... creamy starch wrapped in buttery, flaky starch.... only a little over the top, dontcha think?); creamed spinach gratin; foraged mushrooms; and cheesy Anson Mills grits with a poached egg on top. That might be everything - but I couldn't be certain.

The portions were huge. Huge. We didn't even make a dent in things. Not even close. We managed to try a bite or two of each dish, but the majority of it went back to our room where we enjoyed it for breakfast and late night snacks for days to come. We even waddled away without even looking at a dessert menu, despite it being a birthday dinner.

Aside from the food, another highlight of the night was meeting the restaurant's wine steward. She spent ample time with us, talking about her wine list, making recommendations, and generally shooting the breeze about her job and the wine industry. We were in good company, to say the least.

The meal was certainly a splurge, but it was every bit worth it - and more.

Back for Seconds
After our two experiences with The Nines' restaurants, I knew we would be back before we even left town. Sure enough, our third night in town following a rousing wine auction to support Guide Dogs for the Blind (where I work), we headed back to the hotel with people in tow. We found a cozy corner in the Urban Farmer lounge, and enjoyed their late-night happy hour until midnight. Ran, especially, had made so many friends by then, that the General Manager sent a round of champagne for us all.

After we closed down the Urban Farmer, the night was still young, our crew was in a celebratory mood, so we headed up to the 15th floor and enjoyed Departure's late, late-night happy hour until 2 a.m. We sat out on the deck, wrapped in house-supplied blankets against the slight chill of the night air, and reveled in the sparkling, clear skies and city skyline. We all probably had one round of drinks too many, but the night was so festive, it just had to be done.

And that, my friends, is us living our lives to The Nines, if only for a few days. If I sound over the moon about our experience, it's because I am. I may be biased due to my friend being the chef and all, but all the more reason to tout such a wonderful place. But I honestly think even if we didn't know Matt and had just come in off the street, we would have still been privvy to the same exceptional service and enjoyed the food every bit as much. It's just a special place, plain and simple.

If you're ever in Portland, make sure you visit. You'll be glad you did.

Eating my Way Through Portland: Temptation in a Tea Cup

How it came to be that I found myself with a couple of hours to myself one afternoon during our trip to Portland is not really clear. What was clear, however, was that I wasn't going to waste it by sitting around inside. The sun was shining, it was warm out, and there was adventure to be had. So I headed off to the Classical Chinese Gardens, an urban oasis of calm, to indulge in some "me time."

The gardens themselves are beautiful and meticulously manicured, and it's very peaceful just to walk around. Especially on a late weekday afternoon when the place is not crowded. So I wandered through the blooming magnolias and peonies, and generally was in a very serene mood - the perfect state of mind to enjoy a Chinese tea ceremony at the gardens' tea house, run by the Tao of Tea.

I got a table outside overlooking a pond, and was quite content to spend the last hour before closing time enjoying a light meal, tasting some new teas and soaking up the atmosphere. They had a wonderful menu of Chinese goodies, both savory and sweet to accompany their huge selection of teas which were described in-depth - tasting notes and all - in a lovely illustrated menu (copies of which, unfortunately, are not available to take home, even just a stripped down version that would give you a description of the teas; luckily, they are all available on their website).

I opted to do a full-on Gaiwan tea ceremony, and chose one tea each from the white, green and Oolong categories: Jing Mai (white); Jasmine Pearls (green), and Deluxe Tieguanyin (Oolong). And to eat, I ordered Bao Zi (steamed buns stuffed with vegetables and mushrooms, served with pickles and a soy-based dipping sauce), and Lo Bo Gao (turnip cakes made with daikon/rice flour - sort of like a Chinese polenta - with black mushrooms, salted cabbage, green onion, a basil/sesame sauce and a hot red chili sauce).

I was set. Set to enjoy my solitary afternoon, set to have a lovely little meal, set to take my time enjoying the tea and the ceremony of it all.

And that's when it all went a bit downhill.

Thankfully, I was in that serene, centered mood, because my experience there was not altogether stellar. If I had not been in a great mood, the remainder of my time there could have been completely soured. The food and the tea were excellent - I have absolutely no complaints there, and in fact, would recommend it to anyone. What was sadly lacking was good customer service.

As I sat there, happily reading the wonderful tome that was their menu, I asked a passing server if I could borrow a pen to make some notes (you'll recall that they don't have descriptions available to take home). Her answer was a flat-out No. Not "let me see if I can find you one" - not "I'm sorry, it appears that we don't have a spare" - not even "I'll get you one when one becomes available." Just NO. I'm sure my gaping jaw at her answer was comical, but I was floored. Really? No?

At any rate, by then I was starting to notice that there were long stretches of time between when I was being paid any attention by the staff. It took a long time to be seated, a long time to have my order taken, and now, and inordinately long amount of time for my snacks and tea to arrive. And the place was not busy - in the slightest. Mind you, I was in a happy place - reading, people watching - from my account, I had at least an hour to enjoy this experience and was totally content with the leisurely pace. I figured it was just part of the whole deal, and totally appreciated it. But when my tea and food were finally delivered (mind you, 40 minutes after I was seated), the first thing out of the server's mouth was: "We close in 20 minutes." Sigh. After that comment, I couldn't help but think that her walk-through with me of the whole tea ceremony was rushed, and that she was only concerned about the time - not my enjoyment. I actually couldn't wait for her to leave so that I could take back my final 15 minutes in silence and return to my meditative state.

If only that had been the case. Unfortunately for me, a family of tourists had been seated at a nearby table, and they were "loud talkers" - you know the kind. And it wasn't enough that they were loud, they were complainers. They balked at the $4 price tag for a pot of tea ("It's just fancy hot water!"); they really balked at the $18 price tag for a three-tea ceremony. The didn't understand the food menu, and they were not pleased with the small chairs and table. Sheesh - I couldn't win.

But I did win. I actually had a lovely time overall, and let the distractions just roll off my back. I'd just had some wonderful food, learned about some fabulous teas, all amid beautiful surroundings. It just goes to show that sometimes the experience is what we make it, and I'm grateful that I made the best of it.

The tea ceremony

Jasmine Pearls

Jasmine Pearls, unfurled