Cafe Fiore’s first
Tree House Taste

66 S. California St.

Usually when I think of Cafe Fiore, what comes to mind is an evening spent cozying up with a cocktail and a decadent dish of pasta in a corner booth. Yet recently, when I attended the first Tree House Taste event, I met a new side of Cafe Fiore.

In the middle of the afternoon, a festive group of both regulars and newcomers gathered in the Tree House Lounge and adjacent patio area for a tasting extravaganza. The sunlight was streaming, a crisp fall breeze blowing, and live music from local band A.D.D. was in the air as we enjoyed bottomless pours of beer and wine from Ventura Wine Company, and six tasting stations overflowing with well-thought-out food pairings to go with them.

Upon our arrival, we grabbed a plate and wine glass and stopped at the first tasting station, this one all about beer and a selection of sausages, veggie skewers and seafood sizzling away on the grill. Though we came and went over the course of the afternoon, some of the standouts we tasted were a vibrant Oro di Milano brown ale from Italy, a puckery Samuel Smith cider and a sweet Lindemans raspberry lambic from Belgium. Though we loved all of them, some of the beers were better suited for the grilled meats than others — I couldn’t help but think the Samuel Smith chocolate stout might have been better paired with dessert.

Of the grilled items, the juicy and flavorful Italian sausage and the smoked scamorza, a mild white Italian cheese similar to mozzarella, were the favorites — with the cheese being an especially playful item to skewer and throw on the grill, leaving it soft, oozy and decadent. Unfortunately, the octopus and beef skewers were a bit overcooked.

Once we went inside the Tree House Lounge, we roamed from station to station, sipping and tasting until we couldn’t take any more. Of the items paired with the full-bodied red wines, the most memorable were a spicy duck sausage wrapped in puff pastry — a nice riff on pigs in a blanket — and pulled porchetta sliders with a crisp apple slaw on brioche buns. Alongside these, we tasted a Zaca Mesa syrah — a good match for the spice of the sausage and the fattiness of the pork.

The sparkling wines and champagnes were paired with a selection of seafood dishes, the stars being the herb-encrusted mussels, with a bit of crunch and a pop of salt, and an Italian seafood salad. With these, I sipped the Mionetto prosecco, a crisp bubbly and an especially fine counterpart to the hints of citrus in the refreshing salad full of scallops, mussels, clams, shrimp and fish tossed with mixed baby greens.

From the white wine station, I sampled my first falanghina, an Italian white wine with hints of apple and pear. Alongside it I enjoyed a tiny bite-sized crab cake topped with aioli, remarkable because it held together well thanks to the addition of spaghettini. We also sampled a lovely little arancini, or rice ball, with the unusual addition of prosciutto and peas.

With the light-bodied reds, we tasted a prosciutto and fontina panini and a chicken meatball served with polenta and caramelized onions. Though I appreciated the panini for its well executed foccacia and salty prosciuitto, the flavors of the meatball were muted. With these, we enjoyed an Orogeny pinot noir out of the Russian River Valley.

And finally, when we almost couldn’t take any more, we stopped at the dessert station, only to find our absolute favorite taste of the evening: a layered pudding with espresso cream, butterscotch pudding, a layer of salted caramel and a splash of whipped cream. This was by far one of the best desserts I’ve had in a long time. With the flavors of the espresso intermingling with buttery pudding and the salt of the caramel, I had to stop myself from going back for seconds. I was so smitten that it’s not surprising that the sweet Désirée chocolate port I tasted paled in comparison.

As we headed out into the autumn afternoon to wander downtown and burn off a few calories before heading home, we talked about how great the service was throughout the afternoon, with all the servers happily serving and well-versed in each of the wines they were pouring.

The only downside was that with many of the tables in the lounge allocated to serving food, there weren’t many seats remaining, leaving us standing for much of the time. It was more cocktail party than leisurely lunch out, but for $40 a person it was a good value. And it helped me see a new side to Cafe Fiore.

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