Saturday, August 2, 2008

Favorite Restaurants & Wineries

This is tough...too many to cover and new places coming up all the time. But I'll try to be helpful so here goes: Breakfasts- Merchants has the tourist atmosphere and it can be fine, but I admire the straight forward efficiency and darned good food from Clarette's. Clarette's is my favorite for a really dependable American coffee shop breakfast. Luscious By Nature, on Colville, is entirely hit or can be excellent...service can be deplorably chaotic.

Lunches- Yungapeti on 9th just south of Poplar serves great authentic Mexican food to locals. The Albanil Burrito is outstanding. The taco truck outside the Napa Auto on Isaac is superb. Just off 9th, The Ice Burg is the place to go for great drive up burgers and killer shakes. The Destination Grill at the Depot, on 2nd, is doing good sit down lunch fare.

Here is a great way to go: lots of the wineries have outdoor eating areas...another superb way to make a day of it is to buy box lunches at Salumiere Cesario on 2nd, go by Colville St Pastisserie for desserts, then get a bottle of wine at the winery & borrow some glasses for a lovely picnic. Another perfect spot for picnics is going out to Bennington'll see the signs off Mill Creek Road.

Dinners- You would be nuts to leave Grape Hill on a lovely evening...better to stay put and enjoy Big Table at Sunset. If you do go out, get reservations ahead whenever possible. Whitehouse-Crawford has great food and a wonderful setting. It's easy to run up a big bill here, but corkage isn't bad if you bring along your own wine. I like eating at the bar, where Avel is good company and conversations with strangers are more common than not. Chef Jamie Guerin is so experienced and so conscientious that he seldom disappoints.

Walla Walla has big time wine lovers who tend to congregate at 26 Brix and Whitehouse-Crawford. You'll hear them yammering about trips to Burgundy and who they know in Napa or about the special dinner that so and so made for them at Le Cirque. What these guys would not know is how Walla Walla has been quite a wealthy town for generations. Many of the locals know a ton about great wines and have trained in Bordeaux or other famous areas.

It's much better not to get caught up in all that bragging because the guys all around might just know a ton more than one might expect. Tell you what, you'll find farmers in overalls with Harvard MBAs and one fella down at the cement yard makes some of the finest beer you'll ever find anywhere. My electrician owns part of a winery and I would not want to compete with him in any blind tasting to identify what we're drinking.

Back to restaurants- Creektown seems always busy and service tends to be pleasant but slower than I like. When I can ratchet down to a really leisurely pacing, the food is really good and the terrace is perfect for summer dining. With a big group and planning ahead, the chef's table at The Marc can be great fun. We have had good meals at 26 Brix, too. I love the Whoopemup Cafe in Waitsburg and the jimgermanbar across the street. Saffron does delightful tapas-size dishes that are great. Don't go in hungry or plan to order lots of dishes and pay a big bill. T. Maccarone is quite popular. I found the food too bland for my taste on the two occasions when I ate there, but this may be a flawed sampling. The ingredients and the service were very good and I want to give this another try.
Backstage Bistro used to be a favorite, but prices went really high so I'd be more inclined to go there for a still-expensive lunch. Good food, but the ambiance doesn't support prices on line with the best restaurants in the area.

Places that are perhaps less memorable but easier on the wallet include El Sombrero on 2nd (American-style Mexican food...good fajitas & margaritas), PhoSho (Vietnamese noodle bar) next door to Saffron (same owners), Destination Grill at The Depot, & Sweet Basel Pizza on 1st across from Starbucks. Good sandwiches and other fare at The Blue Mountain Casino...with a very friendly game of Texas Hold'Em and some other gaming tables like Blackjack & 3-Car Poker. This is a fun local spot that seldom sees outsiders...not at all on the Wine Tourism Map. Another fun local spot, at a bit of a drive, is The Oasis on Stateline. Food, music, an eclectic crowd often ready with tall tales.

Wineries are basically located in five different areas (with a few very good ones peppered around at longer distances).

Coming in on Highway 12, the first wineries are in Lowden. L'Ecole 41 produces a broad array of good to very good wines. Woodward Canyon is one of the first wineries to open in the area and retains a solid reputation. The cabs, in particular, can be excellent. Getting a little closer toward town you come to Reininger and Cougar Crest (lots of estate bottlings...some really bright, delightful wines) and Three Rivers (I'm a big fan of their Boushey syrah). Longshadows is about a mile up the road behind Cougar Crest...some very fine wines, but not open for tastings.

In town, more and more tasting rooms are showing up. Seven Hills & Spring Valley produce great wines and you'll discover many more as you go around. Sleight of Hand is getting quite popular...the wines that I have tasted have been light and pleasant, not significant. Trey, the winemaker, is using quite a bit of sangiovese. More and more sangio is coming on in Walla Walla and, for me, this is still a disconnect. Some would well argue that Walla Walla sangiovese is distinct and different from chianti's grapes, while I tend to find it watery and best suited for lightweight summer quaffing, but that is why we all have our own tongues and tastes and I should probably keep my tongue to myself, but this is my blog so what the heck! I have had some good wines at Morrison Lane, too. Cayuse makes excellent wines, but you will never find the tasting room open except on a couple specific days each year.

The airport is a hotbed of wineries. Dunham Cellars produces very good and great wines, including exceptional reserve cab and syrah. The cabs have proven to be amongst the most age worthy wines in Washington. Buty makes very good wines, including some of the few worthwhile Washington chardonnays and superb cab/syrah blends. Tamarack is popular and makes some of the best table reds. Syzygy also does good wines. Russell Creek sometimes hits very high notes, too. College Cellars, just south from the airport, is both a viticulture training college and an active winery, with wines made by students and faculty. Interesting and very worthy institution. We owe great thanks to the college for help in getting our own vineyard up and running.

Out toward Mill Creek, K Vintners is always a memorable visit (great syrahs and more), Walla Walla Vintners does many great bottlings including lovely cab francs, Abeja is doing lovely cabs and several other very nice bottlings (reservations needed, I think). We are partial to Grape Hill, of course, but if Grape Hill were unavailable and you wanted a great breakfast that somebody else was cooking, the rooms at Abeja would a fine place to stay.

South of downtown are Rulo, Isenhower, Dusted Valley, and Chateau Rollat (this is a serious winery offering a wonderful semillon and two great Bordeaux blends...Eduoard is extraordinary). Pepper Bridge does very fine wines, Northstar makes some delicious wines, there is Tertulia, Waters, Beresan, A Maurice, Va Piano...too many to list. Mostly in the smaller facilities you may get the chance to meet the winemakers...spontaneous tours of the barrel rooms, wine thief in hand, are not uncommon!

Covering the Airport and Mill Creek is plenty for a whole afternoon. Seeing the wineries south of town is another whole afternoon. Feel free to spit out the tastes (the pros all do so). When you don't swallow, your palate will last much longer. I used to sometimes come home with wines that tasted so good at the winery and wonder "what was I thinking?" when we opened them at home later on. By driving absolutely sober y
ou'll be better prepared to avoid the bad driving or others who did not use the spitting jar. BTW-don't leave your wine in a hot car for very long!

Plan ahead...limousines are available that are the perfect choice when you want to really have a big blowout. With advance notice, the limo drivers may be able to arrange tastings in some of the wineries that are closed to the public, plus they will keep your wine cool, too!

On weekends, there are some more distant wineries open that will take you further afield (literally). Dumas Cellars produces exceptional wines. Couvaison Cellars is a lovely drive up Middle Waitsburg Road, not too far from Grape Hill.

Most of the restaurants close by 9 or 10. Bars and taverns are open later. Some favorite spots are the Mill Creek Brew Pub on Main St near the Whitman campus, the Vintage Bar inside Marcus Whitman Hotel on 2nd (choice seats by the fireplace), and Vintage Cellars on 2nd.

OK. That's a start. will offer lots more, plus maps and phone numbers.
With just a couple days touring around, most visitors tend to stick with the areas right off Main Street and 2nd Ave, but places like The Blue, The Oasis, jimgermanbar, and Yungapeti offer up local slices of life and may well be filled with Walla Walla natives who only go in to the Starbucks and places on Main St once or twice a year themselves. If you do drive home at night, take it slowly...there are no lights and lots of deer. Enjoy the stars and solitude.

When it comes to the wineries, with so many new releases, new styles, and whole new places opening up, the scene is always in motion and it is impossible for wine lovers to ever fall into a "been there, done that" attitude here. We could go out tasting for a whole weekend several times each year and still not keep up. Between bicycle weekends and rodeo weekends and ballon weekends and concerts and winemaker outings and harvest activities, there are not too many times to be bored in these parts. Humm...maybe early November is a bit dull? (I'll think about that in November and report back...)

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