A one-of-a-kind tasting, new comfort food and various vittles.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
This is my kind of blind tasting.
Neighbors Joe Kovacs and Matt Shea stand on a dirt Cachagua driveway, beneath a hot Saturday sun, swirling deep purple. Kovacs, who runs Szalay Winery (659-2106), had just spotted Shea’s work truck from his own dusty rig, pointed and grunted across the intersection: “I gotta show you something.”
Shea told Kovacs to meet him at the nearby turn-off to the Bernardus’ Marinus Vineyard he’s run for several years, appointing it with weather stations and soil moisture probes that upload data to a server he can check with his iPhone every 15 minutes along the way. There, a grinning Kovacs produced two wine goblets and an unmarked half bottle of red.
He had reasons to be smiling – beyond the fact that he had waited four years to test the juice. For one, his winery and his sons’ label (Kovacs Brothers) are getting an upswoop in interest from Jesse’s eight-week run on The Bachelorette this past season – “8.5 million national viewers a week helps,” Joe said – and wine club requests are adding up. Two, the Syrah barrel sampling (which Shea pegged), born of grapes he got from the last harvest of Bill Pirelli Minetti’s legendary life in wine, was a whoah-momma wonder – not too jammy, with enough complexity to please a math genius, a sturdy backbone and a finish that lingers like a nice valley afternoon.
As the three of us passed and sipped, Kovacs poured out accented one-liners. On how to cope with allies in the industry facing doom driven by a shift away from $50-$75 wines: “What can I say? ‘You are dying? I will go to your funeral.’” On the wine clubs’ power to bring cash in from across the country: “Pay Pal is my middle name.”
You gotta love Cachagua.
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The quick verdict: The dip is a trip. The smoked brisket dipper ($6.95) is also pretty tasty – and a good microcosm of what’s happening at Monterey Cookhouse (642-9900), where I dropped in for Monday’s soft opening.
The one-time Monterey Joe’s/Point Joe’s parking lot was full. The menu, like the dip, goes heavy on the heavy: enchiladas and smoked meats, pastas and pizzas (and sandwiches and salads on the lunch menu). The menu says the meats are all natural and single sourced from family farms, the produce is local and sustainable whenever possible and the sauces, dressing and ice cream are made from scratch.
“I wanted comfort food,” owner-Carmel Valley entrepreneur Linda Cantrell told me later. “If you can’t go on vacation you can have a really good meal – raise your serotonin without costing a lot of money.”
Cantrell, who says her favorite plates include the brisket, fried chicken and pulled pork, is excited to land her liquor license in a few weeks and launch a series of festive sports nights and social evenings that play off her love for eating, cooking and hosting: “We’ll throw a whole hog on the smoker, do seafood nights where it’s per person for crab legs, prawns, clams, or do a bunch of smoked sausage with tons of dipping sauces. And beer.”
Chef Hugo Barragan, his crew and most of wait team are from the defunct Gardiner’s Ranch – where Cantrell was a member and adored the staff.
My allies and I enjoyed the big oysters ($9.95 for five) in a garlicky sauce and our smoked albacore dip ($6.95) went quickly as well. I took the brisket dip to go; it’s even heavier on the cream cheese than the albacore, but the flavor made the health hit worth it.
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Black is the new Hefewizen. This discovery, fittingly enough, came at the area’s best place for craft, international and otherwise delicious beers, the Ol’ Factory Café (just ask the Beer Geeks, who are hosting a German beer tasting there Sunday, Aug. 9): Erdinger Dark Wheat, $6.50/pint). I also tried the feta-graced Mediterranean lamb burger ($13 with rings, fries or salad), which was a tender and well-sauced revelation – OFC’s whole “gastropub” approach is working. A Friday, Aug. 7, visit from one of the area’s top winemakers, David Coventry, shouldn’t hurt that effort. Coventry, the man behind De Tierra and a key player in Parsonage’s superior Syrahs, will pair four wines with four courses. $50, 394-7336.
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An increasingly storied and hopefully sunny festival soaks Monterey’s Portola Plaza in grape juice Saturday, Aug. 8, with the annual Winemaker’s Celebration: 50 local wineries, seminars, Dennis Murphy, $45-$50, 375-9400… In a still-struggling economy where bargains are burgeoning, the best bang for buck I’ve seen in some time came from the streets – farm fresh carrots at the Old Monterey Marketplace are obscenely cheap. I pulled in two pounds for $1.50… Paging hospitality peeps: Dory Ford’s looking for a few good staffers for his new bistro and restaurant out at Ventana (667-2331)… This week “View From the Bay” had Mundaka’s Brandon Miller on, making him the third local chef to surface on the San Francisco ABC 7 CK show of late (I think Didier Dutretre and Christophe Grosjean have also visited). Enough to make one think the mighty city has a little Peninsula envy.