Sunday, November 11, 2018

Chaplin's Favourite Pastime*

You can teach an old bar older tricks, it seems. Such is the case at Chaplin's Martini Bar (remember Charlie owned the Montecito Inn back in the day), in the spot of the recently and quickly deposed Frankland's Crab Co.--turns out town doesn't want to pay the admittedly spendy price for ridiculously fresh seafood, particularly a few blocks from the sea, especially when chef-owners Phillip Frankland Lee and Margarita Kallas-Lee then opened The Monarch next door. Lesson learned: you can drive your own self out of business with a second very hot spot.

But that doesn't mean Montecito didn't need a free-standing bar (non-directly restaurant connected, "management would prefer you eat and not just drink at the bar bar," that is), and now it's got one in Chaplin's. Plus, where do you go for a drink until midnight, when the sidewalks roll up at half past nine? You might remember the spot when it was the Montecito Cafe's bar, a bit bright, and there was popcorn and a blue cheese stuffed olive Blue Sapphire martini and a mini-menu with that trout salad everyone loved. A jewel box of a spot, with its curved wall of windows looking out at the porte cochere for the hotel and Coast Village Road, and you were, no doubt, meant to gaze out while those hoping to be as chic as you ogled in hoping to glimpse a celebrity or someone having a better time than they were.

Now that glass door is mirrored, though, so you can only see out. For the Chaplin's theme is speakeasy-dark, a hide-away for assignations and those wishing they had some. You know, romantic and borderline Deco-y, especially when the piped-in tunes feature Rudy Vallee and other '20s crooners. It's like a deep dark secret right there on CVR.

Fittingly the menu leans gin, but not of the bathtub variety. Still the cocktails call back to an earlier era, too, leading with one of my faves, the Corpse Reviver #2, a blended joy of gin, lemon juice, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao (think snooty Cointreau), and Kina l'Aero D'or (sort of absinthe-y). But, hey, Chaplin's, one of the drink's great kinks is you're supposed to serve it with a cherry, its red glowering at you sexily from the v-ed glass bottom. (Dr. Cocktail says so, not just me.)

But then there's the subtly honeyed Bee's Knees from the Ritz in Paris, and for those gin-averse, another one of my faves, the Vieux Carre from New Orleans (think a Sazerac jiggered up a notch), and heck, they even feature a Rusty Nail, and if anything is due for a comeback it's Drambuie. Classics, all.

What's more, Chaplin's some nights has one of my most cherished Santa Barbara servers working the bar, Jaime Rocha (not pictured above). He's worked at the Wine Cask, San Ysidro Ranch, bouchon, and where else but here at Chaplin's, which would be one of my favorite hangouts if I only could walk to it. Because it would be best if I then walked happily, woozily home.

Oh yeah, forget to mention in the original post: you can order the entire Monarch menu in Chaplin's. So go crazy!

*"His Favourite Pastime" is a 1914 American comedy film starring Charlie Chaplin as the drunken masher.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Sip These: The Good Lion’s Green Beast and Milk & Honey’s Elizabeth Departed

What better way for the Santa Barbara Public Library to extend outreach for its Santa Barbara Reads choice for 2018, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, than by asking bartenders to pull together suitable odd parts into a wondrous new cocktail life? Four establishments are participating through October 31, and I’ve had the good fortune to sample two of their concoctions.

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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Bear and Starry Night

So it turns out if Eli Parker sets out to buy some art for his house, you could end up with a brilliant idea for a series of dinners. That's how The Bear and Star decided to kick-off Food for Thought, which they call "an artists series celebrating the connection between food and mind. The series invites modern innovators, from artists and musicians to technology inventors, to share their creative journey with the Los Olivos community." To begin the restaurant invited Grey Projects LA to visit, artists Tommy May and Gwen O'Neil, and set a lovely outdoor gallery behind the restaurant for us to dine in, May's and O'Neil's work surrounding us with blasts of color and composition. Then chef John Cox's plates echoed and aped the art--the bright orange hue from one canvas caught caught in the edible flower on one plate, etc.

May himself was amazed at how well Cox responded not only to their art, but to their conversations. For instance, May and O'Neil both find themselves artistically inspired by the landscapes that roll by them on long drives (such as the one from LA to SB), and one spot along that drive that always struck May is the stretched-out strawberry fields of Oxnard as one descends the Camarillo grade. Voila, the dessert, not to begin with the ending: Strawberry Fields, featuring a white chocolate cremeux (such a luscious texture and flavor), super-intense sundried strawberries, strawberry ice, what would be called strawberry leather if it weren't so ridiculously elegant (think more strawberry stained glass), pistachios, and anise hyssop.

Cox repeatedly managed to capture mini-narratives with each exquisite plate of food, while never getting precious about it. Take the opening salvo, called Mussel Beds, that he said he wanted to echo the fascinating seaside mix of nature and the industrial (Cox lives on a boat in the Santa Barbara harbor, so he knows this scene very well). The mussel is smoked, therefore all the richer in flavor, and sat upon a black garlic puree whose scent practically overwhelmed when all the servers simultaneously lined up to  plate the dish for dinners (the one fine dining touch B&S never seems to give up, and a fine one it is, so much theater and democracy in one grand gesture). But while it hits the nose like an Ali right hook, it hits the palate as if I was punching you (I'm very gentle, you know). Then there's the spectacular loop of the squid ink bruschetta, delicate almost as lace yet flavorful yet sculptural.
What a great pair with some J. Wilkes 2016 Pinot Blanc, a varietal that doesn't get enough credit, or enough drunk, but certainly had the elegance to match the powerful dish, and just enough petrol and saline to give it grip and add to the industrial edge. GM/somm Allison Crawford certainly has a lot of fun with matching these inventive dishes with the right pour (heck, it was a Jorge Ordonez Muscat de Alexandria for Strawberry Fields).

Course two was perhaps the most unusual, unless you eat more yucca in your house than we do. Chef Cox said it was about summer moving into autumn. It was called Yucca Blossoms, even if it was pretty much--emphasis on the pretty--just one, pickled from an earlier in the year harvest, sat like a cap atop the most decadent of duck egg flan. Alongside was a bit of blistered corn, some cilantro, and the dish's kicker, a poblano-bacon jam adding fatty umami and heat. Some Fess Parker Riesling, with its slight bit of residual sugar, cooled it down a bit, so your mouth was ready for the next scrumptious more.
Next up, one of the most elegant From Turf to Surf ever, complete with a seaweed and shallot ash handprint that was meant to echo the patterns found in many of the Chumash cave paintings. Plus, it had a delicious flavor, too, as you would swab a bit of the seaweed-brined Parker Ranch wagyu (again, let's not get used to this--it's a restaurant that has a ranch that provides its own wagyu) across the char and pick up even more flavor, kind of like dusting the meat all on your own. That butter poached spot prawn couldn't have been more SB Harbor or any less delicious, and then those tomatoes--that green globe is one, too--two of them roasted and rich, but the third a enchanting slice semi-dried, and all the more intense. What else could you drink with this but pinot noir? They poured Fess Parker 2015 Bien Nacido Vineyard, and it was a Santa Barbara ur-wine--remember, before Sta. Rita Hills became the hot thing, it was Bien Nacido that at first defined our county's pinot.
Before dessert there was a cheese course, somewhat cheekily called The Golden State given it featured French P'tit Basque (hey, we like to accept everyone in California). The cheese got a very local turn, though, as it got smoked with hay, and came to the table served that way, giving the table even more of the wonderful smell. Those crackers were special, too, made with red wine pomace (the stuff left after the juice goes on its way to become the good stuff), providing a special depth Carr's isn't going to match, say. And why not, some roasted apple, too, as it's fall and fruit and cheese like each other, especially in your belly. The pairing: an Aspall "Grand Cru" dry English cider, its bubbles kindly scrubbing your palate of rich cheese and prepping you for the next bite.
That was an evening of as thoughtful, and taste-full, food as there could be.

Farmers’-Market Fresh at The Middle Child

The Middle Child only opened a month ago, but chef/co-owner Taylor Melonuk already faces some tough menu decisions. The restaurant’s peach-burrata salad was a best-seller from day one, but peaches don’t stay in season forever. So as we walk the Tuesday’s farmers’ market on State Street that’s just a half block from his door, he purchases 10 pounds of Cameo apples from Fair Hills Farm in Paso Robles, figuring that’s where the salad heads next.

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

Sip This: Seagrape Gewürztraminer

Often as scary to try from a U.S. producer as it is to pronounce, this aromatic white literally means “perfumed traminer” — it originated in Tramino, Italy. Alas, Stateside production often confuses perfumed with reeking, and often a cloying sweetness too.

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

Thursday, October 4, 2018

History in a Glass with Richard Sanford

If you may permit me to be fanciful for a moment, spending time with Richard Sanford, the first representative from Santa Barbara in the Vintners Hall of Fame at the CIA in Napa (that's the good CIA, btw), is like spending time with John the Baptist. At this point he's a holy figure people turn to for wisdom; he was the one who announced, before anyone was ready, "Prepare, ye, the way of the pinot" in what would become the famed Sta. Rita Hills AVA; and to be indelicate about, he's lost his head in business a few times. (I don't see how Salome plays into this already over-burdened metaphor.)

So it was a great honor to be invited to spend a media lunch at his El Jabalí Vineyard where he now makes Alma Rosa Wines with head winemaker Nick de Luca, who also joined us for the event. And the few hours made it very clear exactly why his wines are so delicious--because when you drink them, you drink history. "I'm approaching fifty years as a wine grower," he told us at one point, and then half-joked, "It scares me." But then he put his El Jabalí Vineyard into such a long context it seemed like a story torn from a James Michener novel. He told tales back to the land grants, but mostly from the 1970s on when he arrived in Santa Barbara County after his time in the Vietnam War and turned to the land and farming for refuge and peace. "In the 1970s you could still dry-farm garbanzos here and it would have made sense," he said, "but not anymore--the land's too expensive."

So instead you have the beautiful growth of these 37 year old vines.

Getting to chomp on some of the grapes you taste why the wine is so delicious--the flavor is all there waiting already. (The grapes were less than a week away from getting picked.) "The leaves are turning just at harvest," Sanford pointed out. "That's what they want. Chemically forced vineyards are too happy. Nature wants the plants to settle down."

He and de Luca were particularly proud of their shift to the Simonit & Sirch method of pruning, an Italian system that is much more precise and delicate than most typical U.S. pruning regimens. "All the pruning removes outer shoots, so we don't interrupt the sap flow," he explained. "The lifespan of vines is greater pruned this way. And with age, you get an elegance to the wines."

Of course, in addition to discovering this most delicate of pruning systems, Sanford has been farming organic before anyone thought to make it a marketing term. Part of that was a desire to be very kind to the land after the horrors of a war that thought napalm was a wise weapon, but it was Richard's wife Thekla who made the push. "It took two years, and we had to be innovative," is how Sanford describes the process, telling a story of the vineyard crew blasting bugs off the vines with flames, not poison, during one infestation.

Add it all up, and de Luca points out, "When we have healthy grapes, we can use little to no sulfur." He quickly insisted, "But we're not making natural wine. It all comes down to hygiene. If I knew I was going to have a major surgery, I'd want it on the floor of winery."

Just to focus on two of the enlightening wines shared with us that afternoon, I'd like to write about the 2011 and 2016 El Jabalí pinots. The older wine was aging well under screwcap, for as Sanford insisted, "It's a wine of the people." He delighted in the "forest floor that develops with age" and the translucent color, citing Michael Broadbent telling him, "Richard, you sohuld be able to read a newspaper through a good Burgundy." Turns out the news you can read through it is a review praising its grace and still plenty of fruit seven years after release. Sanford accurately said, "There's a lyrical quality to these wines that lasts," and then he slowly drew his hands apart to emphasize his point. Meanwhile the wine slowly set out taste buds at attention.

The just released 2016, on the other hand, was ridiculously delicious given its youth. de Luca said El Jabalí was always their most tannic wine, so they massaged it with oak. He shared a line from a French friend about barrel-aging, "If the wine is so good, why are you afraid?" Alma Rosa isn't, so this pinot gets up to 50% new French oak, but it's integrated well, helping with structure but not tasting like you've bit a barrel in the least.

Oh, and if you're going to be drinking wine this good, you better have suitable food to match. Fortunately the lunch was catered by First & Oak, with Executive Chef JJ Guerrero himself making our meal. Here's the main, a breast of duck (my guess would be sous vide first, then pan-roasted?), with English peas, charred romaine filled with mustard seed so it seemed to be a whole new plant, pearl onion, gnocchi, and a mint velouté (you know, one of the mother sauces).

We're pretty lucky to live where we do, you know.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Night Lizard Brews Up Environmental Awareness

John Nasser, the father of the family team behind the recently (and finally!) opened Night Lizard Brewing Company on State Street, hopes their customer experience plays out like a comic strip. And in the last frame, he envisions, there’s a butt going out the door with a thought balloon that says, “That’s really good beer. I want to come back and try some of the others. And I learned something about conservation on the Central Coast, too.”

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