House wines with a true sense of place

They’re not Two Buck Whoever, but the house wines at Frances, a restaurant in San Francisco’s Castro District, are modestly priced and are ”as distinctive as the address,” as a New York Times headline proclaimed this morning (April 30, 2010).

If you order the house white or red wine, you’ll get a tall, slender flagon, etched at two-ounce intervals. You drink what you want and will be charged one dollar an ounce. This isn’t a unique idea, but it isn’t all that common.

What’s unique is the way the house wines are specially crafted to go with many of the restaurant’s dishes. Beverage director Paul Einbund right now designs a white containing vermentino, chardonnary, sauvignon blanc and pinot gris; his red blends syrah, zinfandel, petite sirah and viognier. You can’t get these blends anywhere else. He orders several kegs at a time from Miraflores winery in the Gold Country town of Placerville, which makes the blends only for him.

These are quality wines with middleman markups, packaging and marketing costs bypassed. And, Jordan Mackay reports, the house wines definitely reflect the ambiance of the house.

For a good many years I’ve blended at least two wines when a bottle has disappointed me. Just a bit of experimentation usually produces a pleasant wine that rescues a loser. I recommend it. –Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.

How not to do Chicken Cordon Bleu . . . and what to do if at first you do it wrong

I still had ham and chicken and cheese. I decided to split two half-breasts into three slices each, layering them with ham and cheese.

The saved chicken seemed dry, so I smeared jarred pesto on both sides of the center slice and on the inside of each of the two other slices. I layed in ham and a half slice of American pepper jack cheese, covering the top of each half breast with a full slice of that cheese which is like what the burger joints use.

Wrong! No matter what I did with the oven, the cheese wouldn’t really melt. (I noticed, this morning, when I got my one-buck sausage mcmuffin at Mickey D’s drive-in window, that their cheese maintains its shape, too!)

I had plated each portion with the layers spread out a bit, which was very pretty. But the whole thing wasn’t pretty at all, and I realized I should have used a pepper jack cheese. Next time, I will.

The taste was terrific, if the texture (due to try after try to melt the darn cheese) was not. Try it. You’ll like it.

Wine? We tried a shiraz — too much kick, by far; and a pinot grigio — just right. It was, after all, a white-wine dish. But tradition means little to . . .

Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.

Blue Ribbon Pizza, a great treat and easy as . . . “pie”

I had a lot of ham left over from the Easter season. We had decided that those beautiful, honey-soaked pre-sliced supermarket hams had failed their tests in our household . . . so the ham leftover was just plain ham (butt half). I could do anything I wanted to with it.

I found four half-price, “sell-by-tomorrow,” boneless, skinless chicken breasts (well, you know, half-breasts) which I’d cooked by my favorite method for those delicacies: bring water to a full boil, submerge the half-breasts, bring the water back to a full boil, turn off the heat, and pull the cooked, moist meat out in about 20 minutes. They are ready to finish in any way, in any quantity up to four, to high praise.

I always have platter-sliced bacon on hand, for seasoning in lots of dishes as well as for its intended uses.

The fridge cheese drawer had plenty of pepper jack, but no swiss. Which meant I really shouldn’t make chicken cordon bleu, which uses no bacon and in which gruyere/swiss is a must.

And . . . there was a Boboli pizza round staring me in the face. (We buy packs of two of those in the “used” or “second-hand” outlets: they’re better, aged!)

I figured I could do a Blue-ribbon Pizza (well, what did you think “cordon bleu” means??). But what to do for a sauce? White, surely.

I mixed low-fat mayonnaise, bottled pesto, garlic granules (not powder), dried thyme, and a Sonoma County olive and lemon mustard (google sonoma mustard olive lemon for a source). Liberally spread, it proved to be wonderful.

Cubes of chicken breast and ham, cut three to the inch, distributed over the pizza and topped with fresh wide-julienned basil and one-third cup of fried, finely-chopped bacon, were ready for a 450-degree convection oven and were worth a 15-minute wait plus another ten minutes of cooling and settling. This was a great creation which can be modified any number of ways.

Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.

Merlot — a wine for drinking, not over-thinking?

I just want to share an observation by Salma Abdelnour, from an article by the above name, in Food and Wine magazine for October 2009. It’s a delightful “tour” of wines that can be as comfortable as popular foods like burgers, bacon, and coffee.

There are so many people who are sure they don’t like wine. Some of them can tolerate white wines. A popular movie a while ago convinced still others that pinot noir is a whole lot better than merlot.

I can’t quote much of the article, but the author quotes Matt Skinner, from Australia: “When I started learning about wine, I read a description of merlot as plush, round, inky, sweet, full. I thought, I want to drink that.

“It’s like a bear hug from your grandma. It’s safe and warm. It puts its arms around you and says, ‘It’s OK. I’m not here to challenge you, I’m just here for you to enjoy’.”

Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.

The Chalone folks really hit a home run when they “discovered” their site near Pinnacles National Monument

Chalone Vineyard 2008 Monterey County chardonnay should please everybody

This time it was our neice, Sherry–not hubby Ron–who waltzed in our front door bearing gifts of yummy wine. Six bottles would last most people 48 hours–but we’re halfway through Sherry’s visit and, well, we’ll see. I did say “yummy.”

Chalone pioneered the Monterey County wine appellation, which delivers grapes with unique characteristics because of the climate and the soil. This chardonnay feels to me as though a portion of it underwent secondary fermentation–but, if so, it wasn’t a lot of the grapes. The acids are bright and bracing, as the label says. Great start. “Monumental” scenery behind the vineyards may contribute to the quality of Chalone wines. (You think?!)

The label also tells us Chalone sensed “crisp pear, apple, and nectarine flavors.” I’d agree. This is a wine that will go with just about any food (maybe not tex-mex or asian). We sipped it by itself in the sun on the patio, and gulped it with cheese-and-bacon on whole wheat muffins (thin Oroweats). We also had a San Francisco potato salad from a delicatessen, a creamy delight that paired well.

Chardonnay from the Monterey County appellation is almost always a safe bet because the area is just right for white burgundies, which this is. Enjoy!

Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.