Sunday, May 21, 2017

No Miss Steak

Here's the danger about waiting six weeks to write about a dinner at a place that really truly is seasonal (yeah, yeah, everyone is seasonal now, which is why people are serving tomatoes like it's summer already)--going through PYT's current menu, only two things we had back in April are still on the menu and one is our dessert. So that's going to make this write-up a bit more impressionistic and less specific, but no less praise-full. For what Josef Centeno is doing at PYT (which might stand for Pretty Young Turnip), the mostly vegetarian restaurant he's carved out of the charming old school, mosaic-tiled Ledlow space downtown, is a delight. It's the kind of place you want to bring those who don't think vegetarian food is compelling; they will leave feeling both full, and very differently about the essential need for animal protein on a plate.

 OK, so that's a salad. The "greens' in this case are bok choy, grilled a bit, but then you can see how much other flavor joins them, from sultanas to what was called a snow of cheese. Fresh herbs. So much life in one dish. But with the bit of cooking on the bok choy, just enough sense of the seasons changing, too, spring warming out of winter.

 This plate might be even harder to read as a photo, but it's favas seriously seasoned and aside feta and dill and bread to scoop it all up, a sort of nod to hummus that's not so much deconstructed as un-constructed, so heartier, each element announcing itself to you as you ate it. You would be a fool not to welcome it back.
Then this, called morels and ramps. We sort of had to get it, given how you can't really buy either as just ingredients in Santa Barbara (why are we such a touch town in which to find interesting mushrooms?). If I recall correctly, there's sesame seed in there--he seems to like to dribble some seeds atop things to bring flavors together--and again, this truly sang spring.

 And those seeds are back for the hand-torn pasta, an exercise in the joys of texture. There's nothing quite like the pull-chew of "live" pasta, and this dish had that down. Centeno also finds wonderfully complementary matches from across the Pacific rim to make unusual, memorable flavors--here it's shisito peppers giving the cream a bit of zip, but then there's yuzu, and cilantro, and brown butter, and mint. Bright, brighter, brightest. Talk about figuring out how to make pasta seem not in the least bit a heavy dish.
That's dessert--peanut pudding, whipped cream, salty caramel. Perhaps the one less pleasing dish of the night, but then again, it didn't have any veggies. (Plus it could have more salty caramel, because what couldn't.)

Still, we'd go back in a sec to see what's the best stuff just fresh from the fields meant to taste even more like its own loveliness.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Bar 29 Woos Evening Drinkers

So what do you do for a sequel when you own two of the best beloved dive bars in town? Go a bit upscale. That’s the latest move for Phil and Kourtney Wright, who have owned The Sportsman (hey, Nerf Herder has immortalized it!) and Whiskey Richards and have now opened Bar 29 & Kitchen in the old Hungry Cat space.

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sushi Gets Along Swimmingly with Star Lane

If you're like me, dear reader, when it's 4 o'clock you have this struggle--what in the world do I want for dinner? And when you figure it out, at 4:30, you're all proud of yourself. You have a plan.

Let me introduce you to the world of the Dierbergs, the family behind Dierberg Star Lane. They've got a 250 year plan.

Now, we could all feel embarrassed about our lack of future thought, or we could have a glass of one of the many fine Dierberg/Star Lane wines and contemplate the future in a more pleasant place. I vote for that plan, and would do so for 250 years, if I only could.

The Dierbergs have managed to buy some of the most wonderful wine-growing property Santa Barbara County has to offer, from the Dierberg Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley to the Drum Canyon Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills to the Star Lane Vineyard in Happy Canyon. Add those three prime locations up and even someone with no wine knowledge could stumble upon some good pinot, chard, sauv blanc, and cab. But, of course, you don't kick off a 250 year plan with a someone as your winemaker.

Nope, the Dierbergs hired Tyler Thomas, stealing him from the more famous wine counties up north, which shows a certain sense of commitment. Thomas has one of those stories--French grandmother, wine at the table, college years studying botany and getting into cooking. Then, after marrying young, he and his wife traveled the world, only to land in New Zealand and discover winemakers. It seemed like a cool career.

Fast forward through a Master's from Davis (viticulture and enology) and an ornery mentor, Mark Matthews, author of Terroir, and Other Myths of Winegrowing, with whom he didn't always see eye-to-eye, and that feisty back-and-forth made him a better winemaker. For as Thomas puts it, "In wine school, you tend to learn how to do stuff to wine, and that's not always good."

He got practice learning not to do too much at Hyde de Villaine in Napa and Donelan in Sonoma, but the Dierbergs came wooing, and once he saw the properties, and heard of their desire for a long-range plan, he couldn't say no. So now they get to do things like plant all sorts of clones to see which grow best ("it takes 25 years to see what clones work on your site"), and to experiment with stem inclusion (he's a fan, in moderation), and to age in oak vs. maloactic fermentation to find what creates more "body," and to see what different barrels can do, and to grow grapes at different elevations (thank you, rising Happy Canyon topography), you name it.  If there's a best way to make a wine, Thomas and his team will find it.

In addition to the magnificent sites to grow the grapes in the first place, and that they've even got 15 acres of own-rooted vines in Happy Canyon (did I mention they have 40% of the planted acreage in that Bordeaux-blessed area?) since it's protected enough from phylloxera (plus they have to water less, and the flavor profiles seem more classic, with richer textures), they've got a half acre of caves to age the wines in perfect conditions. There's something nearly religious about a place like this, as if you can feel the growth and change about you amidst the silence of the barrels.

They're also after perfect pairings, so let a bunch of us heathens, uh, journalists, in for a tasting with Chef Kiminari Togawa from Sushi Karaku in Tokyo. Alas, I have not been to Japan, so don't know the culinary highlights, but a family came from Japan to this event as they like Togawa so. That's dedication. (Here I go with my limited knowledge, but they sort of looked like a couple from Tampopo.)

The point was to prove you can have red wine with fish. It helps that Togawa does Edomae sushi, the older version that has been pushed aside by what we now know of as sushi (but that's only 50 years or so old). That means fish that's pickled, marinated, even sometimes slightly quickly cooked, yet still sushi. You don't dip this into soy and wasabi, as it's got all its proper flavor pre-packed, as it were. It looks like simple nigiri, but my god, do those flavors last and last--one way it certainly works with red wine, as it finished as fine and long as a delicious cabernet.

Take the pickled red maduro (tuna red meat) in soy alongside the chu-toro (fatty tuna) sprinkled with wine salt (photo above). The maduro glistens for a reason, hinting at its richness. It almost had red beets depth, and sure enough their handy flavor profile matching chart nailed the fish's iodine and iron core. Then the wine salt on the chu-toro excellently bridged sea and grape in one tasty bite. These two paired so well with the pinots, one from Santa Maria--the 2014 Dierberg Vineyard--and the other from Sta. Rita Hills--the 2014 Drum Canyon. Guess which one had more salt air, to match? You see how this can be, done, don't you.

Of course, there was even more, brilliant non-sushi bites between the courses, like a king crab mille feuille that had no pastry, but lots of crab, plus bonus salmon because why not, and then that rich zip of spinach for both color contrast and earthiness.

Or this modestly named oil marinated salmon with tomato water, that somehow left out the salmon roe atop that gave the dish a crazy series of bright bursts.

So does sushi go with red wine? You bet. And I'm pretty sure it would even not in a stone cellar setting, made by a chef flown in from Tokyo for the event, with wine poured from a producer with a 250 year plan. (How did I not get to the mirin marinated conger eel and the 2011 Star Lane "Astral"? Was it because I gave up on notes and was reduced to grunting with pleasure?)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sip This: Bluecoat Gin

If you’ve been looking for a way in to gin but don’t appreciate the fresh smack of pine many can provide, Bluecoat could be the spirit for you. Of course, its main botanical is juniper — it is a gin, after all — but Philadelphia Distilling has opted to go for a less piney juniper berry....

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

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Paso Robles Gets Posh

Allegretto Vineyard Resort in Paso Robles is one of those places that packs a lot of surprises upon your arrival. It's really only a hearty stone's throw from the 101/46 interchange (assuming an NFL quarterback is throwing the stone), but is more removed from its busy nearby world than you might imagine. Part of that is the building turns inwards on a magnificent courtyard named, not immodestly but not inaccurately, either, the Piazza Magica. Inside it, or from one of the rooms that have little porches onto it, it's easy to imagine you're in Italy or Spain, statues, stone, already mature plantings. Even better, they wisely didn't put the pool in the courtyard, making it more private in its location behind the hotel on a rise ringed by green, and thereby saving all the guests the happy, if often over gregarious, joy that is a pool in use. (One word: kids.)

Throughout the public areas, expect so much art, from some many different regions and eras, that you might feel a bit overwhelmed (they even hope to offer art tours of the resort soon). At times it seems too inspired by nearby Hearst Castle. So, yes, it's a tad over the top, but that's why we go to resorts and note just mere hotels, no? This is the first resort the Ayres chain has opted to do, and Paso of all places could use it as its wine country grows in number and acclaim. Think rooms with ridiculously high ceiling space (14 feet? more?), very fine linen, lovely wood floors. Walls built to keep the others staying there out, even the slightest whispery hint of them.

It's worth a walk of the grounds, too, especially if you're interested in bocce--there are two courts--or simply the glory of light in a serene place--the Abbaye de Lerins (their names are a bit precious) is no less gorgeous despite that name, as the day's light plays through its stained glass, making magic on the walls opposite. Best of all, you can have it to yourself often for some moments of quiet contemplation.

If you'd rather contemplate grapes, that Vineyard part isn't just for show in the resort's name. The tasting room just off the lobby offers the Allegretto line, from grapes on this property even (it's 20 acres total) and some in the famed Willow Creek district. They even do a Tannat, which wins them wine geek points.

That rustic Tannat is a particularly fine pair with the luscious lamb I got to enjoy at Cello, the farm-to-table focused restaurant on site that's whipping up some impressive dinners. Perfectly cooked and well crusted with herbs, it was a carnivore's delight. Not that the pescatarian won't feast, too, what with a ridiculously rich crab pasta featuring snow crab claws, jalapeno, and Allegretto Viognier butter. (There are even raw vegan zucchini noodles--the place aims to please eaters of all sorts.) Whatever your desire, expect there to be some wine cooked into the meal somehow, which seems more than fitting.

Don't pass on the cocktails, either, complex creations like a then seasonal (it's taken me awhile to write this!) Campfire that begins with the bartender setting a mini-slab of applewood afire and corralling the smoke into your cocktail glass. To that he will add Whistlepig Rye (nice brand call), Averna (way to be on the Amaro bandwagon), plus a housemade vanilla and chai tincture, heavy on the chai. It was something.

As is the whole Allegretto experience. I can only imagine how wonderful it will be once it has some ghosts in it, as it's the kind of place that deserves a happy haunting.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Little Something for Jonathan Demme

I'm still processing Jonathan Demme's death, as he seemed someone so alive, always working, exploring, changing, growing. So in the meantime I dug out this, the essay I did on Something Wild as part of my MA/W nonfiction prose thesis way back in 1988.


            At a recent screening of The Manchurian Candidate, my friends and I were horrified when, at the film’s conclusion, one audience member said, “Gee, that was a well-made film for 1962.” He might as well have said, “Boy, Ulysses was well-written for 1922,” that’s how indignantly angry we became. Having a few weeks to calm down, I now don’t blame the man at all; he had simply, baldly put what is all too much truth--films, even when considered historically, are misread by false codes: say, history as continuous progress. People are all too content to let Hollywood be a dream factory that has no connection to social, political, or economic events in the world. The classic case in point is Oliver!, the big budget, mushy musical of Dickens that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1969. It’s clear what side of the barricades Hollywood felt itself on.
            Film critics of all sorts can’t be excused from this myopia. The infamous Gene Siskel can mildly like Rambo III because, in his words, “It accomplishes what it sets out to do.” Questioning what it sets out to do is beyond his 19 inch mind. Beating up on television critics is about as easy as dismissing tv evangelists--they themselves become the product, while films and God just give them something to talk about. Serious critics have also painted themselves into corners by focusing on two prevalent critical approaches--the auteur theory and genre theory.  The danger is filmmakers, too, approach their art from these angles. It’s fine to want to make a Western in 1990. But it doesn’t mean what making a Western meant in 1956 or 1969--the difference between, say, The Searchers and Once Upon a Time in the West.  John Ford made a fine film by using the image of John Wayne to question our notions of the “real man pioneer”; Sergio Leone made a fine film by turning all the 1950s Western clichés on their ears, and by questioning our very need to mythologize a violent period of colonialism--it’s Henry “Tom Joad” Fonda who is his cold-blooded killer, after all.
            Another genre periodically dusted off is the screwball comedy. The classic update example is What’s Up Doc?, Peter Bogdanovich’s mildly entertaining remake of Bringing Up Baby. Yet what Doc? lacks, not to mention stars as great as Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (substituting them with Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand is like asking Bret Easton Ellis to rewrite Absalom! Absalom!), is a historical sense. The silly gamboling of the rich had much more of a place in a Depression-mired 1938, just as Hepburn’s dangerous, since reckless, sexuality had more of a place as a threat to the (to shift decade-jargon) unliberated Grant. Instead of ending with Hepburn dangling from Grant in a desperate love-clutch, a pile of prehistoric bones jumbled beneath them, Ryan can only end by debunking his earlier tear-jerker Love Story, thereby denigrating his own work and the people manipulated by it.
            Jonathan Demme attempts to do the screwball comedy genre right with Something Wild. All the usual markers are in place, even if the place is transposed to a very hip 1980s Lower Manhattan.  Charlie, a straight-as-an-arrow businessman, still gets bored with his life, and for a bit of a thrill, runs out on his lunch bills every now and then. We see him at a now, his eyes darting about the coffee shop filled with exotics. He’s out the door but a few steps when a woman stops him. She’s dressed in hip black, covered with multicolored necklaces and bracelets, topped with a Louise Brooks-do. After some gibing, it turns out she simply saw through his little game. She offers him a ride, and his initial attraction gets the best of him.  Before he knows it, they’re in the Holland Tunnel, Jersey bound.
            Charlie, uncomfortably, goes along with the game, particularly after Lulu slops a messy kiss on him; it’s as if her character, along with her lipstick, sticks to Charlie. Of all things, he plunks down his Christmas Club funds for a motel room, where Lulu continues to surprise, handcuffing him to the bed and ripping off his shirt, then hers. All of Charlie’s world disappears, his world of work and plans and preparation. Before sex, Lulu pours out the contents of her voluminous bag: a robot-shaped cassette deck playing reggae music, a witch doctor rattle she shakes over him while forcing a little, “Woo-oo.” She does call up something, a wildness their games cannot touch, for they are privileged to have games: Charlie really can duck out of the office on motel room at a moment’s notice, not that he ever has before.
            Meanwhile, the film is filled with people who have little room to act.  In almost every other scene we see African-Americans, not just an oddity because of Hollywood’s generally white casting. Instead, Demme goes out of his way to make us confront a culture the characters in the movie seem ignorant of. The film also moves to black music; the soundtrack is dominated with songs by Jimmy Cliff, Celia Cruz, UB40; Charlie stops at a gas station where a group of blacks perform an impromptu rap, bouncing about spider-like; and the film ends with Sister Carol, playing the waitress Charlie originally dashed from in the opening (it’s her bill he cannot pay), singing her own version of “Wild Thing” next to the credits. The end suggests that no matter how grungy the Troggs may have been, black music will finally reclaim itself--rock will escape not just the Pat Boones and Julee Cruises, but also the Elvis Presleys.
            The end also suggests that music may be the only escape for the under-privileged. They don’t have the luxury a Lulu or Charlie (or a Grant or Hepburn) has, for just surviving is enough of a worry. Demme lets Something Wild show the shoulders a screwball comedy must stand on.
            Many viewers complain about the film’s severe swing from lighthearted comedy to suddenly serious revenge-play, complete with very graphic and gruesome violence. Yet the movie has no choice. Its interest is to have the screwball genre while debunking it, to devour from within. While the characters never consciously associate the world they dominate to the suffering they cause, they do learn the danger of game-playing, of the great freedoms they possess. Things take a dark turn with the introduction of Ray at Lulu’s (now Audrey--and peroxide blonde and sweet after a visit with her mom) high school reunion. Ray, too, has a role--he’s a rebel with a cause, a smalltime hood fed on dreams of one big score, of the one girl with a slightly black heart who will love you just the same, maybe all the more. We discover Ray and Audrey are married.
            Ray does more than slip out on a bill, he knocks over a convenience store with Charlie and Audrey in tow. But first he talks Charlie into giving a speech to the store’s video protection system; it’s Charlie’s play-acting image (he’s mid-sentence about his recent promotion) that Ray shoots out when he fires into the screen Charlie plays to. It’s the first sign the performing we all do might be dangerous: Ray’s act does Charlie’s in; Ray even gets to cap the hold-up in high hood style, with Demme’s help--he grabs the pack of cigarettes he initially asked for from the counter and gracefully flips them in the air, a move Demme slows down and thereby turns to pure style.
            Charlie and Ray finally have it out in Charlie’s home in suburban Long Island. The climactic battle occurs in the bathroom--stunningly white--a veritable temple to colorlessness, the void, particularly in light of what bathrooms are for. A busted pipe sprays, the two white men battle on a white floor between white walls, the fluorescent lighting brightening their t-shirts to a glow. It’s ugly violence--something entirely separate from acting, from the complementary illusions both have chased--steel-toed boots and handcuffs as garrotes. Finally, Ray’s knife flashes, the two share some embrace, lifting up as if eager to leave the ground, the knife drops. Both seem dead, the only sound the knife clattering on the tile. Ray walks over, stares into the mirror, runs a bloody hand through his hair--it’s not what he should see. The image, the game, has gone wrong.
            It’s the danger of letting play become more, become life, and necessarily death. He dies in a moment of cool--he might be Belmondo in Breathless--but he’s just as dead. He’s learned what it’s like to have only life and death choices, which sounds dramatic, but isn’t if you’re hungry, or homeless, or unemployed.
            It’s telling how in a film filled with cameos by the famous, Demme wisely chooses their roles. John Waters, king of sleazo movies, plays a used car salesman; John Sayles, king of moral, problem pictures, plays a motorcycle cop. Then there’s also Steve Scales, a percussionist most famous for his work with Talking Heads. Scales works at a highway rest area’s gift shop. Scales is black, and busy at his minimum wage work, selling Charlie tons of “Virginia Is For Lovers” goods and telling him how wonderful it all looks on him. It’s the longest cameo--Demme’s way of balancing the scales (no pun intended)--but it’s also the most menial, a perfect emblem for the screwball comedy world. It’s a genre that disregards any race but the white, for it disregards anyone without money, anyone without freedom to pretend.
            The high school reunion slyly reinforces the point. The theme is “Spirit of ‘76,” and the bunting is appropriately red, white, and blue. The tacky band is played by the Feelies, looking as bored and as uncomfortable as they do when performing as themselves. They play only covers, the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and David Bowie’s “Fame,” which is fitting in this film of trying on others’ roles. These songs say volumes about the Spirit of ‘76, the spirit of America that insists any person can do anything; that any actor can become the president if he has enough self-impetus. It’s the hopeful spirit that damns America from ever becoming truly equal. The Monkees, created from nothing, were tv darlings made stars by our desire for stars; like rock and roll Tinkerbells, they grew on applause. By becoming what they had to they proved exactly how easy role-playing is, and how we must be careful not to take our roles too seriously. The same is true for Bowie, who has developed so many Bowies to be that he only has to change his clothes and hair--from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke--and he’s new again. Fame, and any form of personality, is something willed, as it were. For those with room to be willful.
            Up to this essay I’ve remained critical of Demme’s ending, in which, after much running about, Charlie finally runs into Audrey again, and the world seems righted. But now I feel differently, because of that huge seems. Leaving the theater, I don’t remember their reunion, can’t even recall if we last see them kiss. But I do remember Sister Carol, full of life and what they’ve left behind. They’ve still ignored her world; Audrey even has a classic car, gotten from who knows where, to drive off in.
            Then there’s Ray, the casualty of the film for he plays the wrong role. In the 1930s he’d merely be Ralph Bellamy, and only lose the girl, usually gracefully, sometimes pathetically. In the 1980s the genre has to show more, has to tell on itself.  Where else could we last see him, but at the mirror, attending to his own show, puzzled beyond words, running the blood on his hand up through his hair, staring and waiting, waiting for a change.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Fun Funding the Foodbank

Alas, we’re in an age when it seems we need to donate to everything, as so much seems at risk — women’s rights, the air we breathe, the arts, bear cubs in their den … So it’s great to see that the Foodbank continues a wonderful way to raise some funds with the Fork & Cork Classic, celebrating what’s good to eat and drink in Santa Barbara. This year’s event happens Sunday, May 7, at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort.

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