Monday, February 28, 2011

Raw Raw Riot

I love a big juicy slab o' beef between buns as much as the next Padma, even if I don't necessarily love the burger, if you know what I mean. That said, I would be one saddened carnivore if I could never drag my knuckles again into Santa Barbara's Paradise Cafe or Los Angeles's Father's Office or San Diego's The Neighborhood ever again and not be able to devour a burger.

Still, man does not live by meat alone. Plus, I like to be open-minded, or make that open-stomached, and be willing to try all sorts of foods and preparations. So, last weekend we were at 118 Degrees in Costa Mesa for dinner. Their menu puts it like this: "118 Degrees is the commonly accepted temperature at which the natural enzyme value and nutritional contents of raw plant foods begin to break down and become useless for the body. One benefit of eating raw food is the energy derived from the enzymes and phyto nutrients available in foods that are still living!"I figure, thems phyto words*--let's see what you've got, 118 Degrees!

You have to grant raw food chefs some ground, after all, as they're willing to give up on really enticing us with scent when they cook. Sure, basil is basil raw even to our noses, but so many foods don't really let their oils loose until heated a bit (put some corriander or cumin seeds in a warmed pan and you'll see, or smell, as the case may be), so that makes the job much harder. That might be one reason raw food is often plated within an inch of its life (if that isn't an oxymoron)--these dishes seem to try to entice the eye even more than a "regular" plate of food. (Yes, I realize I'm writing from the possibly fake dominant notion that food should be cooked to be food.)

It also means dishes are rarely simple. Raw chefs often try to re-create flavors we're used to eating cooked, so there are nut cheeses, julienned zucchini masquerading as pasta,  and so on. Which means, actually, the layers of flavoring tend to be extravagant, in a way, and richer than one might imagine when there's no dairy in there. We started with the 118 Bristol (the restaurant is on Bristol Avenue) Sliders  featuring marinated portobello mushrooms where you might imagine meat might be, tomato, spinach, garlic crème sauce and basil aioli on a buckwheat bun. It was sloppy goodness, the mushroom almost as yummy as a grilled one as the marinating broke it down a bit. For a main we shared the Seasonal Platter of Heirloom Tomato and Asparagus Tapas Salad, Crepe 360, and Butternut Ravioli. That doesn't really sound like something you couldn't eat anywhere, does it? And that's the trick.

While the tomatoes weren't quite peak yet--no surprise in a cold February--they melded well with the thinly sliced on the bias asparagus. That crepe was yummy, and that's no surprise, for here's the vegetable truck dumped into it: marinated mushroom mix, pesto aioli, avocado, sweet peppers, chard ribbons and shaved asparagus, inside sprouted grain and flax crepe shell. That's then topped with sun-dried tomato crème sauce--they're serious about their blenders, of course, and that sundried trick simply adds depth of flavor without heat [no offense, sun])--and olive carmelata.

Since we'd been so virtuous it was even easier to have dessert, so we shared the sampler there, too, figuring the more tastes the better. The coconut macaroons were crunchy (not really gooey) and flavorful; the chocolate ganache deeply rich and best as a bite or two (yeah, sampler), and then an apple cobbler as good as a baked one (even if this one was probably a cashew-date crust, and how bad could that be?).

Beware, though, as a place like this ends up more expensive than you might think. Sure, you're not covering the cost for foie gras or Kobe beef or even diver scallops. But nuts cost, and there's lots of them in vegan and raw food (there's milk in them nuts!). So don't expect to get out cheap. But do expect to get out happy.

Oh, of all things it's in a mall, but a mall unlike most as it aims for the upscale post-hippie crowd--bike stores, air plants and art sold out of an Airstream, even more vegetarian cuisine. The Camp, it's called, and heck, if you have to go buy things, why not a green place like this.

*Phytonutrients are those elements we know are good for us but we just don't know how good--some people want to say they slay cancer, etc., while others say, "sure they help, but don't put all your cuisine choices in one phyto basket."

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Better OC Vegetable than Ketchup*

This isn't just your average North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (if there is such a thing). This is one you can get at a very long happy hour at Costa Mesa's Goat Hill Tavern. And, yes, it's a frosty not really glass (so watch hefting it high too quickly, as your mind plays tricks on your muscles) mug that cost me a mere $2.50.

Now, the Goat Hill Tavern isn't the best bar in the world, even with its wealth of taps--you don't come here for the exotic. But if you want an Old Rasputin, or a Racer 5, or a Green Flash IPA, or any amount of Stonesy suds (even had 10.10.10 and the Old Guardian Barley Wine on Thursday), you will be pleased. And far from poor. And you can throw peanut shells on the floor. (And, alas, smoke in the pool room section of the bar, even in California.)

Then there's that Iowa license plate, looking all dilapidated on the column behind my beer. It's from 1986. I lived in Iowa then. So I needed a good strong beer to stop feeling so g-d old.

*Can't find a good link to explain the title, but way back in the '80s an Orange County school board member tried to insist that ketchup was a vegetable....

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Get Your Hands Dirty Day

To even begin to suggest that Alison Hensley and Tim Sexauer were leaders would be to miss the point entirely; Hensley and Sexauer are happy to admit they’re just bobbing along on the swells of a sea of seeds. That’s a good thing, too, as what they’re advocating, along with many others in this grassroots (no pun intended) movement, is that Santa Barbarans go out and break the law on Sunday, February 27.

Want to read the rest, then go read it at the Indy's site.

Friday, February 18, 2011

No Stomach for Gluttony--No Brains for Criticism

Willem Dafoe always plays such evil characters--Max Schreck as a real blood-sucker in Shadow of the Vampire, Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart, mangled to his very fucked-up teeth, nasty criminal Rick Masters in To Live and Die in LA.

Willem Dafoe always plays such saintly characters--that kinda holy guy Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, the good angel Sgt. Elias, dying like Christ, in Platoon, the rules-following, racist-busting FBI agent Ward in Mississippi Burning.

That's what selective evidence can do to you--trick you into making huge sweeping judgments that just aren't true. Or, it can LET you make such huge sweeping judgments, as the case may be for B.R. Myers in his recent polemic "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies" in the Atlantic. Ultimately, it seems, all Myers aims to do is be a scourge and prove his subtitle (which might be editorially provided--I know that kind of thing happens): "gluttony dressed up as foodie-ism is still gluttony." So, the Atlantic is into standing up for the Seven Deadly Sins as still sinful--cool, I guess, in that anti-cool way. But if you read Myers, and I mean read between what he says, it gets really hard to know what food consumption he thinks is permissible. Clearly not meat. But keep reading--it's as if he wants to deny any enjoyment in food.

But, sure, we can give him his ascetic food-as-fuel pose, why not. What I can't allow him is his literary criticism.* For instance, he tries to conflate both Michael Pollan and Anthony Bourdain as both representative of foodie-ism--not just gluttony, but exclusive, clubby gluttony (we pig out in ways you common folk can't imagine). Amazingly, to do this, he acts as if Michael Pollan died, or at least stopped writing, in 2006 with the Omnivore's Dilemma. There's no mention of Pollan's most recent works (such as Food Rules) that clearly argue against the very thing Myers wants to accuse Pollan of--over-indulgence. Any Pollanite, and yes, at this point he has followers, could recite his little near koan he joked will be on his tombstone: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Of course, it's much easier to torch your opponents once you've filled them with straw. For we have Myers writing a sentence like "Needless to say, no one shows much interest in literature or the arts—the real arts," but then mostly quote from The Best Food Writing of XXXX anthologies. I wonder if he'd complain that the folks in The Best Sports Writing anthologies don't talk about art, either. Of course, he wants to have his unsatisfying cake and eat it--with no pleasure--too. For while art allusions are lacking and that means the writing is bad (let's let slide his mandarin, and I don't mean the citrus,  phrase "the real arts"), he does bemoan religious metaphors in food writing, too. "Oh god oh god oh god"--let's hope he doesn't get to writing an attack on porn soon.

In general, though, for Myers to call out someone, let alone a whole group (which, alas, is far from unified except in his mind) as narrowly focused is like Russia's Neighbor Sarah Palin calling out someone on their lack of foreign affairs expertise. Myers is blissfully myopic when it suits him and his argument; that's never clearer then when he writes: "The book Gluttony (2003), one of a series on the seven deadly sins, was naturally assigned to a foodie writer, namely Francine Prose, who writes for the gourmet magazine Saveur." Prose has written 14 novels, 3 collections of short stories, 6 nonfiction books including one on Caravaggio (hey, real art!). Calling her a foodie writer would be like calling Barack Obama a tv baseball announcer. But since it fits Myers' argument, that's what she is. It's funny that he's the one to close his rant "They [foodies] are certainly single-minded, however, and single-mindedness—even in less obviously selfish forms—is always a littleness of soul." For he's certainly single-minded in taking them down, ignoring evidence to make his case that those who care about food can only care too much.

*Evidently his actual literary criticism is just as selective and sloppy and disingenuous. Heck, he even uses ellipses to avoid quoting stuff that gets in the way of his interpretations,something that should be beaten out of eight graders, let alone those publishing in The Atlantic.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Aldo's Gets Local

Given some might know Brad Sherman best as the drummer for Area 51, one of the funkiest outfits in town, it’s little surprise that he says, “I love the funkiness of Aldo’s, the funkiness of the dining room. Everything has been yuppified and gentrified and sterilized in our world, yet Aldo’s retains its soulful spirit, a spirit that has been lost with the corporatization of State Street.”

Want to read the rest, then go read it at the Indy's site.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Moony Over Mourvedre

Not to say I'm ahead of the curve or anything, but today's Food Section of the LA Times includes a feech on Mourvedre whose hook is that Wine Spectator's 2010 Wine of the Year, the 2007 Saxum "James Berry Vineyard" red blend, is 31% Mourvèdre. The article gets to this graph:

Mourvèdre is also not a varietal for novice wine drinkers, which sets it apart from many Paso Robles reds. For many, the strength of the area is full-bodied, fruity red wines that are often fairly straightforward. Mourvedre is rarely any of those; it's a wine aficionado's wine coming from a region that — until the Wine Spectator announcement — was not known for them.

I always find it fishy, calling myself an aficionado, but I guess I have to if I want to be a Times reader. For Georgeeats has been Georgedrinksmourvedre (that makes me a GDM, I guess, and that resonates so many ways) as long as he's been heading north to Paso. Paso, especially west of the 101, is lovely country, period, and not just after a stop at a tasting room or two. But talk about your big and bold wine--Turley, Linne Calodo, Four Vines, Zin Alley, Denner, Villa Creek, Halter Ranch, Tablas Creek, Justin. Just thinking about it makes my tongue tinge purple.

I tend not to buy too many of any one wine, as variety is the spice of the cellar, and then there's those other sadder issues--there's only so much money, so much storage. But a good 4 years back I split a case of Tablas Creek's single varietal Mourvedre (was it the 2004 vintage?) and never regretted a drop. It didn't hurt Tablas often releases the wine in time for their delightful annual Pig Roast, and deeply grilled pork and the deep tannins of the wine match magnificently. But if you want bass (no, not the fish, silly) in your wine, as the article says, you can't beat Mourvedre. And Tablas and Villa Creek and Denner know how to make it (and the last two play with fruit from James Berry, too, so you can get close to the Saxum cache at a cheaper sticker price).

Monday, February 7, 2011

Hungry for Homey Hadsten House

The dining room is done in a kind of contemporary Empire décor, if there is such a thing, with fanciful oversized snowball light fixtures mid-room and curlicue sliver appliqués on the far wall with the roaring fireplace. “It’s definitely not what you’d expect from Solvang,” Hadsten House’s Bill Phelps said, “but what you might expect in a small restaurant in Santa Barbara. It’s a romantic, dark space.” But the hip look leaves the place far from haughty, especially when your server downsells you some wine. She talks me out of a more expensive, more renowned bottle (rhymes with Pitching Host), leading me to a delicious Ken Brown Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir, for less, especially with the evening’s 50 percent-off sale.

Want to read the rest, then go read it at the Indy site.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Don't Have A (Young) Cow, Man

Bella Vista at the Biltmore Four Seasons is taking part in Film Feast, which means you've got till Sunday to get yourself there for a true feast, plus one of the most stunning vegetarian meals you'll ever have. It's pictured above--an eggplant ossobuco. You see what's supposed to look like the veal's shank is a heart of palm, and what would be the veal is a perfectly roasted slab o' eggplant. About it first is a circle of the richest mushroom Bolognese you might imagine--who needs meat when the sauce can be this flavor-thick? The second circle is a perfect  polenta--I didn't say this was a low-fat dish, I simply said it was meatless--all corn and cheese and creamy goodness. There's some broccoli rabe looped about, too, adding just the right touch of green to lighten the other colors, to provide just a bit of crisp, to make up for the lack of gremolata (not that the dish needed gremolata, but it is an ossobuco staple).

The rest of the meal was faultless, too, and the room is elegant romantic perfection (it doesn't hurt to get a table fireplace-side, of course), and the service was attentive without being aggressive.

But then there's this brilliant dish, and the rest sort of falls away.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Empty Big Words for Empty Big Calories

As someone who works in marketing for a living (this food thing is a paid hobby, at least sometimes is, if not here at GE--I can reclaim those letters, can't I?), I feel for those who have to say things you know they might not if there wasn't a paycheck pushing them to do so. Having only had to shill for arts and education in my career, I've never felt the need for a good shower-scouring that I must imagine someone working for, oh, BP or Monsanto must feel on what for me, at least, would be an hourly basis.

That as prelude, this passage from an article titled "Big Burgers Still Rule" in yesterday's Los Angeles Times really struck me:

"The bottom line is we're in the business of making money, and we make money off of what we sell," said Beth Mansfield, spokeswoman for CKE Restaurants Inc., which owns the Carl's Jr. and Hardee's chains. "If we wanted to listen to the food police and sell nuts and berries and tofu burgers, we wouldn't make any money and we'd be out of business."

Mansfield and CKE have a job to do, and that's keeping the so-called "Young Hungry Guys" up to their burgeoning belt-buckles in beefy caloric goodness, I get that. But the quote still rankles, for a variety of reasons that I want to discuss.

First, imagine the first half of that quote "the bottom line is we're in the business of making money, and we make money off what we sell," followed by a second half that said, "and we make money by selling kidnapped young women into white slavery. If we couldn't do that we'd not make any money and we'd be out of business." Sure, I picked a tad bit extreme of an example, but you see what I mean--we can question whether some businesses should exist, can't we? I'm not saying they should be outlawed or anything, but the fattening and unhealthying of America is at the least a moral issue, if not an economic one, given our healthcare system (or whatever's left of it after the Republicans get done undoing the tiny gains made in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act--hey, if the right can call it ObamaCare, I'm going to use the Dems' candy-coated name for it instead). We're all going to end up paying for that in higher insurance premiums, folks, so put down that Beefy Crunch Burrito Meal! (Side note: I can't resist to point out--watch the US obesity trends on this chart from the CDC, and notice how the politically red states turn red to signify the states with the most obesity. Just saying.)

Second, "food police" is not just creating a total strawman argument, but then also handing that strawman a handgun, truncheon, and the ability to read Carl's Jr. its Miranda rights. Police implies people with power, and no one has any power over CKE and its fellow fast food pushers, short of them serving Ebola-laced burgers, or Yum Foods (Taco Bell's corporate parent) having a really bad two-year streak with the CDC and health officials. (Side note 2, from Think Progress: "Under the House Republicans’ proposal to reduce non-defense discretionary spending, the FDA’s $2.3 billion budget [which makes up a whopping 0.07 percent of the overall federal budget] will be reduced by 20 percent, imperiling the jobs of 3,000 inspectors. And that’s child’s play compared to the 40 percent hit the FDA would be in for under the House Republican Study Committee’s spending plan, or the 62 percent cut it would see under Sen. Rand Paul’s [R-KY] budget. In a final kicker, Republicans are also threatening to defund the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act, which boosts the inspection abilities of the FDA, even though it will actually save taxpayers money in the long run.")

Simply put, while there are more and more folks making a fuss about what people eat, hoping a change in the food industry (a term that in and of itself should tell us everything we need to know) can lead to healthier people and a healthier environment, it's not like Michael Pollan is going to go all Buford Pusser on Carl's Jr. with his baseball bat.

Third, did Mansfield really pull the "nuts and berries and tofu burgers" card? It seems she's sending a real mixed message, as her food police sure sound like hippie freaks to me. And we all know how hippies feel about the pigs. Nope, all she's doing is pulling out all the terms she can that might make readers go "yuck" and then throwing them at the people her company doesn't agree with. Shame on her and CKE.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Nevada City Takes Over Seagrass

Chef Robert Perez describes the difference of moving from Nevada City, where he ran the acclaimed Citronee Bistro and Wine Bar for 13 years, to Santa Barbara, where he now owns Seagrass with his family, in a very simple way: “It’s really just the size difference, which is why we moved here. Santa Barbara is a city without being city-ish. We’re just happy to be here.” But he lights up with pride saying more: “We’re happy the regulars from Seagrass are coming in. At first they look at you,” he crosses his arms and adopts a stern mien, “‘You took our restaurant.’ And then they leave after dinner looking really pleased.”

Want to read the rest, then go read it at the Indy site.