Match Makers: Las Vegas culinary talents add panache to Little Creek

September 2, 2015 

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    Little Creek Resort Casino, 91 West State Route 108, Shelton, WA 98584, 800-667-7711, little-creek.com.

Three years ago, Little Creek Casino Resort in Shelton, Wash. began to lure Las Vegas culinary talent to the South Puget Sound.

The Squaxin Island Tribe’s recruitment of sommelier Victor Mortazavi and executive chef Troy Sandoval has combined to create a world-class culinary experience using ingredients from the Salish Sea and wines from Washington. This month marks the 20th anniversary of the resort, a 20-minute drive from Olympia along Highway 101 and near Little Skookum Inlet.

“I figured I was going to be here for six weeks, and it’s been 2 1/2 years,” Sandoval said with a smile. “I like the climate. I like the trees, and even my 13-year-old daughter really likes it — starting with the temperature.”

Mortazavi, a native of Hamburg, Germany, who continues to dress the part of an Old World wine professional, spent 30 years working for Las Vegas Hilton before deciding to embrace the challenges he faced when hired by Little Creek CEO Michael Starr. The two were classmates at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and the tribe’s commitment to Starr, Mortazavi and Sandoval proves their resolve to take the resort to the next level after the September 2011 opening of Salish Cliffs Golf Course.

“When I started here, the first thing I looked at was the wine list,” Mortazavi said. “I have a passion for wine, and aside from Australia, I’ve probably been to all of the world’s major wine regions. That’s where I would go on my vacations.”

His extensive background makes him a remarkable fit for the Squaxin Island Tribe’s operation. He graduated from UNLV’s School of Hotel Administration and achieved the third level of the Court of Master Sommelier program along a career path that included wine director and ultimately the role as food and beverage director at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Kevin Molica, Little Creek’s food and beverage manager, who spent several years with Anthony’s Restaurants, said, “Victor is the biggest reason why I am here. There is so much to learn from him.”

There are seven restaurants serving the 190-room hotel, and Mortazavi wants to share his international wine background with the resort’s guests. He’s enjoyed learning more about the wines of Washington state, and it’s natural for this German to become particularly fascinated with Riesling.

“My favorite is Eroica, which I had on my wine lists in Vegas. It’s the best U.S. Riesling,” Mortazavi said. “I’ve never been in a state where there are grocery stores with as many Rieslings. In Vegas, you are lucky if you find one. Here, I can’t believe it.“

He’s also been impressed with the red wines being produced from the Columbia Valley, which he said are underappreciated.

“California overpowers everyone, so Washington wines are not that known in the rest of the U.S.,” he said. “There are some great wines here. You just have to find them.”

On the other hand, Salish Cliffs achieved acclaim from the golf world’s leading publications soon after it opened for play. It’s been ranked among the state’s best courses by Golf Digest and GolfWeek for the past three years, the latter naming it No. 6 on its list of the country’s top casino courses. Last year, it played host to the PGA Pacific Northwest Championship.

And in fitting with the Squaxin Island Tribe’s beliefs, it became the world’s first Salmon-Safe certified golf course, working step-by-step with Stewardship Partners. The tribe also maintains a country club atmosphere on the course and in the clubhouse by requiring proper golf attire, and they made a great hire in David Kass, the affable head professional who spent time at three courses in Florida, including Jupiter Hills, along his path to Salish Cliffs.

“We like to say that Chambers Bay has its tree, and we got all the rest,” Kass jokes.

At the same time, Salish Cliffs is hoping the buzz created by the picturesque backdrop and exciting finish to the 2015 U.S. Open will inspire golfers around the world to play not only Chambers Bay but also Salish Cliffs, less than an hour’s drive around the South Sound.

Meanwhile, Little Creek continues to bring in some top-name recording artists, acts such as Boz Scaggs, rocker Paul Rodgers and groups such as Yes and Toto, as well as country stars Trace Adkins, Kellie Pickler and Dwight Yoakam.

However, the food and wine culture is what Mortazavi and Sandoval are promoting as they spotlight ingredients provided by their employers.

“The tribal people are culinarians in their own right, working with what they gather,” Sandoval said. “Look at all the sustainable seafood — the clams, the oysters, geoducks — we use a lot of their products, and Salish Seafoods is owned by this tribe.

“When we have a big tribal event, we will do our part as caterers, and if they want to bring us elk or venison, we prepare it and use, say, blueberries or different ingredients from around here,” Sandoval added. “They do their salmon out in the pit in a traditional style, yet we’re working side-by-side a lot of the time for those functions.”

Sandoval pointed to the 2014 memorial for Nisqually tribal leader Billy Frank, Jr., an event staged at Little Creek and attended by 6,000 people, including U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, former Congressman Norm Dicks and Gov. Jay Inslee.

“I went out in the forest with a tribal member and gathered probably 120 pounds of chanterelle mushrooms for the meal,” Sandoval said. “It’s great that you can just go outside here and sustain yourself. In Vegas, there’s nothing there. I’ve learned from them, and I’ve showed them some things that I do, too.”

Dining options on the property range from the Salish Cliffs Grille inside the clubhouse to the Squaxin Island Seafood Bar — ask for the gluttonous Seafood Trio ($25) and a glass of Maryhill Rosé of Sangiovese — and the Island Grille. Its menu supports the Open Prairie Natural Angus Program and adds a chop house feel to the property.

Each Wednesday evening, there’s a wine tasting in the Skookum Spirit Cigar & Wine Lounge, which is one of two dining spots on the property where smoking is permitted. The other is the sports bar. There’s even a 5,000-square-foot smoke-free gaming room.

“A person who likes fine wine with food typically does not like tobacco smoke,” said Mortazavi, whose career at Hilton Las Vegas once included overseeing tobacco sales. “The minute you have tobacco, you cannot taste the wine anymore. You ruin it. So at none of our events do we allow smoking — even the concerts.”

Little Creek and Mortazavi do weave regional wines into a number of promotions, programs and events. There is the Casino and Vino Sweepstakes, a partnership with nearby Walter Dacon Wines. Mortazavi even offers remarkable values at the Espresso Coffee and Wine Bar, selling in the resort lobby bottles from the likes of Barnard Griffin, Chinook, Gamache and Matthews at below retail prices for in-suite enjoyment.

“It’s something that I did in Vegas,” he said. “Our markup for some of the world’s greatest wines is less that what you see in Costco. I want people to come and enjoy wine at very reasonable prices. I buy my wine here.”

Another touch of Las Vegas is reflected in the resort’s annual Chocolate and Wine Festival, which Mortazavi and Sandoval developed and stage each spring at the Squaxin Island Museum.

“I would challenge anyone in Seattle to match what we do for that festival,” Mortazavi said.

There’s a crêpe station that ranges from salmon to desserts. The fromagerie station features more than a dozen cheeses from around the world and includes regional favorites such as Seastack from Mt. Townsend Creamery and Bermuda Triangle by Cypress Grove Chèvre. There were four pâtisserie stations, two charcuterie stations and another dedicated to seafood.

And more than 70 wines were poured, an international list that featured the likes of Barnard Griffin, Chateau Ste. Michelle, DeLille Cellars, Matthews Winery and Saviah Cellars. Next year, look for Browne Family Vineyards to be poured and perhaps a new favorite of Mortazavi — Kiona Vineyards & Winery’s Lemberger, the German name for Blaufränkisch, a grape he was stunned to find made so well in Washington.

But he’s particularly smitten with the work by Chris Upchurch of DeLille, and Mortazavi’s introduction came via touring and dining with friends who took him to Woodinville.

“We tried their wines and looked at each other — especially after tasting the D2,” Mortazavi said. “It was amazing. Beside the Bordeaux style, another area I have passion for is Provence, especially Bandol, and I would put DeLille’s Doyenne rosé against any Bandol rosé. That wine is amazing.”

Mortazavi, whose education includes studies within the wine program at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, collaborated with Sandoval on the Match Maker dishes. They created a four-course meal to pair with a selection of Upchurch’s wines, but space limits the profile to two recipes.

They paired the DeLille Cellars 2013 Chaleur Estate Blanc, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sèmillon, with Seared Scallops and Potato-Chive Mousseline. For the entree, they offered up Braised Short Ribs with Chanterelle Mushrooms and Parmesan Risotto, matching it with the Upchurch Vineyard 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from Upchurch’s young estate planting on Red Mountain. Both dishes will be available at the Island Grille restaurant.

“It’s a totally different tempo than Las Vegas,” said Sandoval, a native of Vegas and a mix of Pueblo Indian and Conquistadors from New Mexico. “It’s amazing to work with the tribe, and they want to treat you like family. You don’t get this kind of unity in Las Vegas. I’m sure there are other areas of the country where you get that, but I’m here and it’s really nice.”

Wine:

Upchurch Vineyard 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain... $65
— 500 cases, 14.6% alcohol

Upchurch Vineyard serves as one of the great stories of the Washington wine industry, a sign of past success and a strong belief in the future of Cabernet Sauvignon on Red Mountain.

The timeline began in 1992 for Chris Upchurch when the University of Washington grad and former Seattle wine merchant began vineyard research for a new Woodinville winery, DeLille Cellars. While he continues to enjoy his accomplishments at DeLille Cellars, Upchurch Vineyard is the vision and joint venture for he and his wife, Theodora, a former Seattle restaurateur and now as one of the Washington wine industry’s most charming ambassadors. The next generation is involved, too, as daughter Kelsey heads up marketing and sales for the family brand.

From their balcony of a two-story barn/cellar in the middle of their 18-acre estate — established in 2007 — Chris and Thea can see much of Red Mountain, the northern slopes of the Horse Heaven Hills and look into the Yakima Valley to the west.

But the reason for their investment is not for a residence. It all stems from Red Mountain fruit, and the Upchurches rely on Dick Boushey, one of the most acclaimed and perhaps most active vineyard managers in Washington. There’s a waiting list for his own Boushey Vineyard fruit in the Yakima Valley, his influence now includes much of Red Mountain as Boushey oversees Upchurch Vineyard and several other sites coming into their own.

Responsible farming is a hallmark of the Upchurches, and their hand-harvested vineyard is certified sustainable by the L.I.V.E. (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) program and also is a member of the Salmon-Safe network of vineyards and wineries.

Based on the dream team partnership, the meteoric success and fanfare for “UV” comes as no surprise. Last year, the 2011 Upchurch Vineyard Cab — only the second commercial vintage — placed No. 5 on The Seattle Times top 50 list. This 2012 vintage received a whopping 96 points from the Wine Advocate, the publication founded by iconoclast Robert Parker.

Upchurch, who makes these wines at DeLille, prides himself on a level of craftsmanship that allows him to take what the Columbia Valley presents to all winemakers and create wines of balance with decades of enjoyment. Most of all, they must be delicious.

Production of UV Cab — the only wine the Upchurch family produce under their eponymous brand — is slowing increasing. The role of Merlot (9 percent) adds another paint-brush stroke to the layers accented by the 100 percent new French oak from cooperages of Taransaud and Orion.

That 18-month barrel program and contribution of Merlot have been virtually identical for the first four vintages. They work in consort for a wine filled with opulence of black cherry, cassis, roasted coffee, Baker’s chocolate, vanilla extract, cedar and earthiness. Skilled tannin management means lean cuts of beef and pork will pair nicely.

Spanish artist Salustiano created “Instante de Eternidad,” a painting of a young woman on a swing, and that image serves as the label for Upchurch Vineyard. The striking lipstick-red mural is displayed inside the tasting gallery, just a few steps from the vines responsible for the wine. Visits to Upchurch Vineyard are by the appointment only.

Upchurch Vineyard, 12022 NE 97th St., Kirkland WA 98033, 425-298-4923, upchurchvineyard.com.

Recipe:

Braised Short Ribs with Chanterelle Mushrooms and Parmesan Risotto

Serves 2

Short ribs

2 pounds short ribs
10 ounces carrots, chopped
10 ounces celery, chopped
10 ounces onion, chopped
2 ounces fresh thyme
1 ounce fresh rosemary
8 ounces butter
16 ounces red wine
1 quart demi glaze
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Season the short ribs generously with salt and pepper, then roast both sides of the meat in a shallow pan with cooking oil. Reserve the meat.

2. Melt the butter gently then sauté the vegetables. Add the thyme and rosemary.

3. Add the meat and red wine. Reduce completely and add the demi glaze.

4. Cook in oven for 90 minutes at 350 degrees.

Chanterelle Mushrooms

1 pound chanterelles
4 ounces shallots
1 shot cognac
3 ounces cream
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Sauté in a pan the butter, chanterelles and shallots.

2. Season with salt and pepper

3. Flambé with cognac.

4. Add cream.

Parmesan Risotto

1 cup arborio rice
6-8 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for grating or shaving
4-6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 pinch saffron
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Infuse the saffron with the chicken stock.

2. In a separate pan, gently roast the rice with the olive oil. Add the white wine.

3. After the wine reduces and the rice is fully cooked, add the chicken stock/saffron liquid.

4. Add Parmesan cheese and butter.

5. Garnish with parsley. Salt and pepper to taste.

Baby vegetables

2 pieces baby green zucchini
2 pieces yellow squash
2 pieces baby carrots

1. Steam the vegetables.

2. Salt and pepper to taste.

Final prep

1. Plate the Parmesan Risotto, top with Braised Short Ribs and Chanterelle Mushrooms, then place the baby vegetables alongside.

Wine:

DeLille Cellars 2013 Chaleur Estate Blanc, Columbia Valley...$38
—2,400 cases, 13.2% alcohol

This year, the Auction of Washington Wines named DeLille Cellars as its Honorary Vintner, and the Woodinville landmark’s annual work with this blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon is one reason why.

Each vintage, Chris Upchurch’s melding of these two Bordeaux varieties ranks among the Pacific Northwest’s most acclaimed white wines and has come to be known as one of the United States’ top examples of wines in the style of France’s Graves District.

DeLille Cellars opened its chateau with the 1992 vintage. As the founding winemaker, Upchurch, with a science degree from the University of Washington, essentially had been preparing for the job most of his life. He grew up in a household that appreciated fine wine and encouraged him to experience the great wine regions of Europe. The combination led Upchurch to employment at some of Seattle’s finest restaurants and into the wine trade.

At DeLille Cellars, he created wines intended to enjoyed at the dining table and with the structure to age with grace and complexity. At many wineries, that discussion normally is limited to red wines. That’s not been the case with Chaleur Estate Blanc, one of only two white wines produced at DeLille.

It all starts with the fruit, and Upchurch created the blend of Sauvignon Blanc (65 percent) and Sémillon by relying on three important vineyards in three distinctively different American Viticultural Areas.

Boushey Vineyard in the Yakima Valley contributes both Sémillon (22 percent) and Sauvignon Blanc (21 percent). Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain as presents the two varieties, Sémillon (13 percent) and Sauvignon Blanc (7 percent). Sagemoor Vineyard along the Columbia River north of Pasco, Wash., makes up more than half of the Sauvignon Blanc at 37 percent.

While the ratios have fluctuated a bit over the years, Sémillon has ranged from as low as 21 percent to as much as 44 percent, Boushey, Klipsun and Sagemoor have formed the core of Chaleur Estate Blanc since 2006.

Starfruit, lemon pepper, seashell and chalkboard dust aromas lead into gooseberry, Golden Delicious apple and lemon juice. This much more fruit-forward and complex than most West Coast examples.

This wine merited a double gold and earned best of class at the second annual Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, a judging dominated by West Coast wine merchants and sommeliers. Earlier this spring, the same wine grabbed a gold medal at the Great Northwest Wine Competition, and it still shows no signs of slowing down.

These wines are available daily at the Carriage House Tasting Room in Woodinville — for a $20 tasting fee — and the Maison DeLille Wine Lounge in Kirkland. The DeLille Chateau is limited to private events.

DeLille Cellars Carriage House Tasting Room, 14421 Woodinville-Redmond Road NE, Woodinville 98072, 425-877-9472, delillecellars.com.

Recipe:

Seared Scallops and Potato-Chive Mousseline

Serves 2

Scallops

4 pieces U10 scallops
Clarified butter to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Pan fry gently to a rich, golden brown color

Potato-Chive Mousseline

12 ounces peeled potatoes
6 ounces butter
4 ounces cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Nutmeg to taste
4 ounces fresh chives

1. Cook the potatoes in hot, salted water until tender.

2. Mash the potatoes.

3. Melt butter with the cream and add to mashed potatoes.

4. Season with salt and pepper and grated nutmeg.

5. Top each plate with two scallops.

Eric Degerman is president and CEO of Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning news and information company.

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