Friday, July 31, 2009

"Green" Wines of California

As many of my readers know (and many of my exasperated friends will tell you!), I love learning about wine. Lately, I have been dedicating myself to finding and trying as many environmentally friendly wines as possible, especially biodynamic wines. I think the environmental aspect of winemaking is so important and engaging, and is gaining a huge amount of momentum both from producers and drinkers now that the stigma of "organic" (read: formerly horrible) wines is finally fading and people realize that these wines are among some of the best in the world.

My own personal interest lies mostly in biodynamic wines, since I think producers who choose to go this route make an unprecedented commitment to the labor and quality that goes into their wines, and so every trip I have taken in the last few years, I have made it a point to go wine-tasting when possible, and to find organic and biodynamic wineries to visit.

I am planning a whole “Green Wines” series where I will tell you about my favorites from different wine regions across the globe. Coming up: Languedoc, Bordeau, Austria and Germany. For now, take a look at some of the best ones I’ve come across from California.

Peter Work and his wife Rebecca retired from careers in finance after 9/11 and devoted themselves full-time to working their land. Now they are turning out some fantastic wines, and they are doing it biodynamically, as Peter will be happy to show you if you are lucky enough to be able to visit him up at his house in the Santa Rita Hills (and play with his friendly Labrador retrievers, of course). If you can’t make it there, stop by the winery itself at Lompoc’s “Pinot Prison,” and get a well-rounded (and mathematically educative) tasting by sampling the Rosé of Syrah ($16), the Rho Pinot Noir ($48), and the Gamma Syrah ($35).

Benziger Family Winery
The best known biodynamic Sonoma biodynamic winery, Benziger takes pride in their environmental program, and offers tram rides every day to show visitors how exactly the vineyard functions successfully without artificial intervention or aid. Besides the educational aspect, it’s just a plain fun place to visit, with a lively tasting room, and a gorgeous, hilly setting outside Glen Ellen. Some signature vinos: the 2007 Carneros Chardonnay ($29), the 2006 Sonoma Mountain “Tribute” Cabernet ($80), and the 2005 “Oonapais” Sonoma Mountain Red ($50).

One of the foremost names in California biodynamics, Demetria’s pinot noirs are widely recognized as some of the best in the state, even though they only produce about 2000 cases. The estate itself is only open to visitors by appointment only, and sits up in the hills on winding Foxen Canyon Road, in an imposing compound several miles from Los Olivos. For a good idea of just what powerhouse wines they can produce, try the deep red Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($40) and the spicy “North Slope” Syrah ($35).

Gargiulo Vineyards
Though not biodynamic, Gargiulo Vineyards is committed to environmental consciousness in all aspects of its operation. Case in point: the new tasting room, which was made from site-specific materials like the indigenous red rocks found in their vineyards, chandeliers made from wine barrel staves, and reclaimed wooden flooring from the old gymnasium of nearby St. Helena High School. No forests were harmed in the building of this winery. The wines are a little more on the expensive side of the spectrum, but you’re paying for authentic quality here. Also keep in mind that compared to some of Gargiulo’s neighbors, like Screaming Eagle, you are getting a real bargain on some fantastic juice. We’d suggest the incredibly rich 2005 Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon ($85), though you can get their merlot for half that ($45). The Rosato (or rosé) of Sangiovese ($30) is also bright and lively. If you can get your hands on their 575 OVX Cab, do it. Now.

Grgich Hills Estate
Ever since the Chardonnay he made won the Judgment of Paris in 1976 (,9171,947719,00.html), Mike Grgich has been one of the legends of California winemaking. That’s why, when he decided to start converting all Grgich Hills vineyards over to biodynamic agriculture in 2003, the rest of the California winemaking community took notice. And what they noticed was that the quality of this venerable winery’s vintages was consistently high, and as good if not better than when Grgich was making wine conventionally. Today, the winery is known for crisp, golden Chardonnays like the 2006 Napa Valley ($42), and powerful, spicy Zinfandels like the 2006 Napa Valley $35).

Robert Sinskey
Located right in the heart of the Stag’s Leap District, Robert Sinskey uses biodynamic viticulture in vineyards scattered around Napa to produce some very fine wines, especially the Burgundian-style reds they are known for. They also feature regular cooking and wine-pairing demonstrations led by the winemaker Rob’s (Robert Sinskey’s son) wife (and a cookbook author in her own right), Maria, and the winery chef de cuisine, Alex Bolduc. Perhaps the most fun are the “culinary” and “bento box” tours where you get goodies to nibble along with the wines. We’d suggest the surprisingly profound Pinot Gris ($30), their unusual Vandal Vineyard Carneros Cabernet ($48), and their signature Four Vineyards Pinot Noir ($50).

Tablas Creek
One of Paso Robles’ best-known wineries also happens to be one of its best, thanks in no small part to stringently environmental viticulture that includes organic certification (since 2003) and dry-farming to bring out the terroir in the grapes. It’s also just a beautiful spot to visit up in the hill country west of the town between Paso Robles and the ocean. To sample a good range of their wines, try the Antithesis Chardonnay ($27), the 2006 Syrah ($35), and the 2006 Cotes de Tablas ($25) blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Counoise—a traditional Rhone-style wine for which Tablas is known.

Stir Fry 7-23-09 and 7-30-09

My internet access in rural Austria has been a little more limited than I foresaw, especially because several of my accommodations which claimed to have internet have been woefully misinforming their guests.

Ah well, at least now I am connected again. At least for this evening. So I would like to take advantage of my cyber-session to post my two most recent Stir Fry roundups on Lots of good deals!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Re-Review: Palate Food + Wine

I didn't actually review Palate Food + Wine (Octavio Becerra's restaurant in Glendale) for when the restaurant first opened last year. Since then, it has gained more and more acclaim, and was universally hailed as the best new restaurant in Los Angeles in 2008.

I decided to try the restaurant with my whole family when they were all up here to celebrate a few birthdays and Mother's Day. I figured that way, I could try more dishes than I'd otherwise be able to! I was right--I think I tasted over a dozen different things, and for the most part the restaurant did live up to the hype. However, the hype also seems to have made the staff lazy, surly, or both.

Whatever it was, service was poorly lacking (as I think you'll be able to tell from my piece), and I'm not sure I'd actually like to go back there again given the experience. The food, however, was definitely worth trying once.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review: Tender Greens West Hollywood

I already love the Tender Greens in Culver City, with it's fresh salads, huge sandwiches, and cheap checks. So it was with great interest that I watched the construction of the newest location not far from where I live in West Hollywood. Same great recipe for success: fresh food, healthy ingredients, low costs, and just a bit of fun people-watching thrown in...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: Canelé

I have been meaning to try Canelé in Atwater Village for a long time now, ever since writing about its communal table. I had heard only good things about the nouveau French menu, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised when I ate dinner there last week with my brother...despite his embarrassment as I snapped pictures of the food and décor. The flavor combinations were interesting, the ingredients were fresh and assembled expertly, and everyone was extremely friendly. The only thing I didn't like was the sort of dingy block in Atwater that the restaurant is located, but I guess it just adds to the atmosphere. Here's my review.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

SO Spa by Sofitel

For me, writing-wise, wine is to food as spa is to hotel. Okay, I used to hate those analogies on the SAT's, but I couldn't resist. My point is that, if I were to single out a particular facet in each field that I enjoy writing about most, wine would be my choice for food writing, and spas would be the part of a hotel I prefer investigating to any other. I can talk about seaweed wraps, hot stone massage, mineral baths and steam-sauna combinations for days.

Perhaps that is why my HotelChatter editor assigned me this story about the new SO Spa lines that Sofitel is starting in London and Marseille. Wait till you hear about the business package that includes a suit pressing and shoe shine!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Review: West 4th/Jane

It seems like every new restaurant opening in L.A. these days is a gastropub, and West 4th/Jane is no exception. Perhaps entrepreneurs think they'll pull in twice the public with both a bar and a restaurant on the premises. Whatever the cause, it's meant my enjoying more than my fair share of burgers, fries and onion rings lately.

There are a few interesting things about West 4th/Jane. The first is its name. It is a reference to the intersection New Yorkers know as the home of Corner Bistro, where you will find one of the city's most famous hamburgers. The owners wanted to model their food on that establishment's fine, understated menu, and they've succeeded to a point. That's all I'll say--you have to read my review! The other interesting fact is that it took over the former space of uber-fancy 3 on 4th in Santa Monica. Let's hope that West 4th/Jane, which is decidedly oriented more towards beer than champange tastes, fares better than its predecessor.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Bite Into La Bistecca

The Biltmore Millennium Grand is one of Los Angeles's golden age hotels, with gorgeous Spanish colonial tones, beautiful spaces, and an air of decaying grandeur.

Luckily, part of that decay has been reversed thanks to the placement of a new Italian steakhouse-style restaurant, La Bistecca, in the former lobby of this classic railway hotel.

I have yet to check it out, but the menu (and the space!) looks great, if a bit of a throwback to simpler dining times, so I posted a little something about it on HotelChatter.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Conrad Miami's Linger On Package

This week saw the premier of Bravo's newest reality show about self-centered, image-conscious, jetsetters whose tweaked philosophy on life signals the death of our civilzation, "Miami Social."

Okay, so it's not quite that dour, and it was certainly fun to watch aspiring society mavens making the most unself-aware comments ever. All that, plus this little story for HotelChatter I wrote about the Conrad Miami's summer deals has made me want to hit Miami Beach. Now, I just need to get a reservation at Joe Stone Crab's...and a man-thong.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

San Diego Hotel Week Fizzles

Many ambitious tourism boards across the country are trying to plan "Hotel Weeks" based on the success of "Restaurant Weeks" in major cities. They hope to lure travelers back onto the road and out to destinations they might not have otherwise visited by offering special rates, new activities, and other random deals, hoping to cash in on a few of the travel dollars that are still out there. One note of caution I would give these planners is to say that many restaurant week specials have become permanent additions to menus here in Los Angeles, so if you start offering guests low rates, they might start thinking that those rates are fair, and you might just have to live with them for a while to come.

In the meantime, San Diego is one of those city's starting a new hotel week, scheduled for sometime in the fall. Unfortunately, they only seem to have one participating hotel so far...the Mission Valley Comfort Suites. Not exactly a thrilling property, and not near any of the main tourist sights except Qualcomm Stadium. Hopefully other hotels will get in on the act, otherwise San Diego Hotel Week might just be the promotion that never was.

Stir Fry 7-16-09

There was all sorts of interesting restaurant news to include in this week's Stir Fry on including a new Border Grill truck, a few new openings, and a sweet deal at the Mondrian in West Hollywood aimed at getting you "Out of the Office" on Fridays.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Multi-Tasking at SLS's Altitude Pool

Though I have a pool in my building, going outside for an hour of sunbathing and swimming here is just not the same as heading to one of Los Angeles's hippest (some might say "snootiest") hotels and lounging poolside for the day. Especially because I can't get the variety of spa treatments, food and beverage services, or comfortable lounge chairs at the SLS Beverly Hills Hotel's rooftop Altitude pool.

Though perhaps better named Attitude than Altitude, the pool looks gorgeous, and is probably surrounded by a rotating roster of gorgeous sun-seekers as well. Plus, who doesn't like poolside mani-pedis?

Presidential Hilton Opening in the Maldives

My first story about Hilton's Maldives properties was about the ultra-luxurious Conrad Maldives based on an interview with the General Manager, Carsten Schieck. The second was about the four total Hilton resorts planned for the Indian Ocean island chain, to be completed by 2011.

Now, the second of those four properties, the Hilton Iru Fushi Resort & Spa, has opened, and the president of the Maldives was apparently on hand to help with the festivities. Reading about the resort and its idyllic setting in the Noonu Atoll has just made me want to go to the Maldives even more, despite this lovely Los Angeles weather we've been experiencing lately. Maybe I should wait till 2011 to hit all four Hilton properties at once. In the meantime you can get a great deal at the Iru Fushi Hilton through the end of summer, so if you've been considering a trip to the Maldives, now's the time to to it!


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review: Barbrix

Barbrix is a new wine bar/small plates restaurant that opened in Silverlake about a month or two ago. As with all new wine bars in Los Angeles, I immediately wanted to try it, hoping for something new and interesting to pique my curiosity and my palate. Barbrix did both. The wine list is eclectic and unusual, with offbeat options from all over the globe. The food menu is equally tantalizing, and showcases not only the artisanal cheeses and charcuterie that are this kind of place's mainstays, but also some ultra-fresh, seasonal dishes like the farro salad and the wild boar sausage dish I mention in the article.

It seems like a lot of the other food writers I talk to in Los Angeles agree with me that Barbrix is fast becoming one of their favorite places. More importantly, however, the Silverlake neighborhood that Barbrix calls home already seems to be squarely behind this newcomer, and patrons pack the restaurant every day of the week. For more in-depth coverage, take a taste of my review below from

Monday, July 13, 2009

Marco Numero 3 In West Hollywood

There are now three, yes three, institutions owned and run by Marco Capanni on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Havenhurst drive. The first is Marco's Trattoria where you can get some pretty decent Italian food--though the prices have gone up to where it's almost not worth it. The second is Caffe Marco, which until recently, took up the other south corner of SaMo and HH.

A few months ago, however, Capanni decided to do some renovations, and so relegated the cafe to a little outpost in the very back of the lot, almost a block down HH drive. Now in what used to be the front of the cafe, you can find a new restaurant called simply "Marco's." I stopped in there for a bit...and a biting review. Okay, not so biting, but I wasn't really thrilled with it. I think they've also already fired the first chef, so we'll see what happens with the food. For now, here are my thoughts.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Review: Primo Bistro

It's about time I stopped into Primo Bistro in West Hollywood for a review. It's been open for several months now, but I wanted to make sure it was in its groove before stepping in there for a review. Not to mention the fact, that I already patronize Caffe Primo up on Sunset it didn't seem to urgent.

Now that I am assigned to do a "new and notable" West Hollywood restaurants roundup for Frontiers, though, it seemed like Primo Bistro would be a good entry on the list, and it was finally a good time to try a meal there. Take a look at what I thought.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Review: The Hideout at the Hollywood Heights Hotel

Yesterday, I shared my piece on the Hollywood Heights Hotel and its recent renovation. Today, I am sharing my full review of the new restaurant there, The Hideout. I had a lovely time eating there, and the menu is pretty reasonable, if not terribly interesting. It's location makes it a great spot for a drink before braving the tourists at H&H, or hitting a show at the Hollywood Bowl, though, and they'll soon be offering specials to draw you in for just such a purpose. In the meantime, take a gander at the menu I tried, and see if you think the resto should get a star on the Walk of Fame.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hollywood Heights Hotel

Known affectionately for the few intiates as the HHH, the Hollywood Heights Hotel has recently undergone a change of management, a total renovation, and the opening of a new restaurant. The hotel has a great location right smack dab between Hollywood and Highland, and the Hollywood Bowl. The rooms are pretty decent, especially for $135 a night with discount, and have all new furnishings and some cool vintage movie posters.

I got a sneak preview when I was there a couple weeks ago for a review dinner at the new restaurant, The Hideout. I'll be posting my review of it tomorrow, as well as the little piece I wrote on it for HotelChatter. Ah, double duty. You tell me if I sound repetitive!

Stir Fry 7-9-09

This week's news roundup and dining deals spanned the globe from France for Bastille Day to a local's night right here in L.A.

Now I just have to figure out which champagne to pick out for toasts to commemorate that fateful storming of the Paris prison 220 years ago...

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Off With Their Rates! Concorde Hotels' Bastille Day Discounts

(photo credit: McPig)

I know I was just in France for three weeks in April, but writing about these Bastille Day (and actually, all-summer) deals from Concorde Hotels kind of makes me want to go back. At least I have Austria and Germany to look forward two weeks! Eep!!


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

FACES: Amelia Saltsman and JoAnn Cianciulli

This month's FACES interview on was a very special entry in the series because, for the first time, I talked to two Los Angeles foodie luminaries at once: Amelia Saltsman and JoAnn Cianciulli.

Saltsman is the author of the Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook, which was just selected by the Library of Congress to be translated into Braille.

JoAnn recently wrote the L.A.'s Original Farmers Market Cookbook just in time for the Farmers Market's 75th anniversary.

Both ladies are passionate, articulate, intelligent, funny and thoughtful about just what it is that makes Los Angeles' farmers markets so special, and what each of us can do to make sure we are eating the best foods possible. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I enjoyed conducting and then writing it.

Maison 140's Upcoming Facelift

I went to Kor Hotels' Maison 140 in Beverly Hills (just across the street from the Peninsula) for a rosé wine and cheese night last week, and at the same time, I got a sneak preview of one of their redecorated rooms. Soon, all 43 guest rooms at the hotel will undergo a complete re-do, but for now, take look at my article and pictures to learn more about it!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Runaway San Diego

Occasionally I write pieces for The Rundown. Most of them have been about L.A., with the exception of tasting at the Lompoc Wine Ghetto and some tips for staying in the Santa Ynez wine country around Solvang and Los Olivos.

This time, however, I was charged with writing two quick weekend guides to San Diego: one for the city and one for the beach. The beach guide was just sent out today...right after 4th of July--I think it's because the Del Mar Fair finally closed. Meanwhile, I got to run around Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas, poking my head into all kinds of fun places with my parents, who live in the area. They were good sports, and came with me to check out the newly renovated L'Auberge Del Mar as well as a darling little B&B right in Del Mar called Les Artistes. For dinner, we tried a restaurant everyone in San Diego is talking about, Market Del Mar, right on Via de la Valle across from the Polo Grounds. I'll write up a full review on that later, but for now, check out the piece!


Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Beer Buddy Board

I come across a lot of innovative features and trends at bars and restaurants since I get to patronize a lot of them around Los Angeles, as well as other places when I travel. Restaurant gardens is one trend that comes to mind, another is the mixing and matching of other cuisines with Korean barbecue here in L.A. (short rib tacos, anyone?).

The "Beer Buddy Board" I found at the Island Brewing Company in Carpinteria (just south of Santa Barbara) is one of my absolute features, though. I have a feeling you see boards like this at dives all over the world, where buddies create a tab, and buy absent friends a beer to enjoy on their next visit to the pub...or settle up old debts.

Whatever the reason for buying a friend a beer, I love the fact that you can walk into this bar, right on the train tracks across from the beach, and you just might have a pint of one of their California brews waiting for you.

I think my enthusiasm shines through, and after taking a look yourself, I'm sure you'll be just as excited as me.

Friday, July 3, 2009

My $50 Phone Call

Calling internationally is still an expensive proposition, but $50 for a two-minute call!? That is just plain ridiculous. So imagine my ire when I discovered a charge for that amount on my credit card this past month from some company called Network Operator Services, with a random call center somewhere in Texas. Turns out the charge was from a call I'd had to make at Charles De Gaulle all the way back in April. My phone battery had run out on the plane for some reason even though I'd turned it off, so while trying to figure out where to tell the shuttle service to pick up my mother, I placed a call to her cell phone, hoping to find her at Terminal 1. The only problem was, I didn't have any euros on me, so I couldn't buy a phone card to use at a regular pay phone. Instead, I used one of those phones that allows you to pay with your credit card. There were no rates posted, and nothing about their 3-minute minimum call policy. I thought maybe I'd be charged $5 or so for the 90-second call (I left a voicemail), knowing that those phones aren't cheap. But $50!?

Read on to find out why I can't dispute the charge with my credit card, and just what the next step might be to get my $50 back...

"Suite" Guarantees at Hotel Bel-Ami Paris

I always like writing about Paris, even if it's just to learn about a new hotel deal. You never know when the urge will hit you to just buy a ticket, board a plane to France, and bite into a baguette in your bohemian little hotel suite, so it's good to keep up on the deals going on. What's special about this one from the Hotel Bel-Ami in the St. Germain district is that its rates are guaranteed in U.S. dollars! That makes it much easier to budget without having to worry about currency fluctuations. The new suites look nice, too.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

King Tut Specials At Joie De Vivre

JDV's 21 (wow, 21!) Bay Area properties are offering sleep-and-eat specials in conjunction with the King Tut exhibit at the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park.

I think what interested me most was learning about some of the artifacts and, er...remains, included in the exhibit. Take a look at the story:

Hidden Charges With Foreign Rental Cars

Last month, I told you all about my rent-a-dent experience in France in "What Happens When You and the Car Rental Agency Don't Speak the Same Language."

This week on Jaunted, I write about some of the more perverse charges, surcharges, fees, and "rates" I've come across for everything from "Coach Select" seats to payphone mishaps to car rentals.

In this article, I talk about some of the hidden fees that can drive up your rental car cost by nearly $100 when you rent in Europe. Take a look at what you can expect here:

Stir-Fry: 7-2-09

This week's deals, meals and restaurant news special feature is up on, and it's a doozy. Check it out:

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What's With All These New "Coach Select" Seats!?

If you try to book a normal coach ticket these days--either directly through an airline or through a discount site like Orbitz--you'll find there are a lot fewer seat assignment options ahead of time. That's because airlines, hoping to squeeze every last cent out of their passengers, have started setting aside huge blocs of seats as Coach "Preferred," "Select," or "Choice" options that you either have to pay for, or be a loyalty program gold member.

The more annoying thing, though, is that these seats are no different from normal coach seats. They're just on the aisle, or closer to the front of the plane! Is that worth paying $50 extra for? Based on a recent experience in one of them, I think not!

Le V en Vertheuil

On my recent trip to France, I economized a bit by staying in some out-of-the-way places, and doing a fair amount of research to find country inns and auberges where you can both sleep and eat inexpensively.

One such inn I found was in a tiny village in the Medoc outside Bordeaux called Le V en Vertheuil. It's the pet project of a man named Patrick, who is a native Breton, traveled the world for work, and decided he'd like to run a country B&B for a few years. So he bought a 19th-century boulangerie in Vertheuil, which is just a couple miles inland from Pauillac (where lots of famous wineries sit), refurbished it, decorated three guest rooms, and started a creperie in the kitchen. It truly is a one-man show. It's also only about 55 euros a night, offers free WiFi, and though simply furnished, was one of the more contemporary, comfortable places I stayed on my trip. To read my full impression, take a look at the "Innkeeper" article I just wrote for InTravelMagazine below.