We were recommended this place inside the stylish Cosmo Hotel by a few of our co-workers. This turned out to be a solid recommendation

A 3D cow sculpture standing on a podium, greeted all by the entrance, while setting the mood. The surprising part is that the cow was spotted in the wild combination of magenta and white colours. The bold, condensed and clean sans serif wordmark was stamped in the middle of the cow. Its' simplicity was letting the various fun colourfull elements speak for themselves while defining the brand's visual language. We did find it curious that the 3D sculpture was of a very realistic cow, unlike the bold cartoon illustrations all around - more teenage cows (teenage in cow years anyway) in bright colours. There was a full wall with portraits of cattle on little glass squares, creating a curios space separation between the lounge and main dining area.

The interior consisted of white tiled walls, warm yellow bulkheads, black banquettes, medium-dark wooden floors and chairs. The simple and bold palette was ideal to show off the friendly uplifting cattle illustrations all around. In the main dining room that included plenty of wide posters of various cow characters in different scenes - an overall urbanite tone, all painted in bright colours with a strong black line outline. We thought this is a great combination of theming and branding, creating a universe without overdoing it. Cheri did make a point on the fact that we are looking at cute cows, which we will soon consume - a slightly morbid way to see the concept.

We read through the hardcover leather-feel menu, and settled on one of their bamboozled shakes - a banana froster, to be exact. We also picked the Classic and Captain Hook burgers. As we ordered, our waitress asked us if we would like a few extras. We later on learned these were paid add-ons some what curtailing the standard negative option billing.
As we waited for our order, a little metal bucket of sweet paprika BBQ popcorn landed on our table. We are huge popcorn enthusiasts, so this gesture was heart-warming. After about five minutes, we had to get a refill, not sure how happy our waitress was about that. Either way, she acted very professional in her dressy white collar shirt and scarf worn like an ascot - a stylish uniform.

Our bamboozeled shake was indeed bamboozled as it had dark rum in it, in addition to sautéed banana, caramel sauce and hard caramel chunks. It came in a tall glass topped with whipped cream and that sautéed banana chunk. It came with a side of a tall metal glass - 1/3 filled. We liked the fact that the left-over content was not disposed of, but rather was left for us to finish. The glass also came in handy as we tried to remove the heap of whipped cream. Either way, we made quite a mess transferring between cups, but this might have been just our clumsiness.
Our burgers didn't take long to arrive. We had the classic which had a side of fries, while Captain Hook was accompanied by sweet-potato fries (there was an extra charge for that). The Classic burger included lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, ketchup, and pickles originally. We also added on avocado which made the burger very large and hard to bite. It was a Classic indeed - medium cooked, fresh meat patty, simple toppings - simple joy. The Captain Hook was a unique choice - seared salmon with remoulade sauce, smoked salmon, frisée and picked shallots. It was zesty and tender, while leaving us full at the end. The side of sweet potato fries was a worthwhile addition, adding yet another layer to the palate.

We really enjoyed the hip vibe here - a trendy burger joint with an entertaining brand. The bright colours and fun illustrations left us feeling joyous, the full bellies the also added to that mood. We overheard a nearby conversation - it was of workers at the Cosmo, all in suits of course. It's always reassuring to see locals in a place. They probably wouldn't be there if prices and quality was not right.


Monterey Coast Brewing


A sleepover in Salinas, California was not meant to be anything exciting. We were on our way to Death Valley National Park and simply wanted some quiet time. Turned out that Castroville nearby is the Artichoke Capital of the World, so we had to explore it in more detail later at night before moving on. Our search was for live music, but a local pub was more appealing than a hip-hop performance nearby or a DJ in another bar.

Monterey Coast Brewery had a very attractive front with vintage signage and large windows allowing us to check out the relatively busy brewpub's atmosphere. The interior elements followed traditional rules for making a hip restaurant - a brick wall, chalkboards, warm lighting, miss-matched objects and rough surfaces everywhere. The crowd was young too – all check marks here. We went for the Artichoke Pizza and a Nine Beer Sampler Row. Beer popped up on our table in just a few moments and we got right to it

While the First American Wheat and Pilsner where quite light and clean, we enjoyed the Hefeweizen with a wedge of squeezed lemon even more - a wheat beer with a fruity flavor. Another great specimen was the Scottish red - perfect for any meal - full bodied with a smooth feel and not overly opinionated. Even the medium bodied IPA variety was not over to top - toasted caramel at the nose and, just at the finishing line, some toffee flavors. Mon Cheri loved the Chocolate Porter. It was rich, black with a full head and light chocolate taste. We were not big fans of their Pale Ale. There was sweet caramel on the nose, we both thought it had a whiff of dirty kitchen towel on the palette. 

There were two visiting beers as well, both from California - Crispino Hard apple cider and Old Rasputin stout. We had a feeling these were added to the lineup for diversity more than anything else. Nothing overly special to either, in our opinion, but still above average as far as stouts and ciders go. Rasputin not too bitter and Crispino neither sharp nor sweet. To summarize, these two turned out to be polite and welcome guests.

Our meal to go along with the samplers was an Artichoke Hearts Pizza with sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese. It was juicy and matched quite a few of the full bodied beer samplers we had lined up for us. At the same time, the pizza crust could have been fluffier, it was somewhere in between a flat-bread pizza and regular. A few things we could tell for sure - the artichokes were very fresh, the tomatoes not over-dried (retaining some juiciness) and there was plenty of goat cheese topped it all off. We really enjoyed this dish.

Service a bit rushed, but friendly. It did not quite feel like our waitress (Lacy) wanted us to stick around. We did enjoy the environment though, the table with rough grain wood added to the rustic feel as well as the old brick walls with beer label murals painted over with the texture of the brick showing. To top it all off, Shine on Your Crazy Diamond faintly played on the background - a fun, unexpected evening after all.

Bergamot Alley


From the website that recommended Bergmot Alley, we were under the impression that this to be more of a wine place, but ended up enjoying great craft brews instead.

Bergamot Alley was located inside a narrow unit and we passed it without noticing it at first. The interior was quite dull during the day - tall windows at the front and a small skylight were the main light sources inside. The walls were decorated with old wines seemingly growing horizontally above close to the high ceiling. One of the walls was exposed brick with old metal beams and plenty of gaps which added a dose of rustic to the setting. The focal point of our attention very quickly became a guillotine-style old wooden door with ropes and wheels. That steampunkish device was used as a gateway for their tiny kitchen in the back. An odd baby photo was decorating the middle of the permanently raised door. We learned that the owner, apparently, found the whole mechanism at a farm nearby and just had to incorporate it into Bergamot’s interior.

Our waiter and bartender Scott was prompt with the menues and easy-going in general. We quickly found out that there are no Bergamot plants around the area but the owner had a fascination for them. Either way, we got to try a few beers prior to making up our mind on what to order - Scott was excited to help us figure that out. The taps were getting cleaned so we had to wait a bit, but Scott kept us entertained with an occasional sampler. The menus themselves were printed on dark paper with a middle circle cut through some of the pages - simple and funky, we thought. It was all held together by Chicago screws - suiting the mood of the environment.

We settled on a Dry Irish Stout Redwood Curtain which poured very dark, with a tinge of red. The aroma was refreshing and light, with notes of cocoa and light roasted malt. We also had their Float, as recommended by Scott. It was a scoop of vanilla ice-cream inside a Death & Taxes (Santa Rosa, Ca) black beer. We made a mistake of taking our sweet time with drinking the float. As the ice cream melted, it became a bit odd of a mix. A more immediate action taken with the drink would have probably be a better way to go there - getting a taste of the vanilla with the dark malt and mild chocolate notes of the brew. We enjoyed this unique drink, none-the-less, at least Ma Cherie did. Good quality dark beers are becoming a norm for craft brewers and we are very happy to see that – the more variety, the better.
The beer would have been only half the fun if we would not have gotten the Cheesy Soft Pretzel to go with it. There were also considering their Curry Popcorn or Kettle Chips - it came with your choice of Nutella topping or Kraut and Pickles. All this snack food goes excellently with beers. Lunatic Lager was another pint we asked for, its hoppy bitterness and citrus nose, made it very food friendly. It was a great match for our warm cheesy pretzel, served on arugula leaves with picketed peppers and grainy mustard on the side.

Bergamot Alley lured us in with their tagline: “Old World Wine Bar and Merchants”. In our opinion, what we saw was more of a hip pub which does not diminish at all the fact that we enjoyed our time there quite a lot. Surprisingly, we did not see any local wines on the offer either – only Old World wines. A cool thing Bergamot Alley does is a wine exploration series of sorts - a recent one was concentrated on Eastern Europe. Where else do you get a chance to try some Croatian or Slovenian wines?

PS: Our bill presented us with a random fact: “hippo sweat is red”. This could be a deep philosophical statement or a simple curiosity depending on how much you had to drink prior.


Sonoma Wine Country


After a disappointing (slightly ageist) experience at Beringer, we decided we need to take a different approach to our Napa and Sonoma Wine experience. Spending $35 USD on three sips of wine without a conversation or any enthusiasm is not what wine culture is about, in our opinion. With Burgundy, Bordeaux and Ontario wine countries under our belt, we refused to believe this should be part of any wine culture. Smelling the earth and talking to the farmers - personal, down-to-earth, passionate approach is what we expect and we were not going to give up on finding the right vineyards to bring back our love for wine.

From our research, Benzinger appeared to be a vineyard to be breaking away from standard winery's’ way of doing things around here. They seemed to centre around biodynamic farming and are situated in a secluded, scenic little valley. We parked and took their little bridge across the lush gardens to the ticket booth. Their 45 min tour was moderately priced a decent $25 - a price comparable to just a tasting in other places. Joining us was a group of six middle aged folks (about 60 years old), which we discovered, based on their questions, were only beginner wine enthusiasts, as well as two ladies with their toddlers.

We walked a bit uphill to our mode of transport - a tractor hitching an open-roofed trailer with seats. On the top of the first small hill, there was a neat intro about the vineyard and the history of its ownership. Once again, we heard about the pride of Sonomas’ diverse micro-climates, as once can go 50 miles away and have a completely new climate perfect for a different grape. They had plenty of grape varieties grown in the vicinity, as well as a few less popular ones (like Petit Verdot) used for blending their reds. Vine grafting was another topic briefly touched upon. We were given opportunities to ask questions, and our group had plenty, which were answered quickly and informatively. It tuns out that Mark Burningham has been with Benzinger for a very long time - a man truly committed to the craft and business. We really appreciate people who are first hand involved to talk and communicate the company’s mission and passion.

We drove down the hill to an area that looked like a garden. Mark talked about their biodynamic practices, which although sounding modern and hip, is an old farming technique, derived from crop rotation. Although none of the cute animals (sheep, goats) from the website were part of this tour, as they don’t normally visit the vineyard, their manure as well as various different plant’s compost is mixed with the land to ensure a natural fertilization of the land. In addition, we were introduced to another unique aspect of biodynamic farming - the idea of attracting good bugs (a special plant garden was utilized for that), to ensure they are around to pollinate the plant and eat bad bugs, creating a symbiotic environment. We talked about all this, while tasting their chardonnay - a clean, light wine which Mark mentioned portrayed Benzinger’s culture of letting the grape speak for itself rather than adding too much character from the wine making process. We were not overly impressed with the wine in particular as it was bright and un-interesting at the finish, but definitely appreciated the explanation. Our next stop was the outside processing facility. Mark took us through the process machinery of how the grapes are separated from the vine and pressed - the crush pad. All their stainless steel barrels were lined up here and sprayed with insulation, as they stay outside year-round. We also visited their oak barrel cellar nearby, which was dug out right under their hill, creating an organized cave. Of course, it is clean and well finished, nothing like wild French ones with moss and spider webs, we visited sometime ago. It is authentic in its own kind with no high-tech temperature regulation.

Lastly Mark drove us down and around to the building where we had our final wine tasting. The full trip was probably only a couple of miles and all within the same area and completely walkable, but the tractor-bus did leave a unique impression.
Our tasting experience was inside a long room with a chatty lady at the counter. We realized she was more interested to learn where people are from and befriend them, rather then focus on the experience of tasting these wines and get a conversation around them. It was more of a sales person’s job, but as most wineries, they seemed to make quite a lot of money signing people up for their club. In only makes sense, as Benzinger is able to sell only a certain, cheaper, more mass produced versions of their wines to big stores. The wines they are passionate about and want to share can only we bought onsite or delivered to you as part of their club.

We started off with their 2013 West Rows Chardonnay - notes of tangerine and sweet citrus to start, it was a smooth and buttery taste on the palate. A worthwhile one, we agreed.
Next came their 2013 Oonapis Sonoma Mountain Red - distinct and fragrant dark berry aroma with even a hint of chocolate on the nose, however it threw us off being so intense and tangy on the palate.
2012 Three Blocks was a complex and well structured one, with dark berry flavours, coffee, pepper and subtle, soft tannins on the palate.
Lastly, we had their 2012 Stone Dragon Syrah - quite acidic with a unique spicy hint.

They had a note by each one, categorizing it into sustainable to biodynamic. Sustainable meant that it adhered to certain rules, but not all. Biodynamic, on the other hand, was produced with all the bells and whistles explained by Mark earlier.

Do pay attention to the card they hand at the beginning when you buy your ticket - gets you a free tasting at the Imagery Estate Winery nearby (owned by the brother of the Benzinger’s founder). We went over there next for a truly welcoming experience of the region. Right off the main road, it was sharing a sign with Arrowood winery. We were welcomed by a younger guy who answered all our questions and let us taste five of their wines. Very down-to-earth and knowledgeable, we enjoyed chatting with him. For lunch, we took a bottle of their Dragonsleaf Red blend and enjoyed it on their picnic lawn - with barbecue tables and lawn chairs where we soaked up some sun. A combination of Benziner and Imagery wineries was a lovely experience which warmed us to the valley. Furthermore, our knowledgeable sommelier recommended we visit Loxton winery for a truly small winery experience, started by an Australian who still works at his vines. It was yet another gem - we were on the right trail finding path less traveled and more interesting for us around Napa and Sonoma.