Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Hotel Californian’s Blackbird Is Ready to Fly (well, except for COVID and all...)

 Somehow I never posted this item I wrote for the Indy that ran back in December. Have been doing so little freelance work that I don't remember how to follow up properly! 

But here's the first graph:

Forget fine dining, think clubby casual chic. Au courant cocktails and share plates emphasizing global flavors and local produce. That’s what the recently reopened and reimagined Blackbird at Hotel Californian now offers, both in its inviting red-and-black-tiled dining room and its street-side terrace. Although it’s not easy to remain relevant and COVID-19 safety rules compliant, this edition of Blackbird seems ready to fly.

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

Monday, December 28, 2020

Seven Seafood Courses Swimming

We finally got around to doing something we've always wanted to do, and I mean that two ways, as you soon shall see. To celebrate the season we decided to try to pull off a version of The Feast of the Seven Fishes. Of course it's odd to do this during lockdown, when the only ones feasting on the fish would be Chryss and me, but the most unusual of years deserves a fittingly strange fete. Note, while people like to act the Fo7, as I will be calling it, is something passed down from generations ago, as if Italian grandmothers smuggled heirloom recipes between their sweaty bossoms from the Old World, it actually started in the U.S. just over a century ago. What's more, if we were being traditional we would have done this on Christmas Eve, but we decided to make it a day's journey of seafood eating on Christmas Day itself. After all, we didn't have to worry about any of the non-meat-eating fasting pre-Christmas vestigial rules, not being dues paying Roman Catholic Church members, plus Chryss is pescatarian all the time anyway. Oh, and we opted to skip any course with pasta (too heavy--we've got all the fish to swim down our gullets!), or tomato sauce or even fra diavolo, and we opted to make it to seven seafood items and skip a seventh dessert course (panettone is just fruitcake with an Italian accent, you can't fool me).

The trick was coming up with a menu that was diverse enough and worked somewhat progressively, so we could keep eating throughout the day and spread out the food prep. That means Fish the First, was smoked salmon, the crazy good version from Cambridge House right here in Santa Barbara that Lazy Acres sells without fancy packaging by their seafood counter. You see that above, on little brioche toast circles Chryss artfully cut out and toasted in butter, as we figured this wasn't going to be indulgent enough otherwise. There's a dollop of creme fraiche below, a sprinkle of fresh dill above. Each one a salty, tender, creamy, bright bite. We were off to a good start.

Keeping it simple, around lunch we toted out the tins. To the left (above) you see Fish the Second, smoked clams, and to the right Fish the Third, Jose Gourmet Smoked Trout fillets in Olive Oil. There's also some Asiago with rosemary for a creamy cut to all the oily fish, and some kalamatas for a snap of brine. Without a doubt the trout was the star here--my guess is it's best to do something with smoked oysters, not eat them "raw" as it were. But we got caught discussing whether to go dip or chowder and did neither out of ease. Not that we didn't consume them all.

If you were beginning to think--gee, you really didn't make anything, did you?--let me introduce you to Fish the Fourth, a Mexican-style shrimp cocktail from a Rick Bayless recipe and Fish the Fifth, a crab Louie salad. That shrimp packs a kick, cooked and then marinated in fresh lime juice, to be finished with Tapatio and white onion and avocado and cucumber and cilantro and a jot of olive oil. And, yes, ketchup. The only approved use of it in our house. The crab salad had a bit of a kick too--some Sriracha in its mix of Veganaise and lime juice, and then tomatoes, capers, more avo(!) and Bibb lettuce. Given the preciousness of crab (both it's light if delightful flavor and that it was the most expensive per pound thing we bought) it was hard not to try to just eat all of that first and then enjoy the salad after, to be honest. This course was around Happy hour time, and it went perfectly with Buttonwood's unusual Hop On White, that's Sauv Blanc dry-hopped. So smells a bit like IPA, tastes like grapefruit and lemon.

Fish the Sixth was mussels in Pernod cream, sauteed with leek, fennel, red bell pepper. The last of the Hop On went into the cooking juice we of course devoured with spoons after. Don't ask me how, but I forgot to put a crusty loaf of bread on the shopping list, but we wisely remembered we had Alexia truffle fires in the freezer, so heated those up and suddenly it was moules and frites. Perfect with the mightily potent Gulden Draak Belgian ale we'd been hanging out to for evidently just such a Belgian occasion. We really did not do the Italians proud with our Fo7, I have to shamefully admit. But we ate well.

So well that we threw in the towel for the day. (A beach towel, given all the fish.) Fish the Seventh waited for dinner the next night, a gorgeous filet of Coho salmon that we did in very much a throwback style, adapting a recipe from Beverly Gannon's Family-Style Meals at the Hali'imaile General Store. That's what she calls a take on dynamite scallops sauce for sushi, again with some Sriracha, scallion, Veganaise, miso, splash of veggie stock. It's a rich kick and keeps the baked fish marvelously moist. Alongside are coconut-green-curry green beans and jasmine rice given a bit of added flash with cilantro stems, fresh ginger, and a spritz of black sesame seeds and dried seaweed (we actually bought in Ireland--don't tell the Italians, or the Hawaiians...) atop, too. 

So we made it--seven fishes, four meals, two days. No apologies. Well, maybe only to the things that used to be a-sea but now are a part of me. I appreciate their tasty if unwilling sacrifice. And if we ever get to do this again with actual other people to feed too, there will be pasta.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

clapping, Clapping for flapping, Flapping


Joe Woodard listens to more than you. Way more. You might want to say, “Of course, he’s a musician and a music journalist, that’s his job,” but sometimes one’s calling comes before the paycheck (particularly if you’re a musician or a music journalist, ba-dum-bum). As guitarist-composer for Santa Barbara’s Headless Household he’s helped music wander far and far-er, as album titles such as mockhausen and post-Polka just begin to intimate. And as a writer, well, he no doubt has penned enough column inches in periodicals ranging from the SB Independent to Downbeat to the LA Times that if you lay them end-to-end you could walk on them to the Montreux Jazz Festival*, which Joe would no doubt be covering.

What’s more important for the subject at hand, he listens more, too, in that way listening is deconstructive, reconstructive, a creative act.

So when his semi-occasional “rock ’n’ droll band” (his term) flapping, Flapping (his capitalization) offers a song like “Tuesday Afternoon” on its latest and third album seeyoutonite (his spacing), its horn break will make you think Beatlesque. But Woodard, no doubt, thinks of a specific Beatles moment, when he first heard it, who else has nicked it, and who arranged the charts each time. Other songs on the disc will tickle your memory receptors for bands as diverse as Steely Dan, Radiohead, Little Feat, Neil Young, Van Halen, Peter Gabriel, The Move, maybe even Terry Allen.

All of that adds up to seeyoutonite being a total delite. (Couldn’t resist.) It’s an engaging stroll down rock and pop’s hallway of mirrors with a brilliant guide to give you only the best reflections, aided by many of the best Santa Barbara musicians, in particular the one other remaining original player in the band, drummer Tom Lackner. Versatility is Lackner’s watch word, as he can swing, drive, parry, thrust, keep so much aloft.

And there is much, for while the album does hold classic FM radio sound as its lodestar—heck, I called it an album!—it also ranges far and wide for texture, nuance, grace. Take accordionist Brian Mann’s appearances. On “Something for  Nothing” he helps add to the Tex-Mex flavor that perhaps passes through Talking Heads’ True Stories for a quick tequila shot, and when he returns for “Wonder in the Backyard,” his squeezebox is distinctly more Gallic, perhaps setting us up for the song to return as a recitative in French. Diversity like that makes me toss my beret skyward.

Hooky as heck—check the tasty lick that opens “Closet World”—willing to wade neck deep in the sea of cliché figuring there might still be a swell swell to still ride to shore—one tune is bravely called “Boy Meets Girl”—and ever able to engage with Woodard’s truest love jazz without ever becoming archly academic (the parts in French are about asparagus) or pointlessly improvisational (the one instrumental CRANKS), seeyoutonite has something for everyone, which can happen when a band’s previous album came out the same year Clinton beat Dole for his second term.

*Walking under oceans not recommended.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Margerum's Dawn of a Mute-Age

Sure, ÜBER-talented (get it?) winemaker Doug Margerum can get away with pointing without being rude. I mean, here's a man who can bake wine and not just get away with it, but sell it to you and make you like it. A few weeks ago Doug presented his latest vinous creation, Mute-Age, at a special series of rolling press tastings (to keep us all safe from COVID-cooties) on the veranda of the super swank Alcazar Suite at Hotel Californian, high above his usual Funk Zone Margerum Wine Company tasting room. He even made sure there were bites to be had, the luxurious chocolate creations of Mike Orlando's Twenty-four Blackbirds Chocolates. It's moments like that afternoon that Santa Barbara is built for--all that's delicious to eat and drink and then you get so much to drink in with your eyes, too. (Just look at the photo again, which doesn't do the glorious afternoon justice. And god, do I miss getting to go out.)

So, what the heck is Mute-Age, you may ask? If it sounds all French to you you're right; it's a play on mutage, which is a way of making sweet wine by, yep, baking it. Doug put some of his Grenache (which is delicious on its own, of course, so that certainly helps as a place to start) in 34 liter demi-johns--think very large tear-drop shaped bottles--and left it on the roof of his winery in Buellton. What he was doing is what the French do (minus the Buellton part, of course) to make Banyuls, their well-regarded dessert wine that comes from near the Spanish border. You see, baking the wine makes it inhospitable to its yeast, which then quit turning sugars into alcohol. More sugar = desserty goodness. In particular, it makes a great match for chocolate, which is actually a tough thing to do with most red wines, despite what years of crappy Valentine's Day pairing might have pretended. Tannins on tannins just means your tongue gets mugged.

But sweet wine, that's a different, happy story. Doug, who does quite a few wine dinners every year (in a normal year, of course), wanted to have something he could pair with a restaurant's chocolate creations, and since he loves tinkering with classic styles (see his Marc or his Amaro that we'll get to it a minute), creating a VDN or Vin Doux Natural was, uh, natural to him. (VDN just means the mutage happens after maceration of the grapes.) The good news is you don't need to know any of the process, which seems partially magically anyway--Doug admitted when they tried the juice a year into its aging on the roof it wasn't showing any Banyul characteristics--but at two years, voila! What you do need to know is it's delicious, rich and unctuous, still holding its now even deeper plum and pomegranate fruit, and a perfect match with Twenty-Four Blackbirds 75% Kokoa Kamili from Tanzania.

Knowing he had to give us more than one taste of something, and having not merely a chocolatier but a chocolate maker at his side, Doug also provided tastes of some of his Amaro. Based on this year's Tales of the Cocktail, amaro might finally have crossed the tipping point from a bartenders' favorite plaything to something more casual cocktail imbibers ask for. Of course, Doug's been making his for seven years based on when I first wrote about it, a delightful if indeed bitter (that's what amaro means after all) mix of fortified wine, aging, and more botanicals, barks, and roots than in a witch's treasured recipe. 

In the multi-varied world of amari (that is the plural), Margerum's sits pretty dead center; it matches well with a Lucano or Ramazzotti, say, if you know some of the more available Italian ones. For those not big bitter fans, it might curl the hairs of your tongue a tad (oh, you know what I mean), but it's nothing like some of the more astringent amari, and far from the medicinal getting-used-to that's Fernet-Branca. Turns out Margerum Amaro also has a great Twenty-Four Blackbirds pair: a 75% Palos Blancos from Bolivia. Wet your whistle with some Amaro, then slowly let a bite of Palos Blancos melt in your mouth and you suddenly are tasting the most delicious Raisinette ever, or so it will seem. I can only imagine the movie you should watch while having this culinary one-two punch (maybe something gorgeous and wistful like Wenders' Wings of Desire?).

And to pile on, Orlando is making an Amaro truffle you can buy at the Maregrum tasting room. You want those, too, the most adult of decadent delights.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Why Can't I Drink It? (TOTC 2020 Home Edition--Day 1)


Any long time readers of this blog know I'm a huge fan of Tales of the Cocktail, the annual celebration-cum-conference of all things drink that usually happens late July in New Orleans. (Go search all the posts from our past visits in 2016 and 2012--which means, damn, we were due to go this year too.) Of course nothing is usual this year, but TOTC refuses to give in, even if people can't travel, or sit in rooms together for seminars, or crowd into bars. So it's happening now, online, and it's free for all! You still have time to "attend" the last three days if you want.

So, today I "participated" (this is going to be the land of air quotes, zipping about like the hummingbirds fighting above our nectar feeder) in five events and it's not even 5 pm yet my time and I'm writing this drinking one of those two Vespers you see at the top of the entry in honor of the last event I watched, "The Man Behind James Bond: Ian Fleming presented by Ford's Gin."

In a usual TOTC write up, I'd go on and on about New Orleans, which, to be honest, is a daily tales of the cocktail all by itself, of course, and talk a lot about great meals, large and small, and much sipping of many things. When I've told people I'm going to a cocktail conference, they always assume I spend my days one o-sized mouth shy of being blott-o, but it's rarely that, as there's just so much you sip and taste and dump and skip. And eat. And in New Orleans in July, walk and sweat. 

But to do five TOTC events and have no liquor.... Well, that was weird. But as I watched a very informative Amaro session this morning, I didn't go to my liquor cabinet and pour a shot. I mean, who drinks Amaro pre-noon? If your lunch needs a digestif, you're going to end up like Mr. Creosote. So while this Tales is plenty informative, it seems like a sensory cheat, especially since you don't get to hit brands doing their thing in the lobby of the Monteleone for quick tastes of things between sessions.

Many of the sessions are also pre-Zoom-recorded, too, so there's no chance for interaction, questions, etc. I only did one live session today, "Marie Brizard Low ABV Cocktails," and it was good to have Jonathan Pogash (aka The Cocktail Guru), the session host, reading our comments and responding in real time. But this session also made clear one of the usual red flags for TOTC--on some level it exists for sponsors to flog product. Of course, that means when you're there they buy you things--from drinks to Day of the Dead face paintings to lavish parties the like you only thought you'd read about in Vanity Fair. But when you're just watching someone on your computer, it's not quite the same.

All that said, I got to watch presenters like Chris Blackwell (yep, the founder of Island Records, who currently owns Ian Flemings' Jamaica estate, Golden Eye, and has turned it into a resort) and a host of brilliant writers on liquor, to learn how to make low ABV cocktails, to relish in a fantastic overview of Amari, to have TOTC Foundation President Caroline Rosen say "y'all" and sprinkle me in the linguistic equivalent of powdered sugar from Cafe du Monde's beignets. 

I've got six pages of notes. I left out pretty much any content in this already too long write-up. The folks who took part in the "Storytelling Behind The Bar presented by William Grant & Sons" session I watched would beat me up for not having enough of a through-line here, no doubt, and one of the presenters even teaches at my alma mater Johns Hopkins. So yeah, I'm having a good time (btw, I did take the week off from my day job, like I'm really "vacationing"). But how do I taste more? I'm going to have to figure this out and not pass out.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Chilling with Franc, Cab Franc

It's tricky to parse the wine-making business from the wine-selling business--because, you know, there's that business part. Given many smaller producers sell much of their wine through on-site wine tasting--as opposed to hawking boxes out of box malls, say--life in the age of COVID has made that business part hard. Luckily, when the going gets hard, the hard-up come up with a clever gimmick like Francs n' Franks.

A couple of weeks ago Buttonwood Farms & Winery hosted a webinar that you got to eat and drink along with, sort of a dream Zoom (it was on FB and Yahoo live, actually). Some folks were even on site for the event, where they got treated to a BBQ of franks (sounded mostly like sausages, actually, but that ruins that fun nomenclature), a fuller tasting (four wines compared to the home two-pack), and the ability to hear the panel of winemaker Karen Steinwachs, assistant winemaker Brett Reeves, and Matt Kettmann from Wine Enthusiast and Indy fame (he's busy getting ready to publish the book about SB wines, even) live. For some reason, our connection worked best through one of our iPhones, and not through our laptop. 

You see, the generally high acid Cabernet Franc tends to work well with smoky flavors, hence the idea grilling would be good. At that point, you sort of have to make the name joke, don't you? (As if I could ever give someone the slightest bit of a hard time for pushing a bit of wordplay, c'mon.) The "home kit" featured a bottle of Buttonwood's 2017 barrel-fermented/aged Cab Franc and their more experimental 2019 Carbonique--Cab Franc that goes through carbonic maceration. The simplest way to think of this is the "regular" CF ferments in open vessels, while the carbonic CF ferments in a closed vessel. That means the grapes ferment from the inside out. And, if you're Steniwachs, whose desk at the winery is near the closed fermenter, you hope nothing explodes (at least that's what she joked).

The difference is a "lighter" wine, more fruit-forward--which is important for Buttonwood's Cab Franc as it tends to grow smaller berries. Note that vintage difference, too--you also drink it sooner. It's meant to be a "fresh" wine. Thanks to those profiles, they suggest you give it a bit of a chill, too. Yes, a red! It's ok. It certainly works with the hotdogs, even our rather soulless vegan ones (think of them as carrying devices for sweet relish and miso mayo).

Nothing was soulless about the event, though. Karen is always good for a sly aside or two, and the wine knowledge of all the participants was of course top-notch without being any kind of pedantic. So a good time was had by us, and it seemed, everyone. Even if those of us not tasting safely socially distanced on site didn't get to try the Carbonique both chilled and room temp, or try the 2007 Cab Franc. And we didn't get to celebrate Kettmann's birthday with cake, either. He owes us one.

By the way, we didn't finish the 2017 CF that afternoon, and since it was a mighty hot weekend, we kept it in the fridge until the next day. Turns out it's quite good with a bit of a chill too, if heartier and deeper than it's carbonic cousin.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Having a Home Beer Fest

True confession--it's not that uncommon for a bunch of beers to arrive in a box at this house. But that box above was something special, a celebratory statewide smorgasbord, as it were. For you're looking at the 2020 California Craft Beer Summit Experience. There was supposed to be an in-person big deal event in Long Beach in September, but COVID said no to that. Instead, we got to delight--and learn--at home, at our leisure. And a fun time was had by two (I can't vouch for anyone else but us, of course).

But first a word from our sponsor. The California Craft Brewers Association is the oldest state trade association representing craft breweries--go CA! Turns out, according to the brewers who posted interviews as part of the Summit Experience, the CCBA has become even more important during coronavirus shutdowns, which have often changed rules of brewpub engagement almost hourly, it seems. Having a group who could get the legal word and get it straight was crucial for many small (and not so small) breweries. These places had to pivot, and fast; take Sacramento's Urban Roots, who supposedly went from making 400-500 cans a month to that many per week, as everyone wanted beer to go when the pubs shut down. 

The beer that went down our gullet here in Santa Barbara was as follows: 

Russian River Brewing Co. | Pliny For President (Double Dry-Hopped Double IPA) 
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. | Wild Little Thing (Fruited Gose-style) 
Fieldwork Brewing Co. | Canopy (Westcoast Pale Ale) 
Urban Roots Brewing | Floofster (German-Style Hefeweizen)
Modern Times Beer | Ice (Pilsner) 
Societe Brewing | The Harlot (Belgian Blonde) 
Kern River Brewing | California Lounge Chair (IPA) 
Topa Topa Brewing | Dos Topas (Mexican Style Lager)

That's a pleasing range, geographically and stylistically, featuring old-timers and up-and-comers, small producers and those who can only claim they are "craft" in mentality and approach thanks to their production numbers. (Digression: did you know Sierra Nevada makes 1,250,000 US beer barrels annually? So if you built a swimming pool to swim in one year of their beer, it would have to be over 10,000 feet long, over 1,900 feet wide, and 380 feet deep!) The beer wasn't all you got for your $60 per participant. Some cool, branded glasses arrived with a handy cheat sheet for the four pairs of beers they set up as courses (that also suggested food pairings that ranged from mightily specific--watermelon and feta salad--to more abstract--beach days and sandy feet), and you also got a handy beer tasting notes journal, so you could record your impressions of the beers and even get some practice in using the flavor wheel that breaks beer down into its components. (Here's my thumb and my slightly out-of-focus thoughts of Sierra Nevada's Wild Little Thing.)

The most informative part were Zoom-held conversations between beer-makers that you got to watch as you sipped along. Having the videos of the conversations on YouTube meant you didn't have to make it to a specific, scheduled time, and we took ours to go through the full set (each chat was about 45 minutes long). It certainly provided a great peek into the world of beer-making and the world of beer-selling right now, when everything seems so tenuous. There was much talk of COVID, and luckily everyone seemed to be managing, and even planning blasts for the day drinking within touching distance of others can happen again. Perhaps we need to get ready for something to rival the original Repeal Day. After all, Natalie Cilurzo from Russian River put it this way when describing what makes a beer memorable, "It's not just the beer, it's the time, it's the place, it's the company." Sometimes it's the fish tacos, though....


Our homemade ones (thanks Kevin, for the fresh fish!), with homemade tortillas and beans, as well--the pandemic has us at the top of our cooking game, don't know about you. So getting to enjoy all that with a Societe beer is truly wonderful, and very San Diego without leaving home. Or this pairing, a saag with feta cheese, rice, and fresh-from-the-garden-tomatoes....

I'm going to pass on reviewing the beers as they all were delicious in their different ways, aimed for different tasting experiences, outdoor temp, times of day, and that's the exciting thing about craft beer right now. Sure, hop bombs might lead sales, but everyone's having fun experimenting, too, even if that means nailing classic styles. As Jack Dyer, co-founder of Topa Topa put it, describing why he's so proud of his brewery's Dos Topas Mexican style lager, "It's easy to cover up challenges with heavily-hopped beer, but with this beer, if the process is off at all, you're going to taste it."

Pretty much the one area of agreement, though was--wtf, hard seltzer? One speaker admitted, "If that existed when I was in my early twenties, I would have died an alcoholic." While Dr. Eric Giddens, founder of Kern River Brewing, put it this way, "I'm a beer-flavored beer guy." And these eight breweries delivered--to your door--the beer-flavored beer goodness.