The Accidental Palate

After nearly ten wonderful years of editing Northwest Palate magazine in Portland OR, I've handed over the reins and am now enjoying the leisurely (not!), ever-changing (and then some) life of a freelance bon vivant. Hope you enjoy these posts, and if you want to reach me, contact ajabine (at) yahoo (dot) com. Cheers! Angie Jabine

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Appointment in Blood Alley

Fam tours--you've heard of them, right? Short for "familiarization tour," they're expenses-paid trips for journalists to see what a place is "really like." I'm not much of a world traveler but I've been to British Columbia twice now on fam tours (and a few times on my own), and I'm going to tell you about my just-concluded four-day fam tour weekend in Vancouver, B.C.

Day one. I love flying in the low-flying turboprop Dash 8s that really let me see the terrain instead of the clouds. I thought I knew my Cascade peaks but there seems to be at least one more than I know—I see Hood, St. Helens, Adams, Rainier and yet another one. Hmm.

Long wait at customs getting in—flight arrives around 2:30pm and between customs lines and the half-hour wait for an Airporter bus (around $13 one way) I don’t get to Fairmont Hotel Vancouver until after 4pm. The wonderful Tourism BC welcome kit includes a bottle of Jackson Triggs Chardonnay. The room welcome includes a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries, shortbread cookies (I guess they’d call them biscuits, this being Canada), and a little box made of chocolate, with handmade jelly candies inside. Ah, the little touches!

Minutes later, I meet up with Tourism Vancouver's Emily Armstrong and my fellow guests in the lobby and we walk to the historic nearby neighborhood of Gastown. Up a seedy cobble alley--Blood Alley, according to the street sign--is Salt Tasting Room and its new underground Salt Cellar, which I love on first sight. Long wooden table. Display wine case with chalkboard notes on some of the notable wines including, no kidding, a Doobie Brothers label. There's also bags of dried apples and lots of hanging charcuterie, functional yet aesthetically pleasing.

Proprietor Kurtis Kolt offers up some Gruner Veltliner and a BC red. Such a simple concept for the menu--it's basically charcuterie, bread, cheese, and condiments such as quince paste--but the combos all taste delicious. My favorite was rabbit confit with dried cherries. My first restaurant of the weekend, and it feels more like the DIY style of inner east-side Portland than any other place we are going to visit on this trip.

A short walk in Gastown's zigzag cobbled streets leads us to Cobre, which seems like it should mean Cobra but actually means Copper. Their PR rep is Nancy Wong, whom I’ve corresponded with for years but never met. Instead of being Asian Canadian she is European and memorably dressed with accents of houndstooth in her belt and shoes. Reminds me a wee bit of Lucille Ball. She shows us to a chic little downstairs lounge and points out all the subtle little accents of copper throughout the restaurant, even in the textured wallpaper.

At our meal, we tell her how we enjoyed Salt and she says it has spawned home “Salt” parties where the host supplies one or two components—say, the wine and the charcuterie—and the guests bring the third, such as fresh bread or B.C. cheeses. Comparatively inexpensive and small effort for all.

Other seatmates are the above-mentioned Emily Armstrong, Katie Schneider from Calgary, and chocolate writer Emily Stone, who is vaguely from Pittsburgh (currently) by way of New York and, for a while, Guatemala. Later, the BC gals swap places and Josie sits down by me. I had met her in Portland at the University Club for Canada Tourism's annual Canada dinner. She was very quiet that night but tonight I learn more about her—her husband is the financial director for the company that manages Barenaked Ladies, Dido and I think Sarah McLachlan.

Dinner is a series of sampler plates from Chef Stuart Irving, ranging from tuna ceviche on a potato platform, to chupe (a potato-based peasant soup), to a wonderful Ibarra chocolate souffle.

From there we walked to the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre, home of the 30th annual Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival. Pretty darn big, with a large space set aside for this year’s theme country, Italy. I ran into one of my favorite food writers, Tim Pawsey, almost instantly, along with a very handsome and radiantly smiling friend of his, an actress. He led us to taste this and that but truthfully I had used up my powers of discerning, shall we say, fine liquid distinctions, at least for that day.

Back at the Hotel Vancouver, I had my lights out by 11:30pm, the better to prepare for the next day's amusements. I would have slept like the dead except that the room next door started a party at 4am. I don’t mean a few minutes of noisy sex, I mean a full-on PARTY, with drinking and yakking and cackling laughter. I called the front desk and banged on the wall, but all in all, the festivities went on for an hour. Thought about crashing the party myself, seeing as I was thoroughly awake, but settled for turning on the light and reading Anna Karenina. Forget about that chick who throws herself under a train. If you want to read what Tolstoy thought about how to run a farm, this is the book.

More to come!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Driving to the Moon—and The View Point Inn

Sometimes everything works out perfectly—like the other night.

We were signed up for a Sokol Blosser wine dinner at The View Point Inn above the Columbia Gorge on Wednesday, February 20—the same night as the total eclipse of the moon.

I missed last summer’s lunar eclipse because it was inconveniently “scheduled” for the wee hours of the night. I stumbled out of bed and out the front door around 4am and by then the show was almost over—anyway, the sky was overcast.

But not on the 20th. Despite the wet forecast, it was a clear evening. We drove over the Fremont Bridge from Northwest Portland and then east on I-84 into the Columbia Gorge, all of which gave us a perfect view of the fat full moon as the earth’s shadow gradually drew a reddish veil across it. We left the freeway at the Corbett exit, headed up the hill and onto the old Scenic Highway to Larch Mountain Road. By the time we pulled onto The View Point Inn’s gravel parking lot, the moon was completely covered with a fog of amber-tinted alabaster.

The View Point Inn is a splendid small mansion with the steeped pitched roof of a Swiss chalet and a lot of exterior Tudor-style details. It was built in 1925, and under the ownership of a German named William Moessner who had been the head chef at Portland’s Benson Hotel, it served as a stopping point for some glamorous visitors—Franklin Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, and the royalty of Hollywood and Europe.

In the past several years, its new owners, Geoff Thompson and Angelo Simione, have marketed it as a wedding venue, with a suite of guest rooms upstairs and a spacious, meticulously restored dining room with a stone “Count Rumford” fireplace and bar on the main floor.

Our table offered an expansive view of Vancouver and Portland lights to the east and we could see (though not hear) the planes taking off from Portland International Airport. Our dinner, created by the Inn’s chef, Matthew Crone, was for the most part very well paired with the wines from Sokol Blosser, the venerable Willamette Valley winery.

We started with a smoked trout “pizza” whose crust was more of a puff pastry, with velouté, watercress and truffle. This was paired with SB’s 2006 Rosé of Pinot Noir, as was the slow-roasted tomato soup. The next wine was SB’s cash cow, their signature Evolution, which is always a blend of nine white varietals. With it came a pleasingly different salad of locally grown “ice lettuce” (which may be another way of saying “iceberg”), with duck prosciutto, crispy cracklings, and a bit of gelled spiced cider.

I think at this point we stood up and wandered into the chilly but not freezing February air to see how the moon was faring. The eclipse was almost over and we sat back down again to our diver scallop with a bit of braised pork belly and cornbread pudding, served with Sokol Blosser’s 2006 Estate Pinot Gris. This is their first all-estate Pinot Gris, and there were fewer than 200 cases made, so you’re unlikely to run across it unless you were lucky enough to taste it at the winery.

The conversation moved from lunar events to the books we were reading as we tucked into our main dish, a tournedo of pork en croute, served with the winery's 2005 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir. For dessert, a trio of chocolate confections, we were served the Meditrina Red Blend, but Sokol Blosser’s savvy regional sales manager Lee Medina realized this was a misfire, culinarily speaking, and brought out the company's Riesling dessert wine instead.

I don’t know if I’ll ever spend the night at the View Point Inn—its upstairs suite of rooms with their Victorian-style furnishings seem best configured for a wedding party—but I’ll definitely be back to sample Matthew Crone’s weekend brunch, which will be a great way to start—or conclude—a morning’s hike in the Columbia Gorge.