Wine+Food Review: Thistle Restaurant in McMinnville, OR

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Ever walk into a trendy restaurant where all the furniture looks futuristic and the decor is hipster, and notice how beautiful everyone is? You just feel like you're hanging with the "it" crowd and that's the place to be. Maybe it's on the 26th floor of a new skyscraper in Manhattan or in downtown San Francisco where the founder of Twitter like to been seen.

Thistle is the complete opposite of that. The glassware and silverware look like they were purchased from a garage sale and the weathered wood floor creaks. Located in the heart of Oregon wine country, Thistle is the perfect anti-trendy place to eat. When James Beard award-winning chef Eric Bechard and his equally qualified front-of-the-house wife/wine buyer Emily Howard opened Thistle, it was all about the good stuff.

I sat at the counter, which felt like sitting in my Grandma's pantry. There were jars lining the wall and a tiny kitchen tucked in the corner.  There were all the things I remember about my Grandma's kitchen, except my Grandma didn't have a stellar wine list.

I loved Thistle.  Sitting at the bar was cool because I was able to chat with Chef Eric throughout the entire meal.  It was also cool because it was located in the heart of downtown McMinville, OR.  So many cool places are just steps away, including McMenamins Hotel Oregon.  Thistle was unpretentious and all about relaxing with a good meal.  How often do you get to chat with the chef during and after dinner?

If the food wasn't impressive enough, the wine list was equally as impressive.  I liked that Thistle didn't have Oregon wines only on the list.  Emily put together one of the most impressive wine lists I've seen in a long time.  There were esoteric wines from all over the world, and they were all high quality as well as well priced.  I took her suggestion and did a glass of wine with each course.  Here's what I had:

First pairing: 2008 Auxerrois from Adelsheim, Ribbon Ridge with Chioggia Beets, Arugula, Chevre & orange

Second pairing: 2003 Alicante Bouschet from Esporao, Portugal with Flat Iron Steak w/ spicy Chimichurri, Potato and Brocoli

It was hard to pick from the menu because everything looked SO good.  Even the bread was good—fresh baked down the street.  You gotta love a restaurant that has the menu up on a blackboard that changes every day.  Each time you go into Thistle, you can expect a unique experience.

The whole time as I'm licking my chops, Chef Eric kept coming over and chatting with me about this, that or the other thing.  He talked about working in Seattle and how it is working with his wife in a new business.  Chef was rocking a faux hawk that day.  You kinda get the sense there's no rules for employees at Thistle, other than good authentic food.

The beet salad stood up well to the Auxerrois without overpowering it.  Auxerrois is not much unlike Pinot Gris, so it has some similar notes, especially (in this case) wet rocks, mineral notes and asian pear.  I thought the acidity or tartness might be too much for the salad, but the beets and orange danced together nicely.

But what really blew my hair back was the beef with Chimichurri sauce.  I've made flank steak with Chimichurri a few times, and it was good.  But this one was completely different.  There was a tangy spiciness that lit up my taste buds like a pinball machine.  The steak was cooked perfectly, only to be perfected even more with the Portuguese red.  Seven years of age was perfect for the Alicante Bouschet grape. There was enough sweetness to offset the spicy flavors on the beef.

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Pork Tenderloin w/ Carmelized Pears & Pear Cream Sauce

Pork, Pork, Pork and more PORK!

Gotta love how flexible pork is to cook with.  I love pork tenderloin because the recipe usually goes well with some of my favorite wines.  After living in Oregon for 17 years, I fell madly and deeply in love with the Pinot Noir grape, especially from Oregon.  So when dinner involves pork paired with Pinot, I'm a super happy camper.  This recipe is one of the top three best pork recipes I've had in the past year.  If you make this, I'd love to hear what wine you'd pair with it.

INGREDIENTS 1 pork tenderloin, around 1 lb. 2 TBSP olive oil 4 TBSP butter 1 TSP sugar 3 ripe pears, peeled and cut into slices 1/2 cup shallots, minced 1/2 TSP cayenne 1 TBSP fresh thyme, chopped 1/3 cup pear jelly 1 TBSP ginger, minced 1 cup whipping cream 1/4 cup sweet dessert wine like late harvest Gewurtz or Riesling (pear brandy can be sub.) 1/2 cup chicken stock Salt and Pepper to taste

Season pork tenderloin with salt, pepper and cayenne. A few hours in advance is even better.

Melt 2 TBSP of butter in a medium skillet, Add sliced pears and sugar, sauté over high heat until pears are golden and tender. Usually 5-10 minutes.

Heat grill to high heat. Grill pork tenderloin over high heat about 12 minutes total making sure to get outside of pork nice and grilled with a crisp exterior. Cooking a shorter time on high heat keeps the center moist, and making the outside crisp. The olive oil will drip off causing the fire in the grill to intensify, making the outside of the pork well grilled (just short of blackening). Pork can also be sautéd in a large skillet instead of grilling.

In a separate large skillet, melt 1 TBSP of butter. Sauté shallots, ginger and thyme for about 3 minutes over medium heat. Add chicken stock and dessert wine, reduce until sauce is thick and almost a glaze. Add in pear jelly and cream and boil until sauce thickens.

Slice pork into medallions and serve with sauce spooned over top. Then light a cigarette.

WINE PAIRING There's a number of different ways you can go with the wine pairing. I'd love to hear suggestions in the comments below.  I tried pairing two wines with this recipe.  The 2007 Cristom Mt. Jefferson Pinot Noir from Oregon and the 2007 Hahn SLH Pinot Gris.  I was curious how the pear/cream sauce would go with the raspberry/strawberry/cranberry notes of the Pinot versus the Granny Smith apple and pear notes of the Pinot Gris from Hahn.

Part of wine+food pairing is trial and error—This was one of those times.  Ultimately, the Pinot Noir was good with pork as it usually is because the two go together like peas and carrots.  But the subtle pear and tree fruit notes didn't compliment the red fruits in the Pinot Noir.  The Hahn SLH Pinot Gris on the other hand DID pair well because Pinot Gris has flavors that match up with the pear and cream sauce.  In this case, the Pinot Gris had enough alcohol and acidity to stand up to the pear cream sauce.

Please let me know what you think would be ideal with this pairing.  Cheers!

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Dungeness Crab Cake Salad with Watercress, Fennel and Orange

watercress INGREDIENTS for CRAB CAKES 1 egg, beaten 1 LB fresh Dungeness crab 3/4 cup bread crumbs 1/3 cup grated pecorino cheese 1/4 cup mayonaisse 3 shallots, finely chopped 2 TBSP dijon mustard juice from one lemon 1/4 cup green bell peppers, minced 1/4 cup red bell peppers, minced 1 TBSP green onions 2 TBSP parsley, finely chopped 1 TBSP butter 1/4 TSP cayenne pepper

INGREDIENTS for SALAD 4 cups watercress, rinsed 4 oranges, peeled and separated juice from one lemon 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced 3 TBSP extra virgin olive oil 1 fennel bulb, cleaned and sliced thinly Salt and Pepper to taste . . To prepare the crab cakes, heat butter in a sauté pan over medium low heat. Add shallots and sauté until soft, about 3 minutes.

In a large bowl, mix together shallots, grated cheese, lemon juice, mayo, egg, mustard, bread crumbs, bell pepper, salt and cayenne.  After mixing, add in crab meat, then divide into 8-10 balls.  Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

To prepare salad, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.  In a separate bowl, toss watercress, orange segments, fennel and onion together.

Remove crab balls from refrigerator and flatten into one inch thick cakes.  Heat 2-3 TBSP oil or butter in a skillet and cook for 4 minutes on each side over medium heat.  Distribute salad mix on chilled plates, top with dressing and crab cakes then serve.

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Wine pairings for this dish are pretty easy.  It's a flexible dish suitable for many Chardonnay's or rich whites.  The crab cakes are pretty hearty, so make sure to serve with a white wine that can hang.  I've tried oaked Chardonnay's and unoaked Chardonnays.  The both worked.  Pinot Grigio, Semillion, Viognier and other whites also work.  If I had to pick one wine as the most ideal pairing, it would be the Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay from Livermore.

I'm more of an unoaked Chardonnay kinda guy, but once in a while, you just want that buttery butter ball that even Mrs. Butterworth thinks is buttery.  The Riva Ranch Chardonnay isn't obnoxious — still refined and a great expression of the vineyard.  Many people don't realize the Wente's were one of the first wine family's in California going back to the 1850's.  They've quietly gone about producing consistent well-priced estate wines.

The Riva Ranch has a creamy "dusty" texture with mineral highlights that can best be described as a combination of wet rocks and smoke.

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Spaghetti alla Carbonara w/ Hahn SLH Pinot Gris

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This was based off of Mario Batali's recipe on FoodandWine.com but modified to pair with the wine(s).  It's such a simple recipe, but the final dish benefits from the texture from the eggs on top.  We roasted broccoli with a little olive oil and a pinch of sugar to enhance the browning of the vegetables.

Carbonara

INGREDIENTS

1/4 LB pancetta 1/4 LB thick cut bacon 1 LB dry spaghetti 1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated 4 egg yolk, separated Black pepper, freshly ground Salt

cooking pork

In a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan, render and cook the pork products together until it is crispy and golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Do not drain the fat from pan and set aside.

Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons salt. Cook the spaghetti (we use wheat or whole grain), until tender yet al dente. Drain the spaghetti, reserving the pasta cooking water.

Reheat the bacon & pancetta in the pan with the fat and add approximately 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water. Toss in the cooked spaghetti and heat, shaking the pan, until warmed through, about 1 minute. Add the grated cheese, egg whites and black pepper and toss until fully incorporated. Divide the pasta among 4 warmed serving bowls. Make a nest in the center for the egg yolk. Gently drop an egg yolk into each serving, season with more freshly ground black pepper and grate additional cheese over the top. Serve immediately.

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Hahn Estate winery makes some exciting wines, and at Chéz Bakas we love the SLH series of wines which stands for Santa Lucia Highlands.  The Pinot Gris and Chardonnay are exceptional wines.  For this recipe, the Pinot Gris makes an ideal pairing because the wine compliments the flavors in the main dish without overpowering it.

I like pairing local foods with local wines, and because this is a dish rooted in Italian cuisine, an Italian style wine is my first choice.  We didn't have a Pinot Grigio readily available, so I went with the next closest thing—Pinot Gris.  The wine and food stimulate the senses in a menagerie of wonderful smells, taste and texture.  This is a fairly simple dish, but chock full of flavor.  And hey, it's got bacon in it!  Cheers

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7 Wines That Go With Thanksgiving

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When picking wines for Thanksgiving, there are different choices for different times throughout the day.  This year I'll be considering some of these wines for Thanksgiving at Chéz Bakas:

Find these wines at a store near where you live on grappos.com

Broadbent Vinho Verde - aperitif When Uncle Earl shows up to Thanksgiving he's ready to watch football and start grazing.  Sure, you could put a beer in his hand and he'd be happy as a clam.  OR, you could give Uncle Earl some sophistication and introduce him to a new wine.  Vinho Verde is a great pre-dinner wine because it's lower in alcohol (much to Earl's shagrin) and also has a light effervescence to it. You want to keep your edge. Thanksgiving is a marathon, not a sprint. Ease your liver into the evening with a lighter white wine that's easy to sip. Broadbent Vinho Verde is one of the only Vinho Verde's shipped to the U.S. in refrigerated containers which is important because freshness is what this wine is all about.

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Sokol Blosser Evolution - aperitif, dinner The Sokol Blosser Evolution white blend is a fun wine for many occasions. It's hard to describe exactly what it is or what's in it, but all I know is it works—by itself or with food.   Evolution is a blend of 9 different white grapes that all hold hands and play Red Rover with your palate. You can sip on Evolution before dinner or with it. The most recent edition of Evolution reminds me of the older editions with a touch more sweetness aka residual sugar....but just a touch.

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St. Supery Virtu - dinner I'm not just picking this wine because I work for the winery (disclosure) but also because the Virtu combines the best of two worlds. Sauvignon Blanc is more of an aromatic wine than a "rich mouth feel" wine. Semillion is the opposite. It's got more of a creamy texture that you'd associate with a buttery Chardonnay, but it's not as aromatic. Virtu joins them together like Voltron to form a rich, creamy textured wine with the floral components that do the tango with Thanksgiving turkey on your taste buds. In my other Thanksgiving post I mention Pinot Gris or a drier Riesling as a wine to compliment the turkey with acidity to cut through gravy. The Virtu accomplishes many of the same things as those two wines for the same reasons.

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Chateau Musar Cuvee Rosé - dinner I've tried many rosés recently from so many different grapes around the world. One of my favorites is the Musar Cuvee from Lebanon. Made from 100% Cinsault, the Musar rosé is like a 50/50 blend of cherry cider and cranberry cider. It's dry, but not too dry. There's just enough residual sweetness so your cheeks don't pucker. The balance between alcohol, fruit and acidity is ideal.  Because of it's resemblance to cranberry, it compliments the main course.

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Hahn SLH Pinot Gris - dinner There's something about the Hahn SLH Pinot Gris that almost evokes an emotional response. It's such a pretty wine with elegance and refinement, yet pure quality fruit and acidity that is great to sip by itself. Since Thanksgiving is a special occasion, why not share with others. I really like about a dozen Alsatian Pinot Gris, but most recently this one has been near and dear to my heart.  It features a silky honey texture with floral notes of a Hawaiian garden.  Hahn does it again! A3586 PGRIS SLH F cmn foil.eps

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St. Supéry Moscato - after dinner aperitif With age, comes wisdom. And the wisdom I've gained over the years is by the time Thanksgiving dinner is over, I'm usually stuffed and not able to bend at the waist in any sort of sitting position. I'm usually laying on my back counting how many calories I just ingested. You'd think the wisdom would be don't eat so much. Either way, I'm learning to skip dessert and not eat any more. The problem is I still have a hankering for something sweet. The Moscato has filled that slot nicely. It scratches that itch for something sweet after dinner without being too high in alcohol or being food. The only way pumpkin pie is going to be eaten is if I store it in my esophagus while I'm waiting for my stomach to empty.  This wine features aromatic fireworks of peaches and cream without being too syrupy.  It's got some finesse, which is nice after a big meal. The Moscato is the so popular at St. Supéry that it has its own wine club.

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Broadbent Malmsey Madeira - dessert If you do find room for dessert, I admire you. Did you know a good Madeira like Broadbent's will go with virtually any dessert? It's not cooking Madeira, it's the stuff that's made to enjoy in a glass. I've tried Madeira with ice cream, cheesecake, chocolate cake, bananas foster, créme brulée and various other desserts. The Madeira went with all of them. In fact, you could dip a piece of bread in balsamic vinegar then eat and still have Madeira "cut through" the balsamic taste. Good Madeira might possible be the most perfect dessert wine.

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So there you have it.  Another Thanksgiving has come and gone.  Some poor sucker is doing the dishes while everyone else is trying to alter their bodily chemistry with coffee to offset the effects of Tryptophan.  I hope this guide helps give an idea of what wine to serve at what time throughout the day in order to get the most satisfaction and bang for your buck.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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HOW TO: Pair Wine with Thanksgiving Dinner

As you sit down to stuff your pie hole this Thanksgiving, you might not know which wine to wash it down with.  364 days I year I love geeking out on wine and food pairings.  Usually around late morning each day I'm thinking about what the main course will be for dinner, and which wine will compliment it.  It's pretty straightforward most of the time, but when Thanksgiving comes around, it's that one day out of the year where I feel like I'm playing Rugby with my taste buds. All the flavors together resemble a demolition derby of delectables that are all having a scrum on your dinner plate.  You have turkey, which is kind of dry until you gravy on it.  You have cranberry sauce, which is tart and sweet and gelatinous.  And you have mashed potatoes which are a starch (hopefully with butter) and of course all the other trimmings.  Where the hell is the bacon in all this?

There's no single wine that will compliment all of that.  My Mom usually just says, "screw it, I'm serving a buttery Chardonnay."  That's one approach.  Not really one that'll compliment the flavors, but it's one approach.  Keep in mind, the five taste regions on your palate are probably sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami aka savory.  I say probably because every time I do a presentation about your taste buds, someone always comes up afterwards and reminds me the taste region theory is outdated and has been disproven.  It works for me.

If you really want to bring out the nuances of flavor through complimentary tastes, you might want to consider serving a couple of wines with dinner.  In recent years the Bakas family has been going with a 2-wine solution to Thanksgiving Dinner—A dry Rosé and a Riesling both for the main course.

The right Rosé will be dry with cranberry cider notes while hiding residual sugar.  That's ideal if your turkey wasn't brined for a month, then mummified in bacon.  It serves the same purpose as cranberry sauce to compliment the meal.  Pinot Noir can also be a good option if you want to have a red wine with dinner.  Pinot is light enough that it won't overpower the turkey while providing a warm cozy feeling for your taste buds.  Pinot Noir is also good if your table looks funny with just a rosé and riesling on it.  You might want to have a member of the red wine contingent in attendance and that's when you bring out the Pinot Noir.

The Riesling should usually be on the dry side too and could even be a Pinot Gris.  Alsatian wines are great with Thanksgiving due to their acidity and restraint of sweetness.  You want acidity in wine to "cut through" things like gravy or mashed potatoes.  A dry turkey will also benefit from a little residual sweetness.  Not that your turkey will be dry, it's just the nature of the bird. So there you have it.  When pairing wines with Thanksgiving dinner, reach for a nice pink wine not called White Zin and a drier style white wine like Riesling or Pinot Gris.  Depending on what you cram into your mouth will determine which wine glass to sip out of to compliment the flavors.  Of course, if you're my Uncle Earl you'll just have a beer.

Cheers!