BY RICK RIOZZA

Acqua California Bistro seems to be enjoying the limelight this summer season.  Not only did this column recently write on the fun and delight of Acqua’s Happy Hour wine bar, pretty much every publication in town—including our own CV Weekly, The Desert Sun, and Palm Springs Life has voted or named this popular Rancho Mirage restaurant as having the “Best”. . . Happy Hour, American & California Cuisine, Martini & Craft Cocktails, Burger, Pizza, Breakfast, Brunch & Romantic Dining, or Vegan/Vegetarian menu—in other words, pick a category; Acqua made the list!

(And by the way—the great art for sale on many of the walls is by Marvin Cohn—Barbara Keller’s father, proceeds of which go to charity.)

Enter now—the wine lovers and enthusiasts in this valley who are hearing the good news: Acqua is now focusing on particular wine and dish pairings.  As mentioned in my previous article, most foodies in town already know the restaurateur family, Jerry and Barbara Keller are the owners of LULU California Bistro as well as Acqua.  LULU is as popular as it comes in Palm Springs where we’ve enjoyed some excellent meals at great prices there and have absolutely enjoyed their stellar winemaker dinners.

When we heard that Acqua’s Executive Chef, Arturo Casillas, and Wine & Beverage Director, Chris Bluhm had put their heads together to fashion some of their popular dishes to match and pair along with particular popular wines on their list—well, that pricked our interest!

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Chef Arturo has had a wonderful run of experience these past couple of decades, working at Cuistot and at St. Germain; Executive Chef at La Quinta Grill and for the last ten years at LULU and Acqua.  It was great to meet wine director Chris for the first time; a gracious young man who’s accumulated a lot of wine knowledge; his vino pairings, as you’ll see below, were both impressive and inventive.

So, come along with us as we describe for you our recent dining experience—an excellent cuisine and vino adventure enjoyed on a hot August night:

All of the dishes, platters, and plates along with the wines mentioned below are on the varied menu.  Further, there are three and four-course prix fix menus available at astonishing low pricing.  I recommend going online at: www.acquaranchomirage.com.

Once inside the cool and inviting dining room, we began with a refreshing quaff carrying a most welcoming name: Lulu.  That’s right—no association to the restaurant with its coincidental name, but Chris was having fun with us as he poured the delicious 2016 Hewitson Sauvignon Blanc from the Adelaide Hills in Australia’s premier Sauv blanc region.  I was impressed to see this bottle on their wine list; nothing like alerting us wine fans to new stuff.

The beautifully bright green with pale straw nuanced Australian wine has crisp aromatic herbaceous and citrus notes that round out on the palate; a down-under Sauv blanc in a California style: The perfect appetizer wine, with or without food.

When our waiter, Jacob, presented our table with the Petite Lobster Salad, I assumed it was to pair with the already served Lulu; which is a perfect pairing for fresh lobster and shrimp atop mixed field greens with tropical and passion fruit vinaigrette.  But the paring continued to improve with Chris’ next selection: 2016 Kim Crawford, Unoaked, New Zealand Chardonnay.

Chris has the pulse of our wine community and is not shy to showcase the most popular wines in our valley.  Kim Crawford is famous for its Sauv blanc; its Chardonnay, not so much.  But this is bright and crisp wine with light tropical, pineapple, and pear notes with no oak at all, which challenges those who complain about too much wood in their wine.  Both the Lulu and the Kim Crawford Unoaked were perfect foil for the shellfish salad.

With impressive style, we enjoyed a “sorbet-like” palate-cleanser in a glass of 2016 Bee’s Box California Pinot Noir.  Aside from the fact that 10% of the profits go to bee protecting organizations, this wine was the perfect intermediary with its vibrant fragrance of cranberries and black cherries, and, a palate of red raspberries and plums; a very tasty pinot from the Coppola Family wine stable.

Our next course paired the Petite Filet Mignon dish, served with a light roasted garlic topping, red wine reduction sauce, sautéed mushrooms, and mashed red skin potatoes, with a Cab that I hadn’t tasted before.  Now I’m a New York Steak fan; I hadn’t had a filet mignon in over 30 years! But it was classically tender, juicy & steakalicious! —there you go, quote me.  I would look forward to this steak again on my next visit.

And the vino I’d yet to try was the 2016 Imagery Cabernet Sauvignon. By this time at the meal, I was happily convinced that Chris was one of the new Wine Wise Guys in the valley.  I write often of the “synergy” between the meal and the wine served.  Here was a great example where the wine’s ripe red berries and blackberries flavors—mixed along with a touch of spice, brought the quality and appreciation of the filet mignon to new heights!

The New Zealand Rack of Lamb was next served with a Zinfandel. I know—generally we serve that up with the classic Bordeaux.  Chris knew that but wished to think outside the rack! The cherry and plum notes along with the cinnamon spice and firm tannins of the 2016 Federalist Lodi Zinfandel matched wonderfully with the most delicious rack of lamb I’ve ever had!  And here’s to you Chef Arturo!

If you can believe it, a bread & herb crusted Chilean Sea Bass, with sun-dried tomato beurre blanc on a bed of sautéed spinach was served along everyone’s favorite Ferrari-Carano, Sonoma Chardonnay.  Voluptuously lush with moderate acidity, it’s always the bomb sea bass combo!

And for dessert, the fancy Triple Chocolate Cake wrapped with Cotton Candy in a Martini glass, shimmered about with Candy California Rosé.  By the winemakers of Butter Chardonnay, this dry but fruity Rosé provided a festive finale for sweet dreams—Bon Appétit & Cheers!

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