Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Northwest Chocolate Festival

Chocolate isn't just any food. In fact, I think it is safe to say that it transcends the term "food." What other substance is not just a nutrient, but can brighten somebody's entire day, act as an aphrodisiac, be considered part of a balanced breakfast, and make already awesome beer even awesomer? Ok, so maybe bacon, but this article is about chocolate.

I bring this up because Josh, Alyssa, and I had the pleasure of attending the Meet the Maker Opening Reception to the Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle, WA. While only offering a small dose of what festival-goers were in for over the weekend, I was exposed to more chocolate-centric food, beverage, knowledge, and scantily-clad models than I knew existed.

I'll get to the latter parts in a moment, but as a somewhat respected online food and beverage journalist, the highlight of this experience for me was to talk with chocolate makers and hear both their story and approach to making chocolate. Had you replaced their enthusiasm with "beer" or "wine" instead of "chocolate", you would hear very familiar stories. Their passion for what most people take for granted as a simple dessert is unrivaled and it shows in the truly artistic creations they sell. They're also willing to go to ridiculous time-intensive extremes to make what might only ever amount to one bite, but you can taste that. To the many chocolate makers we met, kudos.

We also got to taste chocolate! There were far too many chocolate companies to highlight, so I'll talk about a couple of my favorites.

Theo Chocolate is the only chocolate maker at the event whose offerings I've had before and they certainly didn't disappoint. Perhaps the most well-known chocolate maker in Seattle, Theo offers a little bit of everything ranging from classic chocolate flavors to coconut curry chocolate bars. Their commitment to sustainability is rivaled only to the length of their public tour waiting list. I actually had the opportunity to try the coconut curry bar and, well, it tasted like coconut curry and chocolate! The curry flavors were very subtle and the coconut/chocolate combo smoothed out the spice to where it all made sense when melted in your mouth. I've never had anything from Theo I didn't at least enjoy, so definitely hit them up on your next Seattle trip.

Ykchaua Chocolates (pronounced ick-chow-ah) is the ancient Mayan patron god of cocoa merchants. It's also a damn good part-time candy making operation out of Seattle's Ballard neighborhood that really left an impression with everyone. They also had a curry-inspired offering, but what stood out to me was a cayenne-infused chocolate. I'm all about the spice and have had spicy chocolates before, but they all end up tasting like chocolate in addition to spice if that makes any sense. Not Ykchuau's. The chocolate and spice flow as one and your entire tongue gets to partake in the experience. Very well balanced and not spicy enough to where it would only put off the most sensitive of palates.

Snake & Butterfly out of Santa Clara, CA brought with them their best selling offering and with good reason. Remember my bacon comment up top? Now that I'm this far in the article, I'm going to pretend like I thought of that ahead of time and will point you what people really want; chocolate-covered bacon caramels. Go ahead and imagine exactly what that'd taste like, now up the saltiness a little bit and reduce the smokiness a tad. Viola!

At this point you're either still with me or have skimmed to this part because I'm going to elaborate on that scantily-clad models part. Also in attendance were models from La Figa: Visions of Food and Form. I'll leave the explaining up to their web site
La Figa: Visions of Food and Form is a book featuring a spectacular collection of sensual photography – models wearing nothing but the edible creations of James Beard award-winning chef Tiberio Simone. Using the human body as his canvas, and natural fresh ingredients as his paint, Simone’s elegant and tasteful nude images are the culmination of a five year collaboration with photographer Matt Freedman.

Overall this was an incredibly fun night and I can only imagine how the festival itself went. We only experienced a small portion of what they had to offer, but will definitely block out an entire weekend for next year's event. Thank you to everybody who helped organize the festival as well as the chocolate makers for bringing their best offerings.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New Tastes at New Deal

Sure, it did not look like much from the outside...but that is generally where I find that expectations get confounded.  Lessons gleaned from my life experience once again did not fail me when my out-of-town friend Jen and I dodged early fall raindrops on our way into the New Deal Distillery in Portland.  We entered by walking through a massive garage door, up a loading ramp, and onto the distillery floor where a rustic tasting space greeted us, backlit by frosted windows.  Still feeling the cool, damp, Oregon air bellied up to such a bar certainly gave me the sense that I was perhaps in 1920's speakeasy.  Fresh air and a sense of bucking authority - this was my kind of place.

New Deal opened in 2004, and offers a range of organic vodka, and gin, each lined up for us on the bar to taste.  We wasted no time in sampling the Portland 88 - their brand of vodka.  I really enjoyed the almost sweet vanilla in the nose.  It sipped smoothly with a slight burn at the center, lingering light-vanilla finish, and silky mouth feel.  This vodka would do well on its own, but would be equally tasty in mixed drinks.

We next were treated to two different kinds of gin -the first, dubbed No. 1, presented uniquely with a cloudy yellow color.  Distiller Matt explained that this gin, as well as the other we tried No. 3, were juniper-only gins.  No 1. had a strong start and was full-on juniper throughout with a rougher mouth feel than I'd experienced in a gin.  No. 3 also was very juniper-forward in the nose, clear, and strong.  I enjoyed the silky mouth feel and smoothness of the finish.  Jen, a big gin fan, was complimentary of both, stating that despite the simplicity of the gins, they were flavorful and much more enjoyable than most gins one can get at the bar.

After that we tried two flavored vodkas.  The first, a chocolate vodka, Mud Puddle, that Matt shared was made with house-roasted cacao nibs.  It had a beautiful nose that made me think of cocoa baking powder.  Only slightly sweet at the front, the cocoa flavors were rich and malty with a delightfully bitter finish.  Unlike many chocolate liquors I've tasted, this one had not a hint of vanilla.  It was chocolate throughout.  I would sip this alone, mix it into a latte, or cook it into desserts.  I imagined pouring a shot over vanilla ice cream to balance the bitter and the sweet.

Hot monkey was the second flavored vodka we sampled.  Sporting the flavor of five different Southwestern hot peppers, the nose was smoky and intense.  The front also carried smoke into a spicy center that crept up on me and led me to need a chaser of water (hot may or may not be something I can handle).  I don't think I could manage to sip this one, but it would be amazing in fruit juices (pineapple comes to mind), and I would love to use it to marinate a steak about to go on the grill.  Jen was very excited about Hot Monkey.  An organic farmer who specializes in growing peppers, she spent some quality time trying to pick out the flavors.

The staff were friendly (Matt, one of the distillers, spent our entire tasting entertaining us with information), the space unique and comfortable, and the liquors amazing.  Check out New Deal at 1311 SE 9th Avenue in Portland!

Filled Up For 28 Bucks

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Vine ripe tomato salad with feta, butternut squash risotto with sage and chocolate pot de creme with huckleberries. Yeah, I had all that for just 28 bucks last night and I didn’t make it myself.

I know we usually focus on wine, beer and spirits but what goes better with those three than delicious food from some of the best restaurants in the greater Seattle area.

My delicious meal was made possible by The Seattle Restaurant Cooperative and The Seattle Times. You still have a chance to cash in on it.

Seattle Restaurant Week is happening through October 27th. You just can’t get the deals on Friday, Saturday or for Sunday brunch. Here’s how it works: There are more than 150 participating restaurants so pick one you’ve been wanting to try. On the website you can check out what each of them are offering for their R.W. meals. Most have three appetizers options, three or four entree options and three dessert options. You pick one of each and your total will be $28. You need to make a reservation at most places and, as some of us WestToasters are realizing, they’re booking up fast.

Last night we enjoyed Nell’s Restaurant in the heart of the Greenlake neighborhood. We had a 7:30 reservation but were able to get in a little early after a walk around the lake. To our delight along with the great food specials Nell’s was offering wine pairings to go with each of the courses for an extra $18. Not too shabby at all since its hard to find a single glass for less than seven dollars anymore.

I wasn’t planning on a blog from this dinner so I didn’t take detailed notes or pictures but from the host to the plate presentation this was one of the best meals and best deals I’ve gotten in a long time. The wine pairings that were chosen went well with the meal and the amount of food was just perfect to fill me up without feeling stuffed.

If you didn’t know about Seattle Restaurant Week get out and give it a shot. Besides dinner some places have a three course lunch option for just $15. Talk about a deal. I’m honestly considering canceling weeknight plans I already have for the next two weeks just to take advantage of trying as many new places as I can. I hope you do the same and when you do - let us know what you think of the ones you try.

PS: You can find details on Facebook and Twitter as @SeattleRW

Nell's on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 17, 2011

Les Caves de Awesome!

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Four years ago, my friend Chris told me that he was leaving a stable job with the largest chain of brewpubs in Oregon to help open a new establishment in Corvallis...Block something or other.  I recall thinking that he was nuts to follow a pipe dream, after all, his new bosses -- Nick and Kristen Arzner -- while experienced in the restaurant industry had little to no experience as proprietors.  Well, two months later I found myself helping install a brewery, 650 pound fermenters and all, on a drizzly December day in 2007 and the rest was history.  Block 15 Restaurant and Brewery opened in Spring 2008 and quickly became the most popular brewpub within a 100 mile radius, known for creative brew and unique food.

Last winter, when Chris started talking about a new project Nick and Kristen had cooked up in a vacant coffee shop next door to Block 15,  my ears and palate perked up.  If this new venture were to experience even 50% of the success of Block 15, we were all in for a treat...a fact I confirmed in person last weekend.  Allow me to introduce Les Caves Bier & Kitchen ("Caves"), a European Bier Tavern in Corvallis, Oregon.

The first thing I noticed walking through the doors of Caves was that it was Sunday, and well, they were open.  I've come to take this fact for granted in Seattle but in Corvallis, an open restaurant on a Sunday is worthy of note.  According to owner Nick Arzner,

Les Caves is modeled as a European Bier Cafe and will share the same community and environmental commitments as Block 15.

Walking through the doors of Caves, I felt like Harry Potter apparating to a different time and place. Chic, modern, but cozy, Caves features a bar made from beer barrel staves, a relatively intimate seating area, and a prominent beer fridge. I also couldn't help spending a minute reflecting with Nick on the success of the business. Four years ago it was a rag-tag group of friends and family renovating the joint next door; the luxuries of filling a needed hole in the Willamette Valley dining scene brought the ability to engage Metzger Green Build to do the heavy lifting on this project.

As authentic of a beer bar as you'll find in the Pacific Nortwest, Caves brings influences from Belgium, Great Britain, and Germany in both menu and beverage selection. Beer Curator Drew Salmi selects world-class beers for a 16-tap rotational draught list, including a IPA and Saison brewed by Block 15 exclusively for Caves. But wait, there's more! Did I mention the bottle list? No? Well, you'll find over 100 bottles from near and far, including a delicious Oakshire Brewing Hellshire bourbon aged barley wine that I found to be rich, sweet, and toasty and awesome during my visit.  If you're looking for rare beer this is the place to be.

Oh yea, they have food too. Cracking open the menu you'll find a feature of local agriculture, from scratch cooking, in house baking, and divergent choices ranging from simple pub snacks to date-worthy entrees. Since Rick and I don't make it to Corvallis all that often, the whole gang got together for the visit to Caves and we appropriately ordered pretty much one of every appetizer on the menu. Bier Bread Pretzel...awesome with the stone ground mustard. Salt Cod Fritters, who doesn't like salt, cod, and fritter? The surprising highlight of that portion of the meal was a crispy crab deviled egg. For dinner I thoroughly enjoyed a Rabbit Leg Confit with a house made sage biscuit that can only be described as orgasmic. The menu rotates frequently based on what's fresh, so keep an open mind and you'll not be disappointed.

A place that is you'll be just as comfortable grabbing appetizers and beer on a random Wednesday night after a long day of work as you will all gussied up for a hot date on a Friday night, Caves has great things to come. As with any new establishment, there are a few kinks being worked out but never fear, all signs are pointing to awesome and I can't wait to visit again. I almost forgot...they serve brunch as well on weekends! Buttermilk Stout Pancakes and a Bloody Tequila Maria? Sold! Actually, I'll take a mimosa...but you get the picture.

Les Caves Bier & Kitchen
308 SW 3rd Street
Corvallis, Oregon

Les Caves, Bier & Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 10, 2011

Baiocchi Wines Entre Nous

 Many of my recent posts have been about various events that I have been fortunate enough to attend. However, I recently discovered a wine I was so impressed with that I had to share it with the world....okay, at least share it with those of you that are smart enough to check in with WestToast for all your wine, beer, and spirits needs.
Photo courtesy of
 If you weren’t aware, September 23rd was Grenache Day. An international event that celebrates one of my favorite varietals and a grape that is now starting to get the attention it deserves as a single varietal wine. I went to fellow wine writer and Grenache lover William Allen’s ( farm to celebrate this glorious occasion. William had arranged for several local producers of Grenache to pour out of his greenhouse while we tasted through their wines and tweeted ‘til our thumbs were sore with the hashtag #grenacheday.
There were many great wines being poured and it affirmed that the people here are making some high caliber Rhone wines. However, my winner of the night was someone doing their first public pouring, BaiocchiWines. Winemaker Greg Baiocchi was pouring his 2009 Entre Nous, a Grenache/Syrah blend (90%Grenache 10% Syrah). This fruit-forward wine had a nose of beautiful floral notes and flavors of red fruit throughout the finish. It was still a bit young but the complexity it was already showing only means that this wine will become something truly special with a bit of aging. The biggest surprise for me was that Entre Nous has an alcohol content of 16.5% abv. Grenache is typically a higher alcohol wine but when I tried this wine there is no way I would have guessed 16.5%, because it sure didn’t taste like it. I think that just shows how remarkable this wine is.

While drinkable now, it will be well worth the wait of laying it down for even 6-12 months. Not only was the Entre Nous my personal winner, but also the overall winner of the very scientific “Rank your Top 3” voting system employed that night. Not bad for your first public pouring.

Greg was incredibly personal and I loved hearing his story of starting out as a lover of wine just like all of us to producing these handcrafted wines. An avid skydiver, Greg would trade skydiving adventures in exchange for good wine. From there a passion was born and Greg and his wife Sharon created Baiocchi Handcrafted Wines. I love Grenache and can’t wait to see what Greg has in store for us in the future.



Saturday, October 8, 2011

Time For Harvest

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It’s time for harvest!

If you haven’t visited a winery during this time of year, make your plans to do it in 2011. You can start this weekend. Maryhill Harvest Fest starts today!

For the next two weekends you can be there to watch the grapes come-in, do a grape stomp, get exclusive barrel tasting, play on tournament size bocce ball court, eat and listen to live music. I just stomped grapes for the first time and it was awesome!

It’s happening all day, music starts at 1:00. Get your Harvest on at Maryhill Winery October 8th, 9th, 15th and 16th. Its a relaxing and beautiful 90 minute drive for those in the Portland or Vancouver, WA neighborhoods.

A semi-full of grapes is expected to come in on the afternoon of the 8th so if you get out to the winery early you can watch the production crew at work as they weigh, sort and send the grapes into part one of the winemaking process - It’s very impressive to see in person.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Deco Distilling - the Art of Quality Rum

So I am still working on this whole living in the Pacific Northwest thing.  I know that there are people here who turn green when they hear that I have not converted to the brilliant love of the Willamette Valley and of Oregon - the entire I-5 corridor really.  In reality I really do like it here - but I just spent 5 years in the land of perpetual sunshine.  I miss my vitamin D.  I'm unused to things being damp and having to put rice in my salt shakers to keep them from becoming solid lumps.  I have a hard time getting out of bed days on end to gray clouds.  In short, one of the more prominent aspects of the PNW is getting to me, and I am trying to do something about it.

One of my goals is to get out and about regardless of the rain.  Living in Utah we just went inside when it rained and waited 15 minutes to an hour until it stopped.  Life stopped for the rain.  People ran squealing for cover at the first sign of drops.  I remember once when I was working at a thrift store there being about 30 people milling around by the doors, their purchases already completed, waiting for the sun to crack so they could head back outside to their cars.  Their cars were parked only 10 yards away.

So when my friend Jen came up to visit me from Utah I was bound and determined to set a good example as a newly minted Pacific Northwesterner.  We headed out despite the downpour, and journeyed to Portland's Distillery Row - a series of craft distilleries in Southeast Portland that are creating innovative and fun spirits.  Our first stop was Deco Distilling, located at 1512 SE 7th Ave.

Sporting a trendy tasting room just off the street, Deco combined retro design with the sensibility of reclaimed building space one so often sees in Portland.  We were greeted by Augustina who, when Jen stated she was not a big rum fan, cracked a huge smile and said "you will once you try our rum!"  I had to back her on that one even before I took my first sip.  Since delving into the world of craft distilleries this summer I have learned one universal truth - most of the spirits we drink are crappy.  It pays to get the good stuff. 
We started by sipping on their standard - Deco Silver Rum.  This rum was just barely sweet at the front with a rich, full body and an incredibly silky mouth feel.  The rum was clear and bright with hints of molasses and a light burn just before a sweet, lingering finish.  I did not find it incredibly complex in flavor, but instead it was solid, accessible, and thoroughly enjoyable. 

We moved on to Coffee Rum, made with locally-roasted Arabica.  Now I have had a number of coffee liqueurs and coffee flavored drinks in my day.  Pretty much anything coffee makes me happy.  This was by far the nicest coffee-flavored beverage I've ever had.  First of all the nose was warm and full of dark, rich, coffee along with higher, sweeter notes that led be to believe what I was about to taste would be sugary.  Instead the flavor was full-bodied and reminiscent of the best coffees the Pacific Northwest has to offer.  It was rich and toasty at the front with a light sweetness that gave way to full-bodied dark roast at the center.  The finish had a nice bitter bite along with almost a lightly vanilla and fruity sensibility.  The texture was smooth and thick but not syrupy.  We tried the rum mixed with horchata and it was divine!  I would happily sip this on the rocks, or use it in desserts to amp up coffee flavors without over sweetening.

The Ginger Rum was equally surprising.  The flavor was unapologetically ginger - right in your face with the hot and spicy essence and experience of this incredible root.  The rum is not sweet, but instead hits you hard at the front with a ginger spice that works it way through the palette and up into the nasal cavity, stimulating all of the senses at once with an explosion of ginger that is reminiscent of biting right into the freshly ground stuff.  At the center there are hints of sweetness that come out more fully at the finish just alongside a final spicy nip.  Augustina treated us to a rum and coke made with this and it was incredible!  The spiciness of the rum balanced perfectly against the sweetness of the coke - exciting and fresh.  I do not think I would drink this rum in any way other than mixed into cocktails, but its intensity and uniqueness would spice up any cocktail.  There are a number of recipes on the Deco website that suggest the same.

I appreciated the time Augustina took in speaking with me about the rums and about Deco, and it was a lovely treat to have one of the owners, Bill Adams, come out to speak with us as well.  He talked about starting Deco, the process of rum-making, and was incredibly kind in the face of our rum naivete.  Thanks to you both for your hospitality and amazing rum.  I have had a couple of homemade rum and cokes with the Ginger Rum since visiting and they are fantastic!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Taste of Red Mountain in Woodinville

"Come to Red Mountain," the siren song beckoned.

"Huh?" responded an ever-eloquent wine journalist by the name of Josh.

"300 days of hot sunshine...the finest vineyards in the class wine...Col Solare," she responded.

"But siren, that's three(ish) hours from my cozy Seattle nest!" I retorted.

"COL SOLARE." screamed siren.

"Col Solare always makes a compelling point, but it's Wednesday night and I have to work in the morning." I wistfully cried.

"Bottega...Bottega...Bottega...Woodinville...Bottega." said siren, and with that, it was a done deal.

It was, in fact, my lucky day as this siren took shape in the form of Grace Doyle, a friendly representative of Col Solare and the Bottega in question was Col Solare's new location, offering a "Taste of Red Mountain" on the West Side. Located within the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in Woodinville, the Bottega tasting room and wine shop was created to offer visitors the chance to taste, purchase, and enjoy Col Solare wines on the west side of the Cascade Mountains.  Woodinville being significantly closer than Red Mountain, I was in the car before you even pop the cork headed to the grand opening of the Bottega. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Bottega is an Italian word for "shop".

If you don't happen to be familiar with Col Solare, you really should read this blog more often.  Seriously.    We've written about the wine a number of times, because frankly, it's that good; often our celebratory wine of choice. A partnership between Tuscany's Marchesi Antinori and Washington's Chateau Ste. Michelle, Col Solare was founded with the sole purpose of producing the best damn red bordeaux blend in Washington. Since the first vintage in 1995, Col Solare is now producing 5000 - 10,000 cases annually and are getting pretty darn close to achieving the mission.

At the Bottega grand opening, I had the opportunity to spend some time with winemaker Marcus Notaro looking into the future of the wine and winery, and I can confidently say the best is yet to come. After a move to the Red Mountain estate in 2007, Marcus has slowly been crafting an identity for Col Solare; an identity centered around the attributes of that appellation: rich, flavorful fruit from high heat, the kind of heat where the vines really have to struggle to produce. Today, the estate vineyard is 5 years old and it's fruit comprises a growing percentage of the final blend. Eventually, Marcus hopes to take Col Solare to a Red Mountain designate wine...and someday, an estate blend. As if hearing the story of the wine directly from the winemaker wasn't enough for this wine geek, Marcus brought samples. I tasted through the 2008 and 2009 vintages as well as some early barrel samples from 2010: merlot, malbec, cabernet france, and cabernet sauvignon all from the estate vineyard. So, when I say there are great things to come, I actually know what I'm talking about.

I digress. You'll have to read about the wine in a future post, back to the Bottega. After tasting the barrel samples, it was time for the unveiling of the Bottega. After much fanfare and more wine, we walked into a side room of the Chateau Ste. Michelle tasting room and there it was! Enclosed in glass with a welcoming but classy design, the Col Solare logo lit on the floor, and magnums of sweet nectar on the counter was this veritable shop of awesomeness. Small and intimate but big enough to bring a group of friends, a bit of my soul went to the dusty sagebrush of Red Mountain when I stepped through the door -- and I loved every minute of it. The wine was spot on and the staff was attentive and knowledge, a formidable task given that I was there with hundreds of fellow oenophiles.

Soooooo...if the siren song screams your name and you're looking for a little bit of Red Mountain over here on the West Side, the Col Solare Bottega is the place to be. You won't be sorry. I'll probably see you there.

The Col Solare Bottega offers private tasting appointments for individuals and small groups daily from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Each 45-minute appointment will include an overview of the Col Solare story and tasting of three vintages of the Col Solare Bordeaux-style blend, at a cost of $20 per guest.