Sunday, November 23, 2014

Turning Water Into Water

Have you noticed a theme in the local wine news lately? California's stubborn drought has focused renewed attention on how much water it takes to produce some of our state's most prized and delicious pleasures.

Mike Dunne recently wrote an article in the Sacbee about the staggering amount of water the wine industry needs to make wine, and how pioneering growers and wineries are taking major steps to reduce their consumption.  Industry experts Dunne interviewed concluded that it typically takes 5.6 gallons to grow enough grapes for a single four-ounce pour of California wine (!), and that the winery will need another 2-6 gallons (most for cleaning) to actually vinify a gallon of wine.  Hardly a model of sustainability... so as the drought drags on, more and more people in the industry are getting serious about reducing those numbers.

Earlier this month, I was invited to the headquarters of Free Flow Wines for the first annual Keggy Awards
Photo credit: Bob McClenahan. Used with permission.
for wine on tap sustainability, and was able to check out how they've tackled the sustainability problem -- an issue that has always been near and dear to their founders' hearts.  Free Flow puts premium wine brands into wine-certified stainless steel kegs, and since its founding in 2009 has prevented the equivalent of 3.9 million bottles from entering our trash system. By eliminating  most traditional packaging (the bottle, the cork, the capsule, the label, and the wooden case), the company saves wineries money and decreases the financial cost and carbon footprint of shipping the same volume of wine.

Once installed and tapped at a restaurant or bar, the kegs also preserve the wine in perfect condition for weeks using a proprietary blend of inert gases -- reducing the restaurant's spoilage losses from oxidation, speeding up service, and lowering the garbage bill for hauling off the empty bottles.  Free Flow rounds up the empty kegs and sends them to headquarters for a thorough cleaning, before filling them up with another 26 bottles' worth of wine from one of Free Flow's premium wine clients -- which include Au Bon Climat, Breggo, Cliff Lede, Copain, Iron Horse Vineyards, J Vineyards, King Estate, Matthiasson, Qupé, Round Pond, Tablas Creek, and dozens of other brands, large and small.

Free Flow's south Napa production facility, home of The Hoff.
99.375% of the water used here is recaptured, cleaned, and reused.
Photo credit: Bob McClenahan. Used with permission.
The cleaning and sterilization part of this operation obviously requires a fair bit of water... about 4,000 gallons per day, even with water-efficient keg-cleaning equipment like the machine they call "The Hoff," pictured at right. (As CEO Jordan Kivelstadt explains, "It's pretty, it's German, and it's tempermental.")  But Free Flow designed a proprietary closed-loop water recycling program that enables them to recapture and reuse all but 20-25 gallons of that 4,000.  Using pH balancers, digesting bacteria, and ultrafiltration, they restore their wastewater to a pristine and sterile state that tastes better than the UV-filtered water in the office water cooler -- at least, according to the employees who took shots of the water to demonstrate their faith in the system.  The company says they save about $14,000 each month in water costs.

This is amazing! And exactly the kind of thing that needs to catch on. Less waste, lower transport costs, and lower consumption of resources at every level.  Hopefully we will see more and more of this ingenuity in the future, because a future without wine is no future at all.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Best Sushi Since Breakfast at Tsukiji

The Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo is (or should be) on the bucket list of every foodie worth their o toro.  On my first pilgrimage there, armed with the breakfast recommendation of my former colleague Naoto, I ate the best sushi of my life. The pristine freshness, clarity, and simplicity of each piece of nigiri were a revelation for me, just as they have been for so many others.

Toro nigiri at Daiwa in Tsukiji Fish Market

I haven't tried to replicate the experience in the Bay Area, partly because I didn't want to ruin my blissful nostalgia for that major life adventure, but also because of my pessimism that anything here could measure up to that memory. And then I sprang for the tasting menu at Pabu.

Pabu is the brand new restaurant venture between restaurant titan Michael Mina and sushi chef Ken Tominaga (of Hana Sushi in Rohnert Park), located in the financial district of San Francisco at 101 California.  The menu covers izakaya-style food as well as shabu shabu, but the sushi captured my attention. 

Glitteringly fresh, and gracefully seasoned with a brushstroke of soy, citrus, wasabi or combination thereof (you DON'T dip this sushi yourself), the sixteen pieces of nigiri were the star of the night.  If only Pabu were open for breakfast.

No soy sauce dipping bowls here. Just pickled ginger to refresh your palate,
and (for us) a remarkable umami-driven Savagnin from the Jura.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

50 Shades of White (Asparagus)

I just got back from a wine pilgrimage to Champagne, Burgundy, and Alsace. After weeks of diligent research in local restaurants featuring regional cuisine, I learned that these three very different areas -- whose wines also differ dramatically -- nonetheless share a gut-bustingly rich eating tradition. Meat monopolized these restaurant menus, appearing in every dish in at least one form, but frequently two or three.  All green salads were systematically loaded with lardons (sauteed nuggets of pork belly similar to bacon), if not also cheese, various regional charcuterie items, and/or foie gras.
Burgundy is known for its Charolais beef and Epoisses cheese.
Regional specialists frequently combine the two to achieve maximal artery blockage.

This was called the salade Sparnacienne -- Epernay-style salad. Fried lardons, fried potatoes, a quarter-pound of goat cheese toasts broiled with honey, and a few pieces of lettuce and tomato (for color).

The only vegetable dishes to be found in most regional restaurants were the aforementioned salads, potatoes, sauerkraut (in Alsace), and the much-beloved white asparagus that was making its annual appearance while I was there.  Seemingly every restaurant I visited offered a form of this ultra-seasonal delicacy as its vegetable offering.

Some preparations were more successful than others.

The oddest version we tried on our first night in Alsace: a gigantic (white) platter of boiled white asparagus -- easily over two pounds' worth -- served with two white ramekins of (white) mayo and off-white, mayo-based mustard sauce, and two different types of sliced hams on a side plate.  This monochromatic mountain of blandness was far more asparagus than any human could eat in a single sitting (though I felt this way frequently in Alsace), and really didn't do any favors for the mild flavored vegetable. Not my favorite preparation. Also not very photogenic.

I loved the version we found at the excellent Brasserie Boulingrin in Reims (Champagne), though.  Here a comparatively stingy serving of asparagus had been cut into bite size pieces and baked inside a small coffee cup as part of an oeuf cocotte.  The asparagus lent its delicate flavor to the cream in which the egg had been baked, adding a lovely fresh counterpoint to the richness.

Eh, oui.

More kudos go to Au Pont du Courbeau in Strasbourg (Alsace), who served a handful of perfectly-cooked spears on top of a French lentil salad with a gorgeous soft boiled egg (oeuf mollet) to provide the sauce. Minced shallots, chives, and a splash of vinaigrette rounded out the seasoning.

Was this an asparagus dish? Or just a vehicle for that mesmerizing egg?

Takeaway lesson: unless you are German (and thus culturally bound to worship the white asparagus as a physical manifestation of the divine), feel free to skip white asparagus dishes that are only about the white asparagus.  In this writer's opinion, the veggie really shines when it's singing backup to more colorful lead vocalists.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Top 4 Springtime Inspirations (so far...)

Living in paradise never gets old, but spring might be my favorite season in Napa, when the verdant new veggie crop hits the market and locals hit the back patio with rosé in hand.
Spring also signals the time for my annual celebration of rapacious gluttony (other people call this a "birthday"), which tends to unearth a lot of exciting new dishes celebrating the sweet glories of the season. This year's gluttony was truly exceptional, but here are my top four dishes that brought a fun new idea to the springtime table.

1. "Sweet pea, farmstead butter, mint, bitter chocolate,"AQ (San Francisco).

This dessert blew me away, and not just because of the clever terrarium presentation. It was flat out delicious. The delicate green flavor of the peas took a starring role in this frozen gelato-like preparation, with fresh mint and pea tendrils providing backup. Combined with the fresh creamy nuttiness of farmstead butter, these garden gems paired spectacularly with crunchy bitter chocolate. Who knew?

2. Puntarelle foccacia, Oenotri (Napa)

Oenotri started serving weekend brunch this spring, and everyone must go try it immediately. I found this mountain-sized sandwich in the pizza section of the menu, and special ordered the extra egg that's pictured above. As you can see, the dish consists of an entire loaf of house-made foccacia -- split in half, toasted, slathered with crescenza-enriched sauce, and finally buried by what seemed like a full pound of tender braised puntarelle greens. Devouring the entire thing is the only way to ensure you get your recommended daily allowance of greens.

3. Smoked trout salad, the girl & the fig (Sonoma)

Sometimes you forget about certain ingredients, because your eating habits don't see them for extended periods of time.  This dish reminded me how much I dig smoked trout, and prompted a rash of smoked trout meals at home in the week that followed. Smoked trout is the Audrey Hepburn of smoked salmon -- delicate and lovely, but with a focused intensity that belies its waifish frame.  This salad showed it off beautifully with Pink Lady apples and shaved fennel (some of my favorite complements for trout) and a creamy anchovy dressing I'd never had in this context before, which helped spread the richness of the fish flavor across all the veggies, and unite the dish.

4. Sweet pea aperitif, Aziza (San Francisco)

I love surprising flavor combinations, the sweet-savory counterpoint, and paradigm shifts for traditional ingredients.  I especially love them when they are actually delicious.  This drink was listed under the aperitif section of Aziza's famed cocktail menu, combining sweet pea juice, calvados (my favorite brown liquor, a French brandy made from apples), and sour orange.  I don't normally enjoy mixing apples and oranges in any context, but here the combination was superb -- with the sweetness stripped away, they complemented both the sweet pea flavor and each other.  Truly a remarkable beverage and unique taste experience.  I can't wait to have another.