When Bistro Verdu opened its doors in Montrose almost four years ago, the Spanish and French-influenced restaurant had no liquor license. Customers brought their own wine until the owner-chef Michael Ruiz's application for a license was approved. Faced with the task of designing a good wine list, he enlisted the help of wine consultant Jeff Zimmitti.
Today the two men are neighbors on Verdugo Road. At Bistro Verdu, Michael continues to build a loyal customer base. Jeff's new Rosso Wine shop, next door to the bistro, attracts and educates local wine aficionados with an ambitious weekly wine-tasting schedule.
I went to visit with Michael and Jeff on a sunny afternoon last week. Michael was busy in his kitchen, setting up for the dinner rush, so I hopped up on a stool at the wine bar to chat with Jeff.
Jeff grew up in Connecticut and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a music career in 1985. For many years he played the drums for independent, popular underground bands. Jeff toured Europe and Japan with groups like Idaho.
"My father is from Italy and around 1990 I visited his extended family in Italy. They are winemakers. Traveling through Europe, drinking simple wines in the regions where they were grown, opened my eyes. I began to understand how perfectly wines work with food," Jeff said.
He developed an affinity for everyday wines. "Wine is just a beverage, it is said, but it can become a magical experience, too," he said.
To become a wine expert, Jeff educated his palate by studying other experts like Robert Parker. He read their reports on wine, bought the wine, tasted it and kept his own journals.
"As I tasted and compared my wine notes with the experts, I began to isolate flavors and smells," he said. Jeff credits the rigorous discipline of writing about the wines he tasted with teaching him how to work with others.
"I learned how to focus. That is the key to understanding wine. When customers come, I can tell them how a wine tastes. I ask them about their own likes. Over time, I can guide them to wines I know they will like," he added. Jeff's dedication to understanding both wine and his customers' needs is paying off. He says that 80 percent of his first-time buyers come back to purchase again.
He attributes the high rate of return visits to his customer service. "I think that customer service is disappearing from society. It saddens me, but it also motivates me. It challenges me to succeed," he offered.
Jeff's longtime companion, Lisa DeFazio, shares his passion for success. "My girlfriend, Lisa, is a big part of Rosso's success," he said.
Rosso offers wine tastings every weekend, spotlighting wines from Italy, Spain, France and California. This week, on Friday and Saturday evening, Jeff is pouring three Spanish wines: a 2002 Valdrinal Roble Ribera del Duero, made entirely from Tempranillo grapes; a 2003 Bodega Inurrieta Norte Navarra, a 60-40 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon; and a 2004 Malondro Montsant, an even split of Garnacha and Crinena.
On Sunday, starting at noon, Jeff will complement the return of spring-summer brunch at the bistro next door with a celebration of "Bubbles and Regional Cheese," serving sparkling wines and artisan cheeses.
Michael Ruiz left his kitchen in the hands of his capable sous chef, Alfred Salvitierra, to join us for a few minutes. Michael and his wife, Jennifer, live in Verdugo Woodlands with their son Max, 3.
Michael developed his craft under the tutelage of stellar chefs like Jeremy Towers and Alice Waters. He and his wife traveled from San Diego to Seattle as Michael worked his way up the culinary ladder. The fare at Bistro Verdu reflects Michael's Spanish background and his apprenticeship in a village chateau-restaurant in the Burgundy region of France, near Lyon.
Michael admired the French attitude toward the dining experience. "The meal was the experience," he said. "The French relax and spend a long time enjoying their food."
His goal at Bistro Verdu is to re-create the village dining experience. He said that he loves the little neighborhood where the restaurant is located, mentioning other nearby places like Frank's Famous, Shreiners and Berolina's.
This summer Michael will open a specialty food shop to expand the gourmet flavors of the area. "We have a real neighborhood here. I want to reflect the friendliness of it, too," he added.
In the spirit of sharing, Michael sent our readers an exclusive recipe for a springtime fresh-tasting gazpacho with crab and a cilantro-cream topping.
Dungeness Crab Gazpacho
With Piquillo Peppers And Heirloom Tomato
Chef Michael Ruiz of Bistro Verdu
½ lb fresh Dungeness crab meat (cooked)
2 medium heirloom tomatoes (diced ¼ inch)
10 red piquillo peppers** (roasted and peeled)
8 oz fresh tomato juice
1 ear sweet yellow corn (roasted and cleaned off cob)
4 shallots (peeled and chopped)
Juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ cup cilantro (cleaned and stemmed)
2 tablespoons plain yogurt
1 tablespoon sour cream
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper (to taste)
4 chilled soup bowls
Place piquillo peppers, tomato juice and shallots in a blender and puree until texture is completely smooth. Pour pureed mixture into a large mixing bowl; add corn and diced tomatoes. Mix and season with lime juice, salt and pepper. Chill for one hour in the refrigerator.
For the garnish, mix sugar, sour cream, yogurt and cilantro, until smooth.
Remove gazpacho from fridge, stir and ladle into 4 chilled soup bowls, top with 2 OZ each with crabmeat. Garnish each serving with cilantro crème. Serves 4.
Open a bottle of sparkling rose and enjoy!