Il Cortile Ristorante – Paso Robles

Central Coast, Food Adventures

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On our recent trip to Central Coast Wine Country, we were overwhelmed by our dining options in downtown Paso Robles. After all, where there’s good wine, there’s good food, right? But in our search for dinner plans, Il Cortile stood out with its homemade pastas, stunning dishes, and (because first impressions matter) clean and modern website.

Upon our arrival, we were pleased to find that our first impressions were just the beginning of a wonderful experience. It was a warm summer evening so we elected to dine al fresco on the inviting semi-enclosed patio. Our server Andrew was friendly, and somewhere along the way, we learned that a surprising number of Paso residents (including himself and the Chef Santos MacDonal) are LA transplants!

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Even after having partaken in an entire afternoon of wine tasting, we could not resist yet another opportunity to sample the Central Coast, so I had the Rose flight while Martin chose the Italian flight to start our meal.

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We love grilled octopus so despite other tempting offerings such as mozzarella di bufalo, coppa con burrata, and carpaccio di anatra (duck), we went with our first instinct: grilled octopus with fresh vegetables marinati in a spicy vinaigrette. The octopus was charred to perfection and oh so tender. It was served over a hearty bed of cannelini beans and tomato, reminding us that we are indeed in an Italian ristorante.

We mentioned wanting to try two different entrees and sharing so that we could sample two of their famed dishes. But without any indication or request, our server went ahead and asked the kitchen to split the plates so that we could each have our own portions, beautifully plated. So thoughtful!

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Following our antipasti was our primi of pappardelle al aragosta – squid ink pasta with a lobster ragu finished with salmon roe. Remember when we said we love grilled octopus? Well we LOVE squid ink pasta. Guaranteed, at least one of us will order it given the option. The lobster ragu was rich and packed with generous bits of lobster meat, while the roe (which I believe was actually tobiko, or flying fish roe, as it was much smaller than the distinct size of ikura) added a welcomed touch of saltiness. The pasta itself, made in-house, had the distinct texture that only fresh pasta has, and it was cooked just until al dente. Absolute perfection, we enjoyed every bite of this. (Editor’s Note: I noticed this dish is no longer listed on the current menu on the website and has been replaced with a lobster ravioli dish instead.)

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Our secondi was a very special dish, one that everyone will tell you to order if you come here but never seems to make a permanent appearance on the menu: osso buco – overnight-braised pork shank with parmesan risotto. It was customary to serve me easier-to-daintily-eat slices and chunks of braised meat while the gentleman got the rest of the bone-in shank in all its glory. What they didn’t know was that this lady has a strong stomach and ended up devouring some of her date’s portion as well, it was just so good! Quick research on the history of osso buco tells me that this was a more “modern” preparation with its tomatoes and mirepoix, but modern or traditional, it was an impressive dish that felt decadent and yet comforting at the same time. Don’t miss it!

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For dessert, Martin was in the mood for something less sweet and made a special request for an affogato – hot espresso poured table-side over vanilla ice cream. I opted for the vanilla panna cotta which was garnished with fresh strawberries and a berry coulis. I loved being able to actually see the flecks of vanilla bean, and the flavor was delicate. Delicious!

From beginning to end, we had an amazing experience. Be sure to include Il Cortile in your next Central Coast adventure!

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Check out Il Cortile – ilcortileristorante.com

608 12th St
Paso Robles, CA 93446

See their Yelp reviews here!

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LA WineFest 2013 – Hollywood, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

We were super excited to find out that we had won Gourmet Pigs‘ giveaway of a pair of tickets to this past weekend’s LA WineFest at the historic Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. We love food events and this was an awesome opportunity; we otherwise would have had to dole out $60+ a head for admission, although with the wine and beer freely flowing and part of the proceeds going to benefit a good cause, we could see how it could still be very worth it.

Including a souvenir wine glass!

Including a souvenir wine glass!

With an impressive exhibitors list of over 500 local and international wineries, breweries, spirit-makers, and food vendors, this 8th annual event drew visitors from all over LA to partake in the festivities while also supporting the 2013 official charity Food Forward. Now that’s a pretty good way to spend a weekend in LA, if you ask me!

There were just too many vendors to name, and because of the crowds, we were not able to visit every single table. But we did sample a lot of them and here are just a few of our favorites.

Fancifull Artisanal Cheeses and Salami

Fancifull Artisanal Cheeses and Salami

When you think of wine pairings, the first thing that probably comes to mind is cheese. We spotted a huge crowd that had gathered round and decided to check out Fancifull – a gourmet foods and gift baskets vendor.

Wally and Terry August of Fancifull

Wally and Terry August of Fancifull

Wally takes great pride in his cheeses, all made with farmstead dairy. Sheep’s milk, goat’s milk, and plenty of cow’s milk cheeses… My favorites were a tossup between the Beecher’s Flagship (cheddar-like cow’s milk cheese from Seattle) and the Jeff’s Select Gouda from Caves of Faribault, which had a gorgeous bright orange hue.

Stella Artois Biergarten

Stella Artois Biergarten

Stella Artois was very obviously one of the larger sponsors of LA WineFest, and the lines for the biergarten dominated a majority of the main event floor. Good thing the friendly staff meandered through the lines and poured tasters of Cidre, an apple cider newest on their product line. With so little time and so much to see, we left our place in line and continued wandering.

Vibrant Rioja

Vibrant Rioja

From several feet away, Martin’s keen eye spotted a very familiar bottle – a Rioja from Vibrant Rioja that we have often seen on the shelves at Trader Joes. A mid-tier, very smooth Spanish wine, Martin has aged the 2003 and 2004 vintage until recently, a good 8 or 9 years, before drinking. This 2006 vintage was also deliciously smooth and we may be picking up a few bottles to add to our library.

Garlic Expressions Salad Dressing

Garlic Expressions Salad Dressing

A delicious vinaigrette that features pickled whole garlic cloves as the prize at the bottom of every bottle, Garlic Expressions was a fun and flavorful vendor. As the presenter noted, the dressing could be used on salads, as a marinade, or even for dipping with bread.

San Antonio Winery / Maddelena

San Antonio Winery / Maddelena

Of course, the local San Antonio Winery had come out to showcase their Maddelena label. Martin has yet to visit their tasting room, but I have been tagging along with my parents since I was a kid. As the winery was (and still very much is) as family business, I remember Santos pouring me glasses of their blood orange sparkling soda while my parents tasted the “adult stuff.” Ahh, memories. I sampled the riesling and was very pleased with it; sweet but not cloyingly so. I’ll have to ask my dad to grab a bottle for me next time.

A bit of bubbly - Champagne Devaux

A bit of bubbly – Champagne Devaux

Among the wine and beer were also vendors of bubbly – this one is actually from France. Luckily we happened to stop by right as he was opening a new bottle. He told us a story of this gentleman who opened a bottle of champagne simply by rubbing the bottle’s neck to create vibrations and then with only a champagne flute, was able to pop the cork right off! The brut was a bit dry for my taste; I overheard other patrons asking about his rosé, which was apparently very popular and he had run out of it.

More bubbly - J. Hamilton Wines

More bubbly – J. Hamilton Wines

A very local winery just out of Westlake Village, J. Hamilton Wines offers a few limited varietals, custom blends, and a handful of sparkling wines including a private cuvée that I had to try. A crisp, refreshing brut.

Gourmet Balsamic Blends

Gourmet Balsamic Blends

We love olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting. We briefly frequented the Gourmet Balsamic Blends booth where I tried the “margarita” – a few drops of pomegranate balsamic vinegar complemented by lime-infused olive oil. Yum!

Lobsta Truck - check out their adorable tip jars!

Lobsta Truck – check out their adorable tip jars!

Now we really needed to get some real food into our stomachs, so we continued to seek out Lobsta Truck, possibly one of our favorite food trucks in LA. The line was long but we joined the queue, knowing the wait would be worth it. To pass the time, we admired their super cute tip jars — “Help us get to Vegas!” and “Help us get home from Vegas!”

Lobsta Truck Menu

Lobsta Truck Menu

This is only part of their menu but it covers the most important things you need to know — 1) they offer lobster rolls Connecticut-style (with drawn butter) and 2) they have lobster bisque to which you can add extra meat!

Lobsta Roll with Butter!

Lobsta Roll with Butter!

I know – it’s pretty dinky. But the split-top buns are always toasted to a golden crisp and stuffed full of lobster meat glistening with hot butter. When we visited New Hampshire and Boston recently, we were surprised to find that the Maine-style (a lobster salad of sorts dressed in mayo) is much more common. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the Connecticut-style and the one from Lobsta Truck is definitely worth the $12.

Live Music

Live Music

An outdoor festival is not complete without live entertainment, and we managed to snag seats right next to the band, playing lively music we could sway to while enjoying our lobster rolls.

The Chocolate Traveler - Tabasco Chocolate

The Chocolate Traveler – Tabasco Chocolate

I had seen and sampled The Chocolate Traveler at Taste of Beverly Hills a few years ago, and I recognized their adorable round tins packed with wedges of silky dark chocolate. This time they had a new variety – tabasco flavored! I thought they were delicious and captured the vinegary, peppery flavor of tabasco quite well. Martin felt quite a kick to his taste buds though.

Champignon - Cambozola Black Label

Champignon – Cambozola Black Label

More cheese! I’m not a huge fan of blue cheeses, but this triple-cream Cambozola Black Label was really wonderful. It was creamy and had a pleasantly nutty flavor. Martin mentioned that it was reminiscent of the cheeses we had at Cowgirl Creamery in Petaluma.

Hot's Kitchen Menu

Hot’s Kitchen Menu

Still a bit hungry, we followed the sights and smells leading us to the cardboard trays of fries. Turns out, they originated from Hot’s Kitchen and they were not just any fries — they were Belgian truffle fries. Sign us up!

Tossing in the truffle oil

Tossing in the truffle oil

Their simple but crowd-pleasing menu of burgers, fries, and tacos meant that there was a bit of a wait but the trade-off was made-to-order noms. Here’s one of their team members tossing a fresh-out-of-the-oil batch of fries liberally with truffle oil.

Belgian Truffle Fries - shaved parmesan, maitake aioli

Belgian Truffle Fries – shaved parmesan, maitake aioli

Doesn’t that look amazing? Being Belgian-style fries, the potato sticks had a great balance of crispy exterior to fluffy, soft insides. The aroma of truffle oil wafted up to our noses as we ate, and the shaved parmesan added just enough saltiness. I liked the maitake aioli but Martin found the texture a bit chunky for his preference.

Iced Coffee

Iced Coffee

Our last stop for the day was at Grande Avenue Coffee. Martin selected the iced coffee, which remarkably resembled Vietnamese-style ca phe sua da! It was so good and the perfect beverage for the warm, summer-in-LA day.

Crimsonberry Iced Tea

Crimsonberry Iced Tea

I decided to go with the crimsonberry iced tea – a blend of elderflower, rose hips, cranberry, and other goodies that add so much flavor to the iced tea that not a granule of sugar was needed. Super refreshing!

We had a fantastic time at LA WineFest and are already looking forward to next year’s 9th Annual event. Hope you will mark your calendars too – if you haven’t checked it out yet, you’re missing out!

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Check out LA WineFest: lawinefest.com

The Historic Raleigh Studios
5300 Melrose Avenue
Hollywood, CA 90038

See their Yelp reviews here!

Day 2a: Napa & Sonoma – Alexis Baking Co, Lancaster Estate, Medlock Ames

Food Adventures, Napa & Sonoma

Day two! We had scheduled two winery tours in Healdsburg so before heading there, we started off our day with a delicious brunch at the Alexis Baking Company (ABC) in Napa. It’s a quaint little bakery located across from a row of Victorian style homes reminiscent of Haight Ashbury in SF — thanks to the Yelp reviewer who pointed out the adorable purple house immediately across the street, we found the place very easily!

Huevos Rancheros with Poached Eggs

Unsure of what to get, Martin asked the girl behind the counter for the most popular dish on the menu, which turned out to be the huevos rancheros with poached eggs. Crispy tostada-like fried tortillas slathered with a black bean spread, layered with gooey melted cheese, and generously topped with lots of salsa above and below the perfectly poached egg. It was awesome watching Martin cut into the whites as the yolk slowly oozed over the dish. Delicious. Martin seemed to really enjoy it and shared only one bite for me to sample!

Cinnamon French Toast with Fresh Peaches

No matter — I had opted for one of the daily specials: cinnamon French toast topped with fresh peaches. The girl behind the counter seemed really excited about this one, proclaiming that it’s made from thick slices of the fresh baked cinnamon bread which is, as she put it, amazing. Amazing, indeed! To me, there’s something about fresh baked bread that makes it just indescribably delicious. Fresh baked bread that’s been dredged in egg batter, pan fried to get a crispy crust, dusted with powdered sugar, and served with farm fresh white and yellow peach slices — absolutely wonderful! It was sweet enough for me to not even need the syrup, and I thoroughly enjoyed every fluffy and crispy, sweet and tart, cinnamony and eggy bite.

Perplexing bathrooms

Random side note — was I the only one who stood and paused for a moment to decide which restroom to use? The doughnut or the eclair… which will you choose??

The Lancaster Estate coat of arms lion’s head

Onward we journeyed, saying goodbye to Napa and heading up north to Healdsburg where we met Liz at the Lancaster Estate. It turned out to be a private tour for just the two of us as Liz drove us through the vineyard and told us about the history of the 5 turned 50 acre estate as we tasted the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc.

Lancaster Estate – I love the perfectly straight rows!

Each row of vines was carefully positioned to catch the right amount of sun, and we saw beautiful rows cascading over the hillside. Absolutely beautiful! It was a warm day out so we were thankful for the reprieve of the wine cave, a temperature controlled cellar that houses the tasting room, a dining area for private events, and barrels and barrels of wine at various stages in production. The aroma of fermenting wine and oak barrels fills the cave as we wandered through the atria.

The Tasting Room

Eventually, we circled back to the tasting room to try their stunning reds — a Cuvée, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Nicole’s Proprietary Blend. Made simply from the best grapes of the season, the Nicole’s was incredible and, understandably so, completely sold out every year. The tasting flight made a believer out of me, as I’m usually partial to white and sweeter wines.

Puppy!

After selecting a bottle of their 2008 Estate Cab to bring home, we bid adieu to Liz and drove on to the Medlock Ames Ranch. Home to the main vineyard, the processing facility, a small tasting room, and an adorable garden, the ranch was gorgeous. There we were greeted by an adorable dog belonging to one of the workers and found our guide Lauren. It turned out that mainly wine club members visited the ranch and most other visitors visited the larger tasting room located off the main roads in a less rural part of Healdsburg. Personally, I was very glad to have found this ranch!

The hillside of the Medlock Ames vineyard

Lauren led on a great walking tour of the estate and told us about the history of the Bell Mountain region in which it is situated. We wandered up to the small organic garden that they maintain, a flourishing little plot of land with dozens of fruits and vegetable varieties.

Amazing strawberry

Have you ever eaten a bright red strawberry straight off the vine, warmed by the summer sun? It’s like a bite of sunshine. Succulent, sweet, and simply awesome.

Candy-sweet cherry tomatoes!

Lauren also offered samples of the cherry tomatoes (sweet as candy!), purple peppers that resembled Thai chilies, and even sauvignon blanc grapes off the vines. A wonderful tasting experience and we haven’t even gotten to the wines yet!

The Whites

Since it was just the two of us, Lauren offered us a tasting of all nine bottles that she had readily opened. First the whites — we made our way through 2010 and 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, 2010 Chardonnay, and a 2011 Rosé. I really liked both vintages of the Sauvignon Blanc and I have a feeling that the upcoming late harvest she hinted about will be fantastic.

The Reds

Then we moved on to the reds, starting with a 2008 house Bordeaux blend simply named Red, followed by a 2007 Merlot and a vertical tasting of 2004, 2006, and 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. All a bit too full bodied for me, but Martin enjoyed this part, especially the vertical tasting. We had learned during our short time in Napa and Sonoma that 2007 was pretty much a good year for every winemaker, but we were starting to see that some winemakers were able to work their magic on the 2008 vintages as well.

Beautiful oak barrels ready for the upcoming harvest!

Our visits to Lancaster Estate and Medlock Ames were wonderful off-the-beaten-path adventures in wine country and we would definitely recommend paying them both a visit if you’re in the area. And be sure to start your morning with a delicious breakfast at Alexis Baking Company first! Many thanks to all of the new friends who made our day such a wonderful experience in Napa and Healdsburg.

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Check out Alexis Baking Company: alexisbakingcompany.com

1517 3rd St
Napa, CA 94559

See their Yelp reviews here!

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Check out Lancaster Estate: lancaster-estate.com

15001 Chalk Hill Rd
Healdsburg, CA 95448

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Check out Medlock Ames: medlockames.com

13414 Chalk Hill Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448