Monday, November 9, 2015

No Dumb Fire Pun Can Do Ember Justice

(Image purloined from the restaurant's website.)

Having eaten chef Brian Collins' food at the Lido Restaurant in Pismo Beach and Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos, and having thoroughly enjoyed both, and having not eaten at Chez Panisse, where he also worked for six years, but of course knowing of Alice Waters' famed spot that more or less launched a cuisine, my expectations ran high as we entered Ember, his spot in Arroyo Grande everyone's raved about since it opened two years ago. That kind of grand set-up can lead to disappointment, of course.

Somehow Ember exceeded even my hopeful yearnings. That started simply with the clever layout, with the large, open kitchen right next to you as you walk through the door. Heck, if you're going to cook with lots of open flame--both a tiled pizza oven and a glowing brazier--you might as well make it a hearth, too. Of course, there's more than warming heat, then; there's a wondrous waft of whatever dishes are about to emerge, enough to make anyone hungry. Plus the cooks all seem cool despite the fire, sure to say hello and goodbye to each passerby. Quite a welcome.

We came expecting to wait--they don't take reservations--but we got a Thursday night table quickly. Then came the tricky part, limiting what to order from the menu that changes monthly (we were there for the new Nov-EMBER menu). Yes, Ember is all about the local and seasonal, but it takes a peasant's look at things, that old "simple isn't always best best the best is always simple" view. So a salad featuring Jerusalem artichokes and pickled persimmons has them both sliced paper fine, like tasty translucent panes to view the rest of the salad--arugula, toasted hazelnuts, some slivers of sublime cheese--through.

Then a roasted cauliflower (how nice this humble crucifer is hip in kitchens again) got star treatment atop a crunchy farro and pine nut pilaf itself atop some baby lettuces softened by the dish's warmth. You dip that into a yogurt that's surprisingly rich, redolent of Italian peppers crushed to give it a tinge of rosiness, and that just enough mint to say mint and not Doublemint. Collins has the medley magic down--everything blends and the flavors do better than add up, they multiply together into a humming seamless yum.

Of course we had to have a pizza. (Recall your own pleasure-inducing groan for a Full of Life flatbread moment here.) It seemed pretty impossible to pass on the wild mushroom one (chanterelles, and where are they getting them?, lobster, and black trumpet), with a smoked leek cream sauce (that tastes even better than it reads), and Truffle Tremor cheese. Indulgent, sure, but it was an evening that at least felt like fall and needed something to keep us warm for the rest of the evening.

Don't skip dessert, whatever you do. Ember offers a seared pumpkin spice cake that will ruin you for that flavor forever, so rich, real, deep. It certainly doesn't hurt the plate also offers a brown butter ice cream (a brilliant idea, well executed), pepita brittle, and little luscious dollops of maple bourbon custard. Again, the tones of the dish all sang, sweet but not saccharine, salt but not salty, some crunch, some cream.

Plus lots of local beer and wine they'll give you tastes of, and not just the usual suspects--I particularly enjoyed a robust Tannat from Paso Robles Le Vigne, for instance.

Plus plus fine service, knowledgeable, watchful, wry.

My only complaint with Ember is it's over an hour away.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Sip This: Hangar 1 Vodka

Hangar 1 Straight Vodka Yes, it’s a new Hangar 1. The backstory: Originally created by St. George Spirits in Alameda, the brand was such a success the artisanal makers sold it to the bigger Proximo Spirits (makers of 1800 Tequila, The Kraken rum, etc.) in 2010, producing it for them until 2014.

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Fall Brews to Choose

It's that wonderful time of year when we wake to a chill in the air, and the leaves turn magnificent. Wait, this is Southern California. So to celebrate fall, we do things like brew special potent potables to commemorate the season -- deeper, darker, and spicier. Here's a rundown of some of the fun stuff out there now, with two wild cards -- a new cider from a cherished longtime producer and a beer from New York that's too cleverly marketed to ignore.

Want to read the rest then do so at KCET's Food Blog.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sip This: Qupe Syrah

QupĂ© Santa Barbara County Syrah 2012: Anyone who doesn’t know Bob Lindquist makes killer syrah simply hasn’t been paying attention for the last 30 years. This release is no exception.

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On Golden Bud: InBev Beer Giant Purchases Golden Road Brewing

The announcement in late September that Anheuser-Busch InBev purchased L.A.'s Golden Road Brewing, followed by the news InBev finally figured out terms to acquire SABMiller (for $106 billion -- it's the fifth largest corporate takeover bid ever) left me thinking of the once over-heated satire, now sad prophecy, Network. For this isn't a tale about the future of craft beer. It's about, as Ned Beatty's character Arthur Jensen puts it in a fervid speech, "One holistic system of systems, one vast interwoven...multinational dominion of dollars."

Taste or not, craft or not (and has any term been sold to us more than "craft" in the last decade?), both parties have put up a good front about the sale. While Golden Road didn't respond to KCET's request for an interview, there is a video both parties released, featuring Andy Goeler, CEO of Craft, AB, chatting with Meg Gill, CEO and co-founder of Golden Road.

Want to read the rest then do so at KCET's Food Blog.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sip This: Margerum Rapporte Pinot Noir

Margerum Rapporte Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2014: Doug Margerum’s desire to honor his recently deceased dog, Patches, and create a project to help all animals led to this young, tasty pinot noir. 
Sourced from primo Sta. Rita Hills vineyards, including Radian, La Encantada, and Sanford & Benedict, and blended with the help of Whole Foods wine specialist Gina Cook, the wine has a bit of bite on first opening the bottle, but how fitting is that?

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Babak Shokrian: Buying A Vineyard for the Long Haul

It's not unusual for people from the film industry to wind up involved with wine -- it's a cool thing to blow money on -- but Babak Shokrian's got a more complex back story than that. Born in Teheran, Iran, he moved with his family to the U.S. at an early age, got a degree in anthropology from UCLA, and began work in film.

While he just released the film Shah Bob on the festival circuit (where his previous one America So Beautiful met much success) he's also got a burgeoning project in Santa Barbara County, the Shokrian Vineyard -- what used to be known as Verna's and owned by the Melvilles.

Want to read the rest then do so at KCET's Food Blog.