HB MenuJust about every restaurant menu features a hamburger. While some places make thoughtful tweaks, others are content to produce uninspired margin boosts. In the interest of seeing that latter trend fade, some extra care went into selecting an eatery for us to dine at on a Friday not too long ago.

Beverly Hills is rarely in my sights for cities to eat burgers, but after a little research on the best burgers in LA, the Honor Bar, square in the heart of the city, emerged as a prospect for the evening. We headed to the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and South Beverly Drive to try on the appropriately named Honor Burger.

The Honor Bar is the sidecar to South Beverly Grill—a restaurant affiliate of the Hillstone Group, which is responsible for one of the better burgers I’ve reviewed at Houston’s—with a deep, engulfing feel anchored by its sleek wooden bar and corner side griddle à la Hinano Café. All signs gave out that this burger would be a veritable contender.

The four of us took consecutive seats down the bar and gave the menu* a brief glance before placing our orders: four medium-rare Honor burgers with respective libations to wash ‘em down.

HB BurgerDing! Our meals were up swiftly; halved and toothpicked arriving splayed out on pastel-colored ceramic boats. Fries arrived separately in julep glasses. Each burger was demonstrably pink in its core and the sensible application of coleslaw lent color to the mouth-watering portrait.

It only took a couple of bites to realize that this burger was solid—the praise for it seemed warranted. The ground chuck was perfectly seasoned and cooked. The coleslaw gave a little flare without being flamboyant or cloying. Nice texture and great depth of flavor delivering everything we were expecting for a somewhat pricey thirteen dollars.

Certainly a good meal, the ingredients were simple and well-presented—better than most—as classicism was upheld at the Honor Bar. They owe a lot to other places in LA though, even if they perfected it more, but without a unique signature they are only serving a solid, enjoyable burger.

* The menu was unique; it pit classic sandwiches (“and a salad”) against sushi.

PB Veo 07 I might come off as an inkhorn when talking about wine, especially since I ‘ve had to immerse myself in books to fill in the gaps, but the other elements of service and sales will often help round out my delivery. When I regurgitate information, it’s to solidify my own foundation—not to be pedantic—and share a discoverer’s excitement for producers carrying on long…centuries-long, traditions. In my studies one producer has always stood out even without tasting the wines; in Umbria, a land renowned for truffles and Sagrantino, among other things, Paolo Bea is the cognoscenti’s king. The modest family history and their felicitous wines are always well regarded. Perhaps it was the winery’s labels that conveyed epochs of the vintage and treatment of the grapes with such transparency that had first attracted me. Whatever the connection, I had stockpiled numerous vintages of Paolo Bea.

A sommelier acquaintance had prodded me to try the Beas immediately and was incredulous of my never having opened a single bottle while having bought so much—the thought was incongruent. And in a reflex, I purchased more, this time the 2007 Rosso de Veo, which had been described to me as the younger vines of Sagrantino; more approachable and a glimpse of what was cached.

That night I joined the 70-90% of consumers said to drink wine the same day they purchase it, removing the foil of a relatively inexpensive bottle at forty-seven dollars (!), with surgical precision. The glass and carafe were left to air out for a while.

A shimmering garnet, opaque in the stemware, casting a developing scent of boysenberry jam, lavender, balsamic reduction, cedar and worn leather. Dry and powerful, a formidable medium body, with round, prevalent tannins (medium-plus) and acid to match, that flooded the palate with blackberries, dried herbs and sweet spices.

The youthful and robust table wine had put things in perspective and had eclipsed studying in a sip. One seven-fifty isn’t enough to change my approach to learning about wine, but it does suggest that there need to be shorter intervals between books and tasting, whenever possible. Grand Cru and First growths welcome, as is any wine from Paolo Bea!

de Forville NebI pulled deep from within my Italian stable searching purposely for a gem that would pair with dinner. Food and wine are a constant tune, sounding like a soothing set of guitars on April’s song. I turned over enough hibernating bottles to disturb sediment and finally found it.

An unassuming candidate in my grasp, cool to the touch, I carried over a bottle to the dinner table to ready it for the shock of serving. I had decided upon a 2007 De Forville Nebbiolo from the Langhe. The bottle’s Delft-like crest, coupled with the importer seal made me feel at ease for the duty of pairing with a simple dinner of steak, baked potato and asparagus.

The pedigree alone would help this entry-level bottle be worth the wait; a producer known for their Barbaresco would obviously know how to coax a starter Nebbiolo into something special. Once it opened up, an effusive, developed perfume unfolded like a James Joyce novel. One of dusty raspberry, mushroom, pepper and a charming hint of country funk (a tolerable amount of brettanomyces) that made you feel you knew where this was going. The Nebbiolo continued to show off layers in an elegant medium frame that carried with it a fresh dose of tart cherry followed by a briny component (olive juice) and leather. Over the course of dinner this wine became something much bigger than it had let on.

Even the unruly asparagus snapped to as they were quelled by the sagely Nebbiolo—undoubtedly out of respect. It was a stunning wine that possessed enough acid to clean a mouthful of creamy potatoes and melted butter, while obviously working to enhance the seasoned filet.

I suspect that the wine was flat on, reaching its zenith somewhere in the middle frame of dinner and it really wouldn’t have mattered what had been served with it, from rabbit and roasted vegetables to a bowl of ramen. My Italian inclination was paying dividends just as the dinner and music had arrived at their natural cadence.

Dragon Chardonnay Inspired by a day’s worth of tasting top-notch domestic wines in the beautiful digs of Bluxome Street Winery, it was on to San Francisco’s bottle shops to shake things up. A sunny afternoon in March encouraged an armful of white wines from all over Italy and France.

Among them we opened a couple bottles that shared country of origin (Italy), but little else. The first wine’s healthy progression—I had marveled over it (and reviewed it last) in 2012—lingered still. The other wine was from a surging “natural wine” producer in Sicily—Occhipinti—crafting an overachieving bianco.

OcchiOnce we had a cheese board prepped it was time to enter the dragon. Buadana’s 2011 Chardonnay, “Dragon,” from the Langhe had been aging gracefully with a nose still fresh of white apricot, lemon curd and green apple. Golden-hued in the glass, with medium-plus body, almost unctuous, it wielded medium-plus acidity leading to a dry and mouth-watering finish. Intense purity on the palate, it hadn’t lost a step, exhibiting green apple, peach, wet rocks, lemon peel and white flowers that had improved on a well-etched memory. A cappella…great, and a definite match for the gooey truffle Brie.

The 2012 Occhipinti [ock-ee-pin-ti] SP68 Terre Siciliane Bianco was a blend of Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria) and Albanello—an indigenous varietal that was once used for making sweet wines in Sicily—bore no resemblance to a sweet wine. We were transitioning from a robust Chardonnay to wine that brought to mind Sherry Fino. Dark gold in the glass, developing aromas roared forth with medium-plus intensity, suggestive of chamomile tea and orange Jell-O (floral but peculiar) most prominently. On the tongue it was medium-bodied with acids to match leaving a lingering finish of baked golden apple and yellow plum that were supported by a chorus of tea, herbs and dried flowers that hummed like a tuning fork.

From the handsome lot of wines at IPOB—In Pursuit of Balance—to the leisurely porch sipping of two distinct Italian white wines there was a common thread—balance. It drummed loudly, but not at all obnoxiously, as the two wines were poised and nothing appeared out of place. I can’t wait to see what those other purchases (French wines) have in store.

L S B 2 BI have to accept that the Ducks can’t win every night; for a while they looked unbeatable at home. A team that was rough to play against in their own building has just suffered its fourth loss in five games at the Honda Center. While we aren’t talking about a total collapse (the Anaheim Ducks still hold down first place in the NHL!!!), it’s something I’ve grown unfamiliar with, but luckily, I was able to wash down that sinking feeling of losing to Columbus with one of the most interesting beers of my life.

I generally dedicate these posts to extolling wines, but Logsdon’s Seizoen Bretta reminded me that beer could also be quite venerable. The Hood River, Oregon natives craft serious Farmhouse Ales, working with organic ingredients and foundation native yeasts to produce daedal ales. Monday night the Ducks lethargic play took a backseat to a rustic and inspiring seven-fifty of Seizoen.

Unfiltered and hazy, showing an incandescent orange in the glass with animated carbonation that brought out an intense aroma of pineapple juice, bandage (caused by the Brettanoymces and the namesake of the beer), hay and citrus blossom.

It tasted of bitter lemon and apple cider, and even apricot appeared with overtones of leather and earthier flavors sounding deeply. It was balanced, complex and possessed excellent acidity to leave a refreshing finish. I was in a state of beer awe.

Dismayed by watching the Ducks drop another game, but captivated by the waves of flavor and the strong finish of Seizoen, here’s hoping for a better days to come for my favorite hockey team—I cannot ask for any more of Logsdon’s outstanding Seizoen Bretta ale.

Sotanum SI wouldn’t consider myself a Syrahist by any means, but to start this year I’ve already had a couple of bottles that are forcing me to reconsider that position. At a sample party, most recently, I pulled the cork on a 2006 Sotanum that outshone the rest.

A gathering of friends, bearing accessories (cheese, crackers and meats) and eager palates, arrived to help deplete old samples that had been collecting dust. We began with a couple white wines meant to abate the heat, before moving into the heartier reds. Halfway through the charcuterie board it was time to bring out something more interesting (and not a sample), enter Sotanum.

It was a bottle that I had purchased long ago, intrigued by the story of Les Vins de Vienne. Sotanum is a tip of the hat to Roman tradition, comprised of 100% Syrah from the periphery of the Northern Rhône (beyond Côte Rotie), made by a collective of experienced winemakers—at the time four of them—from the Rhône Valley, intent on restoring and farming ancient vineyard sources—another saga in itself.

This wine made a statement; I altered my oral chemistry (ate sopressatta) to accommodate the bold flavors of that Syrah as it began with a dark musky scent of smoked meat, olive brine, tobacco and plum—a textbook nose. With ripe, fine tannins, a body like a plume of smoke, nervy acidity and a sturdy finish that encouraged conversation.

Surrounded by six empty bottles, talk centered only on Syrah; Sotanum changed people’s opinion that night, erasing the bottles that came before it and bringing out a Syrahphile in all of us.

Sivi GrisAs sure as I have a pumpkin in my living room (still)…I was certain that Pinot Gris would not be the subject of my next entry. However a rash of warm weather, an intriguing Slovenian producer and a little Hall & Oates made for the perfect recipe.

Not that I am too cool for the grape, or a big fan either, but after being tasted on it for my primary job as a buyer I was stopped in my tracks. At home it wielded that same attention-getting effect.

Unlike most Pinot Gris/ Grigio, Kabaj  (Ka-Bye) hails from an exotic locale—with regards to traditionally accepted winemaking regions like Trentino Alto-Adige or Alsace—Slovenia. Kabaj’s Pinot Gris is engrossing with its luminous burnt orange glow in the glass that is achieved by extended maceration (two weeks on the skins). This technique, most often employed on red wines, also enhances other aspects of the wine like body and texture. This isn’t a typical Pinot Gris.

Sivi Orange I pondered its attributes over a re-run of Hello Ladies, stopping on the theme song (a favorite) a little while longer while delving into the wine. A moderate bouquet of nectarine, sourdough and lemon curd was interesting on its own, but this wine offered a lot more in the mouth. A round medium-body, almost creamy in character but with attractive acidity (medium-plus) that left a squeaky clean finish of cranberry-cherry tea, candied orange peel, dried apricot and toasted baguette. Despite the plush palate that finish was direct and snappy—this was a slam-dunk with my less daring meal of chicken breast, cauliflower and quinoa.

I am not sure if Kabaj changes how I feel about the varietal because I don’t come across many like it, but this puts Slovenia on my tasting map as well as showing me what’s possible for a varietal I’ve been skirting. It was a delicious reminder and a great way to beat the unseasonable heat.

Cop BakIn the midst of discarded Christmas trees and drained Champagne bottles, re-activating the long-neglected Maverick Palate was a pressing resolution. In the streets of San Francisco, drawing inspiration from culinary tastemakers and superb bottle shops and out among the Sonoma vineyards I was feeling the comeback.

I had lots of great wine in 2013 after I left you, my fantastic subscribers, in the lurch. There was so much I wanted to write about but after picking up a few more wine gigs (read juggling three jobs), the rest of the year flew past in a torrent. By the time I half-typed about a bottle of Field Recordings Chenin Blanc in early October it was time to saber that bottle of 2006 José Dhondt Champagne on NYE!

I am not sure what will come of 2014, with travel plans and wine adventures on the books; I don’t want to make promises this early, but, what I’m certain of is that my latest trip to Sonoma County, specifically at Copain, was a resounding success. Not only did I receive excellent customer service while visiting the property in Healdsburg, I was very much impressed by a graceful Syrah from Baker Ranch.

Baker Ranch—a single vineyard release from Copain in 2009—is a personal and individualized expression, rather than the ensemble cast of Les Voisins (the neighbors), which is to say, a cast of single-vineyards’ fruit blended together. Baker Ranch is in Anderson Valley, growing Syrah and Pinot Noir in a cool and a high elevation site.  Apart from the other single vineyards that were shown, like Halcon, this wine was confident and extraverted. Pronounced aromatics like violets and sweet spice notes tap-danced above red berries, pencil shavings and beef jerky. The Syrah was equally impressive on the palate with a fine and prevalent grip (med-plus, ripe tannins), cut medium figure, toned by medium-plus acidity and deep intensity of flavors that left a long lingering impression. Baker Ranch Syrah was in a great place, distancing itself from its parts in Les Voisins Syrah, but without losing focus or sacrificing balance.

There were a lot of good food and wine memories forged on my Northern California (San Francisco) expedition, especially that Syrah, enough to make my drive back to Los Angeles a little less exhausting. On that five-hour drive I also thought about how I had missed an opportunity last year to share some killer wines and superb meals worth checking out. I am hopeful that this year will be different, perhaps my vacation has me talking brave, but I am determined to learn from the past and propel this site to new levels. Only time will tell.

d OstertagWhy it took so long for me to cross paths with one of the most dynamic indie/natural wine producers, I’ll never know, but in all my time between restaurant and retail gigs, pleading with Kermit Lynch reps to crack a bottle of Domaine Ostertag’s deep roster, in hopes of saving my billfold an extra flex, the moment never materialized. It was high on my list of things to try and I would read about the Alsatian producer frequently as if to sate my parched lips vicariously, stubbornly clinging to hope for a chance encounter. That all changed on my latest trip up north.

After tasting at Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, turned on by the prospect of natural wine, and close enough to the Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant—the importer’s retail outpost and wine lover’s Candy Land—to hope that the stars would align, I thought about closing ceremonies of my San Francisco trips upon entering the iconic shop; shouldn’t a traditional late lunch at Mission Chinese be paired with a Domaine Ostertag Pinot Blanc, punctuating a sensational weekend spent eating through the Bay? To get there one had to first find the bottle.

General TsoStrewn with open cases of varied offerings from the importer’s reputable lot, I rummaged like a record collector in Pasadena to find the most fitting candidate. Striving for a modest introduction, not wanting to get ahead of myself, I purchased a basic Pinot Blanc “Barriques.” As I would learn, little was basic about that wine.

My friend and I stuck to the script, toting a chilled flûte d’Alsace into Mission Chinese as a fond farewell to San Francisco. Shellfish had been sidelined (taken off the menu), so we went heavier, ordering General Tso’s veal rib, egg-egg (sic) noodles and broccoli beef brisket, skirting what would have too easily paired with the wine, in order to challenge it.

egg egg noodlesChilling on the side, the Pinot Blanc exhibited buttoned-up traits, youthful notes of green apples, a squeeze of lemon and spice. The first sip followed the nose, but the medium-body had been graciously toned by the use of barrique (a 228 liter used barrel), rounding it out on the tongue—giving a textural omnipresence.

It was when the spicy food arrived that we saw what the Pinot Blanc wielded. A lot of fat and a hearty dose of capsaicin in General Tso’s veal rib was perfectly fit for the lush white wine to demonstrate its capacity. The medium-plus acidity inherent in the wine was able to squelch the heat while handling the fattiest elements of the entree. Interspersing veal tidbits with the mouth-coating egg-egg noodles, the Pinot Blanc squeegeed our taste buds clean, leaving a candied green apple, mineral and slightly herbaceous finish. It didn’t mesh too well with the broccoli brisket combo (the greener parts of a dinner [asparagus, artichoke, etc.] can prove difficult for most wines and it was no exception here), but that was no drawback, since by then we were already sold on the results.

Perpending our full bellies in Dolores Park, not quite sold on fate in our post-meal torpor, but not resisting it fully either, it seemed that these two things—an exalted producer in a far-off place at the side of a great meal—were meant to go together. Whatever the reason it took so long for me to cave and actually purchase a bottle of Domaine Ostertag, I’m grateful, because I couldn’t imagine that midday meal without it.

HopsNot an everyday addition to a hamburger, tongue could be thought of as a felicitous counterpart to a beef patty… if executed correctly. In Oakland there is such a place that incorporates this imaginative extension to the requisite burger components. Not forced or strange as Hopscotch showed me, it’s only natural.

A friend and I journeyed to the East Bay, traversing the Bay Bridge, and arrived on a sun-soaked San Pablo Avenue to lunch, alfresco, on a couple “First Base Burgers.” It’s difficult to change a winning formula, and the addition of tongue certainly might not be first on a list of necessary tweaks, but what came forth seemed a well put-together sandwich, halved and toothpicked, splitting the ceramic with duck fat chips.

FB BurgA sensory study revealed a coarse grind of chuck resting abed green leaves of lettuce, tomato, chopped and pickled onions and, of course, the griddled tongue. There was softness to every bite and a subtly sweet flavor that pervaded the sandwich. The tongue added texture most noticeably, while delicately changing the character of the beef. Grilled brioche imparted a smoky touch and the vegetables did their part in binding the First Base burger.

With the novelty of adding tongue to the burger, and the cute name aside, it showed that it was more than gimmicky, rather a thoughtfully constructed hamburger. Withholding cheese and an unnecessary chip upgrade, two chef sins at two-dollars apiece, quickly made Hopscotch’s interesting take a little less appealing (kind of irked me actually) as the bill leapt from $14 to $18, which is a lot for a hamburger. I wouldn’t call it a destination burger, but if I found myself in Oakland’s Uptown, looking for a smashing cocktail and good burger, then I would head to Hopscotch.

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