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Monday, Dec. 15, 2008

Drink to success: NW wines help young restaurants find sweet spot in tight economy

One restaurant in the Northwest seems nearly bulletproof in the face of the recession.

And the thick catalog dominated by Pacific Northwest wine is akin to a flak jacket.

Regional cuisine, paired with one of the Northwest's top wine lists, is a perfect fit for Brix 25° in Gig Harbor, Wash.

"It has to do with the quality of the food, the quality of the service and the outstanding Northwest wine list, but it also has to do with where we are at," said wine director Daniel Jackson. "Gig Harbor is a pretty affluent area. We are still bettering last year every month so far, despite the economy."

Revenue from wine sales is a major reason for the success at this 18-table, dinner-only restaurant that set sail in 2004. Jackson and a manager of a famed Seattle metropolitan restaurant were comparing figures. It showed Brix 25° generates about 75% as much wine revenue.

"His mouth dropped. It just dropped," Jackson said with a smirk. "He said, 'You're kidding! This little place?' But almost every night here, almost every single table has a bottle of wine, which you don't find at every restaurant."

It's a thoughtful array Jackson compiles. He earned acclaimed from Wine Press Northwest for an Outstanding Northwest Wine List award and Brix 25° is the Washington Wine Commission's 2008 Washington Wine Restaurant of the Year.

"That's pretty huge considering you've got restaurants from three states with wine programs trying to win awards," Jackson said.

General manager Jason Winniford proudly displays the recognition, which includes an etched, large format commemorative bottle from the Washington Wine Commission.

"The award has done well for us," Jackson said. "It makes it easier to get certain wines, and we're getting a lot more people coming from Seattle and Tacoma for dinner."

What guests find are two lists, starting with an 18-page assortment that's 100% Washington and Oregon that includes nearly 30 wines available by the glass. Categories begin with the least-expensive at the top. The Captain's List, however, features many of the region's most expensive and coveted wines.

"The original owner, Mark Wombold, was going for the whole Northwest theme," Jackson said. "I came over about six months after the sale, and I decided we need a lot more high-end stuff, a lot more boutique, hard-to-find, highly allocated stuff. That's when I created the Captain's program."

Many of the established rock stars reside there, and Jackson predicts greatness for a number of upstarts in Woodinville.

"Woodinville Wine Cellars just put out their Ausonius," he said. "I hung onto that for six to eight months, and it's drinking just killer. I brought it out and the first three people said, 'My god, what is this? I've never heard of it!' There are a lot of (Woodinville wineries) out there they've never heard of, like Sparkman, Gorman, Mark Ryan and Cuillin Hills. And this is a pretty wine savvy area here, so people are willing to try."

Reprints of the list take place once a month, and Jackson is given the freedom to begin selling the wine when he believes its ready to be drunk.

"I give certain things an extra six months in the bottle, and that's proven to be a pretty good deal," he said.

Executive chef Bryce Lamb's duty is to make sure the quality of his cuisine matches the quality of the wines. The Seattle native took over in October after spending the previous six years at La Fermata in nearby Bremerton. He found his career path while in college, but not at college.

"I needed a job and started cooking to make ends meet," Lamb said. "Then I dropped out of college and went to culinary school at Seattle Central Community College."

His career path led him to such Seattle landmarks at The Pink Door, Ruth's Chris, the Cliff House in Tacoma and BlowFish. A year working in Vietnam and Hong Kong continues to influence Lamb, who returned to Seattle to open Tango, staying a couple of years before moving across the Puget Sound.

"Bryce has a simple approach to food," Jackson said. "He doesn't want to oversauce or spice it, especially the elk and lamb shank. He's adding new things of his own, like instead of doing potatoes, he'll add celery root or put kale on the plate. It's a little Asian flair from him spending time in Vietnam and Hong Kong. You can see it in the side dishes, but it's all based around the flavors of the Northwest."

That theme showed in the Match Maker pairing with the Morrison Lane 2004 Nebbiolo from the Columbia Valley.

"We were thinking Italian/Old World and lamb, but as soon as I opened the bottle and brought the glass to my nose, I thought, 'Canadian elk,' " Jackson said. "We both decided it as a perfect pairing. The wine has an Old World feel with a bit of gaminess to it, and there's this underlying blueberry hint. And there's a blueberry demiglace that we serve with the elk. When I tasted them together, I didn't think the food was the star, and I didn't think the wine was the star, so in my opinion, it was a well-married food pairing."

The Morrison Lane 2004 Nebbiolo also casts out aromas of cranberry, crushed leaf and a bit of earthiness, which carry on into flavors of whole berry cranberry sauce, along with great cranberry acidity and a blueberry finish.

Lamb's Canadian Elk with Blueberry Demiglace and Cranberry Foam appears nightly on the fall/winter menu, which is available seven days a week.

Brix 25°, 7707 Pioneer Way, Gig Harbor, WA, 98335, (253) 858-6626, harborbrix.com.

Grilled Canadian Elk with Blueberry Demi-glace and Cranberry Foam

Serves 4

For cranberry foam

1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup sun-dried cranberries
1/2 cup water
2 egg whites
Kosher or sea salt, to taste
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste

For blueberry demi-glace

1/2 cup Nebbiolo
2 tablespoons sun-dried blueberries
1/2 cup demi-glace
2 tablespoons Plugrá unsalted butter (see note below)
Kosher or sea salt, to taste
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste

For elk

28 ounces boneless elk rib eye or tenderloin, cut into 7-ounce portions
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
3/4 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
Kosher or sea salt, to taste
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste

Make foam:

Place sugar, cranberries and water in non-reactive saucepot, bring to a boil, then take off heat, letting cranberries steep until soft. Let mixture cool to room temperature. Whisk egg whites to stiff peaks and fold in cranberry mixture with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Make demi-glace:

Place the Nebbiolo in sauce pan with sun-dried blueberries and reduce until almost dry. Add in demi-glace and reduce by half. Turn off heat. Add butter, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Prepare elk:

Fire up the grill or broiler. Rub elk steaks with olive oil and sprinkle with herbs, salt and pepper. Grill to desired temperature.

Serve topped with blueberry demi-glace and cranberry foam.

Note: Plugrá is a European style butter made by Keller's Creamery that is lower in moisture and higher in butterfat than regular butter. It can be found at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods Markets and other speciality stores. See kellerscreamery.com for more information.

Nectar Restaurant and Wine Bar, Moscow, Idaho

There's a young buzz in the Palouse food and wine community, and the story starts with beekeeping.

In April 2007, Nikki Woodland and her husband, Brett, opened their doors at Nectar Restaurant and Wine Bar in the college town of Moscow, Idaho.

And although she spent several years working in Portland and Spokane, the move wasn't farfetched for the Washington State University grad.

"We came down here so my husband could join his family business, which is beekeeping," she said. "But I could never get away from the food, so I ended up doing this."

They found an immediate following that continues to thrive as they draw from the University of Idaho, which is just a few blocks away, and WSU.

"With both universities and a lot of professors and graduate students, there was a market for an upscale restaurant, especially one that focused on wine," Nikki said. "WSU has the enology program, so there's a huge market of people into high-end wines and food."

The heavy influence of regional and local products seems to help offset the economic woes felt across the globe.

"We haven't lost any business yet," Nikki said. "I think being in a small university town we're a little bit sheltered from that. And locals want to support local business and local products."

Brett added, "Professors have pretty secure jobs and being in small towns there are not a lot of choices for them."

Among the local items at Nectar are those from Woodland Apiaries, produced in nearby Lewiston. The bee theme appears in the name, and Nectar's logo cleverly features a bee with a trailing corkscrew, as opposed to a stinger.

"We try to incorporate the honey into as many recipes as possible," she said.

And the Woodlands found a sweet spot with regional wines, particularly those from Walla Walla.

"We definitely wanted to focus on Northwest wines, including the increasing number of Idaho wines," Brett said. "And from a business standpoint, Walla Walla is so popular. It's what people are looking for, it's what they are interested in and what they are asking about."

He doesn't shy away from featuring the blossoming industry surrounding Nectar.

"When we run flights of Idaho or the upstart Pullman wineries, people are definitely interested in trying them," he said. "For the most part, the price point is quite a bit less than Walla Walla, and the wines are increasing in quality, so it's been a pretty easy sell because people aren't used to Idaho wines and want to support local business, too."

Familiarity with their market and the industry has been critical for the Woodlands. Nikki, 30, grew up in Spokane, graduated first from WSU's hotel and restaurant administration program, then the Western Culinary Institute in Portland. Along the way, she worked at Luna and Mizuna in Spokane, as well as the Ross Island Grocery and Cafe in Portland.

Her inspiration?

"I loved cooking at home and cooking for my friends and family and entertaining," she said. "I couldn't imagine ever doing anything else."

It will be some time before Nikki will return to Nectar's cozy kitchen full-time, though. She and Brett, 32, are expecting their first child, a boy, in 2009, so they hired longtime friend Nikiforos Pitsilionis.

"He used to work at the French Laundry (in Napa), and his family has owned a restaurant in Alaska his whole life, so I gave the duties of the kitchen to him," she said. "We plan the menu together, and I take care of all the catering."

In addition to the bustling catering business, Nikki also is an instructor. Terra Blanca Estate Winery on Red Mountain played host to her first cooking class. "It was a fun group of 15 people, and I really enjoyed it," she said.

The Woodlands dream for their own restaurant came to life when they spotted a former travel agency office next to a historic downtown firehouse. They gutted the office themselves and transformed it into a wine bar and boutique restaurant with 13 tables, tackling the demolition and performing most of the remodeling themselves.

And they view the renovation of the recently purchased 60-year-old home as their hobby.

"It's a 15-minute walk to work, and that's when we walk the dog," she said. "If we drive, it's a couple of minutes. It's nice living in a small town."

That small-town feel comes across on the menu in subtle fashion with comfort food items such as meatloaf and their remarkable Baked Macaroni and Cheese.

"A lot of farmers are not used to high-priced food, so we try to keep it reasonable and try to attract students, too. The Mac and Cheese is $9, and steak is $25," she said.

That meatloaf soon became a local favorite.

"It's wrapped with pancetta, covered with a chipotle barbecue glaze and served with local carrots and potatoes," Nikki said. "I like to change the menu, and I was bored with the meatloaf. When the word got out, the town let me know that they wanted the meatloaf to stay on the menu. I listened, and the meatloaf will always be a staple at Nectar."

For the Match Maker assignment, the Woodlands and Pitsilionis, 34, - a native of Greece - blended Walla Walla wine with nearby products while keeping an eye on Old World traditions.

"I was thinking Nebbiolo and Piedmont, so I went with an Italian-style braised meat and risotto," Pitsilionis said. "Traditionally, the Italians will often braise it in Barolo or Barbaresco or an inexpensive wine, but the idea is not that different from a Beef Bourgogne that the Burgundians would do.

"For me, with wine pairings, I will think in terms of cultural and traditional associations and regional associations rather than tasting profiles," he added. "And rather than doing a white truffle risotto with Barolo, which works great in that context, we've been doing a lot of root vegetables lately, so we went with a parsnip risotto."

The centerpiece of the entrée is the beef cheeks, a first-time ingredient for a Match Maker project. They come from Eaton Natural Beef in Colton, Wash., which is near Pullman.

"It's an inexpensive cut and takes a bit of time and care, but ultimately it yields a satisfying product," Pitsilionis said.

Nikki pointed out, "The nice acidity in this Nebbiolo balances the risotto, which is so rich and cuts right through the nice, fatty parts of the meat."

Nectar Restaurant and Wine Bar, 105 W. Sixth St., Moscow, ID, 83843, 208-882-5914, moscownectar.com.

Nebbiolo-Braised Beef Cheeks

Serves 4

These should be made at least a day in advance, resting in braising liquid.

4 beef cheeks, trimmed, about 8 oz. each
Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 carrot, quartered
1 celery stalk, quartered
1 small onion, quartered
2 garlic cloves, halved
1 tablespoon tomato paste
8 cups Nebbiolo
4 cups veal stock
2 sprigs fresh thyme
5 parsley stems
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh

Preheat oven to 250°F. Salt and pepper beef cheeks. Heat the oil over medium high heat in a heavy stock pot. Add beef cheeks and brown on all sides. Remove the cheeks from the pot, discarding all but one tablespoon of oil. Reduce heat to medium, and add carrot, celery, onion and garlic to the remaining oil. Cook until vegetables begin to soften, about 8-10 minutes. Add tomato paste, and cook for 1 minute. Add wine and cook until reduced by a third. Add veal stock, bring to a simmer and reduce by a third.

Transfer contents of pot and beef cheeks into an ovenproof vessel that will hold beef cheeks, vegetables, and braising liquid snugly. The liquid should come up the sides of the cheeks, but not cover them. Submerge thyme, parley, and bay leaf in braise. Cover loosely with foil and place in oven, turning cheeks every two hours, for 8-12 hours, until cheeks are tender enough to cut easily with a fork, but not falling apart.

Remove the beef cheeks from the braising liquid and place in a large ziplock bag, set aside. Strain the remaining contents of the pan, reserving the liquid. Discard the spent herbs and vegetables. Strain the liquid through cheese cloth or a fine chinoise. Salt 11⁄2 cups of the braising liquid to taste and add to the ziplock bag with beef cheeks. Put in the refrigerator to store overnight.

Reduce the remaining liquid in a small stockpot, skimming any impurities that collect at the surface, leaving about two-thirds of a cup of sauce. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Before serving, reheat the sauce in a pan. Also, reheat the beef cheeks by putting in an oven-safe pan, just big enough to hold cheeks and liquid. Cover with aluminum foil and heat at 250°F for 30 minutes.

Spoon a bit of sauce directly onto beef cheeks and serve.

If you'd like the recipes for the Parsnip Risotto, Chard, Carrots and Parsnips that accompany the beef cheeks in the photo opposite, please visit our website at: winepressnw.com/pairing

ERIC DEGERMAN is Wine Press Northwest's managing editor. Have a suggestion for a future Match Maker? E-mail him at edegerman@winepressnw.com.

Morrison Lane, $35
2004 Nebbiolo, Columbia Valley
- 146 cases produced, 14.3% alcohol

Each issue, Wine Press Northwest sends wine to two chefs with a passion for our region's wines. The chefs are asked to match a recipe to the selected wine.

Dean and Verdie Morrison established a slogan for their 1,300-case Walla Walla Valley estate operation: "Morrison Lane: Syrah... and more!"

Their award-winning expressions of Italy are testament to that. It's also a tribute to one of Dean's mentors, cousin Gene Cluster, who died in 2007. Cluster owned a vineyard and winery in Chianti Classico.

Nebbiolo, native to Piedmont, is viewed by many as Italy's premier grape and ranked alongside Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir on the world stage. Its wealth of tannin often serves as the base for Barolo and Barbaresco.

Walla Walla's killing freeze of 2004 led the Morrisons to McKinley Springs Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills for this Nebbiolo. It earned an "Outstanding" rating and was the top Nebbiolo in our Summer 2008 competition of Northwest Italian reds.

Those judges and these Match Maker chefs praised the Morrison Lane 2004 Nebbiolo for its presentation of raspberries and cranberries, bright acidity and firm tannin structure that pairs nicely with richly flavored meat and bodes well for aging.

The Morrisons began planting their vineyard in 1994 on the Powerline Road farm that's been in Dean's family since World War I. By 1997, the Morrisons started supplying Walla Walla wineries with grapes.

Five years later, they established the winery. Morrison Lane first made its mark with Syrah, but the 23-acre vineyard also is known for its success with varieties not often seen in the Northwest. Their list includes two other Italian grapes - Barbera and Dolcetto - as well as Carmenere, Cinsault and Counoise.

Their business is deeply rooted in family. Dean shares winemaking responsiblities with Verdie. Their sons, Dan and Sean, a daughter, Dinah, and Sean's wife, Kate, also have roles in the winery.

In 2004, Dean retired from the railroad industry and the family opened their downtown tasting room inside the historic Dacres Building. Ironically, it's in the same block as 26 Brix, previously featured as a Match Maker restaurant.

Morrison Lane, 201 W. Main St. Walla Walla, WA, 99362, 509-526-0229, morrisonlane.com.