Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Mousse That Baaa-ed: Black Sheep Is Back

Since closing down on September 4 at its longtime Ortega Street location, the Black Sheep has been reborn on Cota Street a mere three months later. In addition to the location change, it's now officially The Black Sheep, SB Brasserie, which is fitting as the new location was for two decades the home of one of Santa Barbara's legendary restaurants, Mousse Odile. Co-owner, GM, maitre-d Ruben Perez definitely hopes to invoke the French spirit of the spot, offering coq au vin and cassoulet and more, but with a definite Santa Barbara, contemporary twist. He found a great partner in the endeavor, chef Jake Reimer, who has done the high end executive chef for restaurant groups and the private chef gig, among others, but seems very happy to have fun with Santa Barbara produce and seafood.

We had the great fortune to be hosted for a culinary trip through permutations of the tasting menu they are already billing as "famous," which might not be conceited much as predictive. For everything we tasted rocked--vibrant flavors, thrilling freshness of both ingredients and concepts. So while I could go on and on about, say, the perfect steak frites, starting with the tender Entrecôte meat itself, and then a secret sauce that's got some anchovy in it but is otherwise vegetarian and rich and almost worth licking the plate to enjoy (luckily instead you have plenty of yummy handout fries), I won't.

I also won't talk about the reinvigorated creme brûlée, spanking the oft-tired dish back to life with a pinch of salt and what must be a fistful of Tahitian vanilla bean.

Nope, to focus, let's just talk about the three dishes that opened the meal and hit the table simultaneously. Above you see an essay in fishy contrasts, some lightly pickled sardines atop some sprouts atop some tuna you can't see, but it's confit and rich. Then there's a slice of baguette on the plate awash with a mustardy sauce. The contrasting textures and flavors kept your mouth alive to flavor's possibility.


Here's the evening's crudo--it's listed on the menu as d'jour, as it sort of has to be as it needs to be something just caught to sing. This one did a little aria, so might have crawled into the kitchen on its own. Well, if scallops crawled. Again, all the accents aren't just for show but push the dishing fascinating angles and richness without hiding the pleasing, starring salinity of the scallop.


And then, as a true Santa Barbara nod, here's uni with "dirty" rice, seaweed, and tobiko. Things get a bit soupy as you eat it, but with the rice it's kind of a wet porridge of big flavor delight. Here the accoutrements reel the urchin's assertiveness in just a tiny bit, which works with all the other vivid reminders of the sea in the bowl. It's a great example of lots of technique being brought to bear on something that seems simple. 

It's wonderful to have the Black Sheep back.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Consider a Kind of Chocolate College

 


You might think you'd have to be a bit cocoa-crazy to want to join a chocolate-of-the-month subscription box club, but Cococlectic could convince even a casual chocolate lover. That's its whole point--think of each shipment as a chocolate education in a box, backed up with Zoom tastings with the small batch producers themselves. (Yet another one of those positives that have come thanks to the terrible pandemic.)

What you see above are the four bars I got in a sample shipment (yep, I'm singing for my freebie), from Fresco Artisan Chocolate in Lynden, WA. Note--and this is typical of each month's shipment--we're talking bars sans any bells-and-whistles, even the delicious and striking kind you might get with, say, an Omnom Black and Burnt Barley (to pick one of my favorite artisan chocolate experiences). Nope, here you're going to learn to distinguish different geographic sources for cocoa bean, so you can pick out the the sweet fig jam notes from Ghana versus the grapefruit zip from Madagascar.

Heck, they even teach you how to eat chocolate. Turns out most of us have been doing it wrong all our lives, but then again, nobody needs to have that Snickers bar sit in their mouthful too long. Instead, what's recommended by Cococlectic is to break off small pieces, smell the aroma, and then let the bite melt on your tongue. It's a slow process, but what you find is more and more comes into focus, kind of like when you settle yourself into what you at first think is a dark room (fitting for chocolate, no?). Try to put yourself in a wine tasting mood. Each shipment comes with a handy, visual tasting flavor wheel with taste descriptors, suggesting you might find everything from a vegetative cooked green olive note to a caramel, molasses one, with a possible soupçon of earthy mushroom along the way.

The best part of fine, craft bean-to-bar chocolate is you need less of it to be satisfied. All that rich cocoa goodness floods you taste buds, sort of coats them if you really keep your teeth at bay and let the chocolate melt. You don't need gobs it in an impossible effort to be pleased that only ends with you feeling grossly stuffed.

A card in your box provides more information about each purveyor--their history, their methods, their sources. Every bar is "all vegan, non-GMO, fair-trade, ethically sourced," their press releases points out, continuing, "Cococlectic’s chocolate bars do not contain any soy, gluten, dairy or nut, but they may be produced in a facility that handles these ingredients." So it's good for you chocolate! Plus, the San Francisco-based Cococlectic, which began in 2014, is a women-owned and minority diverse-owned business. (That's co-founders Doreen Leong and Brett Wallace, below.)




Monday, January 9, 2023

A Review of "You'll Like It Here"

 


A fascinating smudging of the notions of the novel, Ashton Politanoff’s You’ll Like It Here (Dalkey Archives) alternates between being charming and creepy, nostalgic and prophetic, dreamy and mundane. As he explains in his introduction, Politanoff, a Redondo Beach, California native since he was 8, dove into local archives upon his mom’s death and came out with this odd duck book. Fascinated by what he found, particularly from 1911-1918, especially since the period seemed to rhyme with our current age, he built a found novel, of a sort, compiling very brief news item “chapters” that never add up to a distinct plot, but certainly build mood and themes. 

Dropped into his acknowledgements is this important explanation of how he saw this project: “While I have used historical situations and newspaper clippings as the basis of this project, names have been changed, dramatic structure has been favored over historical accuracy, and facts have been expanded, all with the aim toward fiction and my own poetic and aesthetic concerns.”

Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Pairing Cab Franc Perfectly in Paso

The best laid plans of writers and procrastinators.... This post should be much more detailed than it will be, given the dinner it's about happened December 3 and it's now nearly a month later with lots of holidaying under the bridge. But I would be greatly remiss if I didn't praise the warmth, kindness, and delight of an evening spent at the home of Kunal and Neeta Mittal of LXV Wines. They graciously hosted a slew of media folks and fellow winemakers as a way to kick off Cabernet Franc Day, the bulk of which happened on December 4 at Cass Winery, and which, thank god, I already wrote about. (Plus I had notes. It's so hard to take notes while trying to be a good dinner guest, it just seems rude.)

Above is the wine line-up for the evening, so that might be a bit of the reason I don't have total recall of everything ate and drunk. Not that I was the latter, but still. I certainly recall the delicious odd duck (no, not cold duck) of a welcome wine, the LXV 2021 Blanc de Sangiovese, and yes, you read that correctly. The couple had a similar wine once in Italy so insisted on trying one of their own, made with the least amount of skin contact possible from fruit from Santa Barbara County's Whitehall Vineyard. The result is racy, playful, rich, quaffable. A conversation starter and a bottle-finisher all in one


On to the many amazing courses of food. Neeta loves working on pairings, and her hope with the menu was to connect with Cab Franc's core notes of floral aromatics (often violets), fruit (generally strawberry and raspberry), vegetal character (bell pepper), and earthiness (crushed gravel). So above, we begin with that floral note by echoing it with a raclette cheese griddled to gooeyness, piled with seared sous vide octopus and then drizzled with lemon and violet oil. I have to admit I generally am not a fan of over oiling the flavor onto a dish (all those years of crappy truffle oil ruined me), but this combo was perfection, especially when it got an extra splash of the violet oil. This paired perfectly with the LXV 2020 Reserve Cab Franc, a very California-style version of CF, hearty but balanced and redolent of all sorts of aromatics, from lavender to sage.


Course two was Boeuf Bourguignon with an island of scallops potatoes amidst the sauce. Starting as a standard interpretation even Julia Child would appreciate, Neeta gave it a personal twist with a hit of green cardamom (and let's face it, Bourguignon usually could use something to give it lift, as after the first few bites it can get pretty samey) plus some miso in the stock for extra umami and richness. That paired with one of my favorite wines of the weekend, Union Sacré 2020 Cabernet Franc. Go read the other post to see what I thought about it.


So, that's a lot of food with two courses to go. Luckily we next just had a little lamb, atop two street tacos. The meat, braised in herbs, was tender and earthy, the roasted vegetables adding some smoke and brightness at once. A complex dish, it deserved and received a complex wine, Austin Hope 2021 Cellar Select Cabernet Franc. A big boy (as one expects from Austin Hope) at 15% ABV, it came off as controlled power, savory and spicy.


For course three we turned to Cuernavaca for a dish dear to Neeta and Kumal's hearts from a time they stayed in Puebla--chicken mole with rice. Evidently XLV has a masterful Martha in its kitchen who knows the multi-ingredient secret blend for this mole that suggested all sorts of flavors depending upon your bite, from cocoa to coffee to all spice to anise, and a semi-serious kick of chile hit, too. It successfully paired with J Lohr 2017 Cuvee St E, a take on St. Emilion featuring a blend of 63% Cabernet Franc, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, and 1% Malbec, which no doubt is what makes the blend. Seriously, it's a serious wine with plenty of time in new French oak to give it a robustness while not masking any of the wine's nuance.

Given that wine, it wasn't too surprising that the affable Steve Peck, Director of Winegrowing at J. Lohr, also brought along a real Right Bank Bordeaux...with maybe a few more years on it than the rest of the wines we drank that evening. He even got the cork out clean. As often is the case with such a bottle, it was more an experience than deliciousness, all that cedar and graphite, but still some fruit. Peck had a story about how the bottle had been given as a gift up and down Willow Creek Road from different wine fans, and he figured it was time to share it with all. Which only goes to show the generosity of the wine community. While Cab Franc pairs well with a wide range of foods, it pairs even better with memorable hospitality.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Tyger Tyger Burning Bright in the Funk Zone


You have to appreciate how Acme Hospitality never rests on its laurels. Sometimes it hits from day 1 (The Lark), sometimes it has to re-brand and give a bit of a ramp up time (La Paloma), and sometimes it just heads in another direction, say Gold Rush country, to open historic hotels (National Exchange). Now it's doing a clever re-think of the Funk Zone's Tyger Tyger, shifting to a mostly plant-based menu if keeping the generally Southeast Asian vibe going.

Consulting chef Jasmine Shimoda helped shape the menu but the day-to-day operation is led by Trevor Lamance. You have to hand the team a whole lot of credit, for they're helping bring food to Santa Barbara that hasn't been here up to now. And lord knows we could use more plant-based options--better for the health of our own selves and the planet. (Yep, I'm a hypocrite and still eat meat, but I try to eat a lot less of it.)

The menu isn't huge, but it grows as the day goes on. I still have to check out the breakfast, which sure reads tasty, from the obligatory avo toast to the breakfast sando that features an egg omelet you can sub with a tofu scramble, bacon you can sub with tempeh bacon, and then pickled Fresno chiles, spicy cilantro oil, house fermented hot sauce.

We were there for dinner and over-ordered (but this stuff does take home and eat well the next day, promise, at least the salads and noodles). We kicked off with the daigaku imo, shown above, Japanese sweet potatoes soft on the inside, crisp on the out, sitting in a scrumptious slather of tamari-maple glaze. You need to be sure to cover each bite of your potato with this sweet-salty sauce and then get a healthy sprinkle of the scallions, too. Simple yet totally rewarding.


This is the tea leaf noodle salad, seemingly simple too, but full of bright flavor, from the cilantro to the peanuts to the fried shallot, and the fermented green tea dressing is what you'd always hoped Green Goddess might be, something with a bit of soul. 


Here's the show-stopper, a fried yuba sandwich, or TT's answer to Nashville Hot Chicken by way of Saigon. Instead of fowl, that's "chicken-fried" tofu skin, so you get all the delight of crunch and texture without any of the guilt of eating an animal. It's one of those "barely-fit-in-your-mouth" monster servings on a tasty brioche bun, if you can't tell from the photo, so worth sharing. While it's doused in some chili-maple and yuzu ranch dressing, it was a teensy bit short of the heat it needed to become truly transcendent. But it's a delight to munch on, and could convert any meat eater to the vegan way.


For the pescatarian in tow, there's cha ca la vong that comes with the local catch of the day--this evening a black cod--marinated in a vivid turmeric-dill sauce with plenty of aromatic fresh dill atop. Consider this Tyger Tyger in a bowl-shell, as it were, food that makes you pay more and more attention to it, drawing you in to its direct pleasures, especially with the springy vermicelli noodles awash in a singing nuoc cham bringing oodles of umami. 


Desert is a daily special and we got to enjoy a perfectly purple ube "cheese"cake that was vegan thanks to coconut milk doing the dairy-work. Creamy and delightful.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Cab Francs for the Memories


One way to think about Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon is to compare them to Muddy Waters and The Rolling Stones. (Note--if you're a blues fan, ymmv with this analogy.) CF is the genetic daddy of CS (along with Merlot and Carmenere), but isn't as well know among the masses. You could argue CS turned up and popularized the volume on CF, in the same way that Mick and the gang (perhaps, in this case I should say Keith and the gang?) upped the ante on everything. (At least there's no race issues and appropriation concerns when it comes to the grapes.)

So it's good to know someone cares to blow Cab Franc's trumpet, which is what December 4th's Cabernet Franc Day in Paso Robles was all about. This inaugural event featured a seminar on Cab Francs around the world and then, not surprisingly, drove the CF point home with a tasting from 16 producers from Paso Robles. Lori Budd of Dracaena Wines was the instigator of this event, partially because she makes a very fine CF, but we'll get to that.

First there was the seminar, hosted by Kunal and Neeta Mittal (in the middle and right in the above photo) of LXV Wines. (Bet you can guess what one of their favorite varietals is.) To their left was the presenter of the seminar, Wes Hagen, who is as quick with a quoted quip as he is with a reasoned guess at the amount of stem inclusion in a particular pour. In many ways he was a perfect host as his storied career has centered in Santa Barbara on Pinot Noir--as a double outsider he brought refreshing, new insights to all things CF. He even had his own musical metaphor to kick off, calling CS heavy metal and CF jazz. And he also offered this wonderful "theory" of drinking: "I drink beer standing up, wine seated at the table, and spirits between the table and the floor." (He tasted with us pacing, so maybe presentational consumption created its own categories.)


We got to taste along in a global trip through six CF producing regions, kicking off with its classic representation, one from the Loire. This was the 2018 Vignerons de Saumur Rouge "Les Epinats," a lighter style of the grape, with lots of dusty tannins, pepper, and mineral notes.

 

Wine #2 took us to the right bank in Bordeaux for a 2018 Château Bel Air St. Emilion. This was a bit of a cheat as it's a 50/50 CF/Merlot blend, and it turns out the two bring out fine qualities in the other. Despite its practically slutty color it's an elegant pour with just a hint of brett; Hagen argued that helped age it faster in a way, an "acceptable flaw" at such a slight addition. The wine didn't suffer from any Band-Aid nose, that's for sure.

Wine #3 was my favorite of the international six and a true surprise, as I haven't imbibed much from Hungary, to be honest. But the 2017 Havas & Timár, Franom, Eger Region offered plenty of the varietal characteristic strawberry on the nose and palate, but gave a twist on the typical bell pepper notes by bringing some red bell pepper. (What else from the land of paprika?)
 
 
We moved to the New World with wine #4, a CF from the Garage Wine Co. (yep, the so on-the-nose version of garagiste led to numerous Hagen jokes), Pirque Vineyard, Maipo, Chile. Hagen hailed it as the most varietally typical up to that point (take that, France), discussing what calling something a round wine meant to Germans--not to describe a zaftig wine, but one that told a full, beginning, middle, end story. This Maipo had that narrative flow down, especially bringing the characteristic pyrazines. That hint of green pepper is often (not always) a signature of CF. The Maipo even had a kick of mint to it.


I will do my best not to be a catty Californian about wine #5, from Virginia. You have to hand it to the Stinson Family for making a quaffable CF 10 miles from Monticello, where Jefferson struck out trying to make wine from any grape centuries prior. So they've got that on one of the Founding Fathers. This 2020 had less of the usual fruit than the others, so they made up for that with other notes, like whole berry fermentation (if destemmed) and probably more oak.


We closed with Napa, and the biggest of the wines, because, as I wrote, Napa. The 2016 Crocker and Star is officially a "Red Wine of Cabernet Franc" as it's 68% CF, 23% CS, 7% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec. This one was a teeth-stainer, dark dark red and by far the oakiest of all the pours. Definitely for a certain taste, but it pulled that velvet hammer pummeling successfully.


All in all, a delightful trip around the globe in a series of CF glasses, such as the one Hagen contemplates above. One of his closing comments certainly left us all with something to consider; he said, "Wine is the only time machine that works...it's quantum." And getting to go to Hungary five years ago while sitting on my ass in Paso certainly proved that.

Between the global tasting and the Paso tasting there was a quick Paso panel that featured Stasi Seay, Director of Vineyards at Hope Family Wines, Michael Mooney, President/Winemaker at Chateau Margene, and Steve Peck, Director of Winegrowing at J. Lohr. Hagen, as moderator, kept it quick and the panelists kept it clever. Mooney was sure to point out that "Paso is not Paso--it has 11 sub AVAs reflecting differences from altitude, proximity to the ocean, soil composition." And to set us up for the Paso tasting, Peck admitted, "At J Lohr, about our best wine in the cellar is a Cab Franc, and about our worst wine in the cellar is a Cab Franc." So volatility can be expected.

Not that what anyone was pouring from the Grand Tasting was anything less than good--actually 8 of the 16 wines poured were already sold out (thanks for sharing, kind wineries!). Perhaps it comes down to CF being an easier grape to grow than something fussy like Pinot Noir; perhaps it's because a winemaker has to love the grape to want to make it, given consumers aren't busting down the door to buy it (heck, there's slightly more CA acreage of Petit Verdot than CF)(sure that's mostly going into blends, but still).



That said, the standout for me was Union Sacré, a small producer that generally focuses on Alsatian wines that's based in Tin City. Their website wonderfully announces: "These are not wines of privilege and power, these are wines made from a lifetime of labor for the untelevised tables that unite the very heart of the world." So, consider their CF as literate. Bright and balanced, plenty of fruit but also violets, spice, just enough earth to keep things grounded. A gorgeous effort.


And I promised you I'd get back to Dracaena. (BTW, there's science and stars and dragons and dogs in the name--go to their website to get the full story.) Their 2019 Classic CF (they do a reserve, too, but that's long gone) gets a bit more backbone with 8% Petit Verdot, and it all comes together in wine delivering dark cherry and plum with some cocoa and a rich mouthfeel--particularly good on a bit of a blustery December day. Also notable is their NV Phoenix that blends 77% Cabernet Franc, 18% Merlot, and 5% Petit Verdot as a way to deal with the smoke taint in their vineyards after all of the fires in 2020. The wine does have a hint of smoke--but as a mezcal and Islay lover, that's kind of fun in a wine, now and again. So if you want something a bit unusual....

And I'd be remiss not to discuss the great food pairings put together by Neeta Mittal and chef Charlie Paladin of Cass Winery (where the event was held). The grazing bar offered all sorts of spreadable, from a smoky baba ghanoush to a hummus of some depth thanks to fried garbanzos, but it was the passed apps that really starred, from South Indian lentil cakes to a dusk breast seared rare with a cherry demi-glacé. Every bite proved what a versatile wine pair Cab Franc can be.

There were lots more fine wines, some of which I'll get to whenever I get to part two of the story covering a special media and friends celebration dinner the night prior. But in the meantime, here's the view for the grand tasting, wine country winter in all its ragged glory.


Wednesday, December 7, 2022

A Review of "The Last Days of Roger Federer"

 


Some lines from Robert Christgau about Lloyd Cole have always stuck with me: “So what if he can’t stop talking about books and movies and gathers his material on day trips from his walkup flat? Does that make him so different from you?” I was reminded of those lines while reading Geoff Dyer’s The Last Days of Roger Federer, as it’s a book replete with ruminations about books, movies, art, music, drugs, and, yes, tennis, thematically tied by the biggest baddie of all—death. Or, as Dyer puts it, “quitting,” but that simple word can mean so many things. 

Now, if my first sentence, dropping in both a rock critic who himself is famous for his often cryptic, ever epigrammatic reviews and a semi-obscure musician (his best known tune, “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?” might be the most famous because Camera Obscura wrote the answer song, “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken”) was off-putting, this Dyer book might not be for you. For that’s often his method, allusive to the point it’s easy to feel you need an auxiliary reading list to school yourself to read The Last Days and be fully rewarded. The odds are good you won’t have enough days to accomplish your assignment.

Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.