Dry Diggings Distillery

December 18, 2015 – The entry into the El Dorado Hills tasting room of Dry Diggings Distillery works much like a time machine.

We left our car in the parking lot of a modern office complex.  From the outside it looks like an office.  Just an office.

On the inside we felt like we were in a 1930 speakeasy.  Proprietor Chris Steller and his business partner, Gordon Helm, bought the bar that dominates the room at auction.  Some time later a couple of guys who looked and sounded like characters from the Sopranos told them the bar came from one of the most famous brothels in Nevada.  They even showed Chris and Gordon the buttons under the bar that would trip the electronic door locks to prevent the cops from getting in.  1930 high tech for the brothel business.

Most of the walls are wood from old barns in the area.  Judging from the age of the barns the boards were milled from the 1860s through the 1880s.  A small sitting room in the back has wallpaper that was made during the same period.

It’s a room that makes you want to put your foot on the rail, lean on the bar and talk politics with the bartender while sipping on a glass of your favorite spirits.  In the tasting room, however, the servings are small.  A quarter ounce.  A small sampling.  Just enough to give you the idea enclosed in the bottle.

I learned a little about distilling while leaning on that bar.  Like ABV (alcohol by volume), i.e., 100 proof translates to 50 per cent alcohol.  That mash must contain at least 51 per cent of a certain ingredient to qualify as a particular spirit, i.e., 51 per cent corn to be called bourbon.  That temperature and humidity have a lot to do with the quality of the product.  And that El Dorado Hills is kind to distilled spirits because of its low humidity.

Dry Diggings produces some first-rate spirits.  They don’t hesitate to experiment with concepts and ingredients.

We sampled their Diamond Springs vodka.  A light vodka with a touch of grape.  More like a wine.  Very nice on the palate.

Bodie 5 Dog California White Whiskey is a single malt whiskey sans the dark color.  It leaves behind a tequila-like tang that I found to be pure satisfaction.  Bodie, by the way, was named for Chris’ dog who, in turn, was named for the town.

They distill a gin-like brandy based Botanica with light gold coloring and an after taste of spearmint.  So pleasant.

But my favorite stood regally on the bar in a tall, slim, dark bottle.  31 N 50 it’s called.  So named, Chris told us, because California was the 31st state admitted to the union in 1850.  Why?  Because gold had been discovered in 1849.  Granting statehood seemed like the prudent thing to do.  Old Millard Fillmore was smarter than we thought.

31 N 50 is Dry Digging Distillery’s contribution to bourbon.  Bourbon is the only uniquely American distilled spirit.  There is debate whether its name comes from Bourbon County, Kentucky, or Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  As a Louisiana native I would like to claim it for New Orleans. But since 95 per cent of all bourbon produced in the United States is distilled in Kentucky I have to say Bourbon County has the better claim.

31 N 50 is very friendly to the palate.  With tones of vanilla and caramel, it is smooth and satisfying.  An extraordinary product of the distiller’s art.

It’s a spirit that urges you to raise your glass to toast, as we would say on Bourbon Street, “Bon temps!”

Good times!



Cole Slaw

December 12, 2015 – Old King Cole might have been a merry old soul but he had nothing to do with cole slaw.  He could, however, have eaten it.  It has been a favorite side dish in Europe and North America for hundreds of years.

As with many of the dishes we know and love today cole slaw was developed as a way of stretching food.  Because it’s essentially cabbage pickled in oil and vinegar it will last a long time.  That was important back in the days before refrigerators.

The name itself is an anglicized version of the Dutch word “koosla” or “koolsalade,” which translates to, of all things, cole slaw.

The key ingredient of cole slaw is finely chopped cabbage in a vinaigrette.  That’s the base.  But every country, and seemingly every family in every country, has its own version.

In Germany it’s called Krautsalat.  Cabbage with oil and vinegar.  Maybe some chopped onions and apples as well.

The Italians call it Insalata Capriccos.  Capricious salad.  They often add a little ham and julienned peppers.

In Sweden cole slaw is traditionally served with pizza.  Pizzasalad they call it.  Yeah, I know.  Sweden.  Pizza.  Not two words often seen together but never underestimate the Swedes.  They sometimes add carrots and leeks.  That version is called veckosalla.  Week salad.  It’ll last the week and still be tasty.

In the United Kingdom cole slaw always includes carrots and onion.  It can also include walnuts and raisins.

The American version came late to the game.  Over here we usually add a little mayonnaise to the oil and vinegar dressing.  Since there was no mention of mayonnaise until 1756 it had to be some time later that our version was developed.  No matter.  Cole slaw quickly became, and remains, one of America’s favorite side dishes.

As we often do we were seeking an accompaniment to a huge, beautiful ribeye steak we planned to share.  I surprised her by suggesting cole slaw.  Surprised her because she’s usually the vegetable advocate.

I decided to keep it simple.  Here’s the recipe I used.

Cole Slaw

3/4 head green cabbage, chopped fine                                                                              1 tablespoon sugar                                                                                                         1/2 teaspoon dry mustard                                                                                                  2 cloves garlic, halved                                                                                                       6 tablespoons olive oil                                                                                                       2 tablespoons rice vinegar                                                                                                   2 tablespoons mayonnaise                                                                                       Paprika, salt & pepper to taste

First, make the dressing.  Mix sugar, mustard, paprika, pepper and salt.  Add the garlic halves and olive oil.  Rub the garlic halves thoroughly through the other ingredients.  Add the vinegar and 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise.  Stir the mixture vigorously.  Let it set at room temperature for about half an hour.

Remove the garlic halves.  Pour the dressing over the chopped cabbage.  Add the second tablespoon of mayonnaise.  Mix well.

Let it set in the refrigerator for another half hour before serving.

Bon temps!


Aji Japanese Bistro

December 4, 2015 – Twice now we’ve been to happy hour at Aji Japanese Bistro in El Dorado Hills.  We want to stay for dinner.  Really we do.  But the small plates are so good.  We just never seem to get past them.

We have come to know Sean, the bartender on the two days we dropped in, on a first name basis.  From the quality of product coming from the bar I think bartender is not enough of a word.  Sean and his colleagues are mixologists.  And they mix up some wonderful cocktails.

The first time we dropped in my wife ordered the Icelandic Poppy.  The base for this cocktail is Reyka lime vodka, which uses glacial water in the distilling process.  They shake it over ice with natural cane and lime juices.

I asked for their seasonal punch, a sangria style drink made with fruit infusions in house.  It’s based on the style of drink served in taverns as far back as the 18th century.  The forerunner, really, of what we know as a cocktail today.  It was refreshing.  Fruity without being too sweet.

When it came to food my wife ordered spring rolls.  They arrived perfectly crisp, nicely browned and filled with pork mixed with a sambal chili sauce.  Sambal is a sauce made from a variety of chilis and can include several other ingredients such as ginger, garlic, and fish sauce.  It can be very spicy.  Aji chooses to make their sambal on the sweet side.  Very appetizing

My eyes locked onto the karaage.  Crispy fried chicken thighs.  In a world where most restaurants offer the skinless, boneless and, to me, tasteless chicken breast, I was delighted to see juicy, tasty thighs on the menu.  Had to have’em.

Karaage is a method of deep frying in which the meat is usually marinated in soy sauce, garlic and sometimes ginger.  It’s then lightly dusted with a little flour before frying.  The boneless chunks of dark meat lightly sprinkled with a teriyaki-style sauce had all the characteristics of perfection.  A fancy way of saying they were good.  Really good.

Nick Didier opened Aji after serving apprenticeships in some of the finest restaurants in Napa and San Francisco.  From what I’ve observed his passion seems to be customer service.  Listen to the customer.  Watch the customer.  Look for clues that will help you provide what the customer wants.  It’s an art.  The artistry shows in the service at Aji.

Nick was joined by Executive Chef Russell Okubo.  Okubo draws his inspiration from Asian street food.  He offers creative varieties of sushi.  He is especially imaginative in  adding a Japanese twist to familiar American dishes.

The second time we visited Aji my wife ordered the seasonal punch.  She had tasted the one I had on our first visit and liked it so much she wanted one for herself.  I ordered the Empress.  For this cocktail they use Reyka vodka which they infuse with lemon in house.  They add a touch of pear brandy and a little cherry juice.

For our small plates my wife ordered the Kalbi Tacos.  Kalbi refers to Korean style barbequed short ribs.  They were accompanied in the tortillas with a kimchee slaw.  She pronounced them delicious.

I asked for the Bistro Slider with togarashi fries.  The slider was more like a large burger.  It came on what was described as Japanese toast.  Buttery.  Flavorful.  The meat had been marinated in a little soy sauce and shiitake mushrooms.  It was cooked as good as a burger can be cooked.

The fries provided a little heat from the togarashi seasoning.  Togarashi is a mixture of dried peppers and any of several other spices including ginger, dried orange peel and nori.  An ideal combination of texture and flavor.

We left happy.  But we still didn’t make it to dinner.

Maybe next time.





Relish Burger Bar

December 1, 2015 – Burgers & Martinis!  What a concept.  Why didn’t I think of that?  Well, actually I did.  Several Fourths of July ago.

But I didn’t open a restaurant based on the theme.  It was Richard Righton who had that idea.  And it was a good one.

Righton was born in Worchestershire, England.  Yes, that Worchestershire.  Home of the paper-wrapped bottles of Lea & Perrins sauce.  Good on anything.

Righton moved his family to California several years ago.  He opened a very successful upscale bistro in Folsom.  Then along came the burgers and martinis idea.

My wife and I were seated in a booth giving us a view of the lively Relish Burger Bar.  The lights of the season’s first Christmas tree added a special festive glow.  Tim, the young man assigned to tend our table, showed up with a quick smile, a friendly welcome and an impressive knowledge of the menu.

I started with a Montano Martini.  Basil, cucumber, Hendrik’s gin and pear vodka.    Hendrik’s gin is distilled in Scotland.  It’s infused with cucumber.  One of best gins ever made.  The pear vodka added just the right fruit flavoring sans sweetness.  It was an extremely good martini.

We came for burgers but were waylaid by the intriguing appetizers.  My wife quickly ordered a shrimp cocktail and the Tachos.

Tachos?   At Relish Burger Bar that means tater tots slathered with nacho cheese, bacon and sour cream.  They brought back happy childhood memories to my wife.  I had no such memories but was willing to try them.  While the shrimp could have benefited from perhaps just another minute cooking, much to my surprise the Tachos were outstanding.  I ate more than my share.  I could have eaten more but we had the rest of the menu to consider.

We were headed toward the list of artisanal burgers until I pointed out that the appetizer menu also included “pork wings.”  Highly pleasant pork riblets fashioned to resemble Buffalo wings.  We first discovered these delectable little items in Anchorage.  Relish Burger Bar is the only other restaurant we’ve ever seen offer them.  Had to have’em.

They came crisp on the outside.  Tender and juicy on the inside.  Dipped in a nice, slightly sweet barbeque sauce.  Resting on a bed of cole slaw.  Very good.

We were quickly stuffing ourselves with small plates.  We hadn’t even got to the burger part yet.  My wife declared herself unable to eat more.  I was determined not to leave until I had sampled a burger.  Hey, it was burgers and martinis.  I had the martini.  It seemed only right to have the burger.

As I always do I went for the spiciest.  The Gilroy Garlic & Jalapeno Burger, which I planned to share with my wife.  Tim asked what side would I want with the burger.  Fries? Garlic fries? Sweet potato fries? Onion rings?  I heard my wife say, “Onion rings.”

“Good choice,” Tim said.

I asked Tim if he was married.  He said no.  I told him he’s going to be a good husband.

I ordered the onion rings.

The burger came with pepper Jack cheese, pickled jalapenos, roasted garlic aioli with lettuce and tomato.  The aioli had just enough garlic flavor to give the sandwich personality.  The jalapenos and pepper jack added a little heat.  A superb burger.

My wife and Tim were right.  The house made onion rings were tasty.  The breading light and nicely browned.  The onions inside soft and sweet.

Notes to self:  Next time try another martini.  But then again the Montano Martini was exceptional.

Definitely fewer appetizers. But which ones?

Leave room for a whole burger.