Monday, September 11, 2017

Bullish on the Bear and Star

It takes courage to serve your charred shallot-coated filet on a black plate, or maybe it's secretly slimming--that's a big lovely hunk o' beef. But you're celebrating California if you're at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn's Bear and Star, and the Golden State is all about two things: how about our heritage/how quick can we get to the future? Turns out you do both if you eat at a Chef's Table Dinner at Bear and Star. (Oh, and notice, no +, no &. See, tradition.)

On Labor Day we got to enjoy their roll out of what's going to become a regular chef's dinner, and if the debut is a true predictor, these events are going to become some of Santa Barbara's must-book culinary events. The evening opened with a nearly furious blizzard of so-called "snacks," including a dry-farmed tomato gazpacho I could have made a meal of (lovely shooter, though) and a sea cucumber chicharrone--that's lightly pickled, fried, and sure, a bit of a challenge food. The future is calling.

There were six courses to come, and for your sake and mine I won't run through each one, although no doubt each deserves its own mini-essay as the thought and technique on each is attention-worthy. The Bear and Star's chef John Cox teamed with guest chef (also from Monterey-wards--they've got some food culture happening there, I guess, or did, since all these fine people are cooking down SB-way now) Jeff Weiss, author of Charcurtería: The Soul of Spain, which makes sense as the theme for the evening was Spanish influence. All the wines, besides the Fesstivity bubbly to kick off and the Qupe 2006 Grenache, showing incredibly well with the beef, were from Spain, too.

That's Spain via the Parker Ranch and The Bear and Star Farm, where the majority of the  meats, fowl and produce came from. So think global, pick local. I have to admit I'm not sure of the provenance of the foie gras, lovingly hidden amidst some summer-perfect stone fruit and under a lozenge of honey meringue, about as delightful a sweet cap you could have on the earthy, unctuous liver.

Or that one ravioli the size of a coaster, such lovely lively pasta in its brown butter enriched to the nth degree with some black truffle, country ham, and acorn crumble.

Or that filet, redolent with the charred shallot--such an outrageously wise rub--yet cooked to a perfect medium rare beneath its black exterior. A bit of that with some of the black garlic paste dotted about the plate was a bit of meaty heaven.

Also be ready for machines, as the Chef's Room at Bear and Star is half library and half mad scientist's lab, books on one side, machinery silently a-whir on the other. One was busy separating/emulsifying the carrot puree that set the beef filet singing, another I want to call a speed distiller (sorry, precise science ain't my thing) that the staff claimed could age moonshine to bourbon in an evening (I'm doubtful, but curious). This night they opted to make a digestif for us in it, first passing around a nose-ful of aromatics that would go into making the drink (everything from herbs to pink peppercorns) which then got macerated with plum brandy as an alcoholic base. Think clear insta-amaro. It had a bit of an absinthe edge to it, which was only fitting given both Chryss and I had some of the most vivid dreams that evening we'd had in months.

What's more, the next Chef's Table Dinner is on the books: Tuesday, September 19,  Chef/Partner John Cox of The Bear and Star will welcome special guest Chef Julio Aguilera of El Destilado, Oaxaca, Mexico and Jason Cox of Cinco Sentidos agave spirits. You can just do the mezcal tasting, if you want, even.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Feasts Fit for a (Vi)King

Despite prepping for its 81st Annual Danish Days on September 15-17, Solvang isn’t just going to roll out the aebleskivers. Not that it’s vanquishing all things Viking (heck, there are even weaponry demos), but the hamlet also knows enough to tip its horned helmet at the 21st century and its location amid the Santa Ynez Valley vineyards. That means free concerts by groups like the Ruben Lee Dalton Band, which is more SoCal than Scandinavian, but even more, it means fabulous food and drink.

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

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

That Terrific Taste of the Town

This Sunday, September 10 (12pm-3pm) is the annual return of one of Santa Barbara's finest fundraisers--Taste of the Town. (Tickets still available--go to that link.) Now in its 36th year (for some perspective, 1981 was the year Ronnie Reagan was inaugurated, for the first time), TotT supports the Arthritis Foundation, and there's no better way to help raise money to fight chronic pain than eating and drinking well. I had the opportunity to email interview Laura Kath, local PR maven (and arthritis sufferer), who offered the lowdown on this year's event.

Kath calls it "the incredible opportunity to meet area chefs, vintners, culinary, wine and food legends and legends in the making—in a one-of-a-kind magical setting AND raise needed funds to help find the cause, cure and provide hope for more than 50,000 people in Santa Barbara County with an arthritis diagnosis. Best blend ever!" 

Turns out Kath has been volunteering for AF since year 5 (1986), and she points out, "When I first started, there were more restaurants/caterers than wineries and we didn’t have any craft breweries or distillers at all, for example! The culinary and wine scene has evolved so much over the last 36 years here in Santa Barbara County and Taste of the Town really reflects all those changes including the emphasis on locavore, farm-to-fork and certainly more great wines."

That adds up to 19 restaurant partners and 37 beverage partners for 2017. And it's an incredible mix of veterans and fresh faces, too: think the likes of  Chef Brenda Simon and Ca'Dario and Michael's Catering and Renaud's and The Nook on the food side with the likes of Brander and Cutler Artisan Spirits and Potek and Press Gang and Refugio Ranch and Third Window on the drink side. We are very lucky to live in Santa Barbara.

The event also features honorees, from medical and youth honorees from the community to foodie folk, even with a lead vintner honoree. This year that's Doug Margerum of Margerum Wines. "The Taste of the Town selects an area vintner who not only has made a significant impact on the local wine industry but whose leadership has helped establish Santa Barbara as one of the world’s premier wine regions," Kath explains. "In addition to being recognized as one of the top vintners, Doug has been recognized for his excellence in the restaurant business." (Of course he's owned the Wine Cask twice now.)

It turns out Doug and his wife Marni were also crucial help in finding this year's culinary honoree, Mark Strausman. Their recommendation earlier this year led the TotT committee to discover "Strausman's outstanding culinary career AND that he also has an arthritis diagnosis and is very committed to the cause of being a champion of YES for the Arthritis Foundation!" says Kath. Strausman has led a storied career as one of New York's most heralded Italian-focused chefs, turning the restaurant at Barney's into one of Manhattan's top party spots.

Of course one of the greatest charms of the event is its location in Riviera Park, the home of UCSB way back when. The entire 2017 event is in the late philanthropist Michael Towbes' memory, and Kath stresses, "Michael Towbes and his family’s support of the AF has been outstanding over four decades and crucial to the success of Taste of the Town event since he has donated use of Riviera Park venue since the beginning. No other charity event has been granted the gift of this extraordinary setting—it makes Taste of the Town Santa Barbara spectacular!"

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Vegging Out in LA

"Fun, fun fun. We've got roving entertainers throughout the festival grounds. We've got all kinds of cool activities for children in the Kumquat Kid's area. And the energy is unbelievable. We've been putting on these sorts of festivals for 7 years now, and it never gets old. There's something magical when so many compassionate and energetic people get together for the weekend. But just remember to arrive hungry--you won't go home that way!"

That's how Sarah Gross, co-founder of U.S. Veg Corp, pitches the California Vegetarian Food Festival, which takes place September 16-17 at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. The 2nd annual festival will have beer, wine and cocktails, benefit the Best Friends Animal Society and be a showcase of 100% vegan innovation and goods, with cutting edge plant-based food, live music, fitness classes, kids’ activities, Saturday night film screening and more.

I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Gross and Nira Paliwoda, the other co-founder of U.S. Veg Corp, so here you go, a snapshot of the festival and the state of vegetarianism.

(Sarah Gross and Nira Paliwoda, co-founder of U.S. Veg Crop)

GeorgeEats: This is year 2 for the festival--how are things different from last year?

Sarah Gross: We've got two days plus a Saturday night movie screening. Last year was only a single day. Also last year we were completely outside, and it was kind of warm. This year, we've got vendors inside as well, so that heat-sensitive products such as chocolate ought to be tempting. Several of our speakers are returning for an encore since their talks were so well-received last year. But we've got new speakers too, because there's always new research into the benefits of a plant-based diet.

Nira Paliwoda: All across the board, it’s bigger and better. More speakers, more vendors, more entertainment, more chef demonstrations, more activities and more surprises. We are celebrating all aspects of a well-rounded plant-based lifestyle which includes giving back. This year we are raising awareness and money for our charity partner, Best Friends Animal Society.

GeorgeEats: Obviously we are in some strange times politically. Has vegetarianism had to face any backlash in the Age of Trump?

Sarah Gross: Our first CAVFF was just days after Trump was elected. We feel there was a somber mood and lower attendance than there otherwise would have been. We haven't seen outright backlash to veganism though, not more than usual. Nothing in-your-face or anti-veg, in the way that now people are seen openly with swastikas. Eating healthy and living sustainably really are non-partisan issues. I really can't imagine how anyone could be against these things. We always try to stay positive at the festival. We don't shame omnivores; on the contrary, we invite them in to sample some amazing new cruelty-free products they probably haven't ever tried before.

Nira Paliwoda: If there is any backlash that we’ve seen, it’s more related to sustainability and environmental matters, which are interrelated with a plant-based lifestyle, rather than the food itself. The governmental cutbacks and restrictions to organizations and policies meant to protect the environment and foster sustainable innovation has angered many conscious consumers to the point of individual action where there wasn’t action before, which is a positive, actually. Of course, one would hope that the need to protect the environment and scientific fact would not be questionable things but unfortunately that’s not the world we live in right now. Our event is ultimately about education and we welcome guided debates so long as they remain logical and civil. But it’s not a forum for in your face activism on any level. It’s a family-friendly fun festival where we celebrate good food, wellness and products that happen to also be eco-friendly

GeorgeEats: I'm sure it's always hard to choose, but if you were going to pick a few highlights of the weekend, what would they be and why?

Sarah Gross: I'm perhaps most excited for a superwoman panel which will feature actress/model Simone Reyes, journalist/author Jane Velez Mitchell, Katie Clery from World Animal News, and Judie Mancuso of Social Compassion in Legislation. These are all powerhouses in the world of veganism and animal rights--to have them all on one stage will be amazing. The Emmy-nominated comedian Charles Horn will be back this year; he gives a terrific talk on how Hollywood can aid in the push for animal welfare. And there will be about 70 vendor booths, many of which will be offering free food samples--that's always a delicious highlight!

Nira Paliwoda: The live entertainment this year is off-the-charts. We have a stellar line-up of multiple award winning musicians, including multiple Grammy Award-winning artist Timothy Bloom. We also have some incredible vegan chefs demoing their skills such as Jacques Laventure aka “The Naked Chef” showing us how to make Texas BBQ Pulled Jackfruit and Yovana Mendoza aka “Rawvana” making Creamy Pesto Zucchini Noodles. Plus I have to mention the slew of kids activities, dance, meditation and yoga classes, and for those interested in something a bit stronger, there will be alcohol!

GeorgeEats: People always joke that bacon is the gateway drug to "convert" vegetarians to eating meat. What's the gateway food that would convince someone to become a vegetarian? Why?

Sarah Gross: Peanut Butter Pit Bull made by Rescue Chocolate! It's a very addictive chocolate bar, and of course most people can't even discern that it is vegan. But for a main course, I love Field Roast sausages, Sweet Earth's bacon and burgers and cheese from Miyoko's or Treeline. So many companies are producing fabulous vegan versions of good old American classic foods that vegans do not feel deprived in the least

Nira Paliwoda: I don’t think it’s just one food. There is so much out there now that tastes so close to meat and dairy that it’s virtually indiscernible. For example, Jackfruit is an amazing bbq pork/meat substitute. Also with the many delicious vegan milks and ice-creams out there such as coconut, pea, almond, rice, etc. there really is no reason not to switch over.

GeorgeEats: What's the most important thing people don't understand about the importance of being at least a flexitarian?

Sarah Gross: They may not realize that a vegan lifestyle does good on 3 different fronts at once. First, some understand that a plant-based diet is better for their health. There are numerous medical studies that prove this, and there are more in the literature every day. Second, veganism is a humane lifestyle. It is so empowering to know that the foods in your fridge and on your table have not contributed to the suffering of other sentient beings with whom we share our planet. Even just cutting down on the animal-based products will cut down on the overall quotient of suffering. Third, Mother Earth will thank you. Growing vegan foodstuffs uses far less natural resources than growing animals for food. If you're concerned about climate change or vanishing rain forests or species degradation, going vegan is a powerful corrective for all these problems and more.

Nira Paliwoda: Just like it’s important to vote, whatever drives you, be it your health, the animals, the environment, each meal counts to the greater good. If you eat more plant-based products you are supporting all three initiatives. Even if you aren’t able to go 100% vegan but do increase your plant-based food intake, you thereby help decrease the demand that leads to things like factory-farming while improving your overall health. Logically, it makes perfect sense.

Paliwoda choose to sum up the event this way: "This is a festival for everyone, young and old, vegan and open-minded omnivore alike. Come with a curious mind, empty belly and a willingness to be overwhelmed with a full weekend of family-friendly entertainment, activities and, of course, a plethora of delicious food!"

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Italy's DoctorWine Makes a Santa Barbara House Call

It might seem much to call oneself DoctorWine*, but that's what Daniele Cernilli does. It's not just because his autograph looks like an EKG printout. It is because he's written this two-pound tome of a soft cover book (I weighed it--that's what kitchen scales are for, right?), The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2017, that's got more snapshot knowledge of one country's vinified output than it would seem possible to hold. We're talking facts and Facebook pages, ratings and reviews (that is quantitative and qualitative takes), head notes that establish context, cultivation, regional differences. It's a trip to Italy without an airline beating you up.

Even better, Cernilli brought a host of Italian winemakers to California last week, and in addition to visiting LA and SF, they came to little old SB too (it's good to have wine country). Les Marchands hosted a lunch for press to meet the Italians (it's good to be press). He began by saying, "My English is very far to be perfect," and I knew exactly what he meant.

His sense of what's delicious night be perfect, though, as we got to enjoy:

Pinot Grigio Colli Orientale del Friuli DOC 2016 from Torre Rosazza

Not "mother-in-law" pinot grigio, if you know what I mean, this has some body and a bit of acid bite with lovely floral and pear notes. A fine pour alongside salad.

Chianti Classico DOCG 2013 from Querciabella

The good Doctor pointed out how this wine had "more acid, more elegance than other sangiovese" from Tuscany. It still seemed a bit tannic to me at just 4 years old, at lunch, paired with summer corn chowder with cherry tomatoes, bitsy fingerling potato, equally teensy lardon, and chipotle creme fraiche. As Cernilli pointed out, it's a classic with a "t-bone, rare of course."

Saia Nero d'Avola Sicilia DOC 2014 from Feudo Maccari

This Sicilian wine, from near Siracuse where some refreshing winds blow out from the Greek isles, evidently, was one of my favorites (the Doctor gave it a 95). Rich, full, velvety tannins, plus what he aptly pointed out was a note of capers (think a bit vegetal but with a sense of place and purpose).

Asinone Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG 2012 from Poliziano

This dream Poliziano was no cheap trick...(sorry). Doc gives it a 97. Not just a berry burst delight, but named after a poet--Angelo Ambrogini, who went by the nickname Poliziano, a variation of his place of birth, Montepulciano. Ah, Italy--poetry and wine go hand-in-hand back to the Renaissance.

Barolo Classic Multi-single vineyards DOCG 2013 from Pio Cesare

DoctorWine called it a "more rustic pinot noir, not in its DNA but in its taste and character," and that seemed fair. 100% Nebbiolo, it had a lovely floral quality for all its tannic structure (two years of barreling aging too).

Roggio del Filare Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC 2012 from Velenosi

To confuse things, if you don't know Italian viticulture well, while the town of Montepulciano mostly grows sangiovese, there's also a grape montepulciano, and that's the feature in the wine from the Marche. Turns out a poet made up the word roggio, too, to describe the brightness of the sun in vineyards. The sun does wonders for this wine--bright and complex, cherry and plum, with hints of tar and oregano.

Tenuto Nuova Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2012 from Casanova di Neri

This beauty comes from what is supposedly called the heart of Montepulciano and the only horizontal valley in the area. The result is a more international-style wine, what the Doctor calls "the most powerful sangiovese in Tuscany."

Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2007 from Bertani

Nobody said this at the lunch, because, you know, lunch, but the infamous Hannibal Lecter line from the book is "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice amarone" but the producers changed the line thinking no one would know what an amarone was. (Lecter, a connoisseur, did.) North of Verona by Lake Garda, the producers take the grapes and let them dry naturally. They lose water and weight, and then go through a long fermentation, too, to get this warm and deep wine with some raisiny notes but also mint and cocoa. The Doc said, "It's particularly good with blue cheese."

All thanks to Allison Levine from Please the Palate for putting this Italian Invasion together.

*And, of course, being old and being a DJ, every time I see the name I hear this.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Sip This: Charles Heidsieck Brut 2005

If you don’t have a reason to celebrate, invent one so you can pop the cork on this elegant yet ridiculously pleasing champagne. From an acclaimed vintage, and just rounding into its form (if you are patient, wait), this 60 percent pinot noir/40 percent chardonnay blend caresses your olfactory buds with brioche and roasted nuts, and then lusciously leaves your mouth full of tart green apple, bright citrus zest, and more of the deep yeasty notes that brioche hinted at on the nose.

If you want to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Tickled at Taste

Sure, we all love the quiet, the chance to pass far from the crush, the hope there's some land and air that's ours, as much as moments are. Small towns. Hurrah! But if I told you I wanted to take you to dinner, you'd hope to hop into your hyperspace machine and head to the big city, figuring you need that cosmopolitan edge, that sense of happening, of buzz. Small towns we go to for a sense of zzz.

Unless, it seems, that small town is Plymouth, up in California's Gold Country. For we had the lucky chance to go to the very tasty Taste recently, where the food would make any city chef proud, the service was a proper mix of professional and pleasant that city waitstaff, busy for their break in whatever their real business is, sometimes can't be bothered to accomplish, and the setting was country chic without any need for quotation marks or excuses. Plus parking is easy and we were able to walk in at 7:30 pm on a Friday night without reservations!

Since it seemed every table around us was doing it, we opted to split a serving of the appetizer mushroom cigars (see the photo above), phyllo wrapping crimini, shiitake, oyster mushrooms, fresh herbs, with the cigar than perpendicularly posted onto your plate with a dab of mashed potato. Needless to say, there's a reason the photo is of my plate in the middle of getting devoured, as I forgot my journalistic duty just wanting to chow down. Earthy goodness.

Then, I ordered my main doing the opposite thing--checking out the sides of the dish and then letting the protein slab be a sort of surprise. Here's what caught my eye: Up Country Farms shishito peppers, grilled peaches, house made chorizo, cornbread crouton. Sounded like summer in a place that knew what summer is at its best. That yumminess sat around a Beeler Farms pork chop, cooked a bit more medium than I would have ordered, but I would have been wrong, in this case. So moist, with some good crispiness, too. And, they didn't do that death by piggie product thing that happens so often when you order chops--there was plenty to eat, but I didn't feel like I had bought my next two evening's dinners, too.
Chryss wound up with Ora King Salmon with roasted marble potato, haricot vert, butter toasted almonds, whole grain mustard beurre blanc that knew exactly where to draw the mustard line, a dish with classic roots and contemporary delivery. I say wound up, as she hoped to order the local trout special, but it got bought out between her order getting taken and the chance to fire it. The clever solution? Next to her salmon, Taste gave her all the sides that were to come with the trout, too, so she got the dish fishless. A clever consolation.

And while the mains were city-priced ($33 and $35 respectively), that is without having to add to the bill buying sides, at least. The wine list, leaning towards Amador County as it should (isn't it nice when restaurants support their local wine country? hint hint), was very fairly priced, though. I couldn't resist one of the by the glass offerings, a 2011 Scherrer Pinot Noir from the Platt Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast that was a mere $12. A bold beauty at low alcohol, it was a perfect match for both the mushrooms and the pork, but what would you expect from Fred Scherrer, who did time as Dehlinger's winemaker.