Saturday, July 31, 2004

Put a Lid on It!

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When I was at Tom's house a while back, I noticed that he had the coolest lid for his Cuisinart food processor. It was flat, with no feed chute.

I use my food processor for a small handful of tasks: flat out puréeing, pie crust dough, and—I'm embarrased to admit—mayonnaise. For everything else, it either cuts too unevenly or its disks aren't adjustable. I thus derive no benefit from the massive oval feed-tube unit, and its height prevents me from putting the food processor under the kitchen cabinet on those few occasions I do drag it into the kitchen. This means that when I'm using the machine, I have to set it precariously on the counter edge while it's doing its thing.

On top of that, the oval feed-tube assembly is poorly designed on my model. The telescoping pieces don't actually come apart, so you can't clean at the slight overlap. The feed tube itself is a circle that fits inside the oval unit, and it's big enough that there's just a tiny amount of space left in the oval. This means that pretty much only E.T. can get his fingers down there—certainly not a human trying to push a sponge down there to clean it. Sure, this is solved with a dishwasher, but our dishwasher is small and we rarely get the lid in there.

So you can imagine my instant glee when I saw Tom's lid. I finally remembered to order one from culinaryparts.com and I was very excited when it got delivered to work (my co-workers are more or less used to my exuberance about kitchen equipment and were very patient as I showed them all the new lid). It still has a mini feed tube for drizzling oil in when making mayonnaise, so it meets all my needs and is shorter and easier to clean.

I'm still keeping the old lid since if I need to put a disc in, the new lid has a depression for the feed tube that makes the disks unusable. One could argue that grating a bunch of cheese in the food processor is occasionally useful, so I guess I should retain the ability.

I guess this is sort of an odd post for me; I just think this flat lid is the best Cuisinart accessory I've ever gotten, so I'm sharing it with all of you.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Scrape My Jaw Off the Floor

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According to an article at Wine Spectator, some French producers are officially beginning to experiment with screw caps ("Stelvin closures", if "screw caps" sounds too trashy).

I figured the French would be the last bastion of support for corks. Well, perhaps the penultimate; I imagine Portugal, where most of the world's cork is grown, will continue to use it for some time. When I ask French wine makers and wine enthusiasts for their opinion on corks, the answer is predictable: "Wine should be a ritual. Opening a bottle should be an event." Yes, nothing says tradition like pouring good wine down the drain.

Cork is susceptible to a fungus which creates the chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, TCA for short. TCA isn't harmful to humans, but it can ruin wine, from mild effects such as killing the fruit to more noticeable effects where the wine smells like wet cardboard, decaying newspaper, gym socks, or any other number of unpleasant descriptors, a condition called cork taint. This condition affects anywhere from 2-10% of the world's wines, depending on who you ask. Screw caps, not made from cork, aren't susceptible. It is a myth to believe that screw caps will extinguish the problem of cork taint altogether; it can still be rampant in the winery. However, screw caps will remove the primary vector of the fungus: corks.

Some argue that wines with screw caps won't age well, and so far the closures have made the biggest inroads in white wines meant to be drunk young; virtually every wine coming out of New Zealand now has a screw cap. But it's been known for a long time that cork forms a perfect seal. Throw a tight foil wrapper around the top, and I'd be hard-pressed to believe that any oxygen is getting in. Screw cap enthusiasts point out that this means that all the oxygen you need for aging the wine is already in the bottle after bottling, and that a screw cap preserves the wine as it was originally bottled.

Still, I can understand the hesitation. If you're laying a red wine down for years, you don't want to run the risk that it will be ruined when you do open it. Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon isn't worried though; all his wine is now screw-capped, including his high-end "Le Cigare Volant". He's embraced the new closures more eagerly than most, but other California producers are bottling some of their wine with screw caps. Time will tell if the wines age well with screw caps, but I suspect that when it does, it will be the final collapse of the increasingly desperate arguments of cork enthusiasts.

And sure, opening a bottle of wine with a corkscrew is romantic and all; I don't deny that. But I want to drink all the wine in my collection, not just 90-98% of it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Beaujolais Blanc

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I mentioned Beaujolais Blanc in my last post. I've asked around a bit, and few people, even wine geeks, have heard of it, so I thought I'd research it a bit more.

When most Americans think of the wines from the Beaujolais region, just south of Burgundy, they think of Beaujolais Nouveau. Let's get through that one quickly. Beaujolais Nouveau is a wine meant to be drunk very young, and it celebrates the harvest. I'm not sure if it existed before Georges Duboeuf, but he definitely had the business savvy to turn the Nouveau release into a heavily marketed event. Come the third Thursday of November, when these wines are released, you'll see every food site around mention them. These articles are as ubiquitous as ones that extol the virtue of rosé wines near the beginning of summer or describe good kosher wines around Passover.

There are, however, Beaujolais crus (and Beaujolais-Villages), wines with character and complexity. Drinking a Moulin-à-Vent or a Fleurie or a Morgon is completely different than quaffing a Nouveau. But some things are immutable for red wines bearing the Beaujolais name—they are made with the gamay grape and fermentation happens inside the whole grapes via a process called carbonic maceration.

So, what is Beaujolais Blanc? Karen MacNeil's The Wine Bible gives it a couple of sentences. It accounts for about two percent of the region's wines, and is made with either chardonnay or aligoté grapes (both of which can be used in white Burgundy as well). I couldn't find anything in my books which mentioned whether or not carbonic maceration is done with these grapes. According to the notes that accompanied our bottle, growers in Beaujolais can only devote 10% of their vineyard to white varieties, which helps explain its rarity. Perhaps Clotilde or another French reader can tell me if they're well-known in France? Blancs from the Villages appellations are more common than just straight Beaujolais Blanc, according to New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia.

How does it taste? I have just the one sample, the 2003 Domaine de Lalande. My tasting notes mention aromas of citrus (esp. orange), minerals that mirror the limestone-rich soil, and a little bit of honey. On the palate, strong acidity frames citrus flavors, with a surprising pepper note on the finish. The wine seemed fuller than, say, a Chablis (which is also made with Chardonnay), perhaps a side effect of the warmer climate where these grapes grow. It would no doubt do well against shellfish, but its weight suggests that it could do well with heavier white fish, or perhaps chicken and pasta with a light cream sauce. Corn and crab are traditional pairings with chardonnay.

The 2004 Guide Hachette lists a few here and there, though none get more than a star—the Guide Hachette seems to work like the Michelin Guide in that inclusion is worth something on its own, but stars count extra.

Anyway, if you happen to catch a glimpse of one of these elusive wines, buy a bottle (ours was USD $11) and give it a shot. We bought four extra bottles to drink, though at least some of my motivation was the novelty of these wines. Still, it's an enjoyable wine, and we look forward to our next bottle.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

French Fries of the Sea

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Even the best laid plans go awry, but sometimes this means they go aright. I had planned on making a simple dinner—halibut cooked en papillote, or in a parchment paper "envelope". Melissa met me at the fish store after my subway ride from work, and we got ready to do our shopping.

But then the person behind the counter, who recognizes us, piped up, "If you haven't made up your mind yet, can I put in a plug for our mahi mahi burgers?" I'm always happy to hear someone who is enthusiastic about food (even while a cynical part of me figures it's a sales tactic), so I asked him more about it. He told us that a co-worker had been working on them, and got them just right. We said we'd keep it in mind, and to help us along he went into the back to fetch a piece of one that had just been cooked. He was right; they were delicious. We bought two.

The evening's menu changed even more when we saw the fresh anchovies, tantalizingly labeled with the sign, "French Fries of the Sea!". Melissa was dubious about my decision to incorporate these small, silvery fish, but she was amused by this marketing tactic.

With the menu going every which way at this point, I saw the fresh(!) porcini in the produce market and thought, "why not?". Some asparagus, a lemon, and some pasta, and we had the fixings for dinner.

At last, I have found a way to make anchovies that even Melissa likes. Take fresh anchovies, tear off their heads and gut them, spread out, dredge in flour, and fry. Melissa pointed out that at this point they're really just fried fish, and who can argue with that?

My original plan for a wine had been a Beaujolais Blanc we got from our wine club. This unusual Chardonnay (if you know French wines, you're probably thinking the same thing I did: "Beaujolais Blanc?!" Evidently a small amount is allowed to be made.) probably would've done just fine against our halibut en papillote. I shifted gears since we weren't making that any more, and I looked for a wine with a bit more body and structure. In retrospect, it probably would've been fine with our final dish, but I didn't know what to expect at the time. I opted for the 2003 Imagery Pinot Noir Rosé. When we had this on a recent trip to Sonoma, I wasn't terribly impressed. Trying it a few months later, I revised my opinion. While not a great wine, it exhibited a lot more character than before. My original tasting notes were sparse, but this time I got aromas of violets, baking spices, and strawberry syrup, with occasional notes of vanilla and cheese. That changed to cherries in the mouth, which lingered for a long time so that you could enjoy the nice acidity.The food overwhelmed it a bit, but it wasn't a complete disaster.

What happened with the wine between then and now? I don't know, but I suspect the tasting room staff had over-chilled it. Also, it had just been released, so maybe it was recently bottled, and was suffering from "bottle sickness" or the "dumb period" wines sometimes get.

Monday, July 19, 2004

A Dinner Party!!

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A dinner party at the Schneiders'? Yes, it's true. After a hiatus of almost five months, we had guests for a nice dinner. Melissa and Karen are collaborating on an art piece, and Karen's boyfriend Thaddeus has frequent sausage parties with home made sausages.

Because dinner was on a Saturday night, and it had been sooooo long since we had entertained, Melissa "suggested" I keep things simple. I grumbled but recognized the wisdom of her advice. Only four courses. Melissa raised an eyebrow at this definition of "simple", but I actually spent most of the day out of the kitchen, and I even got to sit down at the dinner table a fair amount. I kept trying to think of what horribly time-consuming task I had forgotten.

Before I describe the appetizers, let me just say that I LOVE my brand-new giant rectangular platter. When Melissa and I registered for our wedding, I was dubious about asking for platters; I plate everything individually. Now, we can't have enough of them. The rectangular platter is a recent acquisition, but you'll see it again, that's for sure. There was plenty of room to spread out the little tidbits for people to snack on.

Along one edge, I placed toasted baguette slices. Across from them, I laid pieces of bresaola (imagine prosciutto, but done with beef and dried for a longer period of time), which I garnished with Marcona almonds, Spanish almonds well-seasoned with salt and, I'm convinced, some illegal addictive substance. In the middle, I made two piles of fried asparagus and placed a small bowl of salsa verde (repeats/leftovers from our recent tomatillo experiments).

As an aperitif, we served a 2000 Clos de la Plante Martin from the Loire's Charles Joguet. It's from the general-purpose Touraine appelation, which at least tells one that it's made with Chenin Blanc. The wine had taken on a lot of yeasty notes since we first tasted it on our honeymoon, and it had lost some of Chenin Blanc's characteristic acidity.

No opener course on this menu; just straight to the main course, a simple high-roast chicken. I threw some potatoes into the pan under the chicken as a side, and also blanched some green beans which I reheated in duck fat (and garnished with cacao nibs) just before service. But the star on this plate was the sauce. I reduced a quart of cherry juice and a half-cup of beef demi-glace down to a cup and some change. And just to give it a little extra depth, I put the chicken neck from my carcass into the sauce while it reduced. It wasn't pretty in the pot, but it was yummy. A dash of salt and red wine vinegar at service time, and it was done.

We accompanied our main course with the always wonderful 2001 Ridge Sonoma Station Zinfandel.

Our cheese course was straightforward: Roncal and another Spanish cheese whose name escapes me (Cadi something-or-other), served with a "bread" made from compressed figs, and garnished with Champagne grapes, tiny grapes said to look like the bubbles in that king of sparkling wines.

To accompany this, we poured a port-style wine made from the very old (150 years or more) Mission grape vines in the Deaver vineyard. I discovered it while visiting Deaver as I researched my old vines article. Mission grapes don't typically make complicated wines, but creating a port-style wine with them makes up for some of their simplicity. At any rate, this is a nice wine with a lot of caramel and raisin aromas.

In my review of Amuse, I mentioned that I had an imperative from my wife to try and replicate the beignets we ate that night. I decided to make our guests guinea pigs for round 1. I made pâte à choux (the same dough used for cream puffs), scooped out balls of it with an ice cream scoop, and dropped them into hot oil. Not a bad first effort, but I didn't feel like the insides cooked enough; they were still doughy. I think for round two I'll try smaller scoops and see if that solves the problem. I also served raspberry sorbet drizzled with aceto balsamico tradizionale extra vecchio, authentic balsamic vinegar that's been aged for at least 25 years.

As a digestif, Karen and Thaddeus brought the makings for mojitos, the mint cocktails that are all the rage right now. I usually try and prevent people from bringing anything to contribute; it's the control freak in me. But Melissa overrode me when she was talking to Karen, and I'm glad she did. The drink was quite refreshing, and well balanced flavor-wise.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

IMBB6: Imagine...Mmmm...Barbecued Brisket

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A while back, my friend Tom told me to keep an eye out for the next issue of Saveur; it had a technique for doing beef brisket in an electric smoker, which Tom knows we have because he was one of the people (along with Carol) who gave it to us.

Fast-forward a couple months, when our friend Tim sent out an email that he was going to be having a "barbecue". What he meant, of course, was that they were going to be grilling things. Worried that my friend might be embarrassed by his faux pas, I convinced him to let me come by really early and smoke a beef brisket.

Tom picked up the brisket for me, since he was buying two for a party of his (coming soon) the day before Tim's party. It's an impressive piece of meat, a solid 10 pounds (at least) of meat and fat, untrimmed. If I had known the gang at Too Many Chefs was going to choose barbecuing for IMBB 6, I would've taken more pictures.

Tom (and his sous-chef William) gave me a "brisket 101" talk at his party. He showed me how to distinguish the "point" (the pics are the point piece) and the "flat" portions of the brisket, since I was going to separate them for the cooking, and he offered some advice on cooking it faster, since the Saveur recipe calls for 7-10 hours in the smoker, a daunting prospect for a barbecue at 2:00pm. See below for the full technique.

I was at Tim and Mitch's the next day at 6:20am (horribly hungover, I'll add), prepping the meat and preheating the smoker. Trimming the meat was tricky despite the experienced words of Tom and William; I realized midway through how I should have done it. Hopefully I'll remember that the next time. I also removed about a pound of fat. If that seems like a lot, it's worth remembering that the rule of thumb is you get about 50% yield by weight from a cooked brisket, with much of the rest of that being fat that renders out during the cooking. In other words, there was still plenty of fat on and in the meat. I didn't do much of a rub; my idea for a rub (dried tomatoes, chiles, and cocoa powder) was impractical at Tim and Mitch's; in the future I'll make it the night before, but I got home awfully late from Tom's party. So I just rubbed salt all over the meat.

The cooking itself was uneventful, so much so that I slept for about three hours after the brisket was in the smoker, waking up every half hour to see how the mesquite chips were doing. But the meat attracted a lot of attention from guests as I sliced the final product to put on a platter. A heady aroma attracted lots of people into the kitchen, and they risked their fingers to grab a piece from the cutting board. It came out, I thought, pretty darn well. Lots of flavor and fairly juicy.

It's unfortunate that doing a whole brisket (10 lbs. of meat, remember) is of necessity an infrequent event. It was good and surprisingly easy. Next time, though, hopefully I can do it for dinner so that I can smoke it all the way for a full 10 hours. Yum.

I wasn't quite up for wine that day, but if I were to choose a wine, this is one of the few times when I'd like some toasted oak in the barrels. Not enough to be overpowering, but enough to add some hints of smoke to the wine. Perhaps a California Rhone blend of some kind. Zinfandel is often recommended for barbecue, but I think that works better when there's more barbecue sauce. Besides, I think that magazines that say that mean "barbecue" not barbecue. You don't need a tannin monster, and I think your brisket will suffer next to one; a lot of the fat has rendered out of the brisket, and your meat shouldn't have a big helping of char on it, so the tannins will just overwhelm the food. Of course, beer is a perfectly respectable option.

"Quick" Brisket

Serves heaven knows how many
Prep and preheat your smoker. Soak wood chips in water.

Take a whole, untrimmed beef brisket ("packet cut") and trim off all but a 1/4" of fat around the whole thing. Separate the point and flat portions. The point will probably jut out above the flat. You should see a thick layer of fat separating the two, and you can pretty much just bisect that; on mine it actually curved down. Trim the excess fat (down to 1/4" again) from the newly exposed surfaces.

Rub the meat all over with salt, or concoct some interesting rub and use that.

Place brisket in smoker (point on top rack; it has more fat, so putting it on top will allow the fat to flavor the flat as well). Put wood chips in smoker. Take a nap and start to recover from your hangover.

About three hours later, preheat an oven to 250°. When the internal temperature of the brisket reaches 145° or so (about four hours from the start), take it out and put both pieces into a roasting pan. Cover loosely with foil and put in the oven until the internal temperature of the meat hits 185° or 190°, about two to two and a half hours. What you're doing here is "braising" the meat in its own fat.

Remove from the oven and slice (no need to let it rest). Watch your friends pass out in ecstacy.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Tomatilloes

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When we were shopping for a produce box supplier, I distinctly wanted a farm that didn't let us choose which produce we would get. I wanted the surprise as well as the potential challenge of cooking with something I rarely use.

So I was excited when a bag of tomatilloes showed up, looking like bright green tomatoes encased in papery leaves. What would I do with them? What was the best way to prepare them? I don't ever buy them, because the cuisines that influence me are mainly French and Italian, not Mexican.

I looked up tomatilloes (which Melissa tells me are pronounced "toe-muh-tea-yos") in Elizabeth Schneider's Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini, an invaluable reference for dealing with "unusual" vegetables. Schneider (no relation) says that despite the name and the look of the firm fruit, they actually aren't that closely related to tomatoes. They're sort of their own thing. According to her, they can be used raw but are most often cooked, either by poaching until tender or by roasting.

I wish I could claim I did something really creative with my bag of tomatilloes, but I did what pretty much everyone does: I made salsa. In particular, an adaptation of the tomatillo, grape and mint salsa Schneider mentions. Correcting for taste with such a recipe can be dangerous, however. I made it way too hot (spicy) for my sensitive palate. To keep it edible, I added more grapes to bump up the sugar and liquid. Then, when I served it atop some pan-seared salmon the next evening, I also served some yogurt, borrowing the idea of an Indian raita and letting the yogurt mellow the heat of the salsa.

Melissa called the salmon one of the best combos I've ever come up with (I'm sure she meant to say "one of many great combos"). I laid the salmon atop a bed of fried asparagus, dredging the stalks in flour, buttermilk, and then flour again before plunging into hot oil. I garnished with fleur de sel and shredded cilantro and mint. Even I have to grudgingly admit that it was all pretty good. Figuring few wines would stand up to the heat of the salsa, I opted for beer, Saison Dupont from the exquisite Brasserie Dupont. Beer handles spice well: it's not a coincidence that diners in the tropical regions that tend to favor chiles prefer to drink beer with their meals. That, and the fact that beer is served cold and that grapes don't fare well in tropical climates.

Anyway, it was fun to cook with a brand-new ingredient. I'm even tempted to pick up some more tomatilloes soon.

Monday, July 12, 2004

New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro

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From Ashland, OR, all you'll see from Highway 99 is a dirt turnout. From the other direction (Talent, OR, I believe), you might see the large arrow bordered by light bulbs. But with only one of the light bulbs blinking, you'd be excused for missing it at night. The front entrance isn't hard to find from the parking lot, but you'll wonder what you got yourself into. I'm not sure what the building used to be. I'd believe bordello as easily as motel. A simple piece of paper is stuck to the door: "New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro". Open that door and you'll find yourself in a bare antechamber. No furniture or plants, just another door. Open that door and you find yourself in a small, elegant French restaurant. To say the restaurant is nondescript is an understatement; I've heard stories of people calling from the phone booth just outside the restaurant to ask for directions.

We ate with our good friend Amanda (the rest of our boisterous friends were seeing a play). She went to school in Ashland, and had heard of this restaurant; it has a large cult following. But she had never eaten there and was eager to try it. Our friends Pavel and Kathleen introduced us to New Sammy's two years ago, which is how we knew what to look for when driving to it.

As we sat down and Melissa and Amanda started perusing the menus, I looked at the wine list. It bears mentioning. Even the small wine list has a wide selection, and the big wine list comes in a thick book. By themselves, these wine lists would be almost useless. The wines are grouped by color and then region, and all that's listed are the names and prices. But the front-of-house manager is Vern, one of the co-owners. He's built up the wine collection for the restaurant, and it's possible he knows a lot about every wine on the list (unlike many other restaurants, where distributors apply heavy sales tactics or the wine director just trawls a wine catalog). He'll happily chat with you about the wines and make suggestions. He wants people to have wine that will go well with the food. He also doesn't charge much of a markup; we started with a 2002 Kabinett Riesling from Dönnhoff's Oberhauser Leistenberg. The price on the wine list was $35—I think you'd pay about that retail (maybe slightly less, but only slightly). After the Riesling, Vern recommended a 1996 Adelsheim Pinot Noir from Oregon's Yunhill County.

Two years ago, Melissa and I were impressed by the food at New Sammy's. But in the intervening time, we built up the memory of the food, and our palates changed. In short, we were a bit disappointed. It's not that the food at New Sammy's isn't good. Indeed, all the food demonstrated flawless culinary technique, and I still consider the $45 prix fixe a great value. But we felt the portions were too large, and it seemed as if the sides of medleys of vegetables muddied the dishes rather than complementing them.

It's interesting to wonder what happened. Like I said, we had probably built up the place too much in our minds. But I'm more curious about the shift in our palates. I wouldn't say they had become more sophisticated—wouldn't that be pretentious? But I do think that we've become more used to more distinct flavors. Thomas Keller discusses what I call the "two-bite theory" in his French Laundry Cookbook. Basically the idea is that after two bites, the diner begins to lose interest in the food. On the one hand, I think this is true. On the other, I think that at times it's simplistic. Aren't there dishes that benefit from a third, a fourth, or even a twentieth bite? In those cases, isn't it less about being awed by the flavor combinations and more about appreciating the depth and complexity of a dish? You can't get all a wine has to offer by taking one sip (wine tasters be damned, says the part-time wine writer who goes to tastings and does just that). Wine often opens up over time, and you appreciate it in different ways. Why wouldn't food have a similar property? Temperatures change, nuances reveal themselves, and you can explore how a bite of mushroom and a bite of salmon work together, then asparagus and salmon, then mushroom and asparagus.

Are we better or worse off now that we're disappointed by a superbly cooked piece of salmon because it was too big and had too many other things going on with it? It means we have fewer opportunities to enjoy ourselves when we go out to eat, fewer opportunities to get caught up in the joy of eating out. One could argue that New Sammy's is a better restaurant precisely because it doesn't mindlessly follow this or that food trend.

Or maybe I'm just philosophizing. What do you all think?

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Amuse

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The town of Ashland lies just inside Oregon's southern border, along the West Coast's ubiquitious Interstate 5. It's a small town that boasts a nationally famous theater festival erroneously known as The Oregon Shakespeare Festival—a misnomer since they play much more than works by the Bard. (Surprisingly, the town also has probably the country's best games store, Funagain Games.)

We went there to see plays and meet up with various friends from points along the coast. Our friends Pavel and Kathleen live in Seattle, and other friends of theirs came up earlier that week from the Bay Area (we went up on the weekend). Finally, Melissa's closest friend Amanda came down from Portland.

It's no surprise that good food flourishes in Ashland; half the town seems to be emigrés from the Bay Area. One restaurant that's received a lot of attention is Amuse, which describes itself as a Northwest/French restaurant. Our friends Lisa and Josh ate there when they went to Ashland for their honeymoon and they raved about it. So we were all eager to try it.

I'm not used to eating with eight other people. Conversation flies back and forth, throwing out tendrils that other people cling to briefly or use to rope themselves into the discussion fully, even if they're far away from the main conversation. Serving the food takes longer, and wine flows freely. Personally, I prefer round tables for large groups of people, but you can hardly blame this small restaurant for not having one to accommodate us, though we might have had better luck on their outdoor patio (which was blisteringly hot that evening).

The meal started with an amuse-bouche; the staff alternated two different ones so no one had the same thing as his/her neighbors. Mine was a raddichio slaw with cucumber and sesame oil which created a combination of bitter and sweet with good textural balance between the light cucumber and the weighty sesame oil. Melissa's amuse (her Amuse amuse?) was a vichysoisse with truffle oil floated on top. Melissa loved her sip, which had most of the truffle oil. My sip was mostly the refreshing soup and almost none of the truffle oil, which made it blander than the kitchen probably intended.

My opener was veal sweetbreads with morels. The sweetbreads were cooked well, with a crispy exterior and silky interior without that "organy" taste you occasionally get. And of course the morels, poached in stock I'd guess, were quite good. But the star of the plate was the veal stock reduction that formed the sauce. A nice thick texture and a lot of flavor (perhaps from the morels, since veal stock is normally fairly neutral). This was a textbook sauce, and all the other sauces I tasted there were similarly masterful.

A popular dish around our table was a lobster-avocado salad with an orange-mango vinaigrette, swirled decoratively around a high cylinder of salad. I didn't get a bite (too busy with my sweetbreads), but the murmurs from the rest of table were all positive.

The wine list at Amuse is modest. Perhaps a third of the wines come from Oregon, another third from various parts of the globe (mostly France), and a final third from California. Most of the table enjoyed a California Chardonnay with their lobster salads; Melissa and I , Amanda, and Andrea, one of Pavel & Kathleen's friends, had the 2000 Rex Hill Reserve Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Northern Oregon. Many people know about the famous wine tasting of 1976 where a California Cabernet beat out a First Growth Bordeaux; it was California's entrance onto the international wine stage. Less people know that a few years later, a similar event heralded the coming-of-age of the Oregon wine industry; a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir beat a Burgundy in a blind tasting. The state hosts the biannual international pinot noir convention, so they take that grape seriously.

The oak dominated the wine when it was opened. The first thing in my tasting notes is smoke, but as the wine evolved the scents became dark cherries, plums, jam, and mint (and the mint amplified as I drank the wine with my sweetbreads). The wine had a high acidity, with moderate tannins, as you would expect from wine made with pinot noir.

My main course was a "six-allium" risotto ("allium" is a generic term for members of the onion family), with a wine-olive jus. The risotto had a pleasant oniony-ness and I thought a good texture —I'm a harsh judge of restaurant risotti because I like mine so much. Again, though, the sauce captivated me. It's not something I would have thought of, but the olive flavor mingled deliciously well with the red wine reduction. The ingredients didn't blend, per se. Instead, they co-starred, each bite giving an impression of one, then the other, and then back again, each time using the other ingredient as a background note. Perhaps not surprisingly, this powerful sauce overwhelmed the delicate wine. But it was still really good, and it's a combination I will remember for my own use.

Amuse offers a cheese course, offering one of three "composed cheese plates". I chose the local Rogue Valley Creamery blue, which was paired (classically) with dates and walnuts. I had finished my wine by this point, though I'm sure the sweet dates would have clashed with it.

Finally, my dessert was beignets with both a vanilla creme anglaise sauce and a raspberry purée sauce. The dish was heavenly, and I have an imperative mission from my wife to try and reproduce the beignets at home. I hypothesized they were made with pâte à choux, and my friend Tom confirms that this is sometimes done. It seems like a good starting point, at any rate. And if it doesn't work, hey, fried pâte à choux is probably good anyway.

Our meal at Amuse was really good, and I understand why Lisa and Josh raved about it so much. The portions were a little large for my taste (our innkeeper considered them too small), but that didn't detract from the fact that they were delicious and well executed. I'll often leave a restaurant intrigued by (or reminded of) a flavor combination I had; I don't often leave with five or six ideas to add to my repertoire. But as good as Amuse's food is, it's their saucier who is clearly at the top of his or her game, and the sauces that came on our plates were pointed reminders about how good a sauce should be.