Category Archives: wine

Araxi, At Last

Araxi opened in 1981 when Whistler Village was still a modest-size resort. It immediately made a culinary splash, and I’ve wanted to eat there ever since. Yesterday evening finally provided the opportunity. The resort is no longer modest in size, but through the years, Araxi has continued to set a high bar for cuisine, wine and service. It is urbane enough for any city, yet it is just steps from North America’s two largest ski mountains. In my book, that’s an unbeatable combination.

In this elegant, award-winning restaurant, executive chef James Walt introduced Whistler’s first 100-mile menu, with every ingredient sourced, raised or produced within a 100-mile radius of the resort. Fortunately for both chefs and diners, that radius encompasses Vancouver Island with its rich waters, the fertile Pemberton Valley and the Okanagan Valley, known for wines and fruits. The menu changes seasonally, and summer and fall must provide him with an abundance of ingredients. Winter is more challenging, but the dinner was remarkable even without an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits.

The tasting menu of five courses plus an amuse and a platter of petits fours was impressive in every way — freshness, creativity, presentation, careful service. Steve Edwards, the restaurant director and sommelier, paired each course with an impressive selection from Araxi’s 1,200-label wine collection — some of which are visible through glass on one wall of the restaurant and several of which made their way to our table. Whites were kept chilled in a copper bowl on an iron stand(top right), which I found to be one of the understated, stylish touches at Araxi. It is possible to peer into the kitchen through the wood and glass grid that makes up another section of wall.

Whenever I think I know a little bit about food, I always learn something new. At Araxi, in addition to total gustatory indulence, I learned that “crosnes” are root vegetables in the mint family and that Kendall-Jackson made only 30 cases of the Port that accompanied our dessert (not exactly a food fact but interesting anyway).

Here is the tasting menu that Araxi served last night:

Albacore tuna tataki with marinated daikon radish and ginger soya dressing
Blue Mountain Brut, Okanagan, NV

Vancouver Island Octopus with Dungeness crab, cucumber and lemon vinaigrette (upper photo, with octopus on the left and crab on the right)
Joie Riesling, Okanagan, 2006

House-made truggle ricotta gnocchi with fresh black truffles and truffle veloute
Golden Mile ‘Old Vines’ Chenin blanc, Okanagan 2006

Herb-crusted BC Sablefish with Pemberton Valley sunchokes, crosnes and crisp salsify
Sumac Ridge Meritage sauvginon blanc/semillon), Okanagan 2005

Fraser Valley duck breast with North Arm Farm beers and Nantes carrots
Le Vieux Pin ‘Belle’ Pinot Noir, Okanagan, 2005

Molten chocolate cake and chocolate Earl Grey ice cream topped with a chocolate wafer (lower photo, with ice cream on the left and cake on the right)
Kendall-Jackson Piner Hills Estate Port, Sonoma NV
Gehringer Bros Riesling, Okanagan 2004
Petits Fours and coffee or tea

Unusual Dessert: Granita with Aloe Vera Juice

I’m at Whistler, BC, eager to ski and happy to have eaten a good restaurant. After a long travel day with hardly anything for breakfast and nothing for lunch, I was ready for a good meal – and I had one. Yesterday evening’s dinner was at The Mountain Club, a hip, upscale restaurant in Whisler Village. It serves interesting dishes with entrees concentrated in the $20-$30 range, excellent wine listin a casual setting (unadorned bare-wood tables). The menu features a slew of currently trendy foods: crab cakes, diver scallops, sous-vide beef tenderloin, line-caught fish, pork belly, seared rare ahi tuna and grown-up mac and cheese.

One ingredient that I had never seen before was aloe vera juice. Dessert was a strawberry granita (or anything else) served with this unusual flavoring. We all know that aloe vera soothes itches and burns, and it reportedly has other benefits as well and is distributed by the occasional health food purveyor. The Mountain Grill has found a culinary application for this thick, clear sweet juice as a lovely complement to the simple red dessert. The Mountain Club serves a small scoop of granita in a sugar-rimmed goblet bathed in a bit of aloe vera juice and garnished with a fresh mint leaf.

Leading up to this unusual dessert, I ordered a baby spinach salad with a hefty chunk of warm goat cheese topped with a light hazelnut crust and served with citrus vinaigrette and house-made croutons (left), and then as an entree, the appetizer portion of three seared scallops with a nap of subtle cauliflower/almond puree and truffle balsamic dressing. Each scallop was topped by a thin slice of black truffle and a single chive for color. That was before I knew that the kitchen would be sending out an amuse of a single scallop on a bed of balsamic apple risotto. Since I love scallops — well-prepared scallops at any rate — this was not punishment for me.

I tried two wonderful British Columbia wines featured that evening: The complex and robust blend from the OsoyoosLarose Winery is two-thirds Merlot with more than 23 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and a bit of Cabernet franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. A sensational Riesling from Lang Vineyards, one of the Okanagan Valley’s pioneering organic growers, is faithful to its German roots, which in my book is a sure sign of taste, sophistication and quality. But then, I am partial to authentic European-style whites.

The Mountain Grill is at 40-4314 Main Street (in Whistler Village North near the Village Gazebo), Whistler, BC; 604-932-6009.

P.S. Until dinner at The Mountain Grill on Friday, November 30, I head never heard of aloe vera juice, let alone eaten it. On Saturday afternoon, when I stopped at Whistler Village’s grocery store, I heard a customer asking a clerk for aloe vera juice. The store didn’t carry it, but I’ll bet that I now will be seeing it everywhere.

Eat! Drink! = Lunch Delight in Edwards

As I was recently researching hot restaurants in Colorado ski resorts, whenever I asked Vail locals for suggestions, the names Dish (upstairs) and Eat! Drink! (downstairs) in Edwards came up. I was in Edwards today on an assignment for Vail Home magazine and had lunch with Stephen Lloyd Wood, my editor there. When he asked where I might want to eat, I didn’t hesitate to ask about Dish.

Dish is open only in the evening, so we settled in at a window table at Eat! Drink! downstairs. This bright, imaginative establishment — with each wall painted a bright contrasting color — serves light fare and sells about 150 artisanal cheeses and other gourmet products in part of the space and displays some 600 wines in the other. Christopher Irving and Pollyanna Forster opened Eat! Drink! in August 2004. Both came from the restaurant business, so they set up the wine retail area like a restaurant wine list, grouping the wines by varietal and posting what Chris described as “tutorials” about each.

Steve and I started with an Olive Boat, half-a dozen kinds of green and black olives arrayed in an dish that must have been nine inches long. From the small lunch menu, we both honed in on the panini in general and the Provence in particular: fresh chevre, sun-dried tomatoes, chopped artichokes and mesculin on tasty toasted flatbread. He ordered his with Boulder chips; I ordered mine with a simple green salad. At $9 each, panini here represent a real Vail Valley value. Steve, a former bicycle racer who has chowed his way through Europe covering the Tour de France, kept saying this was the best panini he has had outside of Italy.

Chef Jenna Johansen partnered with Chris and Polly to open the upstairs restaurant and wine bar. She trained at Johnson & Wales and also in the heart of Italy’s Chianti area of Tuscany. She holds forth in a spacious open kitchen. We popped upstairs for a look while the prep work for this evening was underway. If I ever get there for dinner, I want to perch on one of the six stools at the kitchen bar and watch Johansen cook and plate.

The menu changes weekly (and is updated on the restaurant’s website). She specializes in small plates, carefully prepared and exquisitely presented — like the organic beet salad (above left). “I love to watch people enjoy the food,” she said. She also likes it when they ask about something she is preparing. Dish’s dishes are available a la carte or for $25 for a six-course chef’s tasting menu, which is an even more impressive Vail Valley value.

Dish Restaurant and Eat! Drink! are at 56 Edwards Village Boulevard, Edwards; 970-926-3433 (Dish) and 970-926-1393 (Eat! Drink!).

Excellent Lunch Value in Madrid

I found a wonderful lunch opportunity in Madrid that may not be inexpensive but is a good value — and I’ll tell you why.

Lavinia is a fantastic wine shop on a fashionable avenue that can be compared to the Madison Avenue or Rodeo Drive of Madrid. The staff are all trained sommeliers, which is pretty amazing in itself. Visitors might drool over the 4,500-label selection (mostly from Spain, but also from France and virtually several other wine-producing countries) and might even buy a bottle or two for their hotel room, but are unlikely to pick up a case.

If food and wine interest you, head for Lavinia in mid-day, browse the wines and then go up a flight of stairs to El Espacio Gastronómico. From 1:30 to 4:00 p.m., daily except Sunday, chef Angel Garcia prepares classically based cuisine made with fresh, seasonal ingredients at prices comparable to any other fine restaurant (€12 to €22 for appetizers, €16 to €30 for entrées and €8 to €16 for desserts). What creates the value is that Lavinia’s outstanding and wide-ranging wines are available at the same price as retail in the store — not the usual high restaurant mark-up. In addition to bottles, wines are available by the glass — and you can talk wine to your heart’s content. The Spanish know how to linger over a meal, so you won’t be rushed.

Madrid’s Lavinia is at Calle José Ortega y Gasset, 16. The phone number is 91 426 06 04. There are also Lavinias in Barcelona, Paris, Geneva and Kiev. I do not know whether the others have on-site restaurants.

A Late Summer Dinner Menu

On the calendar, summer has more than a month to go before autumn equinox, but in reality, Colorado is in the threshold if fall. After record and near-record heat during much of the summer, the weather these last few days has been ideal: sunny and temperate days, cool nights, and bursts of rain every few afternoons or evenings to keep plants happy. All that signals the impending change of seasons — and the end of eating dinner on the back deck. Yesterday evening, to take advantage of some of my favorite summer foods, I made the following dinner for five (no real recipes here, because I didn’t do anything particularly, or even moderately, creative but let the glorious seasonal tastes stand on their own):

Bruschetta (sliced toasted baguette topped with fresh seeded and chopped Roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cut into small cubes, fresh chopped basil, olive oil, salt and pepper)
Salmon filets grilled over charcoal
Cantaloupe salsa (finely chopped melon, red onion, fresh cilantro, salt)
Oven-roasted asparagus
Rice pilaf (rice, orzo, minced onion, garlic, turmeric, salt)
Strawberry tart (prepared Bavarian sponge cake base, called Tortenboden in German; simple custard, halved fresh strawberries)

Our guests brought three bottles of wine: a white wine labeled Cheverny from the Loire region of France (a sauvignon blanc, perhaps, the label didn’t specify) and two reds, a Côtes du Rhône from L. Guigal and a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from Panacea. The Guigal was quite a coincidence that our guests could not have known. This wine-making family owns vineyards around Condrieu, where the viognier grape escaped virtual extinction. I was so impressed by the viognier story that I wrote a blog entry about it back in April. Last evening’s wine was labeled only Red Rhone Wine, but I love the notion that Condrieu is somewhere in its orbit. Amazingly, we did justice to the wines, finishing one bottle and almost finishing other two in the course of a leisurely evening.

Home garden-grown tomatoes, basil and cilantro will abound until the first frost. Asparagus, melons and strawberries will come from increasingly distant places, and after the wild-caught coho salmon comnes in, fresh Alaskan salmon will be finished for the year. So let’s all enjoy it while it lasts.

Viognier Wines Explained

A few years ago, I noticed that wines labeled viognier started appearing on wine lists and in retail stores. I hadn’t heard of it, but tried it. Over time, I have drunk and liked much of it, but until today, when I was again enlightened by the New York Times, I really knew nothing about it. In an article called “The Comeback of Condrieus is the Story of a Singular Grape,” wine writer Eric Asimov reports, “Today, Condrieu is a fashionable wine, valued around the world for its lush, voluptuous flavors and rich, seductive texture. Yet only 35 years ago the Condrieu appellation in the northern Rhône Valley was barely alive, with only about 30 acres of grapes to its name.”

The viognier grape and the wine made from it in Condrieu were kept on life support largely by Domaine Georges Vernay, whose thin soil and steep, terraced slopes (right) are ideal for this grape. The once out-of-favor white wine was really resuscitated by New World wineries’ discovery of the viognier, the local grape. Grapes sourced from that terroir were sought by California and other winemakers, which in turned spurred the popularity of the original. Now the 30 acres planted with viognier vines in the early 1970s in Condrieu have increased tenfold to some 300 acres.

Asimov reported that “Condrieu producers, like their New World counterparts, are experimenting with several different styles. As with California chardonnay, you are as likely to find a rich, viscous wine framed with new oak as you are a bone dry, crisp, minerally wineI am not a fan of obvious new oak flavors in any wine, but in Condrieu new oak integrates beautifully with the viognier’s tropical flavors.”

In this country, California and Washington State vineyards are growing viognier grapes. Asimov further wrote that “The grape itself is said to be difficult and capricious, and yields must be kept low, particularly because so many vines are young, planted in the last 10 years and prone to overcropping. Growers do not consider viognier vines to be in their prime until they are 25 years old. The combination of young vines and high yields can result in thin and shallow wines.”

Asimov, Times food writer Florence Fabricant, Bernard Sun, beverage director for Jean-Georges Management, and Jean-Luc Le Dû, owner of Le Dû’s Wines in New York, tasted French and US viogniers. I believe that I have had only domestic viogniers, and Asimov’s explanation of the patience required to produce a top wine from that grape might explain why I liked some a lot better than others.