Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Posh Popcorn: Easy & Elegant Party Food

Popcorn is one of most heavenly foods to eat with sparkling wine: it's crunchy, buttery and goes down so well with a glass of something bubbly. Skeptical? Then think of it as an upgrade on the movie theater soda-and-popcorn combo.

This recipe, originally created for my book The Bubbly Bar: Champagne & Sparkling Wine Cocktails for Every Occasion (Clarkson Potter, August 2009) is super easy and elegant. And best of all it will be the one thing that everybody likes. Once you master this basic recipe, feel free to create your own variations or sign up for my free entertaining newsletter The Bubbly Girl Chronicles to learn some more of mine.

Posh Popcorn

Pop one bag of freshly microwaved popcorn or 6 cups of popcorn made the old-fashioned way. Season the warm popcorn with:
3 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon black truffle oil (optional)
Toss popcorn and seasonings to combine well and serve right away or this can be made an hour or so in advance and stored in an airtight container until serving.

© By Maria C. Hunt 2008 All Rights Reserved

The Best New Year's Bubbly Under $20

Champagne may be the most famous and most talked about sparkling wine in the world, but all that sparkles is not champagne.

As I explain in my new book The Bubbly Bar: Champagne and Sparkling Wine Cocktails for Every Occasion, (Clarkson Potter, August 2009) while true champagne only comes from the region northeast of Paris, oodles of delicious, satisfying and affordable sparkling wines are made all over the world using the same careful methods used in Champagne.

With people seeking ways to economize and still celebrate the start of the New Year, it makes a perfect opportunity to explore other sparkling wines. Some of the best stand-ins for champagne are the creamy French sparkling wines called Cremants which can come from Alsace, Burgundy and Limoux. Italy and Spain also produce some budget sparklers.

The other great place to find loads of good affordable sparkling wine is right here in the United States in diverse places like Northern California and New Mexico. Most of these are widely available at well-stocked liquor or grocery stores; follow the links below to learn where to order a 2009 supply of these great bargain bubbles.
Happy New Year!

10 Great Wines Under $20
Roederer Estate Brut NV ($19)
Taste: crisp green apple
Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose ($17)
Taste: rich and fresh
Gruet Brut ($15)
Taste: crisp and citrusy
Piper Sonoma Brut ($15)
Taste: citrusy, fresh and toasty
Domaine Chandon Brut Classic ($14)
Taste: elegant citrus and pear
J. Laurens Cremant de Limoux Brut ($12)
Taste: rich and toasty
Segura Viudas Brut Reserva ($11)
Taste: dried apple and minerals
Veuve Ambal Cremant de Bourgogne Brut Rose ($10)
Taste: red currant and plum
Rotari Brut Arte Italiana ($9)
Taste: peaches and toast
Blason de Bourgogne Cremant de Bourgogne Brut ($8 at Trader Joe’s)
Taste: pear and apple

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Orange Pomegranate Holiday Punch Recipe

It's not that I can't cook, but these days, everyone asks me to bring some sparkling beverage to parties. Finalizing plans for Christmas Day libations, I'm considering what kind of bubbly or holiday punch to serve.

A good choice would be one like this Pomegranate Orange Punch that uses seasonal fruit like pomegranates and oranges and is a crowd pleaser (read slightly sweet).


Pomegranate Orange Punch

Makes 10-12 servings

For ice mold:
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

For Punch:
Seeds from one large pomegranate, about 1 cup
2 cups orange juice
1 bottle (375 ml) Quady Essensia Orange Muscat Dessert Wine
1/2 cup Torani Pomegranate Syrup
1 tablespoon candied ginger, minced
1 teaspoon Angostura bitters
2 bottles Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava, well chilled
20 mint leaves, torn in pieces (optional)

If making the ice mold, be sure to start it a day before you want to serve the punch so it is nice and cold. Freeze 1 cup orange juice, 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds in a ring gelatin mold.

To make the punch, in a large heavy pint glass, add half the remaining pomegranate seeds and crush with a muddler to releasethe juice. Add juice to a large punch bowl, throwing away the seeds. Add the orange juice, orange muscat wine, pomegranate syrup, candied ginger and bitters to a punch bowl. Just before serving, add the two bottles of chilled cava. Add the ice ring if using and sprinkle with mint, if desired.

By Maria C. Hunt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Sound of Champagne Bubbles?

If a music could embody the sound of champagne bubbles popping, what would it sound like? Driving around shopping this weekend, I heard a report on National Public Radio's Weekend America about a musical instrument called the celesta (pronounced chel-esta).

It sounded like a cross between a cello and I-don't-know-what, but its an upright instrument created in France that resembles a piano but sounds like a magical xylophone. We hear celesta music this time of year in Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

It's also that sweet tinkly sound in Buddy Holly's Everyday.

I love this sound, but what caught my attention is that a listener from Massachusetts wrote in to say that she imagines the celesta must be what popping champagne bubbles sound like. Listen to the NPR piece and see if you agree.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Best Spots for Bubbly by the Glass

Whenever I get my hands on a wine list, the first place I turn is the list of sparkling wines and champagnes by the glass.

Besides being a great way to get your palate primed for a good meal, bubbly is just plain fun way to get the evening off to a giggly, effervescent start. And ordering by the glass is more affordable than splurging on an entire bottle, natch.

Whisk'n'ladle in La Jolla has an interesting selection of well-priced bubbly by the glass and so do Addison at The Grand Del Mar and Market Restaurant + Bar in Del Mar.

In case you're in NYC and want to know where to go for a sparkling start to your evening, here's a great story and slide show called The Magic Flute from Page Six Magazine.

They hit some of my favorites that would make a good addition to a holiday party including the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and the biodynamic (super-organic) Fleury Brut Vintage Champagne and a Juve y Camps Brut Rose Cava I can't wait to try. Cheers!

Friday, December 12, 2008

My Favorite Things: Bubbly & Missoni

The Bubbly Girl has had a glorious week of bubbles and amazing events in San Diego and Las Vegas this week; it's hard for me to decide what has been most amazing!

First I must tell you about the wonderful Missoni charity fashion show presented this week by Nordstrom's to benefit the Center for Community Solutions. In case you've never heard of it, CCS does life-changing and vital work to help women who are affected by sexual assault and domestic violence. I love the warm spirit of all their events, but this was the best.

A huge tent in Joan Waitt's back yard (yeah it's that big) was the scene of a salon filled with the spring collection of colorful and sexy designs by this iconic Italian fashion house. The delightful Margherita Missoni, the granddaughter of the founders and the fresh young face of the line, was the special guest, along with her uncle Vittorio Missoni and aunt Maurizia.

San Diego's most fashionable women -- many dressed in their favorite Missoni dresses from seasons past (I'm in my Ernesta dress) -- mingled, window-shopped and sipped Zardetto Prosecco while nibbling on creative appetizers by Waters Fine Catering. My favorite quip was when the server offered a petite blue cheese ball covered with walnuts and Missoni - er make that Mission- figs.

Just before 7 p.m. we all entered the dramatically lit runway tent and were treated to the same fashion show that was done in Milan. So many pretty things...I can always dream!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Happy Repeal Day

December 5 is a high holiday for savvy American bartenders called Repeal Day. It's the day in 1933 the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition. It's hard to believe, but from 1920 to 1933, it was illegal to sell, make or transport alcohol in the U.S.

Of course, people found all sorts of ways around Prohibition. They smuggled the stuff from Canada or Mexico, made their own bathtub gin with juniper flavor ordered from Sears & Roebuck or went to speakeasies, wild underground bars where you needed a password to get in. Probably the one good thing about Prohibition is that it's the first time women were allowed to go out and have a cocktail; bars previously had been a male-only affair.

After Prohibition ended, drinkers told each other to stay wet and made an umbrella with rain falling underneath it a symbol of Repeal Day. The best way to honor an American holiday like Repeal Day is with a classic cocktail, like a Gin & Tonic or a Long Island Iced Tea - both created during Prohibition - or a pre-Prohibition cocktail like a Rob Roy.

Few San Diego bars appreciate the romance, history and clean flavors found in classic cocktails, but Oceanaire Seafood Room downtown does. The swank restaurant run by my Top Chef pal Brian Malarkey offers a retro 1930s atmosphere extends to the bar, which serves drinks like the tangy Sidecars and fruity Singapore Slings. I'll be ordering a classic Champagne Cocktail made with a sugar cube doused in a dash of bitters.
Have fun and stay wet!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bubbly & Caviar at Four Seasons Aviara

Now that the Black Friday shopping spree is out of the way, it's time to get to what the holidays are really about: spending time with friends eating and drinking - preferably something with bubbles!

You can do both in style at the Four Seasons Resort Aviara this month, as they've come up with some creative ways to make champagne and sparkling wine part of the season. Chef Pierre Abaladejo has created a four course dinner that's being paired with some of Moet et Chandon's finest vintage champagnes including the Dom Perignon 1999. The Dec. 12 dinner is $125 per person and is presented by Aviara's Wine Club. Members pay $180 a year and get to rub shoulders with famous winemakers at exclusive monthly events; they also receive a break on corkage fees, discounts on wines being featured at the events and a complimentary dinner for two at the resort's Northern Italian restaurant Vivace.

If you're in need of some pampering, then head to Aviara's Spa for the decadent Caviar & Champagne Delight. The treatment begins with a caviar-extract back and foot scrub which helps exfoliate and stimulate cellular
rejuvenation. A relaxing body massage with a signature blend of champagne shimmer cream comes next. Afterwards, bliss out in the Relaxation Lounge and sip a glass of Domaine Chandon Brut. The special 50-minute treatment is being offered through early January and costs $175.

If you can't make it to Aviara for inspiration, visit the Domaine Chandon web site for clever ideas on pairing sparkling wine with food, decor and recipes.

For more updates from food and drink expert Maria Hunt on the latest and best when it comes to cocktails, wine, cuisine and travel, visit thebubblygirl.com and sign up for her free quarterly entertaining newsletter The Bubbly Girl Chronicles.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cotton Candy Cocktails: The Movie

Like most adults, I have this nostalgia about the foods of childhood. I mean how great is it that a simple grilled cheese sandwich, a caramel apple or a cupcake can take you back to happy-go-lucky time of life when you had no idea how complicated being a grownup would be. Cotton candy has just that power, and when combined with some alcohol? Even better!

So when I saw a cotton-candy laced "Magic Mojito" on the menu at SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, I knew I had to try it. Beverage Directory Lucas Paya brought over a martini glass filled with a whorl of white cotton candy. As he poured the mojito from a silver shaker, the pouf disappeared, leaving behind the lovely aroma of fresh mint and lime. And rather than being sticky sweet, the drink offered a perfect balance between tart and sweet. The drink sets me to thinking: with say vanilla bean infused sugar and a home cotton candy machine, it wouldn't be difficult to a a frothy vanilla garnish for any cocktail.

Cotton candy, sweet ephemeral stuff that it is, was totally in line with most of the decor in its lovely extravagance. We sat in a glass lined enclosure on a settee covered in a photo printed vinyl. Out front there's a huge $250,000 tea pot sculpture covered in white gold tiles. Digital screens like huge iPhones showed portraits of lords that morphed into monkeys. The Moss boutique next door to Bar Centro features all sorts of deluxe gifts like Fornasetti Themes & Variations plates and the Marc Newson-designed Dom Perignon champagne chiller for a cool grand. Being a light fixture junkie, I was most intrigued by the Fornasetti lamps in the lobby lounge and this giant art glass piece over the long communal table that reminded me of a giant agave. Next time, I'll order tequila

For more updates from food and drink expert Maria Hunt on the latest and best when it comes to cocktails, wine and cuisine, visit thebubblygirl.com and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter The Bubbly Girl Chronicles.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

SLS Hotel: Serious Libations Served

The huge SLS on the far-out Philippe Starck designed hotel that opened in Beverly Hills this week stands for Something Lovely's Started according to their zany cool web site. The SLS site is worth a visit just to see the monkeys swinging on a chandelier.

While sipping drinks at the brand new Bar Centro Tuesday with Beverage Director Lucas Paya, it occurs to me that the SLS should signal Serious Libations Served. Molecular cocktails have really arrived in Southern California, thanks to Paya who worked for Ferran Adria, the Spanish chef who put molecular cooking's gels, airs and foams on the map at his El Bulli. Bar Centro and the adjoining restaurants Rojo and Blanco are all conceived by clever chef Jose Andres, a disciple of Adria's who's decided to expand his Washington DC based empire that includes Minibar, Jaleo and Zaytinya, which happens to be the best modern Greek-Turkish-Lebanese restaurant ever.

The New Way Dirty Martini (above) is quite salty, so be warned. It's crowned with a froth of olive brine air and garnished with a spherification olive, actually made from olives, sodium alginate and calcium chloride in a process explained by Andres at Star Chefs. It bursts in my mouth like a big olive-y sphere of caviar. It's the same trick that won Top Chef's Fabio the second elimination challenge.

But the must-see is the Liquid Nitrogen Caipirinha, that Paya makes table-side on a gleaming silver custom made drink cart. He pours a mix of cachaca, lime and sugar into a stainless steel mixing bowl and then adds a healthy slug of liquid nitrogen, sending a cold fog into the air. The stuff is minus 350 degrees. "It's cold enough to freeze anything, even alcohol," says Paya. I bet it would do the same to your fingers too, though fortunately we do not witness that spectacle. Paya churns the mixture with a metal whisk, starting to struggle after a few minutes as the Caipirinha becomes more and more icy. Finally he's done and he adds a scoop of the sorbet to a glass bowl and garnishes it with leaves of tarragon and edible flower petals. I love the way the flavors of cachaca, lime and sugar and herbs melt over my tongue.

More on the SLS design and some other cocktails next time.

For more updates from food and drink expert Maria Hunt on the latest and best when it comes to cocktails, wine and cuisine, visit thebubblygirl.com and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter The Bubbly Girl Chronicles.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Whole Lotta Champagne

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I love champagne. The stories of the French families making this utterly unique wine, the effervescent moment of opening a new bottle, the romance associated with it make it something that I couldn't imagine living without. Even now!

No, now I'm just becoming a smarter champagne shopper, seeking out finely crafted wines made by small family grape growers and winemakers in the Champagne region. Discovering if you like a particular champagne house's style can be a bit of a challenge. But Le Grande Champagne tasting this Saturday Nov. 22 at The WineSellar & Brasserie offers a deliciously efficient way to sample a whole lotta champagne and sparkling wine in just one afternoon.

They'll be poppin' open some exclusive bottles including Bollinger La Grande Annee 1999 ; Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1999; and Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d'Or 1998 that comes in an unusual black bottle rippled with round grooves. It so happens that Msr. Feuillatte was in love with an operatic diva who adored black pearls. He created the bottle as an homage to his love.

A few of the more boutiquey bubblies include the Henriot Brut Souverain
and Billecart Salmon Brut Rose, which is at the moment my favorite rose champagne on earth. It's a lusty and rich rose abundant with plum and earthy notes and quite up to the task of being paired with a juicy rib-eye or New York steak.
The $75 tasting, which includes bubbly-friendly snacks, runs from 2 to 4 p.m. or 4 to 6 p.m. at the WineSellar, 9550 Waples St. Suite 115 in Mira Mesa. For more information, call 858.450.9557.

For more updates from food and drink expert Maria Hunt on the latest and best when it comes to cocktails, wine and cuisine, visit thebubblygirl.com and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter The Bubbly Girl Chronicles.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"Organic" Wines for Thanksgiving

Ever wondered why it's hard to find a wine labeled "organic" or what "made with organically grown grapes" means?

When it comes to apples or pumpkins, organic means they're grown without any chemical pesticides or fertilizers. But when it comes to grapes used to make wine, it's not so simple. Even though quite a number of wineries grow grapes without any pesticides or chemical fertilizers, they can't quite call their wines organic. The reason? The way government wine standards are written, only those wines made without any added sulfites -- a naturally occurring preservative needed to stabilize the wine -- can be called organic. There's lots of info on organic and biodynamic wines and plenty international vino on offer (natch) at The Organic Wine Company.

So, until the law changes, most American green wines are labeled "made with organically grown grapes."

Wondering what to drink with your hormone-free turkey? Here are some eco-friendly wines to check out:

2005 Jeriko Estate Brut Sparkling Wine The first and only American sparkling wine made from organically grown grapes, the Jeriko Brut is a blanc de blancs made solely from chardonnay grapes grown in Mendocino County. It's elegant, crisp and luxurious.

2005 Bonterra Vineyards Viognier This white varietal most often found in France's northern Rhone is beloved for its lush character that's a blend of apricots, white flowers and honey. This one crafted from Mendocino County grapes is oaked so it's got a hint of vanilla too.

2005 Grgich Hills Estate Merlot This merlot made from Napa fruit has lots of personality with flavors of plums and cocoa and balanced tannins.

Mike Grgich, whom I met last fall when he visited the Hotel Del Coronado, is probably the nation's senior statesman when it comes to making wines from naturally grown grapes. He started doing things that way back in his native Croatia and never found a good reason to stop. He's most famous for making the 1972 Chateau Montalena chardonnay that beat out France's best white Burgundies in the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting. The story of Grgich's fervent quest to come to America and make good wine in George Taber's book is so inspiring, it will make you want to discover what his wines are about.

For more updates from food and drink expert Maria Hunt on the latest and best when it comes to cocktails, wine and cuisine, visit thebubblygirl.com and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter The Bubbly Girl Chronicles

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Farm-Fresh Urban Eats at Crescent Heights

San Diego has some great restaurants serving fresh and beautiful farm-to-table cuisine. The only drawback is that most are in La Jolla or Del Mar - and I live in central San Diego. So I was so excited to discover Crescent Heights Kitchen & Lounge a chic new downtown restaurant where I can have a meal that shows off the best of the season without driving for half an hour.

It's owned by a cute young couple named David and Mariah McIntyre. He was the kitchen manager for Wolfgang Puck for 10 years, working at Spago and the newish steakhouse CUT; she has a background in design. Together they've created a restaurant that's clean and modern yet still warm and inviting with expanses of wood and an earthy color scheme. I especially like the lounge behind the bar, which fronts on a huge picture window showing a stainless steel prep area.

David shows a real talent for turning that seasonal produce into subtle and well balanced dishes and making them beautiful too. Every time I've eaten there, I've had the urge to take a few pictures before digging in. The burrata salad (at top), made from creamy mozzarella ringed by prosciutto, sweet baby beets, the last summer tomatoes and a pistou was just as delicious as it looked. My next visit, I ordered the salad Lyonnaise, you know the one with the poached egg, frisee lettuce and juicy pork lardons? It was the most refined and stunning version I've ever had. I also loved the just-right accompaniments on the cheese plate: perfectly toasted bread, honey comb, candied Marcona almonds and apricot compote.

At their opening party a few weeks ago, they showed off lots of little bites: Kobe burgers on brioche buns, tuna tartare, marinated lamb skewers and their tangy yuzu citrus scented cocktails. But the one taste I'm pining for is the chocolate hazelnut ganache tart served in a chocolate crust and topped with sea salt.

Crescent Heights is busy for lunch, but dinnertime is when you can have a luxurious meal and lots of attention from the professional servers. And the side-benefit of going for dinner is all the free street parking available for the asking.

Crescent Heights is at 655 Broadway Suite 150 San Diego 92101 phone 619 450-6450. Lunch and dinner daily, closed Sunday.

For more updates from food and drink expert Maria Hunt on the latest and best when it comes to cocktails, wine and cuisine, visit www.thebubblygirl.com

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Viva Pops Paletas at the Little Italy Mercato

San Diego is a small city. How small? Well the other day I read in the Little Italy Mercato newsletter about a couple selling gourmet paletas --the Mexican style popsicles -- at the Saturday morning market. Intrigued, I called to find out their story.

Lisa Altmann started telling me about her love of using organic fruits and herbs from the farmers at the market to create her creative Viva Pops combinations like Lemon and Lavender, Nectarine Basil, Pineapple Chili, Chocolate Banana and simpler choices like Tart Plum and Strawberry. After a few minutes, we realized that we had met each other years before at a craft show. Altmann had been selling beeswax candles; I was there with my jewelry. We had become friendly, then she and her then boyfriend Jack moved to the East Coast and we lost touch.

They're back and Lisa, who's always been a foodie and has found her calling: paletas. Sold from push-carts by vendors who ring a little bell to announce their presence, traditional paletas have always come in fanciful flavors like watermelon cantaloupe, rice pudding with cinnamon, even cucumber with lime and chile. Altmann takes it further, by using organic fruits in season and even agave nectar to sweeten some instead of any sugar.

So what do they taste like? Like biting into a piece of ripe fruit that's frozen to a perfect consistency. The Tart Plum was a gorgeous shade of gold and mouth-wateringly good; the Nectarine Basil had a wonderful creamy texture and just a hint of the herb. But my favorite was probably the Pineapple Chile (top) which starts out bright and sweet and then leaving your mouth warm and tingly. Even the youngest visitors seemed to be delighted with the discovery of Viva Pops.

For more updates from food and drink expert Maria Hunt on the latest and best when it comes to cocktails, wine and cuisine, visit www.thebubblygirl.com

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Champagne & Sparkling Tasting at ENO - Revelations!

My friend Kalisa - a genuine Bubbly Girl - joined me for a beautiful afternoon of sipping international sparkling wines in the sun-filled wine room called ENO at the Hotel Del Coronado. I won't bore you with every detail of every wine we drank, because I think a virtual wine tasting is no fun. But I will point out some notable aspects and share some fun pictures from this two hour ENO-versity class taught by resident sommelier Ted Glennon.

The biggest treat for me - a rose (as in ro-zay) lover - was the Barth Rose Sekt made in Germany from pinot noir grapes. Sekt is the German term for sparkling wine and the best are made in the same traditional method used in Champagne. It's available locally from a shop run by the importers, Damon and Sabrina Goldstein of Truly Fine Wines. And at $25 a bottle, a wine of this quality is a real value when compared to champagnes and would be delicious with ham or turkey (holiday hint).

The wine was served in a red Burgundy style Riedel glass and the bowl filled with the lovely aromas of earth and plums and soft cherry. Plus there's something about drinking fine bubbly out of a lush glass that makes you feel like you're really living -- try it!

We also drank a J Vineyards Brut Rose that had a nice mineral character, but what captured my attention was the way the bubbles streamed constantly from the bottom of the glass, forming a halo on the surface of the wine. I suspect it's because the bottom of the bowl was knotched ever so slightly to give the streams of bubbles a launching point. If you're really fascinated with the fine points of etching your stems for maximum bubbles, check out this article by the erudite food science writer and Curious Cook Harold McGee.

For the dessert flight, we tasted the Marumoto Hou Hou Shu Sparkling Sake, a pretty package and a delicate bubbly that tastes of pears and a hint of yeast. But of course, the best way to finish any exploration of international bubbles is with Brachetto d'Acqui, the sweet, gently sparkling red wine from Piedmont that reminds me of cranberries, raspberries and roses. This is by Marenco Pineto and is ideal with blue cheese, turkey and stuffing or dark chocolates - such as the ones we tasted made by talented San Diego confectioner Jack Fisher.

For more news from food and drink expert Maria Hunt on the latest in great drinks, restaurants and fun things to do, visit www.thebubblygirl.com

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bubbly Around the World - Oct. 18 Tasting at ENO-

Champagne may be the best known sparkling wine from France, but by no means is it the whole story. Nearly each region of France makes its own special sparkling wine with local grapes and the same is true for other countries around the world.

If you live near San Diego and you're not busy Saturday afternoon, then stop by ENO at the Hotel Del Coronado for a couple hours of fun wine tasting. In case you haven't been, ENO (that's short for enology or the study of wine) is a modern wine, cheese and chocolate tasting room overlooking the ocean at the Hotel Del Coronado. They specialize in serving up great wines without any attitude or pretension. Sommelier Ted Glennon is leading an ENO-versity class that takes in some fascinating international sparkling wines. The list includes:

Barth, Riesling Sekt, Extra Dry, Rhiengau, Germany MV

Barth, Spatburgunder Rose, Rhiengau, Germany MV

Schloss Gobelsburger, Riesling, Chardonnay, Gruner Veltliner, Sekt, MV

Chartogne Taillet, Champagne Brut, 1999

Morumoto Brewey, Hou Hou Shu, Sparkling Sake, Okayama Ken,Japan, 2008

Marenco, "Pineto," Brachetto d' Acqui, Piedmont, Italy 2007

Ca dei Mandori, Brachetto Brut, Piedmont, Italy MV

The tasting class runs from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday at ENO and includes pairings with cheese and chocolate. For reservations or more information, call 619 522-8546.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sent from Heaven

I have a love-hate relationship with good desserts. I love eating them, but hate that it's s hard for me to limit myself to just one! Faced with a pastry case filled with tempting lemon tarts, bittersweet chocolate cake and a fresh fruit galettes, I might want to have one of each.

But I'm going to have to deal with my dessert issues now that there's a wonderful new pastry chef at Heaven Sent Desserts in North Park. Chef Tina Luu, who specializes in creative French style pastries made with fresh fruits and fine ingredients, took over the kitchen several months ago and visiting Heaven Set is a true delight.

I couldn't help but be drawn to the mosaic of strawberry, mango, kiwi, pineapple and starfruit atop the Tropical Fruit Tart. It was even more delicious than it looked; the flavors of the sweet ripe fruits were perfectly balanced by the delicate vanilla pastry cream and the crisp cookie crust fringed with toasted coconut. Chocaholics will find it hard to resist the bittersweet chocolate Lava Lust cake, served oozy and warm, topped with a swirl of sweetened mascarpone and a candy chocolate heart. But from the first bite, I was hooked by the retro charm of sweet whipped cream, luscious bananas and a buttery crust in Luu's Banana Cream Pie.

Besides her cafe desserts, Luu is a Michelangelo when it comes to creating specialty cakes. When Beyonce (yes, that Beyonce) was in town for her birthday party, Luu made the diva a chocolate Tree of Life cake adorned with twisted branches, frilly leaves and berries that were all edible. Luu is a skilled chef who earned a culinary degree from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and spent time with the top restaurants in the Bay Area including Bradley Ogden's One Market, Jeremiah Tower's Star's and Aqua. After a stint at the four-star Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa, Luu relocated to San Diego, where she is the lead baking and pastry instructor with the Art Institute of California, San Diego and the angel in the kitchen at Heaven Sent.
Heaven Sent Desserts, 3001 University Ave. (at 30th Street) North Park. 619.793.4758

For more updates from food and drink expert Maria Hunt on the latest and best when it comes to cocktails, wine and cuisine, visit www.thebubblygirl.com

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Every Day is Halloween...at Barbarella

It's only October 11, but already the neighborhood Cal-Ital bistro Barbarella in La Jolla Shores is decked out in enough Halloween decor to fill up a small store. Owner Barbara Beltaire is still a kid at heart and spends much of the year planning her display. The entire restaurant is draped in cobwebs, bats and witches; motion-activated black fuzzy spiders drop from the ceiling when diners least expect it.

The cocktail menu isn't left out when it comes to the Halloween fun; Barbarella offers a special menu of spooky seasonal drinks. The headliner is the Vampire Martini (right), a mix of Chambord, creme de coco and vodka with a chocolate rim; its garnished with plastic spider rings or gummy worms. The Captain Sparrow, combines pineapple juice, coconut cream and Pyrat Rum XO Reserve, a blend of 15-year-old Caribbean rums. It's an homage to the natty, eyeliner-wearing pirate played by Johnny Depp. My favorite though, is the Caramel Apple, which makes me think of the candied apples that were always a part of autumn in Chicago.

For more updates from food and drink expert Maria Hunt on the latest and best when it comes to cocktails, wine and cuisine, visit www.thebubblygirl.com

Sunday, September 28, 2008

France's First Bubbly

One of my favorite blogs for keeping up with all matters luxurious is Luxist. Deidre Woollard is most prolific; I'm a fan because she seems to love champagne as much as I do. She wrote an interesting post on a new book y James Crowden that suggests champagne may have actually been a British invention. This theory is not new; but according to the new book Ciderland, British scientist Christopher Merrett in 1662 or so figured out adding sugar and molasses to still wine from Champagne would make it fizzy; he also started using stronger glass to keep the bottle from exploding.

Many people do believe that Dom Perignon, the nearly-blind monk who toiled making wine in the Abbey of Hautvillers invented sparkling wine in the Champagne region around 1700. He's reputed to have said: Come quickly brothers, I'm drinking stars" upon his discovery. Whether he uttered this romantic phrase or not, he didn't invent champagne. It was a natural result of bottling wine in the cold Champagne region before the wine had finished fermenting. In the spring when it warmed up, the wine started fermenting again and the bubbles were trapped inside the bottle. Dom Perignon was a brilliant winemaker and marketer; since it was nearly impossible to keep the bubbles out of wines, he decided to turn them into an asset rather than a flaw. In 1921, Moet et Chandon chose his name for their tete de cuvee.

Actually, sparkling wines were being made on purpose in the southern French region Languedoc since 1531, more than 100 years before Dom Perignon was even born. The Benedictine monks at the Abbey Saint-Hilaire near the town of Limoux made a wine they called Blanquette de Limoux using the local Mauzac grape. Today, the sparkling wines of Limoux - Blanquette and Cremant - are some of the best secret value sparkling wines in France. The Antech Cuvee Francoise Blanquette de Limoux is highly regarded and sells for under $13 at K & L. If you like your wines green, then check out the Bernard Delmas Blanquette de Limoux, a vegan and organic wine made from a blend of Mauzac and Chardonnay grapes.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Miss Flo and The Court of Two Sisters

Walking around the French Quarter and seeing people of all colors having fun seemed like the most natural thing during my visit this summer. But I was surprised to learn from a native that for many years, people of color were not allowed to go there if they were not going to work.

So it was all the more impressive to meet Floria Woodard, the diva of the bartending staff at The Court of Two Sisters, a restaurant established back in 1832!! After three visits and three hot sweaty walks over into the French Quarter, I finally caught up with her. Miss Flo as the staff call her, is a legend around the Court of Two Sisters. She's been tending bar longer than I've been alive. She started working on the floor in the late 60s, helping to integrate the waitstaff as a hostess. Later she started working behind the bar and hasn't looked back.

Though the names of many classic New Orleans drinks like the Sazerac and Mint Julep are posted on the wall behind the bar, most of the visitors ask for sweet and potent concoctions like Hurricanes, Pina Coladas and Miss Flo's own fruity creation: The Bayou Bash. Whatever you order, she serves it up with knowledgeable bartender banter and a "here you go sugar" as she passes the drink across the bar. After interviewing her about her craft and watching her work a crowd of tourists who stopped in on a bar tour, I ordered a Ramos Gin Fizz for the walk back to the hotel. The icy, gin milk shake with a hint of orange flower water was the perfect foil for the heat and made for a pleasant memory of the woman who made it. Let's pray that the next hurricane on the way bypasses the Crescent City.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Here and there in NOLA

Maybe you go to a city for a conference and then stick to the program for the whole four days. Not me! I have to get out an explore on my own. So that's what my Tales buddy Lisa and I did when there were no seminars that sounded crucial. Once you get past all the cruddy and touristy bars and start getting deeper into the French Quarter, it reveals a weathered old world beauty that lives up to its name.

For lunch one day, we popped into Galatoire's which like most of the restaurants in the area has been there since the early part of the century. I had the most delicious and huge soft-shell crab lightly fried and drizzled with a buttery meuinere sauce; I would have taken a picture but I was too hungry. Afterward, we ordered Cafe Brulot, the potent coffee drink that's spiked with cognac and orange liqueur. We had seen the whole show at Arnaud's the previous night, where the waiter held a long, clove-studded orange peel over the bowl and made blue flames dance up the spiraled peel. We couldn't wait for our own show! So it was disappointing and a bit startling when our waiter brought a silver bowl of coffee to the table, tossed in some orange peel and then torched it. That coffee stain on the table was from when he poured flaming coffee onto the table cloth for an added thrill - as if!

By the next day, Lisa was dying for some modern Southern food, so we cabbed over to Cochon, where chef Donald Link creates eclectic fare. The room was very open with lots of natural light and wood, but our waitress who seemed like she's rather be having a root canal was a downer. But we didn't care after she started bringing food like pork ribs with watermelon pickle and this insanely good pork cake (like a crab cake but with pork) on top of sweet and sour braised cabbage garnished with mango and fried pork rinds. The only thing that would have made it better was a nice glass of sekt.

It's a good thing I'm doing a lot of walking down here! Speaking of walking, I think it's still a good idea to stick with a group when walking around in the French Quarter at night. So that's what I did, hoofing it over to the far side of things for yet another Beefeater's party for Desmond Payne. There were guys dressed as Beefeaters and lots of red cocktails in honor of the Ruby Jubilee, but it was also bloody hot. I ducked out and then met up with an interesting looking group who turned out to be from O'Nieal's Grand Street Bar We've all been there; it was the scene for Steve and Aidan's bar called Scout in Sex and the City. After hearing "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Let it Be" by a man playing an instrument made of water glasses of different pitches, Jessica, Chris, and I walked back to the Hotel Monteleone. "All those people in there think they know what to do with glasses," Chris told the musician "but you really know."
I couldn't agree more.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Spirited Dinners Part 2

Most times I can look over a list of ingredients for a cocktail and decide if I'll like it or not. But as the next cocktail in the Spirited Dinner at Restaurant August in New Orleans proved, looks can be deceiving.

The first ingredient in the Ruby Bean cocktail was Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky. I'm no fan of the smoky, peat-mossy flavors I've found in the few Scotches I've tastes. But mixologist Charlotte Voisey tamed the smokiness with two other elements. First she added Lillet Rouge a French fortified wine made from cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes. She lightened the flavors and added a hint of sweetness with Licor 43 a Spanish liqueur made of 43 ingredients including citrus, herbs and vanilla. Finally, she brightened the cocktail with orange and lemon juices. The whole delicious effect was that of a smooth, potent and citrusy sangria, with a hint of vanilla and bitterness. It turned out to be my favorite of the evening.

Though it was paired with Chef John Besh's seafood-stuffed veal breast, Silver Queen corn and crab risotto; The Ruby Bean would be delicious with pork or even a juicy beef steak.

The last cocktail of the evening, called Bite the Bullet, paired Bulleit bourbon with Dubonnet Rouge and a whipped caramel sauce. It was tasty, with the dessert of caramelized heirloom tomatoes with creme fraiche ice cream and more caramel.

But I opted to finish my Ruby Bean for dessert.