Puttin’ on the…. No, I can’t do it.
I got a really nice surprise last week. Kind of out-of-the-blue I was invited* to a winemaker dinner at CORE Kitchen and Wine Bar at the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain. My first thought was, “Aha! They don’t realize that I haven’t written anything in months so I’d better accept before they change their minds!” My second thought was, “This is going to be stuffy, super-formal, and probably the only time I’ll ever get to go to the Ritz-Carlton.” I may or may not have been right about the first point, but the second – not so much…
The dinner was planned to compliment the wines from the Robert Craig Winery in Napa. Most of my time spent in Napa was 1990-91 (yes, I was but a wee lad!), which was just before the Craig Winery began producing its signature mountain cabernets. Nonetheless, I know that Napa + Cab = super-tasty wine, so I was really looking forward to this dinner even if I ‘knew’ that I’d never be back.
So here’s how this is going to work, I’m going to break this down into three parts: the food, the wine, and the ambience. Each one deserves some attention.
TFD: “I don’t think I can eat anything else. I’m stuffed.”
Server comes out with another plate.
TFD: “That looks amazing. I’ll just have a little bit.”
Server comes back a few minutes later and clears empty plate.
There are several things illustrated by the above scene. First, yes, I’m kind of a piggy. Second, that’s how good the food was. Chef Joel Harrington worked some magic that night. Some of my favorites:
- Chile dusted Pop Rocks on sashimi-grade tuna cubes
- Day boat scallop with dirty duck risotto
- Buffalo tenderloin on liquid polenta with short rib & porcini stack (pictured in this section)
- Raspberry-blackberry panna cotta on roasted almond orange cake with spiced chocolate and black pepper foam (pictured at the top of the post)
And that only touched on four of the six courses.
CORE works with one local farmer for much of their produce, and they have an on-site herb garden and citrus orchard (that isn’t producing usable fruit yet, but will in the next year or two). There seems to be a focus on local ingredients and flavors, but there’s also a wide variety of fish and shellfish.
Is the restaurant cheap? Why, no. Is it the most expensive place in town? No, not that either. Entrees range from $25-$40, and they offer 40 wines by the glass. CORE’s menu changes every 2-4 weeks, but you can see what they have currently by checking here. I didn’t think I’d be saying this, but I’ll be back – and probably soon.
I’m not a wine snob. I can’t tell you if a wine tastes like sugar-dusted figs (who’s eaten a sugar-dusted fig?) or if the bouquet is more like anise, black licorice, or concentrated essence of fennel. I just know some basics and I know what I like. I like fruit-forward but I don’t like jammy. I like a little tannic bite but I don’t like to make a horrible puckery face when I take my first sip. Don’t get me wrong: I love wine and I love learning about it, but I’ll never be a world-class oenophile.
So in short , the wines were good. No, wait, they were really good. Every single one was a wine that I want to have again. And then perhaps again. In all, we had five wines with the dinner (all from the Robert Craig Winery):
- Durell Vineyard Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley
- “Affinity” Cabernet blend (76% Cab, 13% Merlot, 6% Cab Franc, 5% Petit Verdot), Napa Valley
- Mt Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon (83% Cab, 17% Merlot), Napa Valley
- Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (84% Cab, 12% Merlot, 4% Cab Franc), Napa Valley
- Howell Mountain Zinfandel, Napa Valley
The chardonnay had balanced melon/citrus flavors with a little minerality. I usually prefer red wines, but this was a very enjoyable white. The zinfandel was full of berries and black pepper with a long finish. I was a little wary of the pairing of this wine with the dessert, but it sure worked.
The three cabernets were definitely the stars, though. All three were beautifully structured with fine (not puckery!) tannins. The Affinity makes up half of the winery’s total production, and was named a top 100 wine by the San Francisco Chronicle last year. My personal favorite was the Mt. Veeder, though. It had some chocolate notes along with the black fruits that I really enjoyed.
One of the highlights of the evening was that I sat at the table with Mr. & Mrs. Craig. They were two of the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet, and getting to hear them talk about their wines and winemaking in general was truly a treat. Originally hailing from Bisbee, the Craigs spend a good amount of time in Tucson. This means that they do more tastings and events here, so if you see a Robert Craig Winery event pop up, GO!
I knew the food was going to be great. I knew the wine was going to be great. What I didn’t expect was to be so blown away by the property and hospitality that I experienced at the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain.
It’s beautiful there. The setting in the Tortolitas is stunning – no other way to describe it. And the hotel/resort fits in to its surroundings wonderfully.
CORE has one of my favorite features in a restaurant: an exhibition kitchen. And not one of those exhibition kitchens where you see heads moving around and nothing else, but a full-on exhibition kitchen where you can watch the chefs work. Yeah. And there’s a bar that runs the length of the kitchen where Chef Joel told me that he’s been known to make little surprise dishes for folks sitting there…
Finally, the thing that surprised me most was how welcome I felt there. From the moment I arrived to the time I left, the entire staff was working to make sure that my visit was perfect. And not in some kind of forced way, it was a genuine desire to leave their guests with a warm feeling.
To wrap things up, I was wrong about the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain. I thought it was a place for affluent vacationers, but came to find that it’s also a place for locals to experience great food and amazing service in a beautiful natural setting. I’ll certainly be back – you can look for me at the bar by the kitchen…
*In the spirit of disclosure, I was invited as a guest of the hotel so my dinner was complimentary.