Sunday, December 28, 2008


Unlike last year, I've reviewed quite a number of wines in 2008, so I've abandoned my previous format of ranking the top wines by region, and instead bring you a normal top ten selection. Aficionadoes will note that almost half of my choices are Texas wines. Let's be honest; I am a bona-fide Texophile, yet I must note that this predominance of Texas tipples would not have been possible ten years ago. I'm intensely proud that our vinos have improved by leaps and bounds over the years, and our Nation can stand tall and proud with any wine-making country in the world. With that in mind, I bring you the Food Czar Top Ten Wines of 2008.


My first Cellar Selection of the year, this wine is a worthy competitor to the great malbecs of the Argentine.


Believe it or not, this selection from the Italian-American filmmaker is the only California name on this list, not counting the honorable mentions.


This little-known varietal is usually blended into cognac. Dry Comal Creek has rightfully rescued it for general consumption.


Washington state's best-known winery is also the most beautiful winery I have visited to date.


Little-known native Texas grape produces another winning vino for Dry Comal Creek.


I've promised once, and I promise again, in 2009 I'll start investigating North Texas wineries more closely. Until then, my heart is in the Hill Country.


Proof that France is more than just Burgandy and Bordeaux.


If you were to poll Texas wine aficionadoes on their favorite Lone Star Cab, this budget-buster would no doubt rank high on their list.


Red burgundy is synonymous with pinot noir, and this wine proves that France still makes some of the best.


You'll be hearing a lot more about North Carolina wines thanks in part to the offerings of this former Vanderbilt estate.

Honorable Mentions:

-Toasted Head Cabernet Sauvignon
-Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc

Wine is meant for everyday consumption, not just for special occasions.

Develop your own wine buyers guide soon, and remember:



Perhaps it's not a good idea to present a list of the best restaurants of 2008, simply because such a list must needs engender rules, and as both my readers know, I don't particularly care for rules. For instance, do you only include fine dining establishments, or are casual places fair game as well? For me, great food is great food, and as my lovely wife the Rock Star and I have just agreed, fine dining places are fabulous for Saturday night, but where are you going to eat the other six nights of the week, not to mention lunch and breakfast? Also, some of the places I favor have received decidedly mixed reviews from other sources. Well, to thine own self be true (as Polonius would have it), and I must report on my own experience, community consensus or not. Finally, just when I had concocted a bang-up list, I realized that I had left two places from my Las Vegas roadtrip off by accident: Mon Ami Gabi and Yolos Mexican Grill. Faced with such a quandry, I made an executive-level decision: Since I actually hadn't reviewed them in 2008, but had merely dined at both establishments, I am leaving them off the 2008 list, and hope to review them and possibly see them on next year's list. So, without furthur ado, here are the Food Czar Top Ten Restaurants (and Honorable Mentions) for 2008:


When you've been in business for God-knows-how-many years, and are only open for breakfast and lunch, you must be doing something right. The Mecca does breakfast and lunch right. Don't forget the chicken-fried-steak, fabulous no-frills breakfasts, and those oh-so-marvelous biscuits. Come early (or late) to get the best parking.


Brandt Evans is the best Dallas chef you've never heard of. His Cedar Plank Tasmanian Salmon was my favorite seafood dish of the year, period. Very affordable prices as well, and a recently-unveiled brunch menu guarantees that I'll be a repeat customer in 2009.


The Rathbun Brothers show their casual side with upscale-comfort food to die for. Start with the Maytag Blue Cheese Potato Chips, then progress to the Daily Business Lunch, one of the best bargains in town. On my visit, creamy meat lasagna made me almost sing with pleasure, and my wife loved her smoked ham and gouda grilled cheese, which (pardon the pun) she thought was very gouda indeed.


Recognized by D Magazine and Zagat, our Restaurant Week choice did not disappoint with their Colorado Lamb Chops and Pecan-Crusted Mahi-Mahi. Also enjoyed a return visit in November with a very dear friend who is, alas, moving out of the area. I shall miss him terribly, but will drown my sorrows in future visits with wine from Isabella's innovative 25 Wines for $25 list, a practice other establishments would do well to emulate.


A quintessentially Texas neighborhood restaurant, Kelly's delivers all matter of fabulous fare from BBQ to juicy burgers to one of the best chicken-fried-steaks in town. Kelly's is truly a guiding light in the downtown Plano revival.


In a year of fantabulous Mexican meals, Pepe's and Mito's gets a slight nod over the worthy competition. Beef Fajita Tacos are absolutely addictive, and Brunch Tacos are a great cure for morning hangovers. I don't always go along with the crowd, but a tableful of picky food bloggers were all impressed by Pepe y Mito's cuisine, and I don't think we can all be wrong.


How can you not love an erstwhile hotel coffee shop that serves dishes which feature truffles? The Rock Star certainly does, for when she first tasted The Second Floor's Roasted Corn Chowder with truffles, she declared at once her intent to become a chef, an assessment from which she has not wavered in the ensuing months.


Yes, there are argueably better beef palaces in Big D, but if you love true campfire-tasting steaks in a pure old-school-Texan atmosphere, you'll love Dunstons. Legions of mostly gray-haired devotees obviously agree. Don't pass up the jalapeno cream soup either.


As I remarked when I composed my original review, if Bijoux isn't the best restaurant in Dallas, it sure don't take long to call the roll. Be sure to try the Crispy Pork Belly. And the English Pea Angnolotti. And the Filet of Beef. And the Veal Tenderloin. And the Chocolate Bananas. And, as Yul Brynner once remarked, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.


Folks, he's not just a Food Network staple, the Redheaded One can truly cook. Sample the Wild Mushroom Quesadilla and the Cornmeal-crusted Chile Relleno, washed down with one of Bobby's Signature Margaritas, and prepare to be won over. You must try Mesa Grill the next time you're in Las Vegas (or NYC).

2008 Honorable Mentions Worthy of Mention:

-Gruene River Grill
-Hondos on Main
-Los Cucos
-Taco Diner
-Hard Eight BBQ
-Agave Azul
-Zea Woodfire Grill

Again, if you don't agree with my opinions, please try to remember that I'm as entitled to them as you are to yours. Formulate your own list soon, and remember:


Sunday, December 21, 2008


"Be forewarned. Most experiences make you older. This one makes you wider."

In 1967, The Jimi Hendrix Experience released Are You Experienced?, the classic rock album that capped the revolution taking place in music at the time. All rock music, and indeed most music period, is judged as pre-Experience and post-Experience. Why? Because Jimi Hendrix literally stood music on its ear and introduced sounds, concepts, tone paintings, and feelings no one had thought possible. Music was the drug of choice to many people back then, the high that they couldn't get enough of, much as television was to their parents and computers/video games would be to their children.

Today, many people obsess over food, and the great chefs are literally worshipped as the Guitar Gods of the culinary universe. Fueled by the Food Network, a new generation is packing the great restaurants of today much as their forebears packed the concert halls, bars, and stadiums in search of music a decade ago, making superstars of Mario Batali, Emeril Lagassi, Gordon Ramsey, and perhaps most of all, Bobby Flay. I believe even the most jaded food aficionado must acknowledge that he has helped raised the bar and elevated fine dining to undreamed-of levels, along the way setting the example for such Dallas gastronomic icons as Stephen Pyles, the Rathbun Brothers, and Scott and Gina Gottlich. My own lovely wife the Rock Star adores Bobby Flay and has longed to dine at one of his restaurants, so when opportunity knocked for us to revisit Las Vegas at an affordable price, we answered with alacrity, and in due course made our way to Caesars Palace and Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill therein one chilly noon.


Mesa Grill is smaller than expected, semi-circular in shape, and boasts a color scheme dominated by toasty shades of burnt umber and raw sienna. Large open kitchen, Chihuly light sculptures, and seemingly endless shelves full of brightly colored jars dominate the scene. Decidedly unstuffy for the lair of a chef of Bobby's caliber, and rather fun and festive. After a very short wait in the bar, we were led to our table and steeled ourselves for the transcendental dining experience soon to follow.


Bobby Flay, like all great chefs, treats every dish that comes out of his kitchen with loving care and flavorful reverence, be it lunch or dinner. We were somewhat disappointed to learn that the $29 prix fixe lunch was unavailable on this particular day, due to the kitchen being shortstaffed, but since all of Mesa Grill's appetizers and entrees are fairly priced at noontime, we plunged right in and split a starter, then ordered individual entrees. Wine is usually our tipple of choice, but when we noticed that Bobby's signature margaritas were featured on the menu, we each decided on one. Mesa Grill's margarita recipe was invented by Billy Steel, who first learned how to pour the tart concoctions at New York's famed 21 Club, so they came with some serious pedigree. Featuring Cabo Wabo white tequila, Cointreau, lime juice, and fresh limes, these babies mopped the floor with all would-be competitors, so much so that the Rock Star vowed to get her own bottles and barware and become a mixologist. But wait, that was only the beginning. The Wild Mushroom Quesadilla, with white bean hummus and white truffle oil, must surely rank as the best starter I've ever encountered, and one of the greatest dishes I've ever eaten, bar none. Every bite was sheer silken poetry, every ingredient in total, perfect string-quartet harmony, truly a Hendrix-like Experience to be savored. After these two overtures, the main body of the symphony would hopefully not disappoint, and it didn't. Cornmeal-crusted chili relleno deftly wove roasted eggplant, manchengo cheese, sweet red pepper sauce, and balsamic vinegar into a tapestry of delight, Southwestern rather than south of the border. Despite a slightly fishy taste, my wife really enjoyed her Ancho-crusted sea scallop, the crawfish-green onion sauce nicely tempering the scallop's bite. We ended our heavenly repast at this point, since Mesa Grill does not offer dessert at lunch, and indeed, none is needed.


Warm, gracious, and consummately professional, Bobby's court attendants are obviously some of the best in the business, and worthy of his and Mesa Grill's stature. Website is, where you can purchase Bobby's cookbooks, sauces, rubs, and other products.


Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill Las Vegas branch is a fitting shrine to a man who has literally thrown down the culinary gauntlet to the rest of his profession and food fanatics everywhere. Become Experienced yourself soon, and remember:


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Quickie Review #37: Kona Grill

Most rock stars tour the country with a significant entourage of friends, family members, and assorted hangers-on in tow. It comes with the territory. My own lovely wife the Rock Star carries her own significant entourage, which was ready to turn out in force on the occasion of her birthday celebration, ready to obey her slightest command and have a good time in the bargain. However, there was one recalcitrant wheeler on her Iditarod team, her formidable mother. You see, my bride had her heart set on sushi, whereas The Momma cannot abide the fishy stuff under any circumstances. No amount of coaxing and cajoling could get her to change her mind. So, after some executive-level discussion, my wife and I agreed on the perfect compromise: Kona Grill, which boasts both fresh sushi and island-inspired All-American classics such as steak and pad thai on its eclectic menu. Crisis thus averted, we made our way southward one recent Saturday night, with my friend The Rock, my wife's friend Crazy Cat Lady, my wife's sister The Wild Thing, and the aforementioned The Momma safely in tow.

There's no doubt that Kona Grill features quality cuisine, yet I believe that its most impressive feature is the lively atmosphere dominated by sleek, dark woods, Asian-inspired umbrellas in the ceiling cleverly concealing fire alarm sprinklers, and that imposing 2000-gallon aquarium behind the sushi bar. Speaking of which, The Rock Star and I were in full-on sushi mode this evening and ordered three rolls to split between us, as well as salmon and yellowtail appetizers.
The Spicy Tuna roll took top honors this night, packing a more aggresive satisfying kick than usual, while the Las Vegas Roll (salmon, crab-mix, and cream cheese, tempura-fried and served with eel sauce), proved slightly underspiced, a departure from the norm from this usually spot-on specialty. Spider roll (soft-shell crab, deep-fried with crab-mix, avocado, and cucumber) fared better, as did the nicely-fresh salmon and yellowtail starters. In any case, we left few crumbs in our wake. I wish I could report on the taste of everyone else's entrees, but as no one would share their fare, I can only conclude that all were quite pleased. The Momma left little of her Kona Steak filet on her plate, while The Wild Thing voyaged to Thailand for that ever-present staple, Pad Thai, and reported a successful conquest of the chicken, vegetable, and noodle dish she loves so much. Both The Rock and Crazy Cat Lady journeyed to a similar destination with their choice of the Thai-Peanut Chicken Noodles, similar to pad thai, but featuring linguini instead, and drizzled with savory peanut sauce rather than black-bean chili sauce. Everyone raved about the Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc and Danzante Pinot Grigio we selected to accompany their repasts, and our excellent waiter (whose name escapes me) crowned our joy with a crusty, creamy creme brulee for the birthday girl.
Website is, where you can get the goods on the current and upcoming locations of this ever-growing chain. Treat your entourage to Kona Grill soon, and remember:


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wine Corner Review #42: Ironstone Vineyards Cabernet Franc

Let me be perfectly frank: I love cabernet franc. I also love malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and the other blending grapes that make up that mouth-shimmering classic called claret. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot, of course, have starred as their own varietal wines for a number of years, and malbec has recently gained prestige, so much so that I think most people would swear that this powerhouse grape was first grown in Argentina, not France. But cabernet franc has been like the dull, forsaken cousin in the quaff world, and only recently has started to earn a modicum of respect when bottled as varietal, such as the variety we consider today, the Ironstone Vineyards Cabernet Franc.

The robe of the Ironstone Vineyards Cabernet Franc is pure grape jelly just before it's spread on a slice of buttered multigrain toast. The nose is toasty as well, with black raspberries, and the faintest odor of truffles. Rich plums play upon the palate, along with dusky cinammon and black pepper, and finishes with key lime pie and figs. This wine will pair well with braised pork with honey barbecue sauce, or lamb chops served the old-fashioned way with mint jelly. Website is, where you can research other pairing ideas and view the entire product line. Frankly, you should pick up a bottle soon, and remember:


Sunday, December 7, 2008


Who pays for dinner? At the risk of sounding overly sexist, when couples dine out, I believe the man forks over the cash most of the time. In our cozy casa, my lovely wife the Rock Star more than holds her own with our expenses, so I have no cause for complaint. Still, when she sidles up to me and announces in her own sweet way, "I'm taking you out for dinner," and the occasion is neither my birthday nor trash day, I've learned to ask no questions, but to agree quickly lest she change her mind (which is always a Woman's Perogative). She had received a valuable tip that ZEA Woodfire Grill in Granite Park might just be worthy of exploration, and so we set out one evening Northward upon the Tollway, an avenue that so often defines our vehicular travel these days.


ZEA Woodfire Grill's name is pronounced "zee-ahh" and according to various sources, either means "grain" or "life"; taken together, they suggest the Biblical concept The Bread of Life. Bread, warmth and hearth are furthur suggested in the decor, with the taupe and beige color scheme enlightened with postmodern fixtures and warmed by wood, stone, and a fireplace with comfy couches and chairs in the bar. In short, a setting as suitable for family-night-out as for young, hip singles, who tend to gravitate toward the aforementioned bar whenever the '50's-cool jazz combo is playing. After some quick discussion, we decided our stomachs needed more attention than our ears, so off to dinner we went, where Gordon was waiting to take charge of us.


If you like Southern comfort food with upscale appetizers at affordable prices, then surely you must consider adding Zea to your list. If so, you can't go wrong by starting the meal with the Mediterranean Hummus Supreme. Sun-dried tomatoes and calamata olives make this chickpea-dip standby a standout, boasting unexpected carrot notes in its garlicky goodness.
We quickly followed this success with a disappointment: the Zeasar Salad was rather ordinary, lacking the anchovies that can make this dish memorable. Since my lovely bride and I often share our repasts, we decided that one of us should order beef and the other seafood, because I had remembered that Zea began life as a Louisiana chain, a state which thrives on the fish dishes. At Gordon's recommendation, my wife tried the Rotisserie Special of the Day: Beef sirloin steak twirled over hickory. Unlike most women (there's that sexism again!), the Rock Star is often ordering her beef medium-rare these days, and the steak that was finally presented to her was juicy and tasty, although her cut sported a bit too much gristle. My bayou gamble paid off with the Hickory Trout Lafitte, a beautiful filet which slid right out of its skin, mated expertly with a Cajun cream sauce so good that the accompanying fried shrimp were rendered almost superfluous. Slowly but surely, trout is insinuating itself back onto menus alongside the ubiquitous salmon preparations, and as I have always been a trout fan, it's a move I applaud. Don't forget to order this dish with the red beans and brown rice, which tastes of Creole goodness and lazy bayou afternoons listening to zydeco. We finished our meal with the fresh peach crackle a la mode, redolent of cinammon and nutmeg and Southern hospitality.


Gordon's dining suggestions proved spot on, and his customer service skills were quite laudable as well, taking pains to keep us abreast of the progress of our entrees. After dinner, we enjoyed bracing drinks in the bar, ably attended by Corrina and assisted by the same manager type who was so helpful at dinner. Website is for the Texas locations, or you can use, which will give you info about the chain as a whole.


No matter how you pronouce it, ZEA Woodfire Grill offers good fare at family-friendly prices, in an atmosphere as suitable for hip urban professionals as it is for the SUV crowd. Indulge in the bread of life soon, and as always: