Travel Edition

Cigar City Brewing: Tampa's upstart brewery is quality craft out of the gate


Joey Redner is a hurried man.

Since the Tampa, Fla., brewer brewed his first batch of Cigar City beer on Jan. 29, he's filled 400 barrels of beer, rolled out 11 different styles of ale (and many, many one-offs), expanded Cigar City's market from Tampa to New York and Pennsylvania, expanded Cigar City's brewing capacity, won a handful of awards -- including a gold at this year's Great American Beer Festival -- opened a tasting room, made plans to produce a collaboration beer with The Bruery, and began talking to D.C. area distributors.

On top of all that, Redner continues to homebrew, write a beer column for the St. Petersburg Times and maintains the Cigar City blog he started to chronicle the experience of starting a brewery from scratch.

Cigar City isn't Tampa's first brewery, but it is the only craft brewery in a city just waking up to the craft beer revolution.

CCB2 When Redner took the first steps two years ago to launch Cigar City, he did so to fill a void. Tampa is the home of Busch Gardens, and for years, the Busch beer plant (which is now owned by Yuengling). Aside from a few small regional breweries, like St. Somewhere, Dunedin Brewery and the Ybor City Brewing Company, there wasn't much in the way of craft beer. Tampa was -- and really still is -- a Bud town.

Times are changing, though. In last few years, beer enthusiasts like Redner have begun taking it upon themselves to change Tampa's beer culture. When I was going to college there in the mid 90s, the closest thing to craft beer was Hops, and the German restaurant in the mall offered two-for-ones on Icehouse. These days, Hops is still around, but it's been joined by the brewpub at Dunedin Brewery, and Mr. Dunderbak's moved out of the mall and replaced the Icehouse with one of the best lineups of German, Belgian and American craft beers in the state.

In the city that brewed Busch, you can now grab a Hercules at World of Beer, find Terrapin Rye on draft at the Oldsmar Tap House, or buy a couple bottles of Cigar City's Jai Alai IPA at Whole Foods.

These things make me happy.

The Tampa area may have some of Florida's prettiest beaches, but it's fundamentally a blue-collar town of work trucks and Cuban lunch counters. So it's fitting that Cigar City is tucked away in an industrial park behind the Home Depot.

CCB4 There's not too much to look at. Within the small warehouse space is everything: a half dozen brewing tanks on the right and a make-shift tasting area and bathroom on the left. In the back are stacks and stacks of kegs waiting to be filled, and machines to fill bottles by hand. The dorm room-sized refrigerator that keeps the beer cold is not half full, but hides a barrel room that is full of potential.

Cigar City is a microbrewery.

Joey Redner is a homer.

The brewery's name pays homage to the Cuban cigar makers who founded Tampa. The beers names are a nod to the city and its tobacco roots, none more so than The Humidor Series (the GABF gold medal winner). Redner soaks cedar planks in the ale to give the beer a tobacco undernote that is oddly alluring and absolutely delicious.

That said, you shouldn't take my word for it. I'm a homer, too. I want my hometown to have a great craft brewery, so I'm inclined to want to like Redner's beer (which I do). So to find out whether Cigar City is as good as I think it is, I took a bottle of Redner's Big Sound Scotch Ale over to Greg Jasgur at Pizzaria Paradiso to find out what he thought of the beer.

Greg poured it around the bar. There wasn't a naysayer in the bunch.

For that, Redner can thank Wayne Wambles. Redner may be an avid homebrewer, but producing quality beers on a commercial scale is a considerably more difficult endeavor. That led him to Wambles, who was brewing in Winston-Salem, N.C., at the award-winning brewery Foothills (Anyone who attended the last two Savor events might have come across the brewery. You're lucky if you did. Foothills is the best brewery in North Carolina and one of the best breweries on the East Coast.)

Despite Foothill's success, joining Cigar City gave Wambles the opportunity to head his own brewery. In eight months, the Redner and Wambles partnership has resulted in an impressive selection of standards (Puppy's Breath Porter, Jai Alai IPA and Maduro Brown Ale) and originals (110K+OT, Improvisacion Oatmeal Rye India Brown Ale and Guava Grove).

CCB8 I got the chance to try five from Cigar City's line up while I was in Tampa. The Jai Alai is a solid IPA, with a beautiful hoppy nose and distinctive bite, thanks to the six different hop varietals used in the beer. The hops are kept in check by the rich, round flavor of the malt. It's a good beer. The Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale -- a top seller along side the Jai Alai -- is a straight-forward, well-crafted brown ale. I probably would've liked the Maduro more if Redner hadn't given me a taste of a Maduro batch he tinkered with by adding Cuban espresso beans and chocolate. That beer nearly jumped out of the glass.

The Big Sound Scotch Ale is just that: big. The rich, malty, full-bodied Scotch ale is every bit its 8.5 % ABV (true story: a buddy of mine tasted the Big Sound, looked at the bottle and said, "Damn, they make some good beer."). The Imperial strength brown ale, Improvisacion, gets a surprise bite from the addition of rye in the malt. But the real surprise was The Humidor Series ale. The sour bite from the generous use of hops never got in the way of the cedar's surprising tobacco notes. The GABF judges were right about this one.

CCB5 So when are we going to see these beers in the D.C. area? It's going to be a while. Although Redner has talked to a few local distributors, he and Wambles are barely keeping up with their current orders. They're adding two additional tanks, which should keep them on pace to produce a 1,000 barrels by the end of the year (Dogfish Head, by comparison, can produce 100,000 barrels a year). Within the next couple years, Joey hopes to expand the brewery further and ramp up production to about 5,000 barrels. At that point, Cigar City might be ready to ship a few beers our way.

In the meantime, if you want a Cigar City beer, you're going to need a ticket to Tampa.

Check out additional photos of the Cigar City Brewery and beer here.

Urbanna Oyster Festival

TrishThe lengths I'll go to for food. Two and a half hours and 134 miles, it turns out.

The lure of raw, roasted, fried and stewed oysters drew me, my wife and a friend down to Urbanna, Va. The tiny town along the Virginia coast is home of the annual Urbanna Oyster Festival.

It was a hike down there, but we weren't the only ones making the trip. Urbanna was overrun with tourists and bivalves. At one point, I overheard a girl say, "This is town has 600 people and there are more than that along this street." She was right, the place was packed.

And why not? There was fried, roasted and raw oysters for sale up and down the main drag. The main event -- the oyster shucking competition -- was crowded despite a downpour. Those of us willing to brave the rain to watch the shucking were rewarded with trays of free oysters passed out by local kids.

The free oysters were great, but the crowd was there to see Deborah Pratt (wearing purple) and her sister Clementine Macon (wearing red) go to work. The pair have dominated the women's competition for years. They were even featured on Food Network's Glutton for Punishment teaching Bob Blumer how to open oysters at a competition pace.Image023_3

The amateurs who opened the competition had six minutes to shuck 12 oysters. Most of them needed most of the time. The pros had six minutes to shuck 24 oysters. Deborah and Clementine needed about four minutes. And although Clementine was faster, Deborah was cleaner, which proved to be the difference in her latest win.

If you haven't shucked oysters before, trust me, 24 oysters in four minutes is damn impressive. I taught myself how to shuck oysters last year when I got to bright idea to serve them as an appetizer for Thanksgiving. I'm an idiot. It is a lot harder than it looks. All the time I've spent sitting at oyster bars watching professionals do it convinced me that I could do it, too. I can, but I'm really slow and I swear a lot more than Deborah and Clementine.

Once the rain let up, we made our way to the food vendors and ate our way through the festival. There  was the enormous seafood fritter sandwich (scallops, oysters, shrimp and crab), two dozen raw oysters, one dozen roasted oysters, a dozen fried oysters, half a bottle of White Fences wine, a basket of clam strips, and a couple ham and biscuits (it was a dinner roll, actually. Disappointing).

A moment for the oysters. Virginia oysters are fat, sweet, sweet and slightly briny. And in Urbanna, they don't cost $2 a piece. What's not to love?

There was also barbecue. God, I love barbecue. Honestly, the Carolina pork barbecue needed sugar, but Image043 it was pretty damn good. The farther away from Carolina I get, the harder it is to find true Carolina barbecue. Beach Bully's barbecue wasn't perfect, but it wasn't bad.

Our day (not the festival) wrapped up watching the Oyster Festival Parade, replete with high school marching bands and an army of Shriners. If you've ever lived in or grew up in a small town, these parades are great. Old men in strange hats and tiny cars, celebrities you've never heard of and badly made floats ridden by local beauty queens. Urbanna also had an oyster mascot waving to the crowd (it worked, somehow).

It was a long drive for cheap oysters, fast shucking and Americana, but it was worth every mile.

Glimpses of Portugal

As I mentioned briefly at the beginning of my post on HFCS last week (thanks to everyone who commented, by the way), I had the good fortune to spend a good deal of the month of October in the north of Portugal. I don't want to blather on about how great it was, or how I almost decided to expatriate given our economic woes at the time — suffice it to say that those two weeks amounted to one of the most awe inspiring experiences of my entire life.

I don't use that last phrase lightly; the places I visited and the things I saw were amazing, and wholly unique to my experience... which is why I find it so damned frustrating that, a brief two weeks later, I struggle to remember anything about it! I had grand plans of writing a huge, meandering opus, but now (lucky for you!) I find it hard to remember anything but brief glimpses and vivid flashes. Such is the human mind, I guess; or at least, my wine addled one. Fortunately, thanks to my trusty digital camera and what few synapses are still firing, I have managed to retain a bit of the trip, some of which I hope may be of interest to you guys. 

Cafefood1_2 Most of the trip was taken up in hiking the country's many hills, and so I found myself unusually, and quite blissfully, in the middle of nowhere. As such, most of my meals were provided by the hosts at whose houses we stayed. Though rarely complicated, these meals were some of the best arguments for locally purchased foods I have ever tasted. Portugal's economy is heavily agricultural, and in the north this is evident in every bit of open space. Breakfasts were universally continental, featuring locally made fruit preserves, delicious fresh baked bread, and cheeses from nearby Spain. Chestnuts also figure heavily into the cuisine — orchards were everywhere, and the nuts found their way into everything, providing texture for rice, stuffing for pork, and flour for cakes.

Saltedfish Without question, the highlight of Portuguese cuisine is the fish. Though initially reticent, a couple experiences at Tosca and Obelisk left me a huge fan of grilled sardines. On several occasions in Portugal we were presented with spreads that would put those august institutions to shame, though with admittedly less pomp and circumstance, and a far lower price tag. I also had the good fortune to come across the Portuguese speciality robalo ao sal, or, salt-crusted sea bass. As I understand it, the whole fish is treated with olive oil, thoroughly covered with sea salt, and then baked. The result is the most amazingly moist fish I have ever tasted, without the least residual salty flavor. I couldn't begin to tell you how they did it, but there is a recipe on Epicurious, and I definitely plan on trying it out.

At the end of our trip, when we reached Porto, Portugal's second largest city, I expected a bevy of cosmopolitan restaurants. Though there were a handful of familiar dining establishments (including a pizza place and a sushi joint), Porto is dominated by cafes. Just as Dublin has pubs and DC has Starbucks, Meat_pies every corner of Porto features one or more small cafes, and though each has its own identity, all were sponsored by a handful of parent corporations. I visited several of these places over the course of my stay, and though I'm loath to generalize, they all shared two things in common: meat pies and Super Bock. The former is easy enough to understand; hell, every western culture has its incarnation, from the saltena to the shepherd's pie. In Portugal, the most common type is the little guy pictured at left: about three ounces of ground pork,wrapped in dough and deep fried, served cold from the display case. For deliciously fatty indulgence, these pies cannot be topped, and I enjoyed dozens while trolling the city, none for more than 75 (Euro)cents a pop!

Superbock_2 Portugal's cafes' most ubiquitous offering is Super Bock, Portugal's best selling beer. If you think Budweiser has a stranglehold on the US, you have no idea — this beer was literally everywhere, and in most places the only available, draught or otherwise. The basic offering is not unlike your American macro lagers like Miller and Bud, but fuller, and decidedly higher in alcohol, coming in at a healthy 5.3% ABV. In addition to the lager, Super Bock offers up a potable amber, a disagreeable stout, and a bizarre flavored concoction called Super Bock Green, which makes the vile Miller Chilada seem downright tasty.

But of course, being in Portugal, my major focus was on wine. Though the nation is all but synonymous with its fortified wine port, it produces a healthy output of quality dry wine — which is a damned good thing for the Portuguese, as there was NO other wine available. Whether in a cafe, restaurant, or wine shop, the ONLY wines available were domestic. I gleaned rather quickly that the Portuguese were a proud and nationalistic people, but I was shocked at the absolute lack of any international alternative, European or otherwise. Were my command of the language anything resembling competent, I would have inquired as to why. Sadly, my combination of broken Spanish and American English wasn't up to the task.

Portcolors Anyhow, to the port! Being a sucker for sweet wines in general, I was already well acquainted with port before my arrival, and figured there wasn't much Porto could show me. How wrong I was! I promise to speak more on port in the future, but for brevity's sake, let me finish now by passing on Portugal's most valuable lesson to me, which is that port comes in many colors, and they are all delicious. Through everyday work experience, I had become well acquainted with tawny and ruby port, and respected each for its merits, all the while writing off white port, the much maligned stepchild. Developed during the Spanish Revolution in the 1930's as an alternative to sherry, white port is relatively young in the history of fortified wine, and I can now say from experience that it has not gotten the recognition it deserves.  Treated similarly to your younger tawnies, white port takes all the nutty, oxidative flavors of a tawny port, and places them on a tannin free canvas, offering up all of a tawny's depth of flavor without the weight. White port is huge in Portugal now, with each producer offering up its own branded cocktail of white port and tonic or club soda with a twist.

As the last dying embers of warm weather pass us by this coming week, consider picking up a bottle of Fonseca Sirocco or Dow's White Port, and mix it up with a bit of Seagrams and a squeeze of lime; it's the perfect bittersweet cocktail to bid farewell to the last dregs of late afternoon warmth. I plan on having one tomorrow, and hope that it will help me grab another fleeting memory or two out of the ether.

San Jose Day 3

When I was planning our trip to San Jose and all the wineries, restaurants, and attractions that we wanted to go to, I had some pretty lofty expectations for how many places we were going to cover in 3 days. All in all, the list included 20 wineries and 5 restaurants, and in the end, I was only able to visit 2 restaurants and 7 vineyards. I probably could’ve made an attempt to go to a 3rd restaurant, except, our visit to Manresa the first night was so incredible that we decided to return again on the 3rd night.

Many of the wineries I intended to visit ended up not having a tasting room or their tasting rooms were closed when we were in town. Cinnabar, Mt. Eden, and Silver Mountain were originally on the agenda, but they don’t have a tasting room and are only open on "passport" days. I also would’ve gone to Alghren, which a local wino recommended, except they were only open on Saturdays for tasting. Sigh.

On our last day, we had some slim pickings for wineries that we could actually go to so unfortunately, we ended up spending a lot of time in the car. On the positive side, all of the vineyards that we visited, including Beauregard, Testarossa, and Savannah-Chanelle, were actually very good.

Beauregard Beauregard’s tasting room, the first we visited, was located on Santa Cruz’s wharf and we had a wonderful view of the Pacific Ocean as we tasted the wine. There were a couple drawbacks though. The salty and fishy smell of the air kind of interfered with our ability to smell and taste the wine, plus, we were horribly underdressed. We weren’t expecting the ocean to be so breezy and cool so we ended up being pretty cold the entire time.

On the other hand, the wines at Beauregard ended up being very good, so good in fact, that I ended up joining their wine club. This was the first winery that I visited that didn’t distribute outside of California, and since I liked the wines, I figured I’d sign up for their wine club. We also picked up a bottle of their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, just to take advantage of the 30% discount that came with signing up for their wine club. I’m such a sucker.

I originally intended to visit a couple other wineries in Santa Cruz, but we were cold and we received high recommendations at Clos LaChance about Testarossa Vineyard, so we decided return back up Rt 17 away from the ocean to Los Gatos. The Testarossa Vineyard was situated in a historic Jesuit Monastery on the hillside in Los Gatos and of all the vineyards that we visited, I would say that this was the most…commercial, with lots of t-shirts and memorabilia for sale, and they even charged $10 for a tasting -- the most expensive that we paid.

The $10 tasting was worth it, though, because the Testarossa Pinot Noirs are great! The one Pinot Noir that we ended up buying a bottle of was the ’04 Bien Nacido, a very big, spicy Pinot that’ll put hair on your chest, or take it off, whatever you prefer. I would have bought more, except by this point, we were struggling to figure out how we were going to get the 22 bottles that we’d already bought previously on the plane. I’ll probably order some from the winery directly or hopefully, I can get in touch with their distributor in D.C. We had a nice lunch with some brie and a baguette and drank a couple glasses of the wine that we bought.

On another note, I couldn't get over how nice the weather was in Silicone Valley. A similar experience in D.C. this time of the year would lead to excessive sweating and heat exhaustion, but in California, we didn’t want to go inside.

After Testarossa, we headed a little bit Northwest to a winery called Savannah-Chanelle in the mountains outside of Saratoga. I can’t really say anything different about this vineyard that I haven’t said already about the previous vineyards for the experience was very similar. When we were done tasting the wine there, we were a little sad, for we knew that it was our last vineyard and we’d be returning home the following morning.

In the end, I think we picked the perfect length of stay for this wine region for we were able to go to all of the good wineries that actually have tasting room hours. Plus, I don’t think that we could’ve gone on tasting wine anymore. We were beat.

That night, we returned to Manresa. To save money, we drank the '96 Chardonnay that we bought at David Bruce, althought we still ordered 4 courses. The meal was just as good as the first night we ate there and I couldn't think of a better way to end our trip to the area.

Clos LaChance and David Bruce Vineyards: San Jose Day 2

By far, the highlights of our second day in the Santa Cruz Mountains were our visits to Clos LaChance and David Bruce Vineyards. We got a late start that day, and Clos LaChance was a good 40 minutes away from our hotel in San Jose and the furthest away from our hotel of all the vineyards we visited.

Clos_lachance I can thank Grapeseed Bistro in Bethesda for first introducing me to the Clos LaChance Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay, a flowery and aromatic wine with hints of peach and vanilla, which Clos LaChance's tasting room had for sampling that day and tasted as good as I remembered it. The man running the tasting room was very friendly, as most wine pourers are when you start talking to them about the wine and show them that you aren’t just there for a quick drink. I probably learned more about wine in the first two days of this vacation, talking to the wine pourers, than I have in all the wine drinking I’ve done before. You can really gain an appreciation for how wines are made and the differences between wines when you taste them in rapid succession to one another.

After the tasting, we decided to pick up a couple bottles of the Chardonnay, a bottle of Rose, a dry Muscat Blanc dessert wine, which was sweet but not syrupy, and a dry and spicy Cabernet Sauvignon. We tried to pick up wines that we knew we couldn’t get back home, but it was hard to keep track of which wines were available back in DC.

The Clos LaChance vineyard was probably one of the more beautiful vineyards that we visited, nestled in a valley between two sets of rolling brown-grass-covered mountains. The tasting facility seemed like it had been constructed recently, and there was a huge outdoor area with multiple levels of picnic tables and umbrellas that's perfect for having a casual lunch. Off in the distance you can see a bright green golf course that sticks out a bit compared to the brownish color of the rest of the scenery. We sat outside on the terrace, took in the view, ate cheese and salami, and sipped our glasses of rose that we’d bought at the tasting room.

After we were done at Clos LaChance, we hopped in the car and drove a half hour to David Bruce winery in Saratoga. Saratoga had a couple other wineries with tasting rooms that we would visit the next day, but all we had time for after all the driving we did, was to visit David Bruce. Everyone knows that David Bruce has fantastic Pinot Noirs. In the D.C. area, we can get the Central Coast Pinot Noir just about anywhere, but you rarely see the other wines that were available at the vineyard like their Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Petit Syrah. Perhaps the Petit Syrah is available in a couple stores, but it isn't very common.

The David Bruce vineyard was fairly high up in the mountains, like Ridge, but without the awesome views of Ridge. The vineyard itself had more of an industrial feel to it, with cement steps and metal railings rather than an older farmhouse type of feel like the other vineyards we visited, but it was still fun to be there.

As a special bonus, the tasting room at David Bruce had opened a ’96 Chardonnay, probably because they were trying to clear out their stock of the wine since it was past its peak.  Just about every vineyard that we visited has some kind of “special surprise” bottle open that they were giving extra tastings of. (Although some vineyards were Nazis about the wine pours and others were very free flowing with them.) David Bruce was free flowing.

Where the ’04 Chardonnay was crisp with citrus flavors, the ’96 had a buttery texture and reminded me more of a French Chablis. It was discounted enough that we ended up buying a bottle. We were instructed not to let it age anymore and drink it right away, and we gladly obliged the next night when I took my own advice on a return trip to Manresa and drank it with dinner. $25 corkage and an $18 bottle of vs. $52 a person wine pairing ends up saving you a lot of money on your final check.

Later that night, we met up with an old friend at Amber India in Mountain View. Overall, Amber India had pretty good Indian food with spicy curries and freshly baked flat breads. However, stay away from the chicken korma because it was pretty bland. If you do order it, I’d ask for it spiced up a bit, because it was probably the blandest Indian dish I’ve ever eaten. The paneer makhani that Amy ordered was plenty spicy, but our friend commented that the chicken tikka masala that he ordered was not as creamy as he’s accustomed to.

And with that, we concluded our second day in San Jose.

Manresa and a Trip to Ridge Vineyard

Ridge_vineyard On our first day in San Jose, after getting situated at our hotel, we took a quick trip out to Ridge Vineyard. Ridge is at the top of a mountain Southwest of San Jose and the trip up that mountain is a harrowing trip, involving a very skinny road that winds all the way up the mountain. There are some beautiful sights on the way up the mountain, overlooking Silicon Valley. When you get to the top of the mountain and Ridge Vineyard, you feel a sense of relief that you made it to the top in one piece.

Ridge_vineyard_view We tasted a few really great wines at Ridge. The '03 Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet was my favorite which started smooth and finished spicy and dry. We also picked up bottles of the '03 Ponzo Vineyards Zinfandel, '03 Lytton West Syrah, and '02 Late Picked Zinfandel. I thought about picking up a bottle of the '79 Montebello, but $400 seemed a bit much...I'm going to attempt to let the Ridge wines we bought age a while, since the notes on the wines say that you can age them at least 10 years. I think it's Ridge_grapes going to be very hard though, since I don't have a safe to lock them in and throw away the key.

On our way back down the mountain we came across Picchetti Vineyard so we stopped to have a tasting there. While I didn't like the whites, which were all very sweet, I was actually pretty impressed with their Rose, so we picked up a couple bottles of it. Their reds were a good deal better than their whites, at least as far as my taste is concerned. We picked up bottles of their Pinot Noir and Pavone (mix of Merlot and Cab).

After that we went to dinner at Manresa which was about 20 minutes south of our hotel. We arrived early, but we were seated anyway. The dining room wasn't completely full and dim lighting and light music produced an atmosphere was serene and calm.

Over the entire meal, service was superb. The wait staff were all a little soft spoken which made it hard for me to hear them, but that's probably because I have horrible hearing from listening to loud music on headphones too much as a teenager.

The menu gave us three choices: three courses for $60 with pairing for $42, four courses for $80 with pairing for $52, or the Chef's tasting menu for $115 with pairing for $72. When the waiter described what was on the Chef's tasting menu for the evening, we decided to go with the four courses since most of the dishes he described seemed to be on the regular menu.

After we ordered, the staff began bringing out amuses. A strawberry gazpacho with Spanish almonds, served in an espresso mug was "dainty" looking, but a wonderful summery start to a meal. A whole egg with top of shell cut off and layered with cream and maple syrup and other "stuff." I can't even describe this dish, but it was incredible. We were instructed to eat from the bottom of the egg to get the full flavor of the dish and mix the layers of cream together.

Shortly thereafter our first course was delivered. I chose the sea bass served sashimi style, topped with olive oil and chives. The flavor of this raw fish dish was sublime: slightly acidic, smoky, yet sweet at the same time. Amy's exact words to describe the dungeonous crab she ordered were, "I've never tasted anything like this. This tastes incredible!" I seconded that. The crab was served in a creamy sauce with red pepper and what seemed to be a blend of spices based on garam masala. In the sauce were cucumbers and oranges that added a sweet flavor to each bite you took.

Our second course was paced well. The kitchen gives you time to reflect on the prior dishes and have some conversation between courses. By far, out favorite dish of the night was the Risotto "Biodynamic" with snails. What is Risotto "Byodynamic"? Imagine the most perfectly cooked risotto in the world, made with a slightly longer grain rice than arborio, and cooked in a pesto sauce. I failed to ask what made up the pesto, but I think it was spinach and basil. Add the flavor of snails to that (and this was my first time eating snails, by the way, and I think I'm addicted) and you've got yourself probably one of the best risottos in the country.

The other second course dish was local abalone cooked in brown butter, on top of a fried egg white, and braised pig's trotters. Yes, I said pig's trotters. No, there were no hooves on the plate, but there was shredded, perfectly braised pig's feet meat under the fried egg. The abalone had a very meaty texture for a shellfish. I don't think I had ever had abalone before and I'm still not quite sure what to make of it.

My third course was the only dish that I didn't moan over. The poularde (or young chicken), wrapped around foie gras and roasted, topped with mini chanterelles was saved by the foie gras but I wasn't blown away by this dish like everything else I had. The details are getting fuzzy as the wine pairings were excellent and I'd already had mine and some of Amy's at this point, but the roast suckling pig was served very different than I am accustomed to. The cut of meat had a layer of gelatinous fat on it that basically melted in your mouth. On the edge of the fat was a crispy, crunchy layer of skin. The meat itself was very tender.

For dessert, we had a three cheese plate with a blue, a Pierre Robert, and an aged provolone. I had a Ginger Souffle with plum sauce. At first, I wasn't crazy about the overwhelming ginger flavor of the souffle, but it grew on me as I combined the souffle with more of the plum sauce at the bottom. The fluffy, eggy texture of souffle was ideal.

The price of the meal? A little over $300. Ouch! But it was worth every penny in my opinion. The restaurant allows corkage for a fee of $25, so if you wanted to save some money, you could bring your own bottle of wine. Another way to save would be to only get three courses. While it would be hard to choose only three dishes, it is plenty of food. We ended up not being able to finish our desserts because we were so full at the end.

320 Village Ln
Los Gatos, CA
(408) 354-4330

San Jose Bound

I'm flying out to San Jose today to meet Amy and go on some wine tours and try the local restaurants. One place I'm especially excited about is going to Manresa which I've heard is fantastic. I've created a map with all the places we'd like to go to in case you're interested. This is my first time in the area, so if anyone is familiar with these places and wants to give some advice, I'm totally open to it. One thing you can count on though, is that I'll be writing about the places we go to, so stay tuned.

D.C. Foodies Does NYC

Last week I was in the Big Apple. Amy and I were visiting Noah's new cousin and Amy had a few business meetings she had scheduled at the same time, so I figured I would tag along and check out some of the great restaurants there...oh, and of course get some good pizza.

Dsc00271 The thing is, I was disappointed by the pizza, mostly because I didn't get to go to the really outstanding places. I purposely sought it out for the first couple of days, but I was staying in Midtown Manhattan, and none of the really good pizza places are in Midtown, especially if you're looking for good NY-style pizza.

Not that there is really any bad pizza in New York City, but if you want the REALLY good NY-style pizza, you have to go to Brooklyn, Little Italy, or Harlem. There was no way I was going to have time to go that far, especially with Noah in tow, but I did check out some of the places in Midtown.

We stopped at Patsy's the first night for dinner, which is an "offshoot" of the Patsy's in Harlem. The crust on the two pizzas we ordered was stiff as cardboard and overdone, but the sauce was fresh and they were topped with the right amount of fresh mozzarella. It turned out that the original Patsy's in Harlem has nothing to do with the other Patsy's, including the one I went to. The original only allows the others to use its name.

The next day, I ended up in the Met Life building for lunch at a place called Naples 45. Dsc00272 This was much better than the pizza I'd had at Patsy's the night before but still not what I was looking for. It was really good since I ordered it by the slice and it was late in the lunch hour so it had probably been sitting there for a little bit under the warmer. If you're around 200 Park Ave and looking for a good slice, you should stop in at Naples 45.

On my last day in New York City, I started out really ambitious. I was going to head down to Lombardi's, South of  E. 1st St. in Little Italy. The problem was that my hotel was at E. 42nd Street. So I started walking south...and I walked...and I walked, until I reached 28th Street. (Yes, I'm horribly out of shape, that was only 14 blocks.) I was getting a little tired at this point and I stopped to evaluate my situation. My stomach was growling. It was 2 PM and I hadn't eaten breakfast. It was hot.

"Man, I really should've taken the subway," I said to myself.

Dsc00282 I looked over to my left, and there was Totonno's. I don't know what it was, but I recalled reading about Totonno's either on EGullet or So I gave up, and walked into Totonno's on that hot and humid Tuesday afternoon. The pizza wasn't available by the slice, but at that point I couldn't eaten a 20-inch large pizza on my own. I ordered a plain individual size margarita and I'd definitely say it was the best pizza I had while I was in New York. I'm not sure what it was, the fresh sauce, the chewy crust, the way the crust was charred just a little bit around the edges, or perhaps that I was so hungry that I would've eaten gum off the street corner, but I devoured this pizza pie.

So I'm sure that I'm gonna take a lot of heat for saying this, but the pizza I had in NY didn't really live up to its reputation. Yeah, it was good, but not blow-my-mind good, and for all the emails I get from people saying that pizza sucks here in DC and that NYC is sooo much better than DC, (blah blah blah) I expected more. The one thing I'll give NYC is that the pizza you can get at any local joint on any street corner in NYC, beats the local joint on the corner in DC any day. So maybe it's just a law of averages.

However, I'd put the best from DC (2 Amys, Radius, Italian Store, and Vace) up against the best from NYC any day. So all you people that are from NY, go ahead, send me your hate mail and leave you troley comments -- I don't care. I stand by my statements.

Oh and I had other food besides pizza too. In fact, I ate at two very good restaurants which I'll write about later: L'Impero and Artisanal. They were both pretty good.

D.C. Foodies Travel Edition - Aruba

I'm baaaacck! I've returned from Aruba a refreshed man, ready to take care of a newborn in the coming months at home and tackle one of the largest software development projects I've ever had the privilege of managing the development of at work. So what did I do in Aruba? Basically nothing. I sat on the beach, read books, and I ate out a little. Ok, a lot. Don't hate me too much. This was the first vacation I've taken in...forever! I literally had 140 hours of vacation saved up at work from previous years and I had to use it before my company literally took it away. I really should have gone for two weeks, but Amy didn't have the vacation time for two weeks. She, unlike me, actually uses her vacation.

Aruba is typically known as one of the better places for food in the Caribbean, at least as far as the travel agent that sold me on the idea of originally going to Aruba. After returning to Aruba for a second time, I think I can announce that this travel agent either has no taste, or they were just plain full of shit. Most likely, it is the first, but probably partially the latter as well. In all honesty, I would not say that Aruba has the worst food out there, but they are one of the few places that has close to zero local delicacies. I searched far and wide for restaurants or eateries that served local fare - I talked to many locals, hotel staff. They all continued to refer me to the touristy restaurants that plague the island, almost all of them serving steak, lobster and seafood that hasn't been caught locally. The locals were probably just protecting their favorite eateries from the annoying tourists (which I couldn't blame them for). Nobody likes a tourist - especially one like me that's going to go home, write about your favorite local restaurant on my web site, and suddenly cause it to be overflowed by tourists from Washington, DC. LOL. I wish I had that much power...

Continue reading "D.C. Foodies Travel Edition - Aruba" »

D.C. Foodies Travel Edition - Philadelphia

Last Saturday, Amy and I took a trip to Philly to visit her friend Diana and see the Carbon Leaf show at the Electric Factory. We stayed at the Sofitel, which turned out to be a fantastic hotel. Our room was a corner room and had a great view of the street below from the fourth floor. The bathroom was HUGE with a shower AND a bathtub. That night we saw the show and it was great. Carbon Leaf  was in usual form. They sound even better in concert than they do on their albums. You should all go out and buy their albums because they ROCK! After the show we went back to the hotel and had a great nights sleep - probably the best sleep I've had in a while. The bed was perfect.

The next morning, we awoke to room service knocking on our door with our breakfast.  After eating some croissants and a couple cups of coffee, we got ready and packed everything up. We were off to our next stop - Jim's Steaks on South Street for a REAL Philly cheesesteak! Having spent 4 years in the Philly area before I went to college, I was itching to go back and have a really Philly Cheesesteak. I'm not sure what it is, but when you order one elsewhere (DC for example), they're horrible. I'll let the pictures describe the experience for you, but I was in heaven.

Philly_trip_babies_first_ch_1While we were in line, we realized that this was to be our baby's first cheesesteak. Lucky for him (or her), Amy got one without onions.

Philly_trip_jims_steaksJim's Steaks looked like a complete dive. It's your typical Philly cheesesteak eatery - just the way I like 'em.

Philly_trip_menu As you can see from the simple menu, steaks are the standard order of business. One new thing I noticed - a cheesesteak with egg on it. Someone in front of us actually ordered one with ham and egg. It's the perfect brunch!

Philly_trip_grillHere is a real appetizing picture of the grill. On the left is the meat. In the middle is the area where they chop at the meat with the spatula, and on the right is the pile of onions. If you look closely at the glass, you'll see the pieces of meat hanging on it. ;)

Philly_trip_cheese_wizAnd of course, I can't leave out the all too important ingredient, cheese wiz. A cheesesteak isn't a cheesesteak if it's made with anything else...

Philly_trip_got_onionsHere's a closer look at the giant pile of onions. For a block in either direction on South Street, you could smell this place. A finely tuned nose can find a cheesesteak eatery with blindfolds on from up to 10 mile away...

Philly_trip_wheres_the_beefThe beef that they use on the cheesesteaks in it's raw form. Bascally, the griller grabs a 3 inch thick layer and slaps it on the grill. It will sit there and cook until it is all used up. Every once in a while, the griller would pour oil over the meat pile. My arteries yelled out in pain at the very sight of it.

Philly_trip_steaks_w_onions_2The finished product complete with a Dr. Brown's Black Cherry Soda. Try to ignore the transparent look of the paper lining.

And finally, a couple pictures of me, gorging myself. I am quite the satisfied customer.

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