The New Dinner Party
So here we are, mid recession, mid war in midwinter. Shouldn't we all be too busy hiding in our bunkers to be cooking for crowds? No. As if (inversely) linked to the Dow, there's been a surge in dinner party enthusiasm--but not for the fussy type, with the wedding china, boy-girl seating plans and three-day marination schedule. The dinner parties people are giving now are casual and cozy. It's as if the recent threats to home and hearth have compelled us to simply throw open our doors and feed people.

What makes the difference is the spontaneity factor. Of my four most recent invitations, three were from total strangers--well, friends of friends. This "invite 'em all and see who comes" approach has spread lately, because formality is out and community is in. For dinner parties, we used to go to great lengths to imitate professional chefs, but now that's reversed and restaurants are imitating dinner parties--like New York City's Craft, with its family-style mix-and-match dishes. Even some Ritz-Carlton hotel jacket-and-tie restaurants have relaxed and now offer communal tables.

Anyone can do the new dinner party, even the young and chairless. Elena Schneider, a 24-year-old assistant book editor, recently threw her first. "We're the type of people who don't even cook," she claims, but that didn't stop her from inviting people for Caesar salad and porcini ravioli. "Everyone said how nice it was just to be inside and homey and comfortable," she explains. Now her friends are "talking about fondue a lot!" At the other extreme, bicoastal pianist Paul Cantelon has been at it for years, "throwing people around the table" for braised pepper steak, chicken with figs and crushed chocolate soufflé cake. "In such unstable times," Cantelon says, "food is more important than ever--cooking it and watching people eat it and laugh and talk."

Of the four dinner party invitations I've received, Cantelon's was the most recent--an impromptu supper of blini, sturgeon and borscht, cohosted by his neighbor's apartment sitter, who is Russian, and whom Cantelon had just happened to meet in the hallway. Now that's what I call spontaneous.

--Kate Sekules

Wine South-of-the-Border Bottles
Mexico has given us much to be thankful for: Aztec ruins. Fish tacos. Tequila. But wine? Who heads south of the border for anything but cerveza or Cuervo? Yet, as I discovered at a recent tasting, Mexico is home to a number of wineries scattered across a dozen grape-growing districts in the northern half of the country. The best are in Baja California's Guadalupe Valley. Less than 20 miles from the Pacific, the valley runs east to west, which allows the ocean's cool, moist air to channel into an otherwise hot, semiarid environment.

A Few Standout Mexican Wines:

Monte Xanic Cabernet-Merlot 1997 ($17)
Founded in the early '80s, Monte Xanic led the march to quality in the valley with its commitment to low yields and state-of-the art winemaking. Their blend of 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25 percent Merlot tastes much like a big, bold, fruit-filled Napa red.

L.A. Cetto Nebbiolo 1996 ($20)
The largest producer in Baja, Cetto is known for its modestly priced wines (which include an $8 Petite Sirah), but the real winner is the suave, smoky, spicy, yet surprisingly light-hearted Nebbiolo.

Château Camou El Gran Viño Tinto 1997 ($30)
Made with the assistance of Michel Rolland (one of France's most famous oenologists), Château Camou's classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot offers gobs of superripe, richly extracted red- and black-fruit flavor, supported by a firm foundation of toasty new oak.

--Joshua Wesson

Restaurant Thrill-Seeking
As the owner of the Grateful Palate, I travel the country, and often overseas, selling Australian wine and tasting foods for my catalog. I'm always on the lookout for new restaurants because I really, really love to eat. Here, a few discoveries. --Dan Philips

Scottsdale, Arizona
At Mosaic, young chef Deborah Knight turns out innovative dishes (roasted boar with kamut "risotto," ancho-vanilla-rubbed lamb loin) that match the New Western look of the dining room. Her boyfriend is the maître d' and sommelier; her parents own the property (10600 East Jomax Rd.; 480-563-9600).

People talk about food in this city as much as they do about politics and the Cubs. A lot of the talk now is about Spring, a restaurant in a former bathhouse (with the tiles to prove it). The lobster spring rolls and shrimp-dumpling soup were as outstanding as the Knoll Austrian Riesling we drank with them (2039 W. North Ave.; 773-395-7100).

Le Pichet is a very French bistro made for a wet Seattle day. I had rillons à l'auvergnate (crisp pork confit, preserved with cognac) and raclette baked in a cast-iron skillet. Lots of French and Spanish country wines by the pitcher, half-pitcher and glass: 1998 Vega Sindoa, 1999 Château de la Ragotière Muscadet (1933 First Ave.; 206-256-1499).

Stephen Singer (Alice Waters' ex-husband) opened Downtown in Berkeley's emerging theater district. I ate there the night of the seventh game of the 2001 World Series, and the food was as exciting as the Diamondbacks' comeback: pumpkin gnocchi with smoked-trout salad; duck two ways--herbed roasted breast with a sugo of leg (2102 Shattuck Ave. at Addison St.; 510-649-3810).

Raleigh, North Carolina
Chrish Peel, the owner of Carolina Wines, recently opened the trattoria Enoteca Vin. His wine list, with old vintages of Raveneau Chablis for under $100, made me want to come back to Raleigh for a week just to drink as much as possible. The food is simple and fresh: scallops with pureed celery root, salmon carpaccio (410 Glenwood Ave.; 919-834-3070).

Zelo is drop-dead beautiful, with a fantastic bar that the locals love. The food is modern Italian with a few Asian influences. My sesame-crusted walleye was one of 2001's better fish dishes. And in a city that's crazy for homemade ice cream, Zelo's strawberry-balsamic version was a standout (831 Nicollet Mall; 612-333-7000).

Editors' Pick
At F&W we've tasted many wine jellies over the years and too often found them tasteless and tooth-achingly sweet. So the gelatine from artisanal Piedmontese producer Montecurto (made with nothing more than wine, sugar and pectin) were a happy surprise--especially when we tried them with cheese. The Gelatina di Recioto della Valpolicella paired well with stronger, harder cheeses, such as provolone; the Gelatina di Marsala was delicious with a fresh robiola and a piquant Roquefort ($10 for 100 grams; 800-3-GOURMET).

--Monica F. Forrestall

Hotels - Houston Hip
Suppose you were looking for a hotel with great modernist style and a happening restaurant. You wouldn't look in Houston. But that's where Hotel Derek has landed--a 314-room, $14.5 million renovation of the old Red Lion. The place was created as a fantasy house for a fictitious character named Derek, an aging British rock star--a man of wealth and taste, I'm sure--who enjoys fake-fur club chairs and also wants to choose the firmness of his mattress. At the restaurant, Ling and Javier, chef Alena Pyles presents dueling Chino-Cubano dishes--Peking duck in the East corner, and in the West corner, roast suckling pig with yellow rice and beans. If Derek is a betting man, he'll have trouble picking the winner (2525 West Loop South; 713-961-3000).