OINK Pasadena is not close to me, nor is Eagle Rock, but occasionally I will have business that takes me east. When I am out there, navigating unfamiliar freeways like the 210 and 134, it’s good to have a few markers that I can lay down. After leaving an account I stopped off at one of my favorite places on Colorado Boulevard to grab a sandwich.
A giant A-framed marquee that could be seen from down the street was a welcoming sight as I approached slowly in rush hour. Eric Burdon and the Animals were audible, after parking the car and queuing up for a cheeseburger at The Oinkster.
It had been four years since my last official visit and about two since on unofficial business. Both times were consistently delicious; The Oinkster hybridized the Californian burger stand offering with better ingredients and a methodical approach. I had selected the classic 1/3 lb burger with cheddar cheese—as my own tastes, in cheese, had matured in my absence—and a Boylan’s root beer to wash it down.
In a little more time than it took for me to load up on banana peppers and pickled extras, the cheeseburger arrived, smocked in yellow wax paper inside a red plastic basket. Fresh and warm; the sandwich was the perfect contrast between cold, crisp vegetables set against the warm patty and layer of finely melted cheese. The bit of acidity from the pickles, and the smartly dressed thousand-island sauce added extra layers of flavor in an aptly dubbed ‘classic’ representation. It was excellent and exactly how I remembered it.
My long drive home smacked of nostalgia, bringing to mind the last couple trips I had made to Eagle Rock and recalling a few of my favorite burger stands that I grew up with in Southern California. The Oinkster delivers a familiar cast of flavors exquisitely, not claiming to be new, or quick, but done well.

C M J GThe world of wines is a lot bigger than my grocery store buying days let on. Working at a top-notch restaurant in Los Angeles, one with a serious wine program, has afforded me a privileged view of some of the greatest producers almost nightly. I learn every shift, with my own piecemeal understanding of new and legendary winemakers crashing in sets of waves; sometimes, like last Thursday, being a sizable break that sets you tumbling.

The closing ceremonies of the sommelier staff are always the same, breaking down stations, polishing, cleaning and restocking before our nightly bonding unwinds in the cellar, after we’ve clocked out. We gather round the samples that our wine director has amassed, from guests and salespeople, or we’ll taste some interesting leftovers from service that night. Often the wines are just footnotes that don’t carry much over the late night chatter.

Last Thursday, however, was a themed evening on Burgundy, and a night that made quite an impression. It was hard not to be wrapped up by a vertical tasting of Ghislaine Barthod (my introduction to the estate’s Pinot Noirs from Chambolle-Musigny), but another producer had me stammering over its beauty. A Premier Cru Chardonnay from Chassagne-Montrachet, with which I was unfamiliar, its label simple and not letting on much more than it would be of a certain quality (as Premier Cru designates).

The Chardonnay was lemon hued in the glass and led with a developing scent of citrus, golden apple, smoke and a surplus of chalk. The effect wasn’t instantaneous, rather a slow transmission that took hold. I was revved up by the mouth-filling body (medium-plus), the luscious texture of a complex range of flavors that brought out more pear and apple under fresh-squeezed lemon, a little wood spice and a lot of chalk like two blackboard erasers smashing together violently on my palate while retaining mouth-watering acidity. It was overwhelming. Each sip surpassed the previous, and by the end of the night I had consumed more than my fair share.

I kept harping on it, until the wine director clued me in on the price of the Chardonnay from Jean-Noël Gagnard’s Les Caillerets vineyard ($100 a bottle). My ignorance had been helpful in demonstrating what a Premier Cru was capable of, without being influenced by a staggering price tag or prestige of the family and their vineyard holdings.

After that night I did my homework and saw the family’s vast reach in the village of Chassagne-Montrachet. I also read about the fickle and warm vintage from which I’d tasted (2011), and weighed my own chances to ever taste more of this wine again—to make sure it wasn’t a fluke—as few places carry the wine in California. It’s the constant reward of schooling, the unexpected storming of one’s taste, that makes for such a draw to the job. Introduced to a great wine of Jean-Noël Gagnard through the auspices of my wine director, the din of guests subsided and the after-hours repartee fading, the sea of wine becomes the night.

J RI know my penchant for hamburgers may appear never wavering, but often, other menu items will tempt me. A fresh catch can read tantalizingly from a menu, or barbequed brisket can sound, and smell, better than a lowly hamburger, if I’m comparing meat to meat. No more difficult is it to fend off an instinct for seafood when I’m in a nautically themed restaurant, as recently I neatly fended, when I dined at James Republic in Long Beach. The journey sometimes is to allow the good burgers to find me.

A modern and clean-cut façade, James Republic operates at the corner of Linden Avenue and First Street, in downtown Long Beach. Chalkboard marquees shed any notion of a cold and uninviting downtown establishment while a seasonally driven menu and a stellar bar program are enough to hook me in for lunch or dinner.

J R BURUnlike my past dinner experiences here, the seafood options were downplayed, and the burger was quick to grab my attention.

A short fire time yielded a seven-grain bun sandwiching two medium-rare, grass-fed patties with a bubbling layer of Fiscalini cheddar that obscured the “fancy sauce” and onion jam, all served up on a thick cutting board with a ramekin of house-cured pickles. For extra measure I ordered a boat of fries.

Although I prefer to see some greens like Arugula, Butter, or even Iceberg lettuce on a sandwich (to reduce my guilt), one bite eased my fears of imbalance. The coarse grind was seasoned to perfection, the cheese, and horseradish—in the ‘fancy sauce’—added some bite, and where the seeded bun was the secret weapon, harnessing both the practical needs of maintaining form and sopping up the jus while the seeded crust imparted a boost in the flavor department. The pickles provided extra acid to help reset the palate. It was a thoughtful and clean presentation, which served as a good ambassador for the restaurant.

James Republic’s overachieving cheeseburger reminded me why I am on this never-ending quest of documenting America’s favorite comfort food—burgers—because even if I am led astray, chasing other menu items, a great burger can be an excellent place to drop the anchor.

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.

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