A couple of weeks back, I accepted an invitation to attend a dinner held at John Gorham’s PLAZA DEL TORO on SE Taylor in Portland. The focus of the dinner was to transport the essence of spring cuisine in Sonoma to Portland, while we re-acquainted ourselves with the fine wines of Hanna winery from Sonoma County.
Our host was none other than Christine Hanna one of Sonoma’s best emissaries. Christine entertained our group effortlessly as she weaved anecdotes of mystical Moon Mountain and the treacherous Oakville Grade while seamlessly conveying recreations of idyllic and inspirational surroundings experienced in her childhood. The ease of her fluent appreciation of seasonal Sonoma gastronomy is apparent, and rightly so, because she authored the cookbook, “The Winemaker Cooks,” a wonderful collection of recipes that showcases the endless selection of fruits, vegetables and proteins grown in the area and how to pair them with her wines.
The spring in Sonoma theme made me a little nostalgic recalling summers I’ve spent on the on the Russian River. Back then I was cooking as a camp Captain at the infamous Bohemian Grove, and Sonoma County farmers proudly presented their pristine produce for the camp chefs to create culinary masterpieces for the privileged who attended. I was enthralled with the bounty of spring I had available to work with. I can see the same conviction of inspiration in the dishes Chef Kessler created for this event.
Greeting us as we entered PLAZA DEL TORO was Will Rogers of Donna White PR, one of the hardest working guys in Public Relations. It was a pleasure to finally meet him after so many years of industry interaction.
We started the evening with a glass of Hanna Rose of Malbec and Pinot noir from the 2016 vintage. It was a perfect choice for the crostini and charcuterie. This wine was a first for me and I actually do not think there are too many of those left for me to experience. Despite the unusual blend of 87% Malbec and 13% Pinot noir, it was quite refreshing, a genuine party starter of a wine! I highly recommend this libation as it was such a joy to drink, and it set the mood for the rest of the evenings frolicking fun.
Watching the crew at PLAZA DEL TORO as they created the evening’s sustenance with confidence reminded me of just how serious Portland’s culinarians can be. Chef Michael Kessler and his team of culinary artists delivered some of the best Sonoma inspired dishes I have ever been served.
Our spring in Sonoma themed gastronomic experience continued after all guests were seated; beginning with a glass of Hanna Sauvignon Blanc this would be the second wine served from the 2016 vintage and by all indications, the release of the reds from this vintage will be high on my list of anticipated wines. The citrus flavors and stone fruit aromas bring some sassy notes to this bright, brash and zingy elixir, making it the perfect, palate pleasing pairing with the Dungeness crab and Fennel Salad.
The sweet crab meat juxtaposed against bitter greens, red onion and shaved fennel combined with the Meyer Lemon vinaigrette. It was a phenomenal explosion making the dish greater than the sum of its parts. Luxuriating over every morsel of crab and sip of Sauvignon Blanc, I thought if this gets much better, my head my might just explode from too much sensory joy; and then they opened the Chardonnay. Christine Hanna related to us the tale of traversing trending styles of this varietal over the years and how they finally nailed the style that utilizes oak aging without oak overload. It was wonderful, and I’m probably the hardest critic of Chardonnay on the planet. It’s not like I do not enjoy the grape, I just find very few renditions that impress my palate.
Hanna Russian River Chardonnay makes the list of the few that will always be welcome on my dinner table. Chef Kessler paired a pasta dish with the essence of spring flavors to complement the Chardonnay. A combination of fresh English peas, pea tendrils and Fava beans over fresh hand cut pasta in a light cream sauce with pepper and grana Padano cheese warmed my soul like a campfire on a cool spring night.
Moving to our main course was like the finale of a huge fireworks show, an open fire grilled Tomahawk Ribeye with gremolata and crispy capers arrived accompanied by grilled asparagus, marble potatoes and a soft boiled egg, bottarga. As if that was not decadent enough, a wonderfully charred Artichoke with Calabrian chili and brown butter was also served to finally lay to rest the myth that artichokes and asparagus do not pair well with wine. Christine chose two Hanna Cabernet Sauvignon from two different vintages and two different Sonoma regions to imbibe upon. The tenderness of the steak was a burst of sensually tactile flavor and the charred artichoke and grilled asparagus provided a contrast so pleasurable, I will be adding the combination to my culinary repertoire.
The 2013 Hanna Bismark Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma Valley was subtle, generous and sophisticated. The 2014 Hanna Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley was sassy and bold; a big back-talking wine that might make you want to slap your momma it was so good. They both worked well and handled the palate cleansing chores set forth in handy fashion. When dessert arrived it was like the fireworks show found an entire arsenal they forgot to light after the finale and it just kept going, boom!
Pastry Chef Ashley Claybaugh presented her take on Black Forest Cake it was an absolute show stopper of a presentation. All of the Hanna wines were a treat. I recommend you give them a try often, you will be glad you did.
This dinner was a testament to how well talented chefs can adapt seasonal cuisine when pairing with regional wines. PLAZA DEL TORO is not a restaurant per say but an event space. After attending several events at this venue, I can attest they reflect the same quality and hospitality experience all of John Gorham restaurants are known for. If you are planning an event this could be the perfect venue for you.