Thursday, December 23, 2021

Stone Cold Stupendous at the Stonehouse

Even for Montecito, the San Ysidro Ranch is something special. Its tree-lined, cobbled drive takes you to leisure's lair, not just a stunning physical location in the Santa Barbara foothills, not just a connection to a more gilded time (here's the obligatory mention of JFK and Jackie O's honeymoon and Olivier and Leigh's wedding), but a different sense of time entirely. It's not as much time stands still but that it slows and thickens so you can float above it, a peace that lets you accept the distant lights of the offshore oil rigs as beauty meant for you as much as the productive gardens pumping out gorgeous produce even in December.

Of course part of the site's natural awesomeness nearly took the historic spot down, first with the Thomas Fire and then the subsequent debris flow that roared down San Ysidro Creek. A gas main explosion took out nearly half the property, including much of the Wine Spectator Grand Award wine cellar. It took 15 months to re-open, but that time also became a chance to do a freshen up. Then COVID came along, throwing all of the travel world into another mess.

So, pretending Omicron isn't as scary as it is, Chryss and I were hosted for a dinner at the Stonehouse the other evening, and based on this visit, it should move to the top of anyone's special event planning list. Of course there's just the location, captured best in the photo atop this post, provided by the hotel. (Note the rest of the photos were taken by phone without flash as that's too rude in dim light, so they don't do anywhere near full service to the food they attempt to capture. Think of them almost like a court artist's drawings....) The Terrace is a magical spot, both indoor and outdoor at once, glimmering with each table's gas lamp--such romantic lighting--and then the strewn twinkle of lights above, the fireplace aglow, too. You almost feel worthy enough to have the food you are about to enjoy.

Even as you ponder the menu, let alone the 12,000 bottle wine list, you get a relish tray--perhaps that's the ranch part of the Ranch?--to nibble on, some French breakfast radishes (both milder and more elegant) and a pile of piquant olives, and bread, three kinds (popover, Parmesan crisp, kalamata) that means you have to try all three, of course. There's olive oil that shames you for what you use at home. Waiters welcome you by name, warn you that the Santa Barbara lobster specials are about to sell out. They are old school professionals you can feel smiling behind their masks they wear for you.

And so we dug into our appetizers, the roasted chestnut and porcini soup for Chryss, a half dozen oysters for me. That soup was just what pre-Christmas ordered, something Dickensian and delicious and not done by enough places. Maybe that's because getting its balance isn't easy? Full flavored, creamy textured, this soup was spot on. And then the oysters, well, you have to start with prime bivalves, and these certainly were (I missed their provenance). The hard thing with an oyster is not gussying it up so much it becomes a dish with oyster-flavoring, and Chef Matthew Johnson and crew were deftly up to the task, even with a lot of moving parts for bites, well, let's call them Kennedy half dollar size, given the location. The Prosecco gelée gave them a bit of sparkle and then the supreme of Pixie tangerine provided each bite its own palate cleanser, almost. The tiny hits of mango and Persian cucumber drew out both bass and treble from the oyster and its briny blast. Plus the seaweed bed underneath was delightfully edible and crunchy.

For mains Chryss went with the extravagant Maine lobster cioppino complete with Maine lobster tail, Atlantic halibut, Hope Ranch mussels, Little Neck Clams, tiger prawns, and calamari--it almost seemed that the only seaworthy thing missing was Coelacanth. They pulled off the trickiest part of fish stew--making sure nothing was fish rubber or fish glue, as it's so easy to overcook an item or two. And all that now swam in a roasted tomato and saffron broth the Stonehouse could serve as a soup on its own, it's so don't-miss-a-drop-of-it good. Luckily, there was grilled ciabatta for sopping.

I opted for the appropriately fast-selling special local lobster, which came with house-made spinach fettuccine, a lemon-wine-butter sauce that tasted terrifically of all three components singing a happy harmonic song, and then chanterelles, lots (just saw them at the supermarket for $70 a pound--did not buy them). But the star was definitely the lobster, so fresh it might have swam ashore and into the pot they cooked it in, buttery itself, sweet, and then that quick shiv of iodine only great lobster has--you get to taste the kelp the lobster itself enjoyed. An indulgent, elegant, extravagant bowl of delight. (This photo doesn't do it any sort of justice.)

If you were wondering, we wined by the glass, which you can do perfectly well. Chryss had a Mail Road pinot noir, I had a Racines chardonnay, and my god is Santa Barbara making world class wines befitting a world class meal. This might also be the place to discuss price, and again, we were comped so.... This was not a cheap meal by any means (that cioppino goes for $76, if you were wondering, so you can extrapolate the rest). That pointed out, every bit of your time at the Stonehouse will be extraordinary. So you decide what such an experience is worth to you. 

Especially when you can end with fire or soufflés. Despite the cold and considering that perhaps having something flambéd next to us might be worth it, we opted against items like a baked Alaska or crepes Suzette. (We did get to enjoy a nearby couple's tableside flaming of a steak Diane earlier in the evening, that brandy sauce letting its tarragon waft wonderfully across the terrace.) No, we went for the soufflé, in particular the Valrhona Manjari Chocolate one. Our waiter insisted we try the mint chocolate chip ice cream as the mint came from their organic garden and it was the best in the world, so we said sure, thinking it would sub for the dish's usual espresso ice cream. Nope, they brought us both. We ate almost all of it, somehow. Oh, who am I kidding, we ate it because everything was exemplary--that soufflé so light it hit with all its eggy, cocoa flavor and was gone from your mouth, an elegant memory. 

Monday, November 1, 2021

A Review of "Lush Life: Food & Drinks from the Garden" by Valerie Rice


I’d argue that the best cookbooks double as secret memoirs, often telling us more about the author than a straight-ahead account that began, “I was born in the house my father built….” We are what we eat, and even more how we eat what we eat. Too many in our country don’t have the time and money to consider that question while they sit in the fast food drive-thru, and that’s not a personal failure of imagination, that’s a condemnation of a series of horrible systems trapping the unfortunate in their bad fortune.

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

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Riviera Bar Goes Old-School on Figueroa Street


That marvelous sailfish on the wall at the new Riviera Bar certainly looks familiar, but it’s not as familiar as you think. Sure, it came from the old Paradise Café, as is the case for many of the people behind this cozy establishment on West Figueroa that opened July 29. But it’s not the fish you stared at over your margarita above the bar — it’s one from an office. 

 “Paradise was more a general attitude toward customers and building a community,” explains the new bar’s owner, Kevin Boss. “This is Riviera, a new thing.”

Care to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.

Monday, October 25, 2021

A Review of "The Baseball 100" by Joe Posnanski


It took Joe Posnanski three attempts to accomplish the feat that is The Baseball 100. When he finally pulled off the basis of what became this book, publishing it serially on The Athletic website from December 2019 to April 2020, the intro for each entry included boilerplate that offered, “In all, this project will contain roughly as many words as Moby Dick.” For the record, the Avid Reader Press hard cover Baseball 100—869 pages, the Penguin paperback edition Moby Dick—a measly 687 pages. Suck it, Melville. 

I must admit, that’s my tone and not at all the way the very level-headed Joe Pos would put things. As for calling him Joe Pos, that’s how he’s known to those who have been reading his award-winning journalism for years, from local sports columnist duty in Augusta, Ga., Cincinnati, and Kansas City, to time at Sports Illustrated when that meant something. He has also authored six books, including one on his hero Buck O’Neil and one about how Houdini became not just a magician, but the Kleenex of magic.

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

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

A Review of "The History of Bones" by John Lurie


John Lurie, musician, artist, reluctant actor, avatar of 1980s downtown New York City cool, makes this pronouncement fifty pages in to his fascinating memoir The History of Bones, “Also, people always talk about talent. But really, of this I am quite certain. There is no such thing as talent, there is only cleaning the mirror.” 

 How better to clean one’s mirror than to pen a revealing memoir? You don’t have to read deep in the book to decide Lurie is an uncompromising artist more than willing to be an asshole, but by the end he seems more sinned upon than sinning. 

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

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Alisal Ranch Fires Up California Cookouts in Santa Ynez Valley

You are drawn into a magical world when crossing the wooden bridge over Alisal Creek, as the enticing smells of oak smoke and barbecue offer more olfactory goodness than you can parse, other than sensing you want it all. Next, you’re crossing the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort’s broad Oval Lawn, festively set with numerous tables topped with fresh flowers, Edison lights strung high above for when the sun sets over the ridge. And suddenly you realize that there’s nothing cuter than kids in cowboy hats. Welcome to the newest version of the Old West, family style. Welcome to California Ranch Cookouts.

Care to read the rest then do at the Independent's site. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Good Plow Gives Carpinteria True Farm-to-Table Cooking


If you ask Katie Lesh — who owns The Good Plow in Carpinteria with her husband, Jason Lesh — to describe her new restaurant, she puts it this way, “Sexy fast-casual farm-to-table.” And then her chef, Pedro Garcia, emphatically adds, “It’s fucking good food!”

Given that a meal rarely rises above its ingredients, these emphatic Good Plow claims are bound to ring true: For almost a decade, Katie and Jason have run Farm Cart Organics as a farm stand and CSA delivery service, and she’s the daughter of the revered farmer Tom Shepherd. One of the first farmers to get his name onto fine-dining menus — thanks, John Downey! — Shepherd started farming organically in Carp in 1973, blessing Katie with the heartiest of, uh, roots.

Care to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.