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

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

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

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Every Day is 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