Monday, February 23, 2009

Celebration at the Wine Pub

photo courtesy of The Refuge

Just a quick post on last Saturday night’s excellent adventure at The Refuge in San Carlos. Friends and relatives helped me celebrate another birthday, this time successfully cushioning the cruel passage of time.

The Refuge is an extraordinary place, and to appreciate it fully you must take it all in for the sum is larger than the parts. Its Belgian ale list is second to none in the Bay Area, yet the wine list is straight out of a 6th arrondisement bistro, filled with Chinons, Alsatians, and cru Beajolais.

Although the raison d’etre of the place is its slow-cooked, hand-cut pastrami that is worthy of Katz’s Deli, the reuben is just as daunting. But the brilliance of the menu is juxtaposing these Jewish deli treats with house-made French charcuterie made of duck and pork! Oy vey! Sacrilegious but brilliant.

And then the place is dressed up like a funky SOMA club: reddish walls, concrete floor, booths, cafeteria tables and chairs, and blaring indie noise rock music.

So to put it all together, you must love eating Jewish deli meats and French pork and duck charcuterie along with French regional cheeses; and washing them down first with exotic Belgian ales as aperitif and then a red Chinon; while not minding at all the ear-splitting noise rock music. Crazy, but everything works.

Tip: go there with a group so you can order the Grand Plate and 750ml bottles of ales and wines.

The Cantillon Iris was most interesting. Matt, the patron, told me it's a lambic, made like wine, fermented with native yeasts in open top fermenters and aged for 2 years in used wine barrels; the hops are not blended but harvested from a single year so it's a vintage lambic. Bone dry with a sour finish; the taste is similar to Champagne with zero dosage and to vin jaune.

photo courtesy of The Refuge
Duchesse de Bourgogne is served in a Burgundy glass. Fruity, black cherry flavors with a mouthwatering sour finish.

photo courtesy of The Refuge
And classic bistro wines. The Chinon from Joguet is a perfect match with the pastrami.

Aside from the ales and wines that we ordered, I brought a magnum of 1996 Champagne Brut Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Lenoble which was vibrant and citrusy with a delicious toast on the finish. Victor L. brought a stunning Moscato d'Asti, darker than typical with intense cider flavors that are deliciously sweet, creamy, and delicate. Anh surprised us with a bottle of NSG Damodes Haegelin-Jayer: drinking very well already, like many 1988 these days! Delicately spiced and minerally cherry flavors with a light robe. And Krishna shared another 1988 Burgundy, also NSG from Maison Marchand; this was darker and more fleshy, the flavors are simple but well balanced.

Corkage is a very reasonable $10/bottle with a 2-bottle limit. But I apologize and thank Matt for allowing us to abuse his corkage policy on my birthday. But I'll be back and make it up to him.

The Refuge
963 Laurel Street
San Carlos, CA 94070
Tuesday - Thursday: 11:30am-2:30pm & 5:30pm-9:00pm
Friday: 11:30am-2:30pm & 5:30pm-10:00pm
Saturday: 12:00pm-10:00pm
Reservations accepted for parties of 8 or more.

Joguet Chinons are available at

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Joy of Wine Dinners

Room.JPGUntil 3 to 4 years ago, vineyardgate winesellers used to host themed wine dinners in various San Francisco and Peninsula restaurants about four to six times a year. The first one was ten years ago in 1999 at then newly renovated 231 Ellsworth Restaurant in San Mateo, CA, where we featured a vertical of Cabernet Sauvignons from 1983 to 1997, including Cain Five, Pride, Dalla Valle, Shafer Hillside Select, Lokoya, and Laurel Glen. The inspired kitchen of 231 came up with a spectacular multii-course pairing involving foie gras, black truffles, beef cheeks, roast duck, and lamb—many of the dishes were unexpected pairings but worked perfectly. Working with restaurants to come up with special menus involving unusual pairings is something I look forward to in wine dinners.

Perhaps the most memorable wine dinner in terms of food/wine pairings that we ever did was with Cantonese cuisine and Bordeaux. Sixteen people attended the dinner at the now-defunct Parc Hong Kong in Geary Boulevard, San Francisco. Drinking good Bordeaux and eating Cantonese food are one thing, but pairing the two together is another; I mean people just never consider drinking their favorite Bordeaux with Chinese food. But this East meets West affair shattered that notion.

We started with crispy deep-fried crab claws washed down with magnums of Krug Grand Cuvée Champagne, and we followed that up with double-boiled soup with white Bordeaux from Laville Haut-Brion. The main courses were an array of seafood clay-pot, duck, braised beef, noodles, and steamed vegetable dishes paired with '82 Montrose, '86 Sociando-Mallet, '89 Haut-Brion, '90 Latour, '90 Leoville-Las-Cases, '90 Sassicaia, and '96 Gaja Darmagi. Against their will, I instructed the kitchen and restaurant staff to serve the dishes one by one, western-style, so the wines can be paired in flights. The pairings were a hit and the dinner an eye-opener for everyone. Some even asked me for a copy of the menu and the list of wines so they can replicate the dinner with their friends.

Wine dinners are very magical when done with care. Casual dinners with friends are always pleasurable, but the more disciplined and formal wine dinner, with its themed and structured flights and carefully matched food pairings, is the ultimate in food and wine enjoyment. When you have a serious collaboration between wine people and restaurants the results are bound to be memorable.

Last night I found myself leading another wine dinner. I've stopped producing wine dinners, as interest seemed to have waned over the past few years. We make no money in wine dinners and oftentimes have to subsidize it to keep the costs down or to pay for someone who canceled last-minute. And the effort it takes to organize one is draining. Yet, I find it irresistible to do. As a foodie, first and foremost, and then a wino, I love sharing my passion with fellow foodies and winos.

2004 Barolo is an extraordinary vintage. I've never had young Barolos that are so enjoyable young as their finesse is remarkable. I decided early on to set aside a bottle each of the 2004 Barolos that we offered on pre-arrival for a tasting or better yet a wine dinner.

We had the dinner at one of my favorite new places to go, the Green Hills Country Club in Millbrae, CA, where the new chef has a knack for finding the right dishes to pair with the wines. Our starter of Bressaula (thinly sliced balsamic marinated, air-dried beef) was a profound pairing with the 2004 Barolos. The beef and wine sang in unison—leather, wood, sour cherries, and sweet red licorice. It has to be one of the most perfect food/wine matches!

The next dish that followed was the classic dish with Barolo: risotto. Only, the chef gave it a fresh twist by mixing in mussels and roasted eggplant and lacing it with a sweet vinaigrette. It was another stunner.

And finally the piece de resistance, which was the fork-tender veal shank osso bucco with bone marrow intact and rosemary polenta. The hint of orange peel and pungent rosemary married so harmoniously with the leathery cherry liqueur and herbal flavors that emanated from the Barolos. What a finish!

But wait, there's more! A cheese cart was wheeled in cradling a mouthwatering selection of Italian cheeses. At this point I started retasting the Barolos, noting how they've evolved over the past three hours—the flavors have remained fresh but have intensified, with the new oak showing more on the Viettis, the lavender and red fruits deepening on the Mascarello, Brovia's Villero getting rounder and more floral, and the Brovia normale maintaining its harmonious balance.

At the end of the dinner, I was absolutely certain that there is no other red wine, not even Burgundy, that is a more perfect foil for food than Barolo. I easily imagined myself as A.J. Liebling, who, when asked by the waiter at the end of an enormous multi-course dinner if there was anything else he wanted, replied: "let's do it all over again."


Visit to purchase all these 2004 Barolos.