On the advice of our Saffron waiter, we headed south to Pepper Bridge Winery. Their vineyards are 100% Estate sustainably farmed. It’s sort of tucked away but once you take the winding road to the tasting room, you are rewarded with an amazing view: hills of vines with snow-capped mountains in the distance. Not a sight we’re used to from our Napa days! Wine tasting on a Monday rocks – no crowds or traffic.
We were cheerfully met by Richard, an English expat who spent time all over before landing in Walla Walla. We never did get the scoop on how he ended up here. Unlike L’Ecole, he eagerly chatted and told us all about the wines. We had a wonderful 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was 80% Cab Sav, 10% Merlot, 5% Cab Franc, 4% Malbec, and 1% Petit Verdot. He told us the “odd” years (2005, 2007) had a hotter season so the wines tended to be bolder and lusher, versus the even years having a bit more balance and smoothness. This was a classic Cab: the tasting notes described it as “fully developed, dense flavors of dark fruit. Ripe blackberry, black cherry and black beauty plums layered with cassis.” “Polished tannins and a subtle, lingering finish.” All I know is it was delish.
We also sampled (and bought) a great 2008 Merlot. Merlot’s are hit or miss with me, but I always like to try them. I find I like the Washington ones better than many of the Californias I’ve had in the past. This one was 85% Merlot, 10% Cab Franc and 5% Malbec.
Richard recommended a few other spots so, after dancing between the Oregon and Washington border taking in the scenery, we headed over to Va Piano, a lovely Tuscan-inspired winery. Entering the gorgeous Italian villa, we were greeted by Derri, to whom Richard asked us to say hello. We also popped over to Amavi Cellars where we sampled a gorgeous Cabernet Franc Rose (no, really! It was a nice peach color) and made a last-minute decision to try Basel Cellars. There, we learned about the “lost grape” Carmenere, which disappeared from Bordeaux in the 19th’ century only to re-emerge in Chile 100 years later.
Heading back to town for lunch, I was itching for a meal of antipasto and cheese along with a fresh glass of red wine, so we hit Olive Marketplace and Cafe again. I ordered exactly that, accompanied by a bright Sangiovese. Perfection.
Naps followed (and a cheating work check-in on my part) and we decided a casual dinner was in order. We headed to Backstage Bistro. They boasted steak, seafood, pasta, barbeque, and a large selection of premium wines. I ordered Spaghetti Bolognese, which I should know by now to never do unless I’m in an Italian restaurant: it was fair. The sauce was a bit too sweet, like something out of a jar. Paul ordered the ribs and said they were a bit average as well. Our opening salads were good, as was our wine, but this meal had a disadvantage from the get-go after following Saffron the night before.
Not wanting to wrap up the evening, we headed to Red Monkey for some last drinks. A review somewhere online excitedly claimed this was an “upscale dancing lounge.” Um, where the hell was that reviewer from? While a fun bar, it has a bit of a college feel to it. Margaritas, shooters, various posters and kitchy crap all over the walls everywhere you look. Paul gleefully noted the mix of patrons when we arrived: three blue-collar guys talking about exes at the bar and were on a first name basis with the staff; us (the yuppie urban tourist couple); and two old ladies catching up over drinks. Surprisingly, this odd all-inclusive vibe totally worked and it was a very comfortable place. The bartenders were super friendly: one of them was in training on the night we arrived so it was fun to watch and learn how to make the drinks. And I had a yummy chocolate martini.
Word to the wise, though: vodka tonic + red wine + Bailey’s on ice + whiskey + tequila shot = a bad night. Just sayin’.
We headed out of town the next day. Of course, the sun was finally shining brilliantly, but we didn’t mind too much. We were treated to an amazing drive back through the Cascades towards home. Overall, a lovely little getaway!
My husband’s proclamation last month sparked weeks of research on where we could escape for a few days that would be fairly easy to travel to and might give us some warmer weather. Seattle’s had a brutal spring and we are so over it.
The weather ultimately nixed the Washington Coast and the San Juan Islands, so we decided to do some wine tasting in Walla Walla: an activity one can do rain or shine.
We’ve been wanting to “do” Walla Walla ever since moving to Seattle and hearing about the amazing wine country down there. Tucked into the southeast corner of Washington, we’re in spitting distance of the Oregon border. Most of the grapes used in Washington’s burgeoning wine industry are grown in the AVA’s around there. Keeping it loose, we planned absolutely nothing and said we'd figure it out when we got there. We always like taking crazy adventures!
But we did book lodging in advance. Our hotel choice was the posh and old-school luxury at downtown’s Marcus Whitman Hotel. Full of floral coaches, dark woods and ornate accessories, it’s conveniently located within walking distance to downtown’s restaurants, tasting rooms and art galleries. After a glitch at check-in, we got to enjoy our Spa room, complete with huge whirlpool tub right next to the bed. The check-in snafu aside, the staff is friendly and eager to help.
Our first afternoon, heading into town, we stopped at L’Ecole, a winery who you may know from their cute crayon-drawing of a school on their wine labels. We normally love their reds, so we pulled up to the sweeping brick schoolhouse and sidled up to the crowded bar. I have to say the wine tasting experience was crowded, impersonal and formulaic. They only had 2 guys busting their butts to serve people when they should have had 3. The pourers tried to be hospitable but they would literally just pour you a glass (when they got back around to you) and would recite a rehearsed litany of the wine’s grapes – info we could read for ourselves in the tasting notes. No fun stories, or perspective or chit chat. They had to be all business to handle the crowd. One of them didn’t even make eye contact as he recited the list for maybe the hundredth time that day. We left a bit disappointed.
But we were soon soothed by a latte and creamy delicious strawberry cheesecake at Olive Marketplace and Cafe. Olive is a combination rustic coffee shop, bakery and wine-tasting deli. Coffee and sweets intermix with delightful cheeses, olives, cheese plates and antipasto. You can even enjoy a glass of wine in this two-story loft café. More to come on Olive….
That night, we enjoyed a magical dinner in downtown Walla Walla at Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen. Full of Mediterranean flavors, the food was tasty, interesting and balanced. The staff was so helpful, even though the joint was jumping. We enjoyed a prosciutto salad with arugula, watercress, fresh peas, pickled radish, spring onion, aged local sheep chees and chardonnay vinaigrette ($12) and patatas bravas: fingerling potatoes, garlic aioli, spicy tomato sauce and chili peppers ($8) for our appetizers, along with a recommended wine: Benchgrass Winery’s 2008 Triolet, a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Smooth and jammy with a nice mineral finish, it paired perfectly with our amazing meals: Mangalitsa Pork, a rare pork from a pig that lives longer than most, roasted and served with local asparagus, crispy garlic, Italian parsley lovage and tonnato freddo (a type of chees with a ricotta-like consistency: $27)) and Spiced Leg of Lamb “Shawarma”: all natural leg of lamb, fresh herbs, sweet onions, cucumber, sumac served open-faced over grilled flatbread and laced with smoked yogurt. My pork was tender, buttery and herbalicious. Paul’s lamb was flavorful, with the spices and flavors blending effortlessly. He’s always been a sucker for Greek and Turkish flavors.
I love asking locals for their fave spots, so our waiter suggested we go south for wine tasting, to a group of places near the Oregon border (only 10 minutes from downtown!). We geared up for a great Day Two as we went to bed, stuffed from our fabulous dinner. ...
Sunday's Golden Globe awards show was the typical spectacle of glamour, ego and frivolity I come to expect from any beloved award show. I have a relationship with these shows that mimics a bad boy love affair: I know it's bad for me, but I make excuses saying that he's really an artist at heart- and no matter how pompous he acts, I just can't stay away.
Let's start with host Ricky Gervais. Who I adore. Really. But he's getting slammed for his skewering of Hollywood and perhaps going a bit too far. Watching him the other night, my stomach was in delicious knots, just dreading his next comment but sort of wanting to see the train wreck at the same time. Does he call it like it is? Absolutely. Yes, the SATC women are middle-aged; yes, Mel Gibson went on a drunk anti-semitic tirade; Robert Downey Jr. abused drugs. But here's my issue: that type of unexpected snarkiness is funny only when it's precisely that: unexpected. When you purposely hire a host and promote the show as "Tune in: we don't know what will happen!" then you are calculatingly trying to be snarky and funny. Which is fake. It doesn't work. His past performances were so great in that they really were unexpected surprises. When you try to bottle spontaneity and shock, well, you get left with angry people and a so-so performance. What the heck did the HFPA expect?
Second, the awards. Sounds like I must see The Social Network, which will absolutely not be a hard sell for me since I (heart) Aaron Sorkin. I already watch Glee but even though this past season was not as good at the first and I feel they have gone off the rails a bit, I still enjoy it. I also must see The King's Speech and Black Swan. So excited that two of my favorite actors, Colin Firth and Natalie Portman, were honored as well. I'm a little over everyone fawning over Chris Colfer on Glee just because he plays "the gay kid" (his performance on the episode where he came out to his dad was amazing, but I'm tired of the Kurt lovefest every week). However, it is always nice to see a relative unknown realize a dream like winning such an award so good for him. Hurrah for Jane Lynch on Glee wining Best Supporting Actress - she makes that show and her character is so deliciously complex. Jim Parsons from Big Bang Theory is a genius. Love that he won. Have never seen The Big C but love Laura Linney, so hurrah for her. And never had any desire to watch Sons of Anarchy, but apparently Katey Segal won for that. Finally, I about bawled at the end of Toy Story 3 (from the kid who used to name all of her stuffed animals and even taped countless"interviews" with them for an exclusive variety show audience consisting of my family) so I was thrilled it won best animated film.
Third, the speeches. I love finding the eloquent gem in the sea of crap where winners feign humility and shock and then merely spout a list of names of people I don't know. But I came up empty this year. Even Robert DeNiro's funny lines for his Cecil B. Demille award were written for him, it seemed, and so obviously read off of the teleprompter. And Natalie Portman, one of my fave actresses because she's also so brilliantly intelligent, let me down with her rambling speech. The only standout parts for me was 1) when Ricky jokingly blasted Steve Carell for leaving The Office and "sacrificing their cash cow" - and Carell comes out on stage, pushing Ricky out of the way in mock disdain; and 2) when Michael Douglas, recently fighting a battle with throat cancer, came out on stage to an endless round of applause and quipped, "Thanks, but there's got to be an easier way to get a standing ovation!" That was classy. Overall, though this year's lines were kind of "meh."
Fourth, the fashion. OK, this is really the realm of my expert friend Melanie (who has yet to cover it on her blog yet). Some stunners included Natalie Portman (I don't agree with the critics - I thought she looked great in that pale pink number with the rose - very elegant), JLo (again, disagree with the critics), Claire Danes, Scarlett (hair-do aside), Anne, and - I'm sorry, but it's really hard for Angelina Jolie to look bad in anything.
But what was the bondage number that January Jones had going on? That much beauty should not be packaged in something so dreadful. Heidi Klum: What's with the circus tents draped all over you? You are so better than that, my dear. And the amazing Helena Bonham Carter continues to not give a shite about what people think, which I kind of dig about her. But Harry Potter's wardrobe department called and they want the Beatrix LeStrange costume back. Why, oh why, does she insist on that Bride of Frankenstein hair at every event she attends? She is so beautiful. Maybe she's trying to make a point. I didn't understand Julianne Moore's arm sling, and Olivia Wilde's gown was a bit too Disney for me.
So another year, another Golden Globes show. It'll be a challenge for the producers to figure out how to give the show more punch and increase viewership, as rating were a bit flat this year. Glad that's not my job....I can just sit here and snarkily critique it!
Book Bindery: This place, tucked into Queen Anne, right near the Fremont Bridge, was supposed to open a while ago and finally made its debut. It's the brainchild of vinter Mike Almquist, who I profiled in an Examiner.com article a while back. The winery, which delightfully is also a "make your own" winery and distillery, is attached to this swanky little update on an actual old book bindery. The decor is sort of "chic 50's library/supper club" with wainscotted white wood walls, frosted glass doors and a long bar. It's small and you are best served getting reservations - even the bar fills up quickly with drinkers and diners.
The menu gloriously presents starters and main that are imaginative, yet feel artisinal, local and somehow a nice balance of casual and gourmet: sweetbreads, local greens, handmade cavatellli,pan-seared stiped bass....you get the idea. Here are some samples off the current manu, as they change is up a bit seasonally:
Duo of Pork: Roasted chop, cripsy belly, lacinato kale, white bean puree, maple-bourbon jus
Foie Gras terrine with poached quince, candied almonds and black cardamom financier
Hamachi crudo with avocado and watermelon radish
Prices range from $10-15 for starters and $24-36 for mains. Everything is a bit sharable as well.
If you go, duck into the wine tasting room next door, and sip Almquist's impressive collection of almost every Red imagineable. As mentioned, you can pay to barrel and bottle your own wine and spirits and I understand from the owner that many folks go in as a group or office activity. They will guide you on which grapes to use, aromas or bodies to seek and even which type of barrel to use to achieve the tastes you want. The reds are some of the most mature and balanced Washington wines we've had so far. We snagged some granache, mourvedre and even some lovely Cab Sav to bring home.
Smash Wine Bar and Bistro: There was some debate about this place, as the ambience is "eh" but the service and wine selections are interesting. They could use some brand help on their decor and music selections, but we gave it a solid 6-7 for taste, selection and experience. You can order flights, which we did - and discovered some lovely reds and even a nice Viognier. small plates ranged from duck and shitake spring rolls with soy sesame and sweet chili for $9, to Yukon Gold "pot tots" with creme fraiche, bacon and chives for $7to decontructed "build your own" crostini for $9. Larger plates, equally well shared, consisted of lamb chops, butternut quash ravioli and wild prawns, ranging from $15 - 25. They offer fabulous themed cheese flights and some lovely sweet treats (a sundae with sea salted caramel? mmmmm). Our expectations were low due to other feedback, but overall it was fairly solid and I have to say, they try very hard to offer a ggood food and wine experience.
Revel: New to Fremont, this is a gem that we lucked into getting dinner reservations with friends on New Years Eve. It's so new, their website is not even fully up yet. Taking over a bland catering space and transforming it into what I can only describe as "urban zen" this is the latest from the couple who runs Joule. Their site says it all: "Urban. Comfort. Asian. Street food. Pancake. Dumpling, Rice. Noodle." Rice bowls, spring rolls, inventive salads and amazing dipping sauces and acoutrements make this a delight to discover and sample. The food was delicious: simple, yet so unique in it's construction. We pretty much tried almost everything on the menu between the seven of us - and they even accomodated our vegan friends with some adjustments, which was awesome service. We had a lovely rioja with our meal that was to die for, as well as a nice barolo. Can't wait to go back here again.
Think cozy/quaint B&B rustic hunting lodge meets organic sustainable high-end dining meets Michelin-starred culinary expertise. Yeah, I know.
Tucked into a little oasis in Woodinville, The Herbfarm started out literally as a farming couple's random sales of excess herbs they had on the farm. Fast-forward to the couple's son and daughter as proprietors of this fine-dining experience. They have one seating a day, that starts with a garden tour - or in our case, a primer on the herbs we'd be enjoying with our dinner that night. It was way too cold and icky to be tromping around the gardens.
Dinner is about 9 courses, each paired with wine. When you see your table setting, it's like the china department at Macy's - there are literally 9 differently-shaped glasses lined up next to your plate. Shapes I've never even seen before.
The host welcomes you and a big introduction takes place when you sit down. Every single chef, kitchen staffmember and server is introduced, along with their fine pedigrees. We're talking 5 star hotels, top-tier international cooking schools- even "Iron Chef" participants. Each resume becomes more and more impressive than the next. Then the courses are explained in delightful detail, as are the paired wines and why they were chosen.
All the food is either grown at the farm, or obtained withing 100 miles. Even the condiments, like salt. The menu switches out every few weeks.
We experienced "The Hunter's Table." Think game, fowl.Veinson, goose, foie gras, wild mushrooms. I don't even know how they come up with some of the combinations of ingedients that they do, but it's magical. I don't even love duck or venison all that much, and even I found items to savor.
Here's a sample:
Parfait of Matsusake Mushroom & Grilled Duck Breast with Apple Horseradish Froth
Terrine of Bernie Nash's Ephrata Rabbit with Tarragon
Juniper Black Pepper Crusted Venison Loin over Creamed Brussel Sprouts
Seared Foie Gras on Sugar Pumpkin Pie with Pickled Pumpkin, Squash Ribbons and a Foie Gras-Ice Wine Drizzle
Rosemary and Caramel Mousse with Crispy Streusel, Roasted Pear, Warm Carmelized Pear Puree & Bacon-Caramel Sauce
Bacon? With caramel????!!! Oh. my. good. Lord. Genius. Ridiculous, right? In a good way.
We did a communal table which turned out to be really fun - even though we had asked for a private table when we arrived. They said they'd see what they could do after everyone was seated, but then made a very tacky announcement in front of all of the people we just met at our group table, saying they had a private table available if we wanted one. They kind of left us no classy way to take them up on it; It would have been rude to do so at that time so we declined, but again, we had a marvelous time with the folks we were with. We really think this would make a great group dining adventure event for a pack of friends.
The service was a little odd - maybe because you're there for 4 hours. Sort of creepy, "fake nice" in a way, sprinkled with a bit of attitude masked as a passive-aggressive tolerance of idiots. I can't really put my finger on it, but it just felt, well, strained.
It's been about a week and I'm still not sure how I feel about the place. I enjoyed the imaginiative food and phenomenal wines. I loved going out to feed the two Vietnameses potbellied pigs - a treat for diners - who are the Farm's own compost system. And I would love to stay the night at the adorably romantic Willows Lodge right across the driveway from the restaurant. There's even a high-end but much more casual restaurant right next door in the same circular driveway, The Barking Frog, that looks amazing.
It was by far the most unique dining experience I've ever had and I'm glad we went. It costs a forune, though, so save up and maybe do it with a group if you can.
So it was actually quite funny to read all the hype about Inception, the sci-fi thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio and - in a "WTF?! But it works!" pairing move, Ellen Page of Juno famo (loved her in that). The WSJ had a full spread about how this movie was being closely watched to see how a completely original idea would do at the box office. Again, sad state of affairs when that makes news.
It wasn't until we heard a glowing review on my husband's favorite BBC podcast from film critic Mark Kermode that we decided to venture out. Now that we have Netflix on Demand, this was a big deal indeed.
And we were so glad we did.
This was everything a movie should be. The suspense and tension carried through the entire film, like the best of the Bond movies. Leo was excellent, leading a crew (like Ocean's 11 without the snarkybanter) of misfits who are hired to steal information from people's dreams. Think corporate espionage or the locations of hidden plans - that sort of thing. Then they are hired by an Asian oil magnate to actually plant an idea (inception) into a young scion's head about breaking up his father's global empire - their biggest competition. This is trickier and more risky than just stealing information that is already there, as it required going several layers deep into the subconscious (a dream within a dream within a dream). Things get further complicated by Leo's character's own subconscious demons, that often manifest on these "missions" and put everyone in jeopardy.
I won't give the rest away, but while it might sound really complicated, it's surprisingly easy to follow. I usually get lost with plots like this, having to ask my husband what the hell is going on. But they did a beautiful storytelling job of assuming the audience would buy into some of the more sci-fi elements without overexplaining them. This simplification and faith in our abiltiy to "buy into it" kept the plot nimble and clear. They could have gotten bogged down in explaining how it all works, but thankfully, they didn't insult our intelligence and thus avoided confusing us in the process.
The acting was fantastic. The alternate reality was completely believable and everything tied together nice and neatly to explain everything. For example, the simple explanation for how they get our of the dream is to receive a "kick" that revives them and brings them back into reality - whether their sleeping body is knocked over in a chair or dunked into a bathtub full of water. This device was cleverly used and explained as they had to descend into multiple levels of subconscious and provided the most intense suspense in the film. All without dumbing it down nor overexplaining the concept. You just had to accept this as it was and it worked.
I'm pleased as punch that Hollywood's test for orignality paid off so handsomely at the box office. Maybe this means insightful and smart storytelling and filmmaking is not dead after all. Hurrah!
My husband and I have gotten more savvy - as have many Americans - about where our food comes from. We are blessed on the West Coast, and in the Pacific NW in particular, to have such an abundance of local and fresh treasures. We try to eat organic when we can and, while we're not quite ready to go vegan like some of our friends (we love a juicy well-grilled steak way too much), we have become more aware and concerned with both how the animals are treated, the living conditions in which they are exposed and just what is injected into their bodies. I saw a documentary that talked about how the chicken you buy today might look like Grandma's chicken but it really is anything but, what with all the growth hormones and mass-processing chemicals. Yucko. While you expect some food to be bad for you when you eat it (Big Macs, Cheetos) I never realized what crap lies in my freshly grilled rosemary chicken, just by virtue of its provenance.
So with that in mind, we tucked into the Stumbling Goat. It's a dark (in a cozy way), funky little bistro with cool art adorning the walls and a friendly staff. So many things jumped out at me, I had a hard time deciding between one succulent menu selection to the next. The menu lists every supplier and farm from which they source their food and includes the website. Nice touch. This is also listed on their Purveyors page off their own website.
A bunch of us started with the butter lettuce salad with shaved radish and onion, toasted hazlenuts and sherry vinaigrette. What a perfect balance of nutty goodness with a mellow yet herbalicious dressing. It tasted "just picked." Others chose the heirloom tomato salad with fromage blanc and fresh basil. This was a refreshing summertime treat.
My husband had the appetizer duck liver terrine with cherry wine gelee as his main course, and the rest of us ran the gamut from morel and asparagus risotto (a creamy slice of heaven) to grilled hangar steak to duck breat to heirloom bean cassoulet. Every bite tasted more divine that the next and a few of us traded nibbles to get a full sampling of all the bistro had to offer.
For dessert, we shared cherry chocolate creme pies (which was like an ice cream sandwich) and a homemade ice cream. I enjoyed the creme pies, but they were way too frozen for my taste - they could have done with some thawing out first. Throw in some fun cocktails - I tried a frefreshing pomegranate basil which was vodka, bruised basil, lemon and pomegranate juice - and two bottles of champagne, and the bill still came out to only about $120 per couple. Pretty sweet indeed for such good quality and so many courses.
I can see how, if you have the money and the access, eating local for a month may not be such a bad thing!