Wednesday, January 4, 2017

You Need a Visit to Loquita

Smoke. A scent, a flavor, a memory. Something calling us home to a home we never had (I'm assuming I have no cave-dwelling readers). Or, perhaps we've evolved into homo ignis in a hope to return to the fire (plus of late it's been really hard to buy we've earned the sapiens, but that's a different kettle of Trump).

Take that first paragraph as a slow burn to the topic of this post--Loquita, the latest restaurant opened by Acme Hospitality, who have already graced Santa Barbara with the likes of The Lark, Les Marchands, Lucky Penny, and Helena Avenue Bakery (surely sad its name also doesn't begin with a "L"). When you walk in you can't not sense the wood-fire that's the heart of the open kitchen, waiting to make your dinner smokily luscious. And we're not talking a pizza oven, but an out-and-out grill, early in the evening's service crammed with halved lemons, their citrus crisping.

For Loquita, taking its cuisine cues from Spain, does things simply, but that word can seem so diminishing. Here it means get to delicious with the fewest amount of flourishes. Much of that is topnotch ingredients--Spain was farm-to-table before we invented hyphens. But it's also not being afraid of flavor; acids are everywhere, bright and beautiful, coming from those grilled lemons, from sherry vinegar, from the salted, preserved sea (ah, white anchovy, bait turned delicacy).

As an eating strategy you're meant to share, so pick several pintxos with your cocktails--and do have cocktails, from the currently in fashion Spanish G&Ts, which means craft gin and celery bitters and peppercorns in one option, say, to the mixed drinks, like one rooted in mezcal (more smoke) and amaro--and then a bunch of tapas, and close with a shared paella. Bring lots of friends, as it's supposed to be social, shared food a currency, a language, a love we can then all have on our tongues. (I don't mean to wax poetic, but those cocktails....)

Don't skip something like a salad, especially as it goes by Hinojo, and that means fennel. Someone plays a mean mandolin in the kitchen, it's shaved so fine, as is apple, so much crunch and vivid flavor. But there's more, if only a bit--radicchio for yet more bite, this shading to pepper. Then some walnuts, not so much candied as once neighbors to something candied--it's hard to believe they could be sweetened so delicately. The dressing is a quick coat of honey mustard vin, all written very lower case, and think how hard that is as you remember every other heavy-handed honey mustard dressing of your life. The last perfect touch, Manchego, Spain's national cheese (if it isn't officially I'm naming it that), but in little blocks, distinctly declaring their fatty cheesiness amidst the rest of the pure, insisting, "Sure, this is a salad, that's healthy, but c'mon! you're out to dinner!"

And please, for the sake of all that's holy and swims in the sea, don't skip Pescado. This is one of the best fish dishes I've had in years, and if you thought the salad was simple.... Mediterranean sea bream, aka dorade, is the star, a perfect filet with crispy skin and all of the ocean in each tasty bite. But under that there are also excellently executed gigante beans, skins solid, interiors creamy. Atop some frisee,  not just the visual curlicue the plate needs but again that pepper and zip, the latter echoed in the lemon no doubt squeezed from more of those wood-roasted fruit. Get a bit of everything in one bite and you might be in Barcelona. (Oh, I haven't meant to ignore the great remodel of the space Loquita's in--I said it was an Acme project, so you know it's going to be designed elegantly. Try to get a seat at the "chef's table" bar right along the kitchen, so you can watch everything else you won't be able to eat get prepared, too.)

I don't mean to pooh-pooh the paella, which was lovely, especially the lowest rice level done to delicious diamonds (ok, eating diamonds would hurt, but you know what I mean). But Pescado! I dream of Pescado! Even with the paella, the vegetarian paella--that's how tough we were on the kitchen, not letting them easily please us with meat or mariscos--a roasted delight, thanks to the wild mushrooms, the Brussel sprouts (what better use of them than on something blasted by an oven for heat), the eggplant melting into unctuous ghosts of itself--I still want to swim with Pescado.

And that didn't stop us from churros, because what do you take us for, penitents?

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pasta Perfect

Italian food doesn't have it easy. I mean, the tricky part is it's everywhere like air, and I say that as someone who grew up in northern Jersey, where the air is heavier. Sure, we all like air, but it's easy to take for granted, and have you tried any of that pure oxygen? And I refuse to go to more exotic places, like denying yourself air for fun.

Turns out the air is rarer at Factory Kitchen. At the outer edge of the Arts District, when you approach it for the first time you're thinking much more factory than kitchen in a desolate area where stopping at stoplights makes you a tad nervous (and to get from it to DTLA, you'll pass through Skid Row, home of its own strain of TB). Inside it's still pretty factoried-out, but the owners wanted it that way, so that's a kind of charming. And the food is so much more than charming it ends up seeming some sort of oasis, a sense that even amidst massive concrete pillars this grace can happen.

Fro grace is the only word to describe mandilli di seta, that green pasta at the top of the photo above. This handkerchief pasta is where delicious and delicate deliquesce into one thing, a miracle of pasta flavor in something so fine. It's sauced in a Ligurian almond basil pesto with none of the sharp edges you might get in some hearty pesto, even the garlic refined, and the almond flavor much more interesting than pine nuts. Then that's the whole dish. It sort of threatens you to call it too simple, but it recalls the stories of a master artist, when asked to send sample work to get a commission, simply drawing one perfect circle of paint on paper in one quick brushstroke, and saying, "Take that to your patron." Of course perfection is simple--that's exactly why it's so easy to mess up.

The rest of the meal was delightful, too, from the raviolini di pesce you also see in that photo--much heartier dough, but sitting in a "crustacean sauce" that is as wondrous as that name might suggest, plus four exactly prepared mussels, none of that overcooked shellfish issue you so often get with pasta.

We started with another essay in the brilliance of simplicity, the cremosella salad, a mound of kale (really really good baby kale) and pea shoots (all of freshness) and green beans cooked miraculously to a tender-snap (what method?) in just enough dressing. And then creamy mozzarella, which is not burrata, and I didn't know existed (and can't confirm does anywhere else, if the internet can be trusted). Instead of cream in the center, like burrata, the inside is more like a brie-consistency, but still very much mozz. Seems healthier, and the chalkiness paired well with the acid and lemon in the dressing.

We all owe Italian places an apology. Of course, given the chef here--Angelo Auriana--worked at Valentino for nearly two decades, it's not odd he can make such ethereal food.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Circumference = Hip to Be Pie2

(photo borrowed from Serious Eats)

Trying to write about a spot that's been hyped to heaven and then backlashed back to hell until everyone sort of just got some common sense and said, "Damn good!" isn't easy. So I'm going to go for the naive approach and pretend I didn't know that Roberta's in Brooklyn, or should I say Bushwick (you see, this isn't some Williamsburg or Park Slope spot), has been praised to a degree hotter than its pizza ovens run.

So I just have to say, I want one. (Turns out there's a pop-up version in Culver City in LA for a few months, and I'm very interested. Road trip!) Sure, I got to go there with three of my favorite people, so that makes it all the more special, but I think Roberta's made us all the more special, too. And that's what we want from the best restaurants, no?

Heading in, you won't think it's special, though. As the New York Times put it, it's "bunkered behind a cinder-block facade of breathtaking ugliness," plus you enter through a door into a bitty wooden-glass vestibule covered with graffiti. It would probably scare many an old person away, and by old I mean at least 40% of me. But once inside, there's that loving hearth heat of the pizza oven, loud rock 'n' roll, communal tables, and that sense of fun you almost wrinkle your nose at, it's that palpable. Heck, amidst the easily accessible (if not particularly well-priced) bottles of available wine right behind your table is A Tribute to Grace, one of CA's best Grenaches, if far too little known. I feel very happily at home.

And while the by the bottle list is a bit dear (if very well curated), the cocktails, by the glass, and beer options all are first rate, too. I enjoy a Make It Nice, the deceptively simple name for a deceptively simple drink of gin, yellow chartreuse, and Aperol that is utter delight. We share all the food, because no one would want to miss a bit of anything, and start with charred autumn greens--no not the wreckage of the Jill Stein campaign, but tops of things you often only eat the bottoms of (that sounds sexier than I meant it to be), plus roasted new potato (the freshest of bright earth), laved in, of all things, Bearnaise. Now, as a steak eater, I'm no stranger to Bearnaise, but to have it in this context was revelatory, especially as they zipped it up with some horseradish, too (those potatoes say thanks). Lovely, simple dish.

On to the pizzas. You can have one with Brussel sprouts, so, we had to have one. I mean, Brussel sprouts out of a pizza oven? If they're best roasted, how amazing could that be? Pretty much pizza perfection, especially with caramelized onions, capers, chili, lemon, and then not just mozzarella, but this cheese called Alp Blossom--nutty and green and floral. (It's called the Nun on the Run...after Julie Andrews/Maria hightailing it across the Alps with kids in curtains? I guess.)

And then there was one of the specials, which turns out to be a regular special, as you can Google it and find internet drool--the Baby Sinclair. This is the food that will make any kale hater find love for the leafy green god. Because, again, high high, quick heat. And, of course, cheese--both Parmesan and a better than usual cheddar called Prairie Breeze from Milton, IA (they did not make this when I lived in IA or I still might be there, as I'd be too fat to leave after eating so much cheese). Garlic, maitake mushrooms (notice you never get any ingredient 101 here), Banyuls vinegar. And then Calabrian chilis, enough to ratchet up the heat in that slow but heck, yep that's sort of burning way.

But I've neglected to talk dough, and, of course, to do so with pizza is like to skip talking about "oh, my! how the hell did this happen?" with our president elect who lost the popular vote by 2.5 million. Roberta's dough turned me into Colin Clive mighty fast. Elastic and lovely and salt and chew all in thin you'd think couldn't hold anything. It rivals what Nancy Silverton has come up with at Pizzeria Mozza on this coast--I'd love ot have a just out of the oven taste-off of both (and the winner is?! ME!).

I also want to give a shout out to the beer we shared a pitcher of, because, c'mon, pizza! Kings County Brewers Collective, housed mere blocks away from Roberta's in Bushwick (historically once a huge brewing center for the US, actually), based on its Robot Fish No. 2 IPA, is doing some amazing things. The beer could fall into CA's beloved Alpine's roster easily, managing to be not huge (6.1% ABV) yet full of flavor, resiny and citrusy and happy to be had with some delicious melted cheeses.

The fine beer had nothing to do with my appreciation of our server Marcus, who had the tough job of hearing us over the big booming soundtrack of the place, while not being able to be on both sides of our long picnicky table at once. He never missed an order, explained wonderfully well, was there just when you needed him. So while this might be a sort of heart of hipsterdom, there's no attitude. Plus we had the amazing luck to get right in when we showed up, but it was a Monday evening, so that probably didn't hurt. Sorry to all of you who have ever waited here, but if you finally got in, I can't imagine you were the least bit cranky upon leaving.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Just What the Apothecary Ordered

So yeah, it might seem frivolous to still blog on about food, wine, and drink while, perhaps, America as we love it gets coated in Fascist Cheeto Dust. But there are several good arguments against such a claim. First, you'll take my delicious delights when you pry them from my cold dead fingers. Second, all protest and no rest and relaxation makes George a crazed boy. Third, as the Titanic went down, Ben Guggenheim, after putting his mistress in a lifeboat, returned to his stateroom and re-appeared dressed in full evening wear. Rumor has it he also sent this message along with one of the few survivors: "If anything should happen to me, tell my wife in New York that I've done my best in doing my duty." (You read those two sentences correctly, promise.) He then had a cognac and a cigar.

Welcome to Apothéke. Hidden in the warren that is Manhattan's Chinatown (next to the oldest continually serving dim sum place in town, actually, and also recommended), it's in a spot that looks backlot, with its corners and buildings so perfectly out of Rear Window almost. But it's far from low rent: The Prescription List, as they call the menu, doesn't have prices, so there's that (drinks turn out to be $16-$18); if you can't afford the medicine, welcome to the world of Trump (bye bye ACA!).

The interior is speakeasy delightful with scientific touches (let's not call it steampunk so I can feel better about it)--rich wood floors, padded walls, low banquets, some brick, a dark tin ceiling, and lights made with apothecary-style bottles. The bartenders wear lab coats and you don't talk to them, even if you order from the bar; they're better you, and their drinks will prove it. A good half the menu attests to their devotion to absinthe, which of course adds to the thrillingly cool "is this the last bar one of Jack the Ripper's victims imbibed in" vibe.

Apothéke's drinks do something that's hard to do--surprise yet still remain drinkable. Sure, someone could spin up a never-before-tasted concoction of navy strength gin, peaty scotch, a vermouth you've never heard of, egg white, and shrimp paste, but then you realize, "Hey, there's a reason I never heard of this." And your next thought is, "And where's the bathroom?"

While adventurous, Apothéke nails balance every time in drinks that sum up their parts as opposed to give you a series of waves of tastes. Take the Faerie's Tale, made of absinthe, gin, cucumber syrup, honey, lemon, egg white--nothing too unexpected, but then also--muddled green bell pepper and watercress. That green gives the drink a striking color greener than any absinthe could, but also grounds the drink, giving it a pleasing pepper core (that watercress is peppery too).

They like their farmers market, they do; take the Stolen from Eden, made with gin, snow pea, dill, basil, pink and black peppercorn, lime, and agave. I'm not sure exactly their process in juicing the veggies, or marinating them, or whatever the process, but they consistently manage to get flavor highlights that sparkle and please without ever getting any fibrousness, or even any of the off-characters a green pepper can bring to alcohol (just ask a winemaker with too much pyrazine in their cabernet).

And how could you go wrong with a Catcher in the Rye of rye, Amaro Nonino, hand-made honey and chamomile cordial, and peated scotch mist, or with a Paid Vacation of mezcal, tequila, hickory smoked pineapple, muddled cucumber, agave, habanero bitters, and fresh lime? These are drinks just familiar enough, but then even more complex than their more familiar cousins (chamomile! hickory smoked pineapple!).

They also garnish cleverly and inventively, with a pineapple frond in that Paid Vacation, a green pepper round in the Faerie's Tale, a basil leaf balancing pink peppercorns in the Stolen from Eden like a cocktail decked out early for Christmas.

And then we had to try this one, after realizing we were in the hands, and shakers, of masters--the Siren's Call of Ford's gin (that's the house gin), roasted seaweed, cucumber, squid ink, fresh ginger, with a smoked black sea salt rim, plus a mussel shell with a pearl that turned out to be rock candy. A bit murky in look but not as black as you might guess from the squid ink, it had a bracing oceanic oomph to it while still staying in balance, with the smoky notes helping--delightful firewater, you might say. Fascinating.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Figuring the Falls

Five days after the election that couldn’t have happened, I’m standing at the edge of the Great Falls in Paterson, NJ. It’s a subtly spectacular place, as befits New Jersey, 77-feet of drop. That’s enough to be second to Niagara east of the Mississippi as something, but still almost paltry, too. You have to keep sneaking up on it to see its widest spill, so at first it’s sort of ho-hum. But you also can’t miss the noise, the thud into thunder, the basalt’s back ever broken. It’s little surprise one might decide to turn its tune into a manufacturing hum. (We’ll get to Alexander Hamilton in a sec.)

Still, trying to wrap my mind around the words President-elect Trump, it’s easy to imagine my country tumbling down the cataracts that were the heart of the nation’s original industrial core, just as this city itself fell from manufacturing grace. Paterson might be the first oxidized stop on the Rust Belt if it hadn’t just kept accepting immigrants – the turn of the 20th century Italians gave way to African-Americans to Peruvians to Turks to Muslims from across the Arab world – it’s even nicknamed Little Ramallah. My guess is they didn’t vote Donald.

But of course at the right angle the Falls’ spray wisps into vivid rainbow, so there’s that. Always the soupçon of hope. Of course we’re visiting in the fall, so the Falls themselves are less great than they can be post winter run-off, but as a Californian now, a lack of water simply seems the norm. Everything American that should be abundant has seemed to run dry – care for others, community reaching to larger community, common sense, and out west, even water. Like the clouds can’t even bring themselves to cry for us.

But Paterson is a practical palimpsest of almighty America. It really was the cradle of U.S. industry, largely thanks to Hamilton’s vision and the elegantly named Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, shorted to the acronym SUM even though it didn’t quite fit (and somehow that’s American too). Lin-Manuel Miranda has done the rest of the work for Hamilton, of course, but as the National Parks pamphlet puts it, “In Paterson, Hamilton created what we have come to call the American Dream.”

The town was Silk City into the early 20th century, it manufactured so much fabric, looms zipping with hydro-power, immigrants finding jobs, owners wanting more and more. So, of course, strikes. These did not go well – police bashed strikers mostly fighting for an eight-hour day. And manufacturing got too good for workers, as even then they got replaced by machines, or their jobs got shipped south. Nobody made them any protected trade deals.

But there’s more, for also near the Falls sits Hinchcliffe Stadium, either a ruin or a National Trust for Historic Preservation rescue – only time will tell, although time might need to count on more private than public donations in the years ahead (does a Trump administration, led by a man who thinks things dipped in gold are the height of style, seem like a source for funds for preservation?). This decaying Art Deco stadium housed two different Negro Leagues teams over the decades, and was where Paterson-born Larry Doby, the first African-American to play in the American League, got his start.

And then there’s William Carlos Williams, as we, of course, need to add poetry to race to religion to labor to history to sing our American tune. Not only from the town, he penned a poem after it, nearly 250 pages long (in its final form). They let him have a quote painted on a wall across from the Falls, painted as tall as the Hamilton statue, although no Broadway show has extolled the dear doctor. Even I have to admit his Paterson is a tough literary nut to crack, despite so many wonderful runs in it. And now we’re to be led by this deeply unserious man, one for him reading a book seems Herculean, let alone poetry. Even the most erudite of presidents never got the country to love the word (did you know Jimmy Carter is interviewed in a documentary about James Agee, just as a fan?).

Have I said I was born here, too? Across Route 80, but our interstate system didn’t exist then, at St. Joe’s. And my dad long co-owned a machine shop in town, a perfect sort of US history circle – he, son of a coalminer, got his share knowing a family whose patriarch worked machine parts in the silk mills.

Why does it seem to me all this Paterson matters now? How could it not, a sum of all we’ve democratically dreamed. The question becomes does that dream look forward or back. Here’s how Williams put it:
Doctor, do you believe in
“the people,” the Democracy? Do
you still believe – in this
swill-hole of corrupt cities?
Do you, Doctor? Now?

                                     Give up
the poem. Give up the shilly-
shally of art.
And a bit later in the poem:
                          The fact
of poverty is not a matter of argument. Language
is not a vague province. There is a poetry
of the movements of cost, known or unknown .
That odd floating period of his. Must we wait to end? Or must the end wait for us?

We live in a land where many are pissed. The hopeless fly-over country that elitist me is not supposed to get. Yet I understand these people are tired of promises, especially since politicians haven’t even done that of late. So it’s easy for them to turn to the one who doesn’t really promise, as he has no plans. He just asserts, and all those not wanting to trek miles over a map – why should they go anywhere? – applaud the “you are there” they’ve felt they had and lost.

My fear is there’s something before the period, though.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Sound of Your Voice Yanks My Neck on Its Chain

Can't wait to see Neko Case, tonight, at UCSB Campbel Hall (thanks UCSB Arts & Lectures!). Even better, Eric Bachmann and Jon Rauhouse are opening--their duet album just out is lovely.

So here's a review I posted of a Case show--with Bachmann opening--back in 2007. I still feel the very much same.

It's hard not to half suspect if you see Neko Case live she won't be able to pull it off. If I have to explain "it" you just need to go listen--there's a reason her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood floated onto so many album of the year lists, and that reason begins with her voice. It's one thing to list all the different folks it can suggest, from Patsy Cline here to Dusty Springfield there, but its sum is much more than any reference. Somehow she can intimately belt, draw you near and blow you away all at once. Of course there's beauty to it, but there's ever an edge, a bend or a smear of that perfect note, another woman's voice (and not just any woman, usually Kelly Hogan, a fine chanteuse herself) joining in to up the volume, ante up the angst. It's easy to imagine she pulls this off through studio trickery, or at the least through endless takes added up to get that seemingly simple effort (if I remember right, that's how they had to piece together Linda Thompson's vocal for "Walking on a Wire" on the incomparable Shoot Out the Lights, as she was suffering from panic/anxiety attacks).

Well, Case can do it live, folks, and how. This Saturday at the Henry Fonda in Los Angeles she performed a flawless set, to the point of running through back-to-back-to-back songs that would have been enough of a show for me: "Maybe Sparrow," "The Tigers Have Spoken," and "I Wish I Was the Moon." That's: a moving metaphor folk tune with some surprising force about how the world is tough for little things (and I didn't cry, but my throat lumped but good at song's end); a jangly (it's an overused term, but nothing fits that catchy guitar figure better) alt-rock song about how the world is tough for big fearsome but tender things; and a country torch and twang number about how the world is tough on Neko Case, but she can sure still belt about it. Those "be the one"s that repeat near the end of "I Wish"--how could any lover forsake her? Perhaps they are just too much need for one to survive in life, if not too much for performance, and it's a real danger to mix the two.

Opening act Eric Bachmann had the nerve to perform while so many concert-goers were trying to have conversations. It's a real shame, though, for Bachmann has put out many of the best songs of the past 13 years, first as the leader of Archers of Loaf (the Voidoids of the '90s), then as the major digit of Crooked Fingers, and now his first true solo album (and that's ignoring the two Barry Black discs that are terrific instrumental forays). He performed solo, but still projected, speeding up his acoustic-guitar based songs just a teensy bit. He's sort of become an American Richard Thompson 20 years younger--made his name in a band, writes great songs, plays electric and acoustic marvelously, has a voice that's not pretty (in Bachmann's case, think Neil Diamond's pipes bristled with Brillo), but matches perfectly with the songs. Plus he closed with "New Drink for the Old Drunk," one of the grandest wallows in recorded music.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Re:Find Finds New Home

Once you start looking for ways to repurpose things, you can find opportunities everywhere. Take Alex and Monica Villicana, owners of Villicana Winery in Paso Robles. In 2011 Alex came up with the clever idea to take the bleed-off grapes early in the wine process — the saignée, which is often used to make rosé, or worse, just dumped — as the base for distilling spirits. And why not? Eastern Europe uses the potato because it’s cheap and plentiful, not for any intrinsic reasons.

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