December 2011 A Café Named
Champagne By Carol Malin
Temecula is a hot spot in Southwest
Riverside County blessed with beauty, a charming old town, and good food and wine. If you have an appetite for gas- tronomic delights that will satiate your palate, try Café Champagne at Thornton Winery. Executive Chef Steve Pickell exercises his culinary expertise to create tantalizing meals from fresh, regional ingredients for Champagne’s diners and for guests attending Thornton’s Annual Jazz Concert Series.
Last month I was invited to Thorn-
the premises. We were presented with a bottle of Thornton’s 2010 Mourverde wine to take
home. I’m no chef but the turkey meatloaf that I served with this wine was a big hit with the crowd at my house. Maybe most of the credit should go to the wine con- sumed.
Sharon Gallenger, banquet manager, came in to tell us about upcoming events:
Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner. The winery also accommodates corporate functions, events, and weddings.
On Christmas Day, Café Champagne will serve a selection of starters & entrees
from noon - 5pm for a fixed price of $49.95 plus tax/tip, includes one glass of cham- pagne (kids 5 – 12 $19.95; under 5 free).
Café Champagne open daily 11 am - 9 pm (holiday hours differ). Lunch $13 – $21. Dinner $13 - $49. Wine/glass $8 - $15. Prices & hours subject to change. Reserva- tions & information call (951) 699-0099, or go to: www.thorntonwine.com
. Thorn- ton Winery, 32575 Rancho California Road, Temecula 92591
Steve Pickell, executive chef, Café Champagne at Thornton Winery
ton Winery to join food and wine reporters for a tasting event. We were greeted at the door by winery founder, John Thornton; winery President, Steve Thornton; and Chef Pickell.
Pickell is an accomplished award-winning chef. He graduated from the Culinary
School of Washington DC. While in DC, he trained under Austrian Chef Nora Pouil- lon at Restaurant Nora. He acknowledges Pouillon’s influence on his cooking and talked to us about his commitment to create meals from seasonal ingredients. Pickell talked us through every course. Everything served at Champagne is made to order Chef told us, nothing is kept hot under lights.
First course was a toasted flat bread pizza with warmed pear and gorgonzola
with Tempranillo wine syrup. The cheese has a bite but it was mellowed by the sweet caramelized onions and pears. A glass of Thornton’s 2010 Tempranillo wine accompanied it. John told us that he is very proud of this Tempranillo – with good reason. A colleague said what we were all thinking, “It’s amazing, especially for a 2010 wine.”
“We try to deliver the highest quality for the best price and we do this consis-
tently in our three focus areas: wine, food and music,” said John Thornton. “We are very lucky to have Chef Steve – he is an outstanding chef. He was twice named the Chef of the Year by the California Restaurant Writer’s Association. He has been with us now for 12 years; that is a tremendous amount of time for this type of business.” The pace is fast, quality control a necessity, employee management required, order- ing and keeping an eye on what sells is vital, and creativity is very important.
The second course was a bowl of spicy sweet potato and corn bisque with ci-
lantro pepita pesto. Chef told us that he only uses produce that is grown within a 100-mile radius of the restaurant and much of the produce is organic and comes from Valley Center. The soup had a pretty presentation; it was a lovely light orange color with green pesto swirled through the center. The taste was sweet with heat from the chipotle chilies at the finish. Just enough heat to remind you to take another sip of Thornton’s 2010 Zinfandel, Huis Vineyard ($13/glass). The flavor is spicy with a hint of raspberry. Wine pairing suggestions with specific dishes enhance the dining experience.
Someone asked Chef how he comes up with his menus. He replied that on his
drive home he thinks about food combinations and will come back to the kitchen the next day and try them. If the dish passes the taste test he will introduce the recipe as a special. If sales are good he knows it is a keeper. They must be doing something right, because the restaurant has been awarded Four Stars for Cuisine and Four Stars for the Wine List by the California Restaurant Writers Association.
Pickell says he enjoys serving homey, comfort foods with a sophisticated twist,
for example, a tasty grilled white-cheddar cheese and butter poached lobster sand- wich. It is served on toasted sourdough with caramelized onion and bacon marma- lade. This was our third tasting. It is, how do you say, melt-in-your-mouth good. Chef told us that this sandwich consistently receives positive feedback from customers and is one of their top sellers. That’s easy for me to believe. The sandwich paired very well with Thornton’s 2010 Chardonnay ($11/glass). No oaky aftertaste in this wine as it is fermented in stainless steel tanks.
“I look for creative employees for the kitchen,” Pickell says. “After I have sorted
through a hundred resumes and have asked an applicant to come in I will give him, or her, a mystery box test. In the box they receive a number of ingredients to make a dish of their choice in the kitchen within a two or three hour period. If the dish passes the taste test they become a serious contender for the job.”
John says they are proud of the entire staff and mentioned that the restaurant has
won the Gold Award for Contemporary Cuisine for eleven consecutive years from the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association. Reminding us that presentation is a very important part of the dining experience because we eat with our eyes first, he stated that they have learned that besides culinary talents “women in the kitchen seem to have a talent for adding color and beauty to the serving plate.” All of the food we tasted that day was nicely plated, a sprig of lavender here, a drizzle of sauce there – very elegant – and the food was always served at the right temperature.
Our main course came next: grilled port rib eye with wild mushroom and leek
bread pudding, served with sugar snap peas in a bing cherry port wine sauce. This was my favorite. The pork was so tender you could almost cut it with the fork. The bread pudding tasted like a delicious cross between mashed potatoes and stuffing. It was paired with Thornton’s 2010 Petite Sirah. This is the wine that Thornton’s winemaker, David Vergari, told me in an interview a few months ago that he has high hopes for. He said that the wine is reasonable now but advises patience will bring great rewards with this one.
Dessert arrived. Warm salted caramel butterscotch pudding served with a co-
conut almond cookie and warm sipping chocolate. Fabulous just about covers it. Dessert was accompanied by Thornton’s sweet 2010 Muscat Canelli. While we were indulging, Chef told us that all pastries and desserts served at the Café are made on
The Chronicle www.ChronicleMediaGroup.com
A HOLIDAY DINNER Courtesy of Chef Steve Pickell
Pork Rib Eye With Port Wine Sauce Eight 6-oz. pork chops or pork rib eye Season w/salt & pepper
Grill ‘til done or pan seer to medium doneness (140- degree internal temp)
Sauce 1 cup of port wine 1 cup pitted cherries w/ syrup drained off don’t let burn! reduce by half, meaning half will evaporate ½ cup chicken stock into reduction reduce by half again until thick in syrupy let cool season w. salt & pepper 1T butter let I melt
Serve it with pudding & grilled pork pour on top of the pork
Accompaniment: Snap Peas sautéed 2–3 minutes (quick sauté) in mix of olive oil & butter
Wild Mushroom & Leek Bread Pudding 3 cups cubed bread, (focaccia, sourdough, etc.)
2 cups wild mushroom, (oyster, chanterelle, Japanese types etc.)
1 cup sliced leeks cleaned and rinsed 2 cups cream 1 cup milk 4 large eggs
1/2 cup grated Swiss cheese, (gruyere) 2 T chopped parsley 3 T olive oil Directions: Saute the mushrooms and leeks in olive oil over moderate heat 8-10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let cool. Whisk eggs together in a large bowl, set aside. Bring cream and milk to a scald. Temper eggs with hot milk and cream. Combine leeks, mushrooms, bread, egg and milk mixture, cheese and parsley in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Transfer to a buttered baking dish and bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes in a water bath.
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