Ruth Lewandowski Wines, Made in Utah

As a born and bred Utah native, I get teased a lot when I travel.  Much of that teasing comes in the form of ridiculous questions meant to poke fun at how weird the rest of the country thinks my hometown is.

“Are you a polygamist?” “Is everyone there LDS?” And, “is it even legal to get a drink in Utah?” are just some of the things I get asked on a regular basis when I leave the state.

The last question is my favorite for many reasons.  While Utah has plenty of strange liquor laws (and admittedly they are constantly being challenged), I’m always proud to answer that it’s home to award-winning beer breweries, whiskey distilleries and even wineries.

So to answer the question: yes, we can drink in Utah.  And you bet we do!

A bottle of Ruth Lewandowski Naomi Wine near a waterfall in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Getting ready to enjoy a bottle of Ruth Lewandowski wine at a summer barbecue.

What amazes me about the spirit makers in Utah (the alcohol-based ones, not the religious ones) is that they are not just existing here, they are raising the bar and pushing boundaries in their respective realms.  One of those people is Evan Lewandowski, owner of Ruth Lewandowksi Wines.

Ruth Lewandowski Wines are sustainable, all natural wines made with California grapes–for now, until Evan gets Utah-grown vines in the ground.  The wine is bottled and aged in Salt Lake City, qualifying the “made in Utah” label.

Barrels of wine at Ruth Lewandowski Winery in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Barrels of aging wine at the Ruth Lewandowski “urban winery.”

Evan uses grapes and wine-making practices that aren’t widely seen, creating incredibly unique vino.  Instead of taking the easy, everybody-will-like-em route, Evan chose to go the road not normally taken.  (Isn’t there a poem about that?)

Purposely unique wine means that not everyone understands or loves them, but that’s what’s great about Ruth Lewandowski wines: they challenge drinkers to expand their wine horizons beyond Chardonnay and Cabernet.  Each sip makes you stop to question what it is you like (or maybe not like) about wine and why.

Evan Lewandowski, owner of Ruth Lewandowski Wines, sharing his wine knowledge at Pago.

Evan Lewandowski sharing his wine knowledge at Pago.

Evan has a wine resume to impress any connoisseur: he’s worked in vineyards from Napa to New Zealand, France to Italy and done everything from labor along the vines to help with the bottling.  His expertise is astounding.  But he’s so unpretentious that he’s an absolute delight to drink with.  Every time I share a glass with him, suddenly I’m learning all sorts of wine knowledge without even realizing it.

A bottle of Ruth Lewandowski Feints and a glass of Naomi wine.

A bottle of Ruth Lewandowski Feints and a glass of Naomi wine during a recent tasting.

This year’s batch of Ruth Lewandowski wines include one called Feints Cuvée Zero, a light red/dark rosé that smells of peppery raspberries and tastes slightly acidic but refreshing.  It’s already sold out by the bottle but is available by the glass at Pago (where Evan is the sommelier), Finca and Beer Bar.

Ruth Lewandowski Naomi wine is a whole-cluster pressed white wine.

The Naomi has a beautiful, peachy color to it.

The other, Naomi, is my favorite.  It’s a Grenache gris grape that was whole-cluster pressed the day of harvest that was fermented solely as juice, with a slightly rocky/citrusy taste that is a perfectly refreshing wine to sip on during a hot summer evening.  Naomi is available at Pago, Finca, select wine stores and at Ruth Lewandowksi wines by appointment.

Ruth Lewandowski is also releasing a skin-fermented white wine called Chilion in the near future.  It’s technically a white but has the mouth-feel of a red (also known as an orange wine), that’s absolutely stunning.

Keep your eyes peeled for Ruth Lewandowski wines.  So next time someone from out of town asks you if Utahns know how to drink, tell them we not only know how to drink, we are experts in making what to drink.  And we have the wine makers, whiskey distillers, beer brewers and bartenders to prove it.

6 Things I Hated About Paris

Life is but a dream in Paris.  It breathes romanticism–and I don’t mean the era.  The city is beautiful from every angle (as long as you look beyond the dirt), the food is outstanding and there is charming intimacy around every corner.

Paris was the final leg of our 15 day trip through Spain and France but it was the city I was most anxious to experience.  Once there, it charmed me beyond my expectations.

The Eiffel Tower from below in Paris.

Paris’ famous trademark, the Eiffel Tower.

But don’t get me wrong :: I didn’t love everything about Paris.  In fact, there’s a handful of things I hated.  Here are 6 things I hated about Paris (balanced by 5 things I loved).

A street in Paris with a streetside cafe.

From the decorated rooftops down to the charming cafes and the detailed balconies in between, the architecture of Paris was stunning.

1. I hated the Palace of Versailles. 
Admittedly some of my favorite photos from France were taken at the Palace of Versailles.  But the experience itself was nearly excruciating.  After buying tickets to the tourist attraction online the night before our visit, we still waited in line for two hours before entering, then were herded through the palace halls like cattle.  Most of the anticipated awe was replaced by claustrophobia.

But I loved the architecture in Paris.
Throughout Paris the architecture was phenomenal.  Not just the masterpieces like the Notre Dame but the regular, everyday apartment buildings that lined the streets.  I had to stop myself from taking a picture every ten steps because I found every building, every door and every gate to be beautiful.

Croque Madame at Au Bouquet in Paris.

One of the most memorable meals in Paris: Croque Madame at Au Bouquet.

2. I hated the Paris Metro.
The Paris Metro is one of the densest subway systems in the world, transporting more than 5 million passengers per day through 245 stations in the city.  That staggering number of people explains how disgustingly dirty the metro is, which is understandable, but besides being clogged with gritty grime, the metro is a mess of mismatched tunnels that are often hard to understand.  Needless to say, it was easy to get lost.

But I loved the food, even in the metro station.
Many people told me that food in France wasn’t that good.  Well, those people are nuts. :) Every place we ate, from the bakery tucked away in the metro station to the random café on the side of the street and even the Japanese-fusion bakery, it was amazing.  Snails, octopus, macarons, green tea muffins, Belgium waffles (those aren’t even French!), everything was delicious.  Ok, with one exception: the ramen wasn’t what I expected.

The Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

3. I hated the tourists. 
There were so many of them—everywhere—and they walked so slow or were so annoying.  I realize the irony in that I’m a tourist, but really, there is no need to hold hands and take up the entire sidewalk while walking slower than my 92-year old grandma.  Please try harder.  Thank you.

But I loved the people of Paris.
The locals, however, have this funny reputation around the world as being terribly rude.  So many people warned me before my trip that Parisians are stuck up.  But honestly, Parisians are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met while traveling.  One cab driver nearly drove over a curb (and almost injured some pedestrians in the process) just to get me to the opera on time.

The catacombs in Paris.

The catacombs in Paris.

4. I hated that everything required waiting in line.
We waiting in line for more than two hours to get into the Palace of Versailles.  The Catacombes required roughly 2 hours of standing; the Notre Dame’s quick-moving line only took a half hour, even though it looked long.  By our third day in Paris, we joked that Parisians must love standing in line because everything required doing so.  And it sucked.

But I loved the city’s amazing history. 
Paris has been known for its arts and culture since the 12th Century.  Walking through the city conjures images of episodes from history, and while the past isn’t as apparent as it was in Toledo, parts of it peek through in certain areas.  One of those places was the Catacombs, where the remains of 6 million people were buried in the 18th Century.  Amazing!

Outdoor seats of a cafe in Paris.

A common sight in Paris: outdoor seating with the chairs facing the same direction.

5. I hated that our to do list was dictated by tourist traps.
There are so many famous icons in a city as celebrated as Paris, from the Eiffel Tower to the Arc de Troimphe, and we felt like we had to see them all with our own eyes, even if it was just to say that we did.  On one day of compacted touristy sightseeing, we got off the metro to see the Moulin Rouge windmill, snapped a few photos and jumped right back on the train.  I drew the line at seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and refused to step foot in the museum.

But I loved the cafés with outward-facing outdoor seating.
The best moments in Paris were when we were far from the touristy traps and the annoying people selling mini Eiffel Tower statues, immersed among the locals enjoying the energy of France.  Often we’d find ourselves in these moments while sitting on a patio at a little café with all its seats facing the street, perfect for people-watching.  We’d sit for hours without ever being pressured to leave and we’d sip on rosé wine while taking in the spring air.  Those are the moments, more than any, that I loved about Paris.

A beautiful door topped in wisteria in Paris.

The most beautiful door I have ever seen. (I love doors and wisteria!)

6. I hated that I had to leave Paris.
And those moments made me wish that I didn’t have to leave Paris so soon.  That I could stay a week, or maybe a month, more.  I’d be completely content wandering her streets and tasting her sweets day after day, stumbling upon street musicians and flower stands bursting with life; reminding me that the simplest pleasures are what make life so beautiful.

Related :: 6 Days in Paris, A Day at Versailles and 5 Facts About the Paris Opera House.

Upcoming :: Taste of the Wasatch

Have you ever wished that you could taste a bunch of Utah’s best restaurants all in one sitting?  Or have you ever wondered what the food at a particular restaurant was like but didn’t want to devote an entire meal to it just to experiment?  Well now you can do both at the Taste of the Wasatch event!

Wine and beautiful weather at last year's Taste of the Wasatch event at Solitude Mountain Resort.

Wine and beautiful weather at last year’s Taste of the Wasatch event.

Taste of the Wasatch is one of the best culinary events of the summer and it’s happening on August 3, 2014.  The event showcases more than 50 of Utah’s best restaurants all in one place.  And not just any place, but the beautiful background of Solitude Mountain Resort.

If that’s not good enough, all–yes 100 percent!–of the proceeds go to fight hunger in Utah.  How awesome is that?  So not only do you get to try a bunch of awesome food (and wine!), meet some of the people behind the restaurants as they serve food, hang out at Solitude Mountain Resort, but you’re also supporting a great cause.

A plate of treats from Taste of the Wasatch at Solitude Mountain Resort.

Last year I started my feast with dessert.

Here are just a few of the great restaurants participating in this year’s event (with links to my reviews):  The Aerie, Del Mar al Lago, Log Haven, Pago, Finca, Pallet, Red Iguana, Riverhorse on Main, Trio and more!  The full list of restaurants and courses is on The Utah Review here.

Taste of the Wasatch is Sunday, August 3, 2014 from 12-4 p.m.  Tickets are $125 for VIP (which includes a reserved seat) and $90 for general admission.  Click here for tickets.  But act fast, last year the event sold out quickly.  You must be 21 to attend.

Faustina in Salt Lake City

Faustina is one of those places that tends to hover below the radar—or at least, it used to be.  It’s a little bit off the beaten path, just far enough from downtown Salt Lake City to give it a neighborhood vibe.  Yet once inside, the classy decor and creative menu immediately makes me wonder why everyone isn’t always talking about it.

The restaurant has been serving New American dishes for years but last year Faustina quietly changed chefs–and with him, menus.  Joe Kemp took over as Chef de Cuisine in late 2013 and transformed the menu, introduced an entire selection of small plates and revived the seafood dishes with years of expertise from his hometown of Iceland and his previous work in Maryland.

Scallops with tomato risotto at Faustina in Salt Lake City.

The night’s scallops special with tomato risotto.

While many people may not have noticed the change behind the scenes at Faustina, they noticed the change on their plates and palates.  Last weekend my friends and I stopped by for dinner on Faustina’s patio before heading to the Jazz Festival (the music one, not basketball kind).  We focused mainly on small plates but couldn’t help but dive into some of the larger dishes on the menu.

Crab cakes with corn and avocado at Faustina in Salt Lake City.

Light and lemony, I could eat a dozen of the crab cakes.

And because it was a hot summer evening and a Friday night, we ordered plenty of wine.  Faustina’s wine list is filled with glasses and bottles picked to perfectly compliment the food on the menu as well as based on the practices of the winery.  Many wines are from wineries focusing on sustainable practices while still being affordable.  We picked an Atrea rosé (one of my favorite rosés) and a Spanish Albarino.

We started with Lump Crab Cakes ($12) off the small plates menu.  Lemony and light, the cakes strike the right balance of fried crunchiness and flaky crab-ness.  They come two to a plate, with a heap of roasted corn, slices of tomato and avocado and dill aioli for dipping.  Trust me on this one: ask for two orders right off the bat.

Bacon-wrapped dates with balsamic vinegar at Faustina in Salt Lake City.

Bacon-wrapped dates delicious enough to win over non-date lovers.

Teamed with the crab, we ordered Bacon-Wrapped Dates ($6) that were sensational enough to turn one of my date-adverse friends into a fan after one bite.  Bacon-wrapped anything is good, but the rich balsamic drizzle and sweet soy compounded with the sweet dates doesn’t hurt either.

Chicken Pillow Pastry at Faustina in Salt Lake City.

Chicken Pillow Pastry, like a chicken pot pie.

For the main event three of us shared a duo of small plates and shared the entree special: three scallops on a bed of tomato risotto with roasted cauliflower and smoked bacon, then topped with chive oil and micro greens (pictured at top).  The risotto was heavy on the tomato flavor, but was incredibly light (as opposed to the overly rich version).  I loved the cauliflower and mixture of summery flavors.  While it was the night’s special, rumor is it might be on the regular menu soon.  (It has my vote to be added!)

Lamb chops with apples and jalapenos at Faustina in Salt Lake City.

Little lamb chops topped with crunchy apples and spicy jalapenos.

The small plates we picked were Lamb Chops ($10) with soft polenta (like thick mashed potatoes) topped with an apple/jalapeno mixture with a side of roasted peppers, altogether delicious enough to make me wish the chops weren’t so small.  (The lamb chops are available in entree size for $24.)  And Chicken Pillow Pastry ($8), chicken stuffed in puff pastry with cranberry, sage, pine nuts and balsamic reduction that was like a homemade chicken pot pie.  It was a little awkward to share and I felt like it was more of a cold-weather dish, even though we enjoyed it.

Stuffed beef tenderloin medallions with asparagus at Faustina in Salt Lake City.

Beef Tenderloin to the extreme!

The fourth person that opted to order only an entree got the Stuffed Beef Tenderloin Medallions ($28), a juicy, salty slab of steak with cipollini onions and shiitake chips covered in creamy peppercorn sauce with a team of roasted fingerling potatoes and asparagus.  The whole dish was amazing.  It wasn’t trying too hard, just good basic flavors done really well.

Faustina’s desserts are also made in-house by Chef Kemp but we didn’t have room for the blueberry souffle with honey lavender cream sauce or the apple tarte tatin with Slide Ridge Honey gelato (!!).  Maybe next time I’ll go back for just wine and desserts on the patio.  Ok and maybe a crab cake or two.

Go to Faustina for :: a nice lunch or dinner with dishes that speak true to the flavor of the ingredients.  Notes :: Open Monday-Friday for lunch (from 11 am to 3 pm) and dinner Sunday-Thursday 4:30-9 pm and Friday-Saturday 4:30-10 pm.  Also serving brunch on weekends from 9 am-3 pm.  Reservations are available online here.  Follow Faustina on twitter and facebook for special events like beer and wine pairing dinners.

Faustina on Urbanspoon

A Bowl of Japanese Ramen in Paris

Have you ever had a dish that was so delicious, you spent years hunting for something equally as delectable?  When I visited Japan in 2012 I tried my first bowl of authentic ramen at a street vendor at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.  It was 8 in the morning and I’d never tasted something so comforting, so savory and so wonderful.

I spent the rest of my days in Japan slurping as much ramen as possible, having it on an almost daily basis in Kyoto.  I’ve since taste-tested nearly every bowl in Salt Lake City trying to find something as authentic.

Bowls of ramen around the world.

Ramen around the world: my first bowl in Tokyo (left), a bowl in Montréal‘s Chinatown (top) and at Naked Fish in Salt Lake City.

Desperate to find something on par with ramen in Japan, I started searching for the noodle dish when I traveled.  I’ve had ramen in downtown Chicago, Montreal’s Chinatown, L.A.’s Little Tokyo, Washington D.C. and the middle of Manhattan.  It became a bit of a tradition–regardless of the city’s culture, I’d hunt down the rumored best bowl of ramen to compare it with what I had in Japan.

France is full of incredible food so I wasn’t letting it off the ramen hook.  I was determined to find the best bowl of Japanese ramen in Paris and did my research accordingly.  Surprisingly, when we arrived to our apartment in the 1st arrondissement, it was right in the middle of the Japanese neighborhood.

That’s right—I stayed in the Japanese neighborhood in Paris.  What are the odds?!

The French/Japanese bakery Aki Boulanger in Paris.

The French/Japanese bakery Aki Boulanger in Paris.

We were surrounded by Japanese restaurants and even an amazing Japanese-French fusion bakery with the most delicious green tea muffins and treats.  And steps away from our apartment was the best ramen (according to several sources) in Paris: Kotteri Ramen Naritake.

Kotteri Ramen Naritake in Paris.

Kotteri is a typical ramen shop: narrow, with bar seating and a few tables.

After a long rainy day at the Palace of Versailles, we joined the line outside of Kotteri (lines were everywhere in Paris!) for a bowl of ramen.  I was fascinated by the way they cooked their ramen: they’d drain the noodles right on the floor.  All the cooks were clad in rubber boots and aprons, as they’d just spray the floor with a hose to clean away stray noodles.

Ramen at Kotteri Ramen Naritake in Paris.

Ramen (with a French twist) at Kotteri Ramen Naritake in Paris.

Once our ramen arrived, it wasn’t quite what we expected.  The chicken-based broth was heavily overpowered by chicken flavor.  Chicken-based broths aren’t uncommon for ramen, but this one was unstrained so the chunky broth made it more like a thick chicken noodle soup.  The pork was dry and not very flavorful.  And the egg (a classic component of ramen) was nowhere to be found.

I was amused by how different the Parisian ramen was from all the other ramen I’ve had.  It was an obvious example of taking one culture’s food and adapting it to another culture’s palate.  It may not have been authentic ramen in the Japanese sense, but it was authentically French ramen, done to their taste.

And in the end, that’s exactly the experience I was craving.

Billy Blanco’s in Park City

There are nights when my idea of going out to dinner conjures up dreams of being pampered by several people on the wait staff, ordering off a menu full of foreign or fancy words, trying unidentifiable dishes that require dissecting with each bite, sipping a series of wines that coincide with the courses and having the conversation mostly consist of what we’re eating.

And then there are nights when I want to go to a place with a laid back vibe and a friendly staff, not have to look up words in the dictionary just to order my dinner, eat familiar food with friends and talk about anything but what’s sitting in front of us.  Usually those nights come after a long, stressful week when my mood and my energy is in need of some serious boosting.

Billy Blanco's takes the "Motor City Mexican" theme to the extreme.

Billy Blanco’s takes the “Motor City Mexican” theme to the extreme.

Last week on one of those exhausted nights, my friend and I went to Billy Blanco’s in Park City.  The Tex Mex restaurant, self-described as “Motor City Mexican,” serves both Mexican and American favorites, traditionally familiar dishes designed to please palates that range from your picky friend to your young niece.  It’s part bar in design, but friendly enough for families.  Really, Billy Blanco’s is whatever you need it to be.

The bar at Billy Blanco's in Park City.

The bar at Billy Blanco’s.

What stands out most at Billy Blanco’s is the decor.  Graffiti-style pop stars and iconic trademarks colorfully line the walls (I even spied Park City’s own Skullcandy logo), authentic vintage cars and motorcycles are used as decor, and the garage theme has been taken into consideration on everything from the mechanic cloth napkins to the leather racer-striped seats to the wrench doorhandles.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: theme restaurants can be pretty cheesy–but when they’re done right, they can be quite catchy.  Billy Blanco’s walks a fine line of almost being too much, but I found myself admiring the thought that went into every detail so I think it’s safe to say I liked it.

The Pontiac house margarita at Billy Blanco's in Park City.

The Pontiac house margarita, available with an extra shot of tequila.

It’s clear by the drink menu that Billy Blanco’s is designed to be a place to imbibe.  It has an extensive list of beers (including drafts, local and imported bottles), a handful of wines (affordable options by the glass and bottle), a liquor list emphasizing tequila and a cocktail menu favoring the margaritas.  It is after all, at least partially, a Mexican place.

The guacamole sampler at Billy Blanco's in Park City, Utah.

The guacamole sampler.

The food menu is divided by Mexican food and American food.  Starters are a mixture of both cultures, bringing in bar favorites from both like chicken wings, cheese fries, nachos, and barbecue ribs.

The guacamole sampler caught our eye so we tried the Chipotle & Orange, Bacon/Grilled Pineapple/Pickle Jalapeño, and Roasted Tomatillo/Pepitas/Cotija Cheese trio.  The tomatillo was the surprising favorite; the large chunks of oranges were distracting in the chipotle and the bacon and pineapple lost its pizzazz after a few bites.  The traditional guacamole we ended up ordering was the true winner, so be boring and stick to that for a fail-safe dip.

The taco sampler with a chimichangita at Billy Blanco's in Park City.

The taco sampler with a chimichangita.

There’s a whole section of tacos stuffed with baja fish, mushrooms, pork cheeks and short ribs.  Luckily there’s also a taco sampler ($17) with three tacos plus a chimichangita (a mini version of the deep-fried bean burrito).  We picked the Tejano Smoked Short Rib with cilantro and red chile crema, Baja Fish with shaved cabbage and Cachete Carnitas pork cheeks.  The short rib and pork cheeks were favorites and I liked the variety.  (I especially liked not having to pick just one!)

The rest of the Mexican menu has traditional items like chicken enchiladas in a green sauce ($12), burritos, fajitas (chicken $13/shrimp $17/veggie $11) and a Carne Asada Quesadilla ($12) with marinated steak, bacon (why not?) and several cheeses topped with pico de gallo.  I was surprised that they were so flavorful and so filling.

The carne asada quesadilla at Billy Blanco's in Park City, Utah.

The carne asada quesadilla.

The “Gringo” side of the menu is full of burgers (cheeseburger $11, barbecue $17, pork cheek $17 and garden $11), sandwiches (Philly fajita $14, short rib $12 and chicken $11) and a buttermilk fried chicken ($15) with chile-pecan praline and chipotle honey sauce that was tempting me away from the Mexican menu.

There are desserts, too, like root beer floats, sundaes and chocolate cake that I dreamed of having if I wasn’t so full.  But I’ll have to wait until next time and try to hold back on the guacamole (is that even possible?).

Billy Blanco’s isn’t the culinary superstar capable of mind-blowing dishes like some of the other Bill White restaurants, but it’s an enjoyable place to go with friends for a casual meal and a few margaritas.

Go to Billy Blanco’s for :: a casual meal of Mexican or American food (or both!).  Notes :: Open 7 days a week.  Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 am-9 pm and Friday-Saturday 11 am-10 pm.  It’s located near the Jeremy Ranch exit.  Check out their list of specials, including Sunday concerts and specialty-priced appetizers.  Friend them on facebook here.

Disclaimer :: I was graciously treated to this meal by Bill White Restaurant Group.  As always, all opinions are my own. 

Billy Blanco's on Urbanspoon

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