Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Around the Table: Chefs in Santa Barbara

Every once in a while I have the good fortune to have Visit Santa Barbara ask for some work. In that vein, here's a n article I did for them based around three quick Q&As of some of our best local chefs, talking about ho great it is to be a local chef in this, uh, locality. So consider this one more start and a nudge.

When legendary chef John Downey put farmer Tom Shepherd’s name on his menu in the mid-1980s, he kicked off a trend not only for Santa Barbara, but the entire world. This region has been all about farm-to-table since long before that term became marketing catnip. Visit any local farmers markets, and you’re sure to bump into chefs loading carts with just-picked produce. And of course, the Pacific is rich with seafood, while the county’s vineyards produce some of California’s top wines.

Three of the region’s top chefs dish on the region’s bounty: Alexander La Motte, Hotel Californian; John Cox, The Bear and Star; and Greg Murphy, bouchon Santa Barbara.

Want to read the rest then do so at the Visit Santa Barbara website.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

SB Poets Take Ireland: Day 3

Welcome to a day where we saw a lot, including our rental car's "check tire pressure light," which we finally figured out you could just reset on the car computer. But given trying to figure out how many miles/kilometers you'd driven on the same dash was so hard it took two guys at the rental agency to figure it out when we showed back up in Dublin with our Volvo S60, we didn't end up feeling too badly about being slow. (Not that that later knowledge helped us when we had views like this from the car while our dashboard blink dire dread.)


Didn't. That part's easy.


Late in the day, but amazing, the top, very garret-y floor of a house right on the River Erne between the Upper and Lower Lough Erne. But, with all that, really a mere 5 minute drive into downtown Enniskillen. Everything you want an Air BnB to be--seemed just renovated or built, too, so very clean and fresh. And then this view.

Happily, we would be here two nights, almost a luxury on this trip.


We started off with the buffet breakfast included at the Dillons Hotel, full of Irish breakfasty things like sausage and rashers and potatoes and grilled half tomatoes (they were at every breakfast, some better grill-melted than others, and we grew to love them).

Lunch was leisurely, mostly as the one server in the very uncrowded Arnolds Hotel Restaurant in Dunfanaghy (see Toured below) disappeared a bunch, perhaps in search of the missing apostrophe in the establishment's name. Still, it was a lovely respite with a view of a gorgeous garden, which happens in summer in a place that has this unusual thing called rain. (Perhaps that's an Irish word.) We didn't take photos of the food, I'm not sure why, but I had a ploughman's lunch, as I had to as I'd been in the country for three days, hadn't had one yet, so risked deportation. The key to this cheese sandwich is not really the cheese but the relish, and theirs was very good, both sweet and pickly at once. Chryss had an open-faced salmon sandwich that went down swimmingly.

Dinner came at too much car time/cranky time, so we were happy to end up in The Horseshoe and Saddlers, the upstairs more bistro-y, less pub-y part that had a very proud display of its desserts including mighty, the size-of-your-head meringues, we did not partake of. Instead we chowed down on some pretty straight-ahead and pleasing food, because that's the kind of place it seemed to be--steak and seafood, horseshoes and saddles. I went for the sizzling T-bone with tobacco onions that came to the table like fajitas. Very tasty, especially because you could order Bearnaise, and to their credit, they didn't nickel and dime you or whatever you do in Pounds and make you pay for the sauce extra (I hate that). Plus, who doesn't love an unhealthy mound of skinny fried onions?

Chryss had the Cajun spiced salmon fillet over a bed of sweet chilli noodles and stir-fry veg, a bit of a cultural mish-mash, but tasty, as many different cultures know how to cook and the English (remember, this is the UK now) know how to steal from other cultures with the best of the Imperialists.

The manager (owner? I really don't know) was quite chatty and friendly, complete with his visit to CA story to tell us. (People like telling you about coming to our state. I get it.) Certainly a bargain meal, if nothing else, as that 14 ounce steak was just $26 and the salmon, a whole dish, please note, and not a naked entree asking you to get vegetables at $10 a pop, cost $19 (I did the conversions for you).


At lunch it looked like they had Kinnegar Scraggy Bay on tap, but unfortunately their draughts were on the fritz, so I had one in the bottle. Still, quite good, low enough in alcohol for day drinking, yet in a 500 ml bottle, so you can order one and feel you've had enough. The Irish really do having drinking down.

As for dinner at the Saddlers Bistro & Wine Bar, well, you see what's there at the end of that name, yes? Somehow it had a wine menu that made no sense to me. There was clearly wine by the glass, but none of those were marked (I ended up with 1 LRG GL RED for 4.70£). Not that I'm mister somm savvy, but when I can't tell if the pricing is by the glass or the bottle (or some carafe system not introduced to me?), it perturbs me. Especially when one of the listings is simply Chateauneuf du Pape, no vintage, no producer, and it's ridiculously affordable. Oh well.

Our favorite drinking experience of the night was checking out the off-license sales from The Horseshoe downstairs after dinner. Having never done it before, I asked the friendly barkeep what to do, and he said follow me. We all went into a 8 x 8 foot room off the bar. On one wall was a cooler with a depressing selection of beer. But behind our barkeep was Irish whiskey, so that clearly was the correct call, especially when a  375ml bottle of Powers sold for a mere $15. We nightcap nipped from that for the rest of the trip.

Oh, and the best part of the off-license was discovering that our couldn't be more than 25 years old barkeep wanted to move to the U.S., but to northern Texas or Oklahoma. Our quizzical looks about that location led him to explain--he wanted to become a tornado hunter, even knew a friend who died as one, so he felt he had the other guy's unfinished business to do. We got a lot for that $15 bottle of booze.


While still in Letterkenny, we decided to explore a bit, given there was a church like this one, on a hill, as that's what the religious do to lord over you, after all.

I'm just happy to see that first, it's named for two saints, as if just one won't do, and second, it might be named for two because St. Eunan and St. Columba, well, is there such a thing as D-list saints? (And here we pause to hear my mom turning over in her very Catholic grave. Sorry, Mom.) We do love us some old graveyards, though.

And a view, who doesn't like those? (That was the typical Irish sky, by the way; perhaps a threat, but more likely just posing for dramatic effect.)

Then we decided to test our ability to drive on roads that look like bike lanes, heading as north as we could go with an ultimate goal--to loop Horn Head on the Wild Atlantic Way (rejected slogan: if the sea spray doesn't dampen you, you might just wet yourself). That's how we ended up at lunch in Dunfanaghy (see above), where a group of horses, some clearly island ponies (that's what more horse knowledgeable Chryss called them, don't ask me), strolled in across the shallow bay like some mirage.
As a place where sky, land, and sea meet at odd angles, Horn Head is high on the sublime list, indeed, making one wish one had purer poetic thoughts to even scratch the capture surface of something so stunning. Here's a photo of it, not doing it enough justice, and then some people in the way of the view, as it's the 21st century and that's what humans do now.
I've never been more north; that's something. (And yes, I'm wearing a t-shirt from Australia, when I'd been most south, for what that's worth.)

And as spectacular as that was, the view back down from the Head across the bay to Dunfanaghy, if you like how people add to the landscape, well, not bad.

So we drove, headed for Glenveagh National Park to hike about Lough Veagh.

We fell in love with it lough, stock, and castle, especially as it had a dog. (Our dogs never bring us flowers, but then again, they're not made of stone. That would make them a tad bit quieter, I'd imagine.)

OK, the real story of the castle is a downer. While it's been part of a national park and open to the public since 1986, its original builder/owner John Adair kicked with police help over 240 tenants off their land that he wanted to be his. Somehow he wasn't much liked. He died in 1885, only 12 years after the castle was finished (justice? health care Republicans hope we can have in the US soon? you decide), but his wife kept beautifying the place, especially with all the pesky peasants out of the way. So, yes, verdant gardens.

You can hike a lot around the castle, which we didn't go in. But from the right vantage point, you can seem so much greater than a mere mansion on steroids.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Bright Lights, Black Market

And we take a break from our irregularly scheduled Irish programming to bring you crispy spring rolls you really need to have from a spot much closer, Studio City. For before the amazing, he's a national, if still quite edgy treasure Randy Newman show at the Hollywood Bowl last night, we finally got to Black Market Liquor Bar, under the watchful eye of executive chef Antonia Lofaso (you might remember her from two Top Chef seasons). It's just down Ventura Boulevard from Barrel & Ashes (which somehow I have never written about, sorry), which makes this an enviable neighborhood for eats.

Those are some of the better spring rolls I've ever had, so it was no surprise to see servers bringing them out to pretty much every table in the wonderful room with a brick-barreled ceiling and fans run by old-school pulleys. Cool in so many ways. As for the spring rolls, they were crispy indeed, without any oily ooze, and stuffed with flavor, shiitake as umami stars. Your server suggests you wrap the roll in lettuce and add Thai basil, mint, and cilantro, so you get all that fresh herb kick (should be even more of those, actually, and fewer of the bean sprouts, but that might just be my particular palate talking). Here's hoping you're with a loved one sharing these, as that meager spoon isn't going to do; you're going to want to dip, and sloppy seconds and more, your roll in the yummy nuoc mam sauce, ripe with fish sauce and vinegar and lime.
Next we did the kale salad because California. It comes with pickled shallot, pecorino romano, bottarga, crushed egg, and the last three sort of do an unusual, no mayo gribiche thing, so picking them apart is tricky. But it's all direct, simple, and delish, so you won't mind, unless you need to feel you're paying for salted, cured fish roe.
You might have figured this is mostly a shared plates place, because you're smart and that's what we did. So here's perhaps the star of the evening (which means something): smoked ocean trout, ciabatta, pickled baby veg, quail egg. Think of it as an open faced, less Provencal Nicoise, with smoked trout standing in for tuna and you're sort of on the right track. While beautifully composed, it also was deliciously mixed together, so, for instance, you got a bit of pickled baby green bean with some of that superb smoked fish, and eggs the right size to match.
And then there's the crispy mackerel, that's truly crispy even in a bunch of sauce, redolent of coconut, cilantro, ginger, green papaya, peanut, chili, and lime. Now, there might be too much accoutrement, and not enough fish (particularly at $24), but my god was that unctuously oily fish scrumptious. And it's not like the last seven ingredients can really go wrong, especially as the dish also is braced by enough vinegar to keep a spiky sour spine through every bite.

And I didn't even mention the pleasing cocktails. We would go back, but while it's closer than Ireland, it's still a bit of a drive.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

SB Poets Take Ireland: Day 2

For a quick summary of what's up this day, we motored from Dublin to Letterkenny, Donegal, a three-and-a-half or so hour drive that takes you in and out of the UK on the way (and the borders are unarmed, mostly unmarked--think of their history, and no walls). And, it's time for the first of the seven readings!


This day's event was hosted by North West Words, a wonderful organizations of poets and writers that hosted the PLs with a grant even, as part of their 2018 Arts Council funded series. They have great posters to stand next to.

Organizer Deirdre McClay was a gracious host, even getting us a place to stay. The program was emceed by the drily witty Eamonn Bonner, who gave away poetry books and wine for trivia questions, such as, "What's the distance between Santa Barbara and Letterkenny?" (5,069 miles, if you were wondering.)

David, Paul and Chryss decided to do a round-robin style reading, where their goal was to come up with a poem that somehow connected to the previous poet's work. Soon we learned such segues might be a tad tenuous--"my poem, too, it turns out, has words" kind of thing--but that only added to the fun. And the three PLs exhibited their very different approaches and styles; David the sharp-eyed cynic; Paul offering odes to nature; Chryss displaying a mastery of form and feminism.

The full artistic program of the evening also featured local singer Hannah McCosker, who not only wins busking contests, but just happens to be studying medicine in her non-musical time. Eamonn joked for our group he asked her to play older songs--a highlight was her slow-burn gender turn on Bruce's "I'm on Fire."
A particularly fun part of this evening is that North West Words asked the SB PLs to send a poem each that Irish poets could then write response poems too. It was fascinating to see the Santa Barbaran works seed others' thoughts. Even better it got all of us introduced to Teresa Godfrey, a very talented writer who will be back in this story when it gets to Enniskillen, where she lives.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the great site for this event, Florence Food Co.,  a just hip enough coffee shop with plenty of space for an event like this one but even more the heart to hold it. Plus, check out the photos on this wall and think about its name.


One of our three nights in hotels on the trip, all paid for. (That's correct, people paid for poets to stay someplace. Civilized countries.) Dillons was a fine place to spend a night, a couple of blocks down Letterkenny's main street from the reading, and a few the other way to our dinner the next section, eventually.


Since we need to start with breakfast in Dublin. We were so impressed with the Winding Stair the first night that we returned to its sister restaurant Woollen Mills for breakfast. To be honest we spied it out the evening before, mostly hoping to poach WiFi, but then we got instantly intrigued by the food on display.

Supposedly James Joyce worked in the building back in the day when it was its name and not a restaurant with its name (kind of the US equivalent of naming the new housing tract Christmas Tree Farms....), so there's that. More importantly for today, well, just look at that photo. Killer coffee, lovely baked goods. Scone better than croissant, but hey, what country are we in after all? What was I thinking?

Lunch proved there's plenty of meh in Ireland if you don't bother to look for it and just stop into a town and try a luncheonette. About half way between Dublin and Letterkenny is Monaghan, a cute town if sort of undistinguished (especially in a one hour visit), so we picked Caroline's there and have a perfectly serviceable lunch. Here's fish and chips and mushy peas, if you please.

Dinner, though, more than made up for the ok lunch. The Lemon Tree Restaurant is in an odd spot in Letterkenny, down off the main street backed up to a mall that seems to only contain shops that are going out of business, like it was designed to be a mall for the lost. And then this place. Larger and a tad fancier than you'd expect given the town and even more so they actual location by the mall of the dead, but not stuffy at all, either. And, like many places in Ireland, they do an early evening menu that turns out to be a "you will eat more than you should" bargain--first course and main for 20 Euros.

All six of us were eating together, and we feasted.

That's a fish cake, definitely mostly seafood and little filler,with some piquant tartar sauce and just enough of a salad to add a bit of crunch. Even more adventurous was their beetroot (it seems crucial in Ireland to call it by its full name so no one things you're just serving the greens) salad, complete with a beetroot ice cream in the center, delicious, unusual creaminess to set off the earthiness of the rest of the plate.

For a main I couldn't resist the nationalist call-to-arms that is Irish steak burger, matured Irish cheddar, Irish bacon, brioche bun, and chunky chips. I'm not sure why they didn't insist the chips were from Irish potatoes, beyond, I guess, that's just given. Oh, and that tomato compote, so much more than a ketchup (sorry, Paul!).

It truly was the kind of burger that hits every "that's what a burger should be" sensor--very flavorful beef cooked to the right medium rare temp, cheese that had a bit of bite, bacon that you really had to bite. Chryss, shaming meat-eating me, went with the veggie dish, which was no less lush, though, mushroom arancini, parmesan, mushrooms,toasted almonds, buttered broccoli.


Not a big drinking day, to be honest, and one of the lessons learned back at the bar at Dillons after the reading for a nightcap was even good breweries, when they start trying to expand the brand, can end up making Ireland's Blue Moon. (I'm looking at you Guinness's Hop House 13 Lager.) Another fascinating lesson was you can consume liquor cheaper than ale; a Guinness cost 4.70€ when a Powers on the rocks cost a mere 4.40. Drink hard, my friend.

Or drink one of my favorite beers on the trip, and not just for the goofy art or the grungy name--Hairy Bollocks (please, trust me, don't Google this name brand, especially at work). Sure, I might enjoy this American style pale ale as its features Cascade hops, but it's just darn tasty, and all at a mere 5%. And I dare you not to giggle when you learn the following from their website: "Boghopper Brewery is an independently owned micro-brewery situated in the town of Muff, on the Inishowen peninsula’s Wild Atlantic Way."


Please look closely at Chryss's left wrist. Thank you, Hertz, for life-saving jewellery.

For the most part driving wasn't too bad (I'll save the scariest for later). The highways are very well taken care of, the only bad thing is suddenly a divided comfy roadway can become one lane each way and still be a major-ish road. Plus they like to paint the lines dividing such a road with white paint, which here in the States usually means that's all in one direction. That's a bad thought to have in Ireland. And then there were some odder things, like trying to figure out what this sign meant:

Wear a coonskin cap? Beware caterpillars on the road? Eventually, thanks to nature doing what the sign meant to warn us of, we figured out it was the sign for gusty winds. It wasn't a breeze to figure that out.

Speaking of the weather, as I said, it's such a scarily literate country, and that covers their weather forecasts, too. I'm not sure any of my poems reach the gorgeous heights of this posting in the Dillons elevator. Ah, ambiguity passes like a sudden cloud.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

SB Poets Take Ireland: Day 1

It's time for a tale, as three of Santa Barbara's Poets Laureate decided to book a 7 events in 9 nights tour of Ireland because the town's former mayor, Helene Schneider, had a great time at Dick Mack's Pub in Dingle once. (That's the simplest way to put it. There's plenty of un-simple to come, so let's just move on.) Please join me as I chronicle the trip, featuring David Starkey (PL III: 2009-2011), Paul Willis (PL IV: 2011-13), Chryss Yost (PL V: 2013-15) and their spouses, one of whom is me (a non-laureated poet--think of me as Stu Sutcliffe without the aneurysm). So expect some travel, lots of poet-talk, and, of course, food. George Eats knows no boundaries.

So Chryss and I red-eyed into Dublin with a day to spend before the tour took off.


David, who did the heavy-lifting of booking the tour, discovered you've got to slam to perform in the big cities, and our PLs are gentle folk, even when they write bitter things about old you know who in the White House. So no performances in Dublin (or Belfast or Galway).


We mostly Air BnB'ed our way about the two countries, and above you see the view of the Liffey from our first evening in Dublin. Great location, mere minutes from all sorts of sites I'll get to in a different heading. (Sections: they give shape and squeeze you too.) The place itself was a bit down on its heels, a tad shabby, but heck, you wouldn't want Shane McGowan to have pearly perfect whites now, would you? It's Dublin, it's supposed to be a bit dirty and dear. And there's something almost comforting when a building's hallway smell (what was it? cleaner that didn't quite do its job?) doesn't follow you into the apartment you're renting.


So this is the part you've expected from a blog named after me being gluttonous. We got off the red eye and the bus to town hungry, with stomachs in different time zones, but wandered into Bewley's on Grafton Street, which is sort of Big Coffee for Ireland, but even better is in a gorgeously decked out old building, with stained glass, lovely wood; think Charles Rennie Mackintosh if he wasn't Scottish (I've ruined all of these Irish blogs now, haven't I?). And "frotties"--as the item on the coffee menu that looks like "frothy white" is pronounced. (Trying to keep track of when things go hard--"th" losing any of its "h-ness," so that number after twelve, for instance, is "tirteen"--or when things elide, for that town spelled Cobh is of course pronounced "Cove," was not easy. And we won't even get to Gaelic/Irish/Ghaeltacht until we drive out west....)

Lovely fruit scones, and then all the accoutrements--preserves, cream, butter that's practically cream. I might be wearing this breakfast still, that is if I could tell it apart from any of the other early morning moments with calories. Sure the place might be a tad touristy, but hey, we were tourists.

Then dinner, with David joining us (after he defused his rental car's wacky GPS that after five minutes auto-defaulted to the airport), was at the Winding Stair, not only named after a Yeats poem, but it also features a winding stair to the second-floor restaurant, as the first floor is a bookstore. They like writing and reading, the Irish. That's going to be a theme. It's going to be reason to want to go back. And maybe stay.

Dinner kicked off with Chryss and I sharing this Burren smokery, Terry Butterly and Stephen Kavanagh’s smoked fish plate with Dillisk bread, crème fraîche, pickled cucumbers and caper berries. That pate blending into the handle, that was the star.

The board for one could have been dinner (as it was for late-arriving David). Our love affair with Irish bread begins here, so much goodness, and not just Irish soda bread. And who would have guessed an island would provide impeccably fresh fish? Well, Chryss, for here was her main, the evening fish special.

As I remember it (it's already a month ago!), it's skate wing with peashoot tapenade and mini-leeks for just enough of that onionness such a dish requires.

While I went for a bowl of the whole ocean, as it never quite seemed to empty no matter how many shells I plucked of their sweet meatiness, steamed east coast cockles, Connemara mussels and Clogherhead crab, which was sort of reduced to a sauce but still making the bowl even richer. (Thanks Deirdre O'Connor for this wonderful restaurant suggestion.)


It's Ireland, and while of course they get annoyed about the Irish drunk image, it is an easy place to tip a pint or three. It helps most of their beers are lower in alcohol (Guinness is a mere 4.3% ABV), so certainly sessionable. And even the microbreweries--you didn't think they were only a U.S. trend, did you?--tend to take things lighter than in America. (Ah, our country, fists of ham and ales brewed from water from the Lethe.)

And while we wandered about Temple Bar the area, and saw the actual Temple Bar, we know what Santa Barbara's State Street can be on a Saturday night too, or at least remember it from our youth. So instead we had to visit Cassidy's, in honor of our daughter, and sure enough Bowie piped up on the PA within minutes of walking in. It's a perfect grungy-old-charming, scrawled with graffiti, lit with real candles pub, and indeed, the Guinness is better in Dublin, smoother, deeper, creamier.

But I have to admit I still prefer a Russian imperial stout to a dry Irish one (check the last name? check my desire to drink heavy?), so for the most part on the trip I was on the hunt for local microbrews. One of the best, per-recommended by old friend Mary Finnegan, was Kinnegar, which we failed to get to, but there bottles (and even once there drafts) were available. Particularly the Scraggy Bay IPA.
Surprising heft to it, given it's only 5.3% alcohol. Not a West Coast hop bomb, but pleasantly bitter and balanced, so a perfect food pairing. (Oh, and Winding Stair also offered some amazing wines by the glass--those cockles really washed down well with a peachy, flowery, zippy Chateau Dereszla 2014 Dry Tokaji.)

We closed the evening at the Dingle Whiskey Bar, as a sort of prelude to our visit to SB's sister city. We opted to share two flights, one Irish Pot Still and the other New Ireland, as it's good to get a lay of the malted land, no? The Irish Pot Still featured Green Spot, Powers John Lane, and Red Breast 12; the New Ireland offered Slane, Silkie, and Dingle Single Malt. For two sips or so for each of us, each seemed worth further exploration, though I had a soft spot for that Powers that left my mouth pleasantly peaty. It's a cool spot, with helpful, informed service, good tasting notes, and you pretty much feel like you're aging in a barrel yourself, given the walls are made of curved staves. Who wouldn't want to be full-flavored and complex?


So of course we saw stuff, too. Davy Byrnes before it was open, and thought of Leopold Bloom's Gorgonzola sandwich. Forget to get a photo. Didn't get to do any of the other Joyce stuff (so I have to go back!). There are churches, lots.

And everyone likes to polish the bosom of the Tart with the Cart.

Nobody polishes a scary squirrel.

And then we hung out at Trinity College, as universities have this pull on us. We visited the Book of Kells, so crowded it was hard to enjoy it as much as we knew we should. Just think about the persistence and faith and steady steady hands of those illustrators. And if you followed that link, how amazing is it there's not one image on that page of information? How academic of you, Trinity College.

I sort of preferred The Long Room, as there's nothing that beats storeys of books. Just the smell of it. It proves knowledge has a scent, a bit of past, a hint of death, and so much we don't know. All the busts are of men, though. Ah, history. And all that barreling sort of takes me back to the Dingle Whiskey Bar. Maybe aging isn't so bad.

Of course you have to watch really thinning out. For we also went to the Zoological Museum, as we're lovers of animals and the bones and taxidermy they leave behind. Most of the exhibits are old, too, so you get that lovely doubling: here's what people then thought was fascinating from an even more distant then. Like this guy.

Or our favorite, who gets a bit obscured by the glass he's behind, a sloth not that indolent to fail to express his dismay--forever, it turns out--to become a display for posterity.