Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wine Spectator's Desert 411

Yes, we have a winner. In fact, the desert has fifteen winners. Wine Spectator's August 31, 2010 issue gives the 411 on 3,743 restaurants countrywide whose wine programs garnered the magazine's coveted Wine Spectator award. Of the local fifteen, only four are bona fide chain establishments, which leaves eleven true (or pretty darn close) desert originals.

See the run down below. Chime in with your comments based on your experiences at these fine establishments. Kudos to all and a huge THANK YOU to the owners, chefs, wait staff, hosts, media relations professionals, dishwashers and all supportive staff who help turn out great food for valley diners to enjoy alongside superb wines in our little desert corner of the culinary world.

Palm Desert

Chop House – Housed in the original Palm Desert location for Ruth's Chris, this remains a gorgeous room with comfy seating, friendly staff and kick-butt food with plenty of fantastic wine choices. 760.779.9888

Cuistot – Über-sommelier Fred Gerber helped bolster this French chateau dining experience to Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence, the only desert dining spot that earned a two-glass designation. 760.340.1000

Morton's, The Steakhouse – OK, so we haven't been. Shame on us. After all, they must be doing plenty right for the last three years during which all Morton's locations have won Wine Spectator awards. Now that's consistency. 760.340.6865

Pacifica Seafood Restaurant – We fell in love with their original Del Mar location and couldn't be happier to enjoy their seafood right here in land-locked Palm Desert. This September, managing partner Mitch Epstein unveils their re-modeled space. Wow, could it be even better? 760.674.8666

Ristorante Mamma Gina – Piero has the Midas touch. His lively happy hours have been some of the most jam-packed in town. Check out the Enoteca Wine bar, too. 760.568.9898

Ristorante Tuscany – Save on airfare by heading to this gorgeous room with high ceilings, murals and food that will have you cryin' for mamma. Enjoy their three- and four-course tasting menus to sample some intriguing wines. 760.341.2211

Ruth's Chris Steak House – Chef Hector Ramirez and Anita Owens-Decuir put together an incredible dinner for WinewomenPSP a couple of years back that featured Susana Balbo's wines from Argentina. We love them, and love this place. 760.779.1998

Sullivan's Steakhouse – We're not sure if it's those sexy stockings or just the fab food and wine that keeps this place packed to the gills, in and out of season. Belly up to the bar, taste some wine and find a new friend. 760.341.3560

Palm Springs

Chop House – Does Lee Morcus know what he's doing or what? How can you not love this place, between the food, wine, perfect Palm Canyon location and those misters on the patio? 760.320.4500

Circa 59
– This place is following the Riviera Resort and Spa's sky-high trajectory, unless of course, it's fueling the resort's cool quotient. Tell us how you like this Palm Springs hot spot. 760.327.8311

Europa – A romantic experience at the Villa Royale Inn, Europa is a treat locals should enjoy more often than just on special occasions. Keep this heavenly spot on your go-to list. 760.327.2314

Spencer's – Chef Eric Wadlund is one of the desert's culinary shining stars, straight outta Wisconsin. He's brought an entirely new and fresh-focused experience to this gorgeous restaurant right up against the mountain. Go. 760.327.3446

Zin – Not sure why Zin didn't get Spectator's green designation for its many value-price wines on its menu but please, take our word for it. Chef Nicholas may be gone but his spirit lives on in the fantastic food, LA-ambience and Mindy's extraordinary wine selections. 760.322.6300

La Quinta

Arnold Palmer's
– Plenty of tourists and snowbirds love this place but locals would be hard pressed to find a more comfortable bar area to enjoy a perfectly cooked filet mignon and a great glass of wine, even when you're flying solo. 760.771.4653

Rancho Mirage

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
– What happens when you take one hundred wines by the glass and combine that with a total dining experience crafted by operating partner John Verhoef and chef partner David Edgell? Drop by to find out. 760.776.6685

What will 2011 bring? Let's hope a mention for Johannes, at least for their incredible selection of half-bottles, Sirocco for their Italian picks, PF Chang's for their progressive wine list and any other spots you want to tell us about. Get busy and make what New Yorkers make for dinner - a reservation!

Friday, August 13, 2010

O.C. Calling: Marché Moderne and Roman Cucina

How do you enjoy wine in triple-digit heat? Set the A/C to Siberia – or head to the beach.

When you travel to Orange County, don't miss the chance to quench your thirst for great wine coupled with outstanding food at Marché Moderne. Located on the third level of South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, the modern French bistro offers an intriguing selection of wines by the six-ounce glass or three-ounce taste. Take the by-the-glass option to savor as many dishes as you can from chef/owners Florent and Amelia Marneau’s menu.

Besides oysters, charcuterie, cheese plates and what they call “everything pickle,” the Marneaus offer special summer dishes from Santa Monica and Orange County farmers’ markets. Dive into the briny sweetness of Malpeque oysters, served with a traditional and ginger mignonette for starters. Opt for a classic pairing with Muscadet or go with Sancerre Vincent Delaporte, Chavignol 2008 from the Loire.

On a recent visit, the standout dish was a tagine of Merguez with two kinds of shrimp, chermoula, raisins, lemon confit, harissa, almonds, mint emulsion, dates and Ras el hanout, a blend of North African spices. The savory flavors paired beautifully with a refreshing rosé from Sardegna, Argiolas Serra Lori Isola dei Nuraghi Rosato, 2009. This cool refresher blends Cannonau, the Sard version of Grenache, with Carignano (Cariñan) and two Sardinian grapes, Monica and Bovale Sardo.

Other winners from the talented Marneau duo are their homemade duck terrine, shaved black summer truffle tart, octopus salad with Lomo ham and Moscovy duck leg confit.

The wait staff is knowledgeable and efficient. Ask for a comfy booth near the open kitchen or watch the fashion show go by at lunch from the patio. Despite its mall location (between Canali and Louis Vuitton, near Nordstrom's), Marché Moderne offers a cozy, metro atmosphere with cuisine on par with destination bistros in New York or San Francisco.

For a completely different experience, head to Roman Cucina in Sunset Beach. Popular with the surfer crowd as well as families, this casual Italian restaurant has expanded its menu to include pasta-less entrees for carbo-phobes. Just be sure someone at your table has the sense to order the special, always a winner. Start with calamari, perfectly crisped and tender. A forkful of pasta or sausage with marinara will bring back memories of Sunday dinner and nonna's gravy. We think we caught the telltale near-sweet creaminess and silky texture of Polly-O ricotta in their lasagne and other pasta dishes, too.

Besides Martini Mondays, Roman Cucina also offers Wine Wednesdays with no corkage fees and half-off wines at all four of their southland locations. Even though the food is always solid, the wine list could benefit from a few more selections. Our bottle of Planeta 2008 Cerasuolo, a blend of Sicilian grapes Nero d'Avola and Frappato, made a great pairing for red-sauced dishes we sampled.

Then there's the cannoli. This is one dessert worth saving room for, but rich enough for the table to share. The fresh, crisp shell is stuffed with a ricotta-based filling that could've come from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Gotta be that Polly-O.

If you can't make it to cooler climes this week, no sweat. Drop in at Palm Desert's new 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro from 5 to 10 PM for their three-course wine-pairing Sunday dinner for only $25. Menu and wines change weekly. The San Diego-based 3rd Corner is a great addition to the desert's food and wine scene, a cool refuge for a hot August week.