Friday, September 23, 2011

Kathy’s Pick

Bogle 2009 Pinot Noir

In the late 1980s you couldn’t find decent California Pinot around $10 but you can now. The key is sticking with producers you know are reputable, like Bogle. This blend is 100 percent Pinot grown in the Russian River Valley, Monterey County, and Clarksburg wine regions. It offers tangy cherry flavors nicely balanced with subtle notes of plums, herbs, and spice. This easy drinking red is quite versatile at the table. Pair it with roast beef, herb-roasted chicken, mushroom pizza, or Santa Maria style tri-tip. Widely available at grocery and chain stores, you’ll find this California State Fair gold medal winner at BevMo!, currently on sale for $10.99.

 Qupe 2008 Syrah Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Sonnie’s

This elegant Syrah is impressively smooth and beautifully balanced. It tastes of wild blackberries, black cherries, and ripe plums nicely woven with notes of white pepper and minerality. Grown in their Edna Valley estate vineyard in a new section, it’s named for owner/winemaker Bob Lindquist’s mother, Sonnie. It’s 100-percent biodynamically farmed, Demeter Certified. This limited wine was a selection of the best eight barrels that vintage. Lindquist noted that it was striking to get so such depth and complexity from young vines. Although it’s quite enjoyable now, he recommends cellaring a few bottles five to eight years. Available online at, or their Los Olivos tasting room, it’s $55 retail for this collectible wine. 

A Lifelong Affair with Chocolate


I’ve loved chocolates since I was a toddler. My mother lovingly filled every Easter basket with giant Rocky Road eggs, Bordeaux and walnut fudge eggs, a huge chocolate Easter bunny, jellybeans from See’s Candies. Not only did she continue well into my adulthood, she repeated it for my daughter, Barbara (her namesake). I don’t keep boxes of See’s candy around the house like my mother (her six sisters did, too), that’s far too much temptation. But I do treat myself to a couple of dark chocolate squares weekly. And now that studies proved that chocolate is good for your health, I imbibe more often.

            A simple search on WebMD quickly provided the facts: dark chocolate contains flavonoids, just like red wine, tea, fruit, and vegetables, which improves your blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, reducing the risk of getting diabetes. But you won’t get flavonoids from milk chocolate or white chocolate. The latter isn’t chocolate at all, it is cocoa butter, the fatty solids from cocoa seeds used in candies, tanning oils, and soaps. However, the popular health website recommends consuming dark chocolate in low doses because of the saturated fat and sugar. Another WebMD page had this interesting news: “Eating a little bit of chocolate each week may not only lower the risk of having a stroke, it may decrease the odds of dying from one.”

Many excellent shops have opened all over SLO County that are devoted to chocolate. That makes it much more convenient to enjoy a handcrafted truffle, bonbon, or almond bark whenever the craving hits. I visited four shops incognito to see how they differed and found them all uniquely distinctive. Afterward I called upon them for details about making chocolates.

In San Luis Obispo, Tropical Chocolates on Broad St. provides a taste of paradise for chocoholics. Created by Chocolatiers Roger and Pam Marshall, they design the most complex, unique candies I’ve seen. Not a fan of the salted-candy trend, I tasted their gorgeous Hawaiian Sea Salt caramel in dark chocolate and loved it. Pam explained they buy most of their chocolate from Hawaii including single origin sources in Waialua and Kokoleka. Their worldly chocolates also come from Madagascar, Venezuela, and Ecuador. “We support the World Cocoa Foundation which supports sustainable and ethical practices and pays Fair Trade prices to cocoa farmers,” she pointed out. The Marshall’s support local farms and wineries, too, producing unique confections like: Atascadero organic lavender and caramel in dark chocolate; Santa Maria strawberries and balsamic vinegar in dark chocolate; and Edna Valley Pinot Noir in dark chocolate ganache. “I love coming up with new flavors like poparazzi filled with pop rock candy and edible glitter, and Champagne truffles to serve at brunch.” Check out their monthly tasting featuring chocolates from around the globe.

The Village of Arroyo Grande features The Chocolate Sheep, owned by Noreen Vance. She started working with for a candy maker at 14 to learn to be a chocolatier. Her mom owns and runs a chocolate and ice cream shop on Cape Cod for 25-years. Now Noreen’s daughter Amelia, 13, and son Josiah, 8, help her. She buys Guittard chocolate and loves experimenting with additions like fruit and coffee. Next to almond bark, her next best seller is the giant peanut butter cup. A former educator, she sells creative toys not found in chain stores. “The hardest part for me is doing the business side of it,” she admitted. “I like making the chocolates and talking to my customers.” I went crazy over her delicious caramel pecan buds liberally coated in dark chocolate. When I whined about calories, Noreen laughed and said: “When people come in and say, “Oh, that’s so rich!’ I tell them: you can never have too much money, too much love, or too much chocolate.”

I discovered Gerald’s Olde Tyme Chocolates in Grover Beach when their sign caught my eye: “All About Chocolates—Made Here—Always Fresh.” Owned by Gerald and Beatrice Reed, it seemed as familiar as the chain store. But this mom and pop shop offers original, handcrafted chocolates of excellent quality. Beatrice offered a sample of their delicious almond bark while patiently answering many questions. Gerald learned his craft from a third generation European candy maker, Albert Tandy, in Los Angeles. Tandy’s grandfather and father were candy makers in England. Tandy, founder of Liberty Candy & Supply, mentored Gerald and sold him recipes he had copyrighted in 1927. “For 30 years it’s always been about tradition,” said Gerald who buys Guittard chocolate for his confections, “that’s what our customers expect.” The decadent dark chocolate mint truffles are reminiscent of the chain store, but are far superior. One taste of his almond toffee, which he described as similar to the canned variety but his is much tastier, made me like that old fashioned treat.

The newest specialist in Pismo Beach is I’m in Heaven Chocolates on Price St. Professional chocolatier Dr. Nancy Ronga said her shop is paradise found. A psychologist by day, she spends evenings and weekends offering chocolate-covered delights sure to satisfy anyone’s inner child. Treats include Rice Crispy bars, Oreo cookies topped with strawberries she calls “straweo,” and jelly roll cake, which she coats in dark, milk, or white chocolate. Customers love almond bark and the decadent shot of liquid chocolate. Or you can buy a cup of it and  have it topped with marshmallows, graham crackers, or whipped cream. She also offers coffee, espresso, tea, and sodas. She colored her Shangri-La sky blue and added white wicker furnishings and a white baby grand piano for Sunday concerts. She’s holding her grand opening Thursday evening, September 22, 5:30 to 8 p.m.  “It was always in my heart to be a chocolatier. I’m a third generation baker, my grandmother and mother were both phenomenal,” Nancy recalled. “I vary what I offer daily and make things people like.”

Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at

Sunday, January 23, 2011

World of Pinot Noir March 4 -6 2011

The Fabulous World of Pinot Noir

San Luis Obispo Restaurant Month

Here’s a great annual event that takes place in many good restaurants across the county through January 31. Each restaurant offers a three-course meal for $30 per person (not including tax or tip), and many of them offer an optional wine pairing with three half-glasses for an additional $10 - $15. You’re sure to find your favorite restaurants offering some delicious choices. But it also provides the opportunity to try some places you may have thought were out of your price range. For example, the Cass House restaurant in Cayucos is renowned for its upscale dining experience. During January, however, you can sample chef Jensen Lorenzen’s gourmet dishes at this bargain price. Lest you think it won’t be the same quality, fear not. “I get super stoked about this every January. It brings more people in afterward and really behooves all restaurants to participate,” Lorenzen enthused. “We have some really good dishes for this month. I have to streamline the menu but we’re still making handmade pasta, and using fresh foods like locally sourced eggs. It gives you a peek into our standards.” You’ll find several restaurants participating in each city. Get the full list of restaurants and their prix fixe menus at:

Passionate About Pinot Noir
The Central Coast’s most popular wine festival devoted to one special variety.


In the year 2001, several talented Central Coast Pinot Noir producers joined together to create the outstanding World of Pinot Noir, and it became an instant success. Eleven years later, this educationally focused series of tastings is still one of the most respected wine and food festivals on the West Coast, attracting winemakers, sommeliers, and Pinot Noir zealots from around the world. Even during this economic downturn, this special wine and food affair always sells out early. That said don’t wait until the last minute to buy tickets for if you want to be among these passionate Pinot Noir enthusiasts who return annually. New this year, WOPN provides three days of educational seminars, tastings, and gourmet meals, along with the rare opportunity to taste extraordinary wines you’re not likely to find on sale anywhere.
Here’s a hot tip: tickets are still available for one of the very popular Burgundy tastings, but you must call WOPN now or you’ll miss out. It features “up and coming winemakers from Domaine Marc-Roy and Domaine Jean-Marc et Bouley. Described at the “young Turks of Burgundy, it provides the rare opportunity to taste their Burgundies while these winemakers are on their rise to stardom. Tickets are $295 per person.
The WOPN event coordinators, Patricia Rogers and Sophia Stephens, were enthused when we talked about the three-day line up of seminars, tastings, and dining, plus the new tasting on Sunday. It’s a walk around brunch and Pinot Noir tasting alongside the Pacific at the Cliffs Resort, they’re promoting as “bacon and Pinot Noir.” Of course, you’ll get much more to eat and enjoy it with a range of Pinots in a less crowded atmosphere--they’re limiting the number of tickets sold. The participating wineries will include some of those that poured during the Friday and Saturday grand tastings. What’s truly unique about those tastings is the fact that each day features a completely different roster of wineries: 100 on Friday and 120 on Saturday. The winemakers travel here from Burgundy, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. There is also a large contingent of great winemakers from Oregon wine country. The grand tastings sell out quickly, so it’s a good idea to register early.
Each year the coordinators strive to make each part of the event a new experience, another reason WOPN is so appealing. Among the informative sit-down seminars, held at local wineries, are: Pinot primer, international roundtable, Oregon vs. California Pinot, Hirsch Vineyard retrospective, and more. Buttonwood winemaker Karen Steinwachs, a WOPN board member, noted: “Our seminar topics relate to both site specific explorations and topics of the day. The panelists and moderators are all top-notch, and will only be outshone by the wines themselves. I expect both the California versus Oregon smack down, and the alcohol and balance seminars to be particularly lively with interaction and participation from the audience as well as the panelists—good thing we have great moderators!” she laughed.
One of the many merits of attending this event is the fact you don’t have to buy the entire package. You can simply buy one of the grand tastings at $95 per person, and the brunch for $75 per person. Or attend everything going on all day Friday or Saturday, both of which include two seminars, lunch, and transportation from the Cliffs Resort for $195, the grand tasting for $95, and finish the day with an exclusive dinner prepared by several popular local chefs for $180. It keeps WOPN affordable whether you are on a limited budget or able to splurge on an unforgettable tasting of all the great wines and foods provided during this festival. And it is money well spent if you love fine wine.
“I am really looking forward to the gala dinner Friday evening (Mar. 4), which will be held in a family style environment at Chamisal Vineyard. Our uber-talented Central Coast chefs will each prepare a course using fresh ingredients farmed within a 100-mile radius of the event,” Steinwachs explained. There will also be music by Area 5, an eight-piece band. “And with the dinner taking place the first week of March, that just shows how talented and creative these chefs are.” The food will be served from stations that are each represented by local restaurants and caterers, including: Full of Life Flatbread, Pier 46 Seafood, Central City Market, Luna Red, and New West Catering. “Combine that with the wines being poured from our participating wineries and I imagine the best of all worlds: local cuisine with worldly wines, could it get any better?”

World of Pinot Noir
March 4 – 6, Friday – Sunday
The Cliffs Resort in Shell Beach
For details and tickets contact Sophia Stephens or Patricia Rogers at 489-1758 or visit
You can reach New Time’s Cuisine columnist at

Kathy’s Pick

Katin 2007 Syrah Chalone Michaud Vineyard
I first tasted this Syrah by winemaker Justin Kahler last October, and loved it. Tasting it again recently, it had aged impressively. Pretty in its complex fruit, it tastes of blackberries, plums, and blueberries, all nicely integrated with mineral and spice notes. This multi-layered Syrah is complex and quite elegant. Pair it with something equally special like rack of lamb, herb roasted prime rib of beef, or grilled quail with mushroom stuffing. Available at the Meritage Tasting Lounge beside Paso Robles City Park, $45 retail, it’s a great value considering the quality.

Ferrari Carano 2009 Fume Blanc Sonoma CountyThis fruity Sauvignon Blanc was aged in mature oak barrels, which makes it rich and creamy in texture. But the stainless steel fermentation retains its pretty fruit flavors of pink grapefruit, ripe melon, and mango, nicely woven with a thread of grassiness. Tasty on its own, it’s also a good choice for seafood based paella, roast chicken, or mild white fish. Widely available, you’ll find it at Costco, Trader Joe’s, and at BevMo! for $12.99 retail.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Surviving Hard TimesI received a call from chef Maegen Loring at the Park at 5 p.m. Tuesday, July 14, telling me her SLO restaurant would be shuttered after the following night’s service. I was floored by the sad news. “We’ve been barely eking along and after the first of the year, doing a month-to-month contract with the landlord and C.O.D. on orders,” she admitted candidly. “It’s been six-and-a-half years and I always woke up looking forward to coming here in the morning. The night we told the employees, we sat here until three in the morning crying. We were like family.”
I was totally bummed out but she had already moved on, focusing on the positive. She discussed her plans to build up her catering business which has always been popular. She was considering the new Los Angeles trend of creating a mobile business, possibly featuring her wonderful “Wednesday hamburger night” theme. Then she could tweet her customers with news of where she would be parked around SLO County. For Loring, it was simply the end of a special time in her life. “I’ve always felt I lived a charmed life, and I still do.”
The recession is tough on everyone, but especially so for local restaurants. Dining out is the first thing most of us cut from the budget during a recession, understandably. But consider this: more of our mom-and-pop places, be it restaurants, wine shops, or our favorite specialty food producers, will fail without our business. Most of us can keep dining out affordable simply by cutting back on our order. As a restaurant veteran, I know that even in good times it’s tough to survive. Which begs the question, how do restaurants stay viable in a recession while food costs rise and customer sales sink? I called three excellent SLO County restaurateurs to ask, what’s the key to survival?
At Et Voila (SLO) chef Jose Dahan said pointedly: “I have to work harder than ever while keeping the place open with a minimum of staff. I don’t cut corners or waste food, and I keep creative as much as possible.” Dahan believes the key is not to panic and to improve the offerings; the worst thing a restaurateur can do is focus on the economy. He explained it’s important to keep menu prices as low as possible and remain consistent. Fortunately, his catering business helps him through the slow weeks at his restaurant. The most important part, he said, is giving the customer what they want. “Customers want to see you when they come in. You need to be happy to see them, and take care of them all of the time. I want them to think of me when celebrating something in their life and knowing we’ll make it special.”
Patty and Bill Carpenter, who own and manage Corner View Restaurant (SLO) , saw a significant drop in sales during June. “We planned an untimely trip to Spain, and discovered it’s slow in Europe. I don’t know what the answer is; I wish I had one for all of us,” she admitted. Noting that no one wants to see a competitor close, she said she had to ask her staff to cut a shift weekly. “The more good restaurants we have, the more people will come out to eat.” The Carpenter’s hired a new chef, Matthew Beckett, formerly at the SLO Country Club, who plans to introduce his new menu in two weeks. “We’ve cut shifts, hired a chef, and we’re looking at costs, value and the excitement factor,” she explained. “I’m a firm believer that if you throw enough at it, something’s got to stick.”
Longtime local chef Ian McPhee, founder and chef of McPhee’s Grill in Templeton and Avila Beach, answered honestly: “I don’t know what the key is; you’ve got to have a certain amount of luck. I’ve made enough adjustments in labor to handle it, and I’m riding this out.” As owner of his building in Templeton, he said he’s happy he’s not a slave to his bank. The practical businessman explained during the good times he made double mortgage payments. For McPhee it’s a matter of being flexible in your business. “A lot of people get into the business because they love to cook and don’t set themselves up. Then they become slaves to their business.”
McPhee, like Dahan, believes the customer has to come first. “If you’re not doing the best job you can, you’ll lose customers. My byline is: ‘dedicated to great food and great service,’” he noted. “When you come to McPhee’s you know what you’re getting.” With his service staff, McPhee said there’s only a certain amount of labor you can give up. If you only have one waiter on and the restaurant fills up, it can kill your reputation. “It’s my business and my name is on it. I train my staff personally so I know they’re not over-charring the meat. If worse comes to worse and I had to go back to the (cook’s) line, I’d do it,” the savvy chef stated. He recalled his early years when he cooked every night, yet always found time to go into the dining room to greet his customers. “Everybody wants to feel special and if you’re not there so the customers can see you, they won’t come back.”
I’m confident SLO hasn’t lost chef Maegen Loring, she’s passionate and focused. “I have no regrets. It’s not that we didn’t succeed, we chose to get out safely,” she concluded. “A new restaurant is very likely in our future.”

Thursday, May 7, 2009

When people find spare money tough to come by, entrepreneurs quickly become creative at finding ways to make you decide you can spare a little change. And indeed that’s what chef Maegen Loring and her partner and husband Jeff Loring have done at the Park Restaurant. They’re offering an excellent reason for going out for a great time. If you’ve already received President Obama’s stimulus tax cut you’ll find these outstanding events worth spending a few dollars on for some good wines and good eats.

Hamburger Wednesday at the Park

Hamburgers at the park, mind you, has nothing to do with eating fast food on a blanket in a park surrounded by trees and buzzing insects. This is a special offering at the outstanding Park Restaurant where you’ll feast on the best hamburger you’ve ever sunk your teeth into. Chef Maegen Loring appreciates good food, be it foie gras or ground beef patties. When tough times hit she decided to offer a gourmet treat at a discount price. And since she never cuts corners when it comes to quality, the hamburger was a natural addition to her menu. You can only get it, however, on Wednesdays.

The chef prefers Hearst Ranch beef when it comes to the straight-up hamburger, and from experience I agree their ground beef ranks among the finest. But she also makes this casual dish fun with her creative burgers, like the Vietnamese pork burger or Thai fish-burger. There’s also a vegan burger made from a mix of veggies with garbanzo beans and/or potatoes. But it’s not just the patty that’s special here. Everything from the mayo and ketchup to the fresh buns baked just before they open are made by Loring and her team.

They offer four burger choices with beef and turkey patties featured each week, and two other choices blended by this uber-talented chef. These excellent burgers are priced between $12 and $15 each with choice of fries, fried in duck fat (yummy) or olive oil, or that night’s special salad. My husband Dan and I both add Hearst Ranch beef with different “add-on” and loved them. Big as they are we ate the whole thing, and the fries and that night’s salad of romaine and Roquefort salad. For dessert the panna cotta with fresh strawberries and kumquats was a satisfying conclusion.

“It’s become a who’s who of wine industry people on Wednesday nights,” chef Maegen admitted. “There’s a great buzz going on in here and it feels great.” We saw several people we know and enjoyed dinner with winemaker Stillman Brown of Red Zeppelin, his siren Alexis Louise Fontenot, and his son Jake Brown. The 2008 Pink Zeppelin was delicious with the burgers, as was the 2006 McPrice Meyers Grenache.

The usual menu is also available on Hamburger Wednesday, as are her full selection of wonderful house-made desserts. The Park has limited seating so reservations are strongly advised. Whenever Dan and I are celebrating a special moment, the Park is always among our first choices for dining in San Luis Obispo County.

The Park Restaurant
1819 Osos Street
San Luis Obispo, CA
Call: 805-545-0000

For the rest of this week’s Cuisine column, please visit New Times’ website at I’m celebrating 13 years of covering the wine and food scene for New Times in June 2009.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mexican cuisine -- I Can Only Wish for It

When I say Mexican cuisine, and then start ranting and raving about Central Coast Mexican food, I have to admit I was simply being kind to the fine foods of Mexico. And I've had many a great Mexican meal, be it from Rick Bayless's outstanding cookbooks, the killer tacquerias in San Francisco's Mission District, or at La Supra Rica in Santa Barbara. I've only been to Ensenada, Mexico once but we didn't find great food there, either. I didn't really expect it in a town designed for drunken students and cruise ship tourists.

Here in the otherwise ideal living conditions in San Luis Obispo County, when I visit a new Mexican restaruant, no matter how much other critics or friends rave about it, I have always been totally disappointed. Like my visit to a new place in Arroyo Grande, the grand ditch as one visitor once described it to me, where I couldn't even get a decent tin pan of frijoles. The slop on my plate with a cheap sprinkle of so-called cheddar cheese reminded me of the mud pies I made when I was 5-years-old. The salsa, so loaded with garlic I thought they had bastardized a cheap can of marinara sauce, was inedible. I don't get it. As much as I love Mexican foods, I should be able to find a damn good restaurant serving it in a community with a rather large Mexican community. When I filled my entire Cuisine column with my crazed complaining about this subject, they received more letters to the editor than I'd ever received in 13 years of writing that column. And they didn't publish them!!! If these restaurants were actually advertising, maybe I could see why. But they're not. Imagine this, I had named the Mexican eateries that disappointed me and they took the names out of the story. I heard from on editor, however, the editorial team was divided on the issue and many supported my column challenging the restaurants to step up to the plate and improve their batting average. Alas to no avail, so that's one reason I've started this blog.

The oddest thing was that most people wrote to me to support Taco Temple in Morro Bay, which I like very much. Yet it's not a Mexican restaurant, it's California fusion, which the place states in a huge sign above the front door of the restaurant. I still support Taco Temple but it's not what I'm talking about. So for now, I'll just continue to eat the best Mexican I can find around here, the dishes I prepare in my kitchen!