Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hope Is the Thing with Anchors

As much as I love living in Santa Barbara (I mean, it's SANTA BARBARA), it's great to get out into the bigger world every now and then and see how real city folk live and eat and drink. Turns out that if the bigger world = San Francisco, you pretty much can't go wrong. It certainly helps we stayed at the Hotel Vitale,* an Embarcadero-crossing away from foodie nirvana the Ferry Building†. But we also Open Table researched our way into Anchor & Hope, and found a true delight.

One thing that's endlessly charming about San Francisco is all the rewards that await you down alleys. That could be a inventive cocktail haven like 15 Romolo, tucked away amidst the strip joints and Beat Museum off Broadway in North Beach, or it could be Anchor & Hope, whose address is 83 Minna Street, but the min- part is more of a clue than the Street part. That said the place just oozes charm, huge and airy as it's a renovated turn-of-the-last century mechanic's warehouse and all decked out with things you'd see by the sea. Made me homesick for my college days in Baltimore, but back then Bawlamer wasn't so polished, that's for sure.

A&H brings together two wonderful things--great beer and the choicest seafood. They even want you to follow them on Twitter if you're a beer geek, they're that into the updates. And a fine list they have, both on draught and bottle. We stuck to the tap all night and were more than happy pairing up the food with the suds, brews from the familiar (North Coast's La Merle) to the not (Linden Street's Burning Oak Black Lager). You can check the list yourself, but do note the perhaps drunken-counting-typo: that beer sampler says "five" beers but clearly lists, and delivers, six.

The food menu is short-ish but that's a blessing, as you'll want everything. Somehow we passed on the oysters and clams, although everyone around us didn't and seemed happy as, well, you know.... Instead we opted to share a starter and a salad (a simple, let it speak for its greeny self mix of wild arugula, pickled fennel, roasted olives, shaved grana padano in a light lemon vinaigrette). That starter was a clever item called salmon pastrami--house cured, then smoked again (if I remember right). It's heavy on the salt, but rich on the taste, and made me wonder what it would be like in a Reuben. At A&H it comes with a perfectly fried egg atop waiting to go gooey, potatoes roti beneath to provide ballast and yolk absorption, and a scattering of sliced asparagus full of spring (both the season and the texture). A lovely dish.

My companion opted to order another app for her main, but when it came out it looked like a main so she sure didn't get gypped.The scallops were seared expertly, paired surprisingly well with their bed of kohlrabi and mustard green, and then set off by the apple miso broth. Lots of layers of flavor all adding to something unexpected. And speaking of surprise, the scallops come with tuna very thinly shaved adorning them and waving. Really. For a long time. So if you get unsettled by your meal moving, it might not be the dish for you.
I more than enjoyed the cod with pork belly (I cannot resist) with three of the best little neck clams I've ever enjoyed--how wonderful when clams as a component of a composed dish can be cooked precisely and not be chewy afterthoughts. Sorry this photo does not do the dish justice, partially because it's poorly lit, partially because it's hard to see the slight bed of cavolo nero that added green, and partially because you can't smell the photo. The sauce is billed as a lemon parsley jus, but that doesn't do it jus-tice, for there's just enough of tomato in it to make it richer but not a tomato sauce. I wanted a bottle of it to take home.

And yes, since it was my birthday, I had to have some dessert, as everyone knows the calories you consume on your birthday don't count. Again, a short list, but everything sounded delish, and not just because I was enjoying an Allagash Curieux Bourbon Barrel Aged Triple at this point (dessert in a glass, sure). We went for something already off the menu, so I'm glad we ate when we did. Generally I eschew the chocolate offerings as they tend, even when good, to be good for three-and-a-half bites, then seem too much of a good thing. Here the chocolate mousse, though, seemed irresistible, with sea salt and a caramelly whipped cream and then a sprinkling of what Cracker Jack would be at the world's best ballpark. You know me--a lover of that sweet-salt mix, and this totally knocked that out of the park.

*Truly a wonderful hotel, and not just for the location. And on top of that--literally on top--is Spa Vitale, where you can start your treatments (just what the doctor ordered) with a wonderful bath that will make you feel wonderfully weightless.

†The Ferry Building and its wonders will get its own entry soon, promise.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Get Your Za-Za's Out

You'd think by now I'd be more flexible in real life, for metaphorically I'm a great self-kicker. Nothing makes me want to apply my boot to my butt more than not getting to a spot I just know is going to be good for too long a time. Of course I do this frequently, for even eating out too much, there's only so much time, so much money, so many inches in the waistband.

I fixed one such problem by finally making it to Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos on a weekend, when their production space gets turned into a restaurant. Pulling into its stretch of the 135, everything else in town at 5 on a Sunday seems sleepy, except for the cars, the families, the hubbub at their lovely spot that manages to mix some Western saloonish swagger with hip art (an amazing angel made from skateboards, say) and hippie-ish touches (not just the organic, local focus, but using old paperbacks as their check delivery systems--reuse, recycle, reread?). The spot is certainly full of life, with people sharing wines, running into old friends, getting greeted like the regulars many luckily seemed to be (if the place didn't leave me in such a good mood I'd damn them for their luck). It can't hurt it offers a lovely Santa Ynez Valley wine list with great by-the-glass choices, too, plus local brews from Firestone and Figueroa Mountain. And, of course, the dining room has that huge hearth of a pizza oven that just sort of makes for a primal home scene--no doubt any caveman would have killed for a saber-tooth flatbread back in the day.

Also, don't be fooled and think Full of Life is full of itself with anything approaching veggie indignation at all things meaty or more, for in addition to numerous bacon offerings, my special appetizer of the day (or any day, without a doubt) was crispy foie gras toast with wild-gathered black trumpet mushrooms on levain bread grilled with bacon & a farm egg yolk, shaved Sonoma foie gras, over green garlic fondue. Richness, thy name is this dish (which is why its name is so long, I guess). It's a brilliant way to get you the luscious punch of foie gras at 1/4 the amount you might need in a different dish, for the trumpet mushrooms, the egg a-run, the depth of the garlic fondue all just added layer and layer of yum.

We ate more, of course we did, although that first was the kind of dish that almost didn't need an entree; it's a hearty portion, in addition to a taste sensation. Still, it's a pizza joint (joke) so we had pizza, the two specials for the day (trust me, they really mean special when they use the word). That means we enjoyed (and are enjoying for two days of lunch, too, so the not cheap price doesn't seem quite so dear) a local chanterelle flatbread with Henry's cured + smoked pork belly bacon, stinging nettles, and a farm egg AND an artisanal burrata mozzarella flatbread with rapini braised with garlic & hot pepper, ember-roasted picholine olives & pepperoncino.Here they are sharing a double-decker stand that makes them seem even more decadent, a kind of two-story tribute to all pizza could dream to be.

If you've had their frozen variety, which are the best frozen pizzas you can get, you're still not prepared for these. That crust, for one, after just getting slid from the oven, tastes even more of the fire's woody-goodness. And when the quality of the toppings is this good--I'm mean, chanterelles, folks!--it all becomes yet more wonderful.

That's the Way the Pastry Contest Crumbles

You know a contest has been a hit when one judge claims, “The entries from the professional pastry chefs were remarkable,” the second judge suggests, “I think I indulged too much,” and the third confesses, “And [after] some … well, let’s just say I licked my fingers.” Such was the case with the Kings and Queens of Pastry Contest held March 19 at Whole Foods Market and cosponsored by The Independent and UCSB Arts & Lectures, which came up with this contest and other events to expand its Food for Thought series of lectures and films with more community participation.

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

Sunday, March 27, 2011

As I Frito-Lays Dying

Really? Like the folks who eat Cheetos suddenly are panicked they're eating crap? Like the folks who eat good-for-you foods suddenly have a hankering for cheesy taste that stains their fingers to the point you can't just lick it off, you sort of have to scrape your fingers with your teeth to remove it?

And why, yes, sometimes I eat Cheetos; they keep me awake on long car drives, if you must know. And I mostly eat "natural" food. (That we now have the term natural food tells you everything you need to know, doesn't it.) But if I'm going to eat a Cheeto, it damn well better be miserable for me--that's the whole point.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Food Truth According to Ruth

Ruth Reichl, the last editor of the late, lamented Gourmet, isn’t just concerned about the future of food writing. “It’s the same as the future of all journalism,” she asserted during a recent phone interview. “You really have to worry when so many people are writing for free. A lot of investigative reporting doesn’t get done if you don’t have an institution paying for it. Democracy depends upon a very robust press.”

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

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I-Rish I Wasn't So Stout

It's not blarney and you may opt to stone me for this, but I have to get something off my non-green wearing chest--I've got to admit I'm just not that huge a fan of Guinness. I know, I know, saying that on March 17th is like dissing chocolate on October 31, offering up a recipe for rabbit on Easter, or like saying you don't like condoms on Father's Day, but that's the kind of guy I am. The good news is I'm not particularly singling out Guinness, just using them as emblematic of Irish stout in particular. Let me explain.

Sure, the nitro touch is wonderful, and creaminess can be a valued thing in a brew, if for nothing else than the visual effect--how many things do we drink that transform before our eyes? A bit of magic at the table or bar never hurts. But mouthfeel and visual tricks is about all Irish stout ends up being for me. And now, it's not just because I'm an inveterate hop-head at this point. It's that Irish stout, even with the roasted malt, seems a bit, dare I say, watered down to me. Sure enough, it's a mere 5% ABV and, for beer, a low 198 calories per pint, so it is a bit lite, as it were, compared to the behemoths I like to quaff. (Indeed, I am a behemoth quaffer, which sounds like some insult Puck hurled at Nick Bottom). I always think there should be more there there, and once I've compared a beer to Oakland, you know it's in trouble. (Let's hope Gertrude Stein drank beer, if for no other reason than her last name, but maybe she's busy playing the piano, as that's the Stein way.) (Really, I have not yet been drinking today. Promise.)

I realize a Guinness is practically a session beer, but I've grown too old to pound beers--I want them for the taste (not that I deny the pleasure of the lucky buzz, either). But if I want to reach for a stout, it will more than likely be a Russian Imperial Stout, which is basically a stout on steroids (heck, I was even a Barry Bonds fan, what can I say). There are numerous good varieties, from Stone's to my absolute favorite, which is way better on tap, btw, North Coast's Old Rasputin, which will put hair on your chest (and maybe tongue, tastebuds, and liver, too). But then again, I'm not Irish a bit and Slav through and through, so what do I know.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Gotta Howl for Blue Owl

I guess I have to admit I'm sad to say that I'm not sad to say that I've come to the point in my life when hanging out in a rowdy bar drinking to the wee hours doesn't hold much appeal. I did my bar-boozled time, and probably some of yours, too, back in my younger days, but now it generally seems best if there's drinking to be done to do it at home as a series of delicious decisions built around an equally delicious meal--cocktail pre, wine with, after after. Then the good night is easy, as I just have to walk to the bedroom.

This prelude is a long way to say--I was on State Street at midnight this weekend, amidst those much younger, much more blinged out, and much drunker, and was overjoyed to be there. And there was no drinking of anything stronger than water involved on my part, for I was at Blue Owl at Zen Yai, Cindy Black's weekend late night concern that should concern anyone interested in scrumptious versions of southeast Asian streetfood in our humble, not very hip to the ways of the rest of the big world's food obsessions, burg. I wrote about Black when she opened back in October, and the good news is the food is just as fine.

OK, better than fine. In our house, we dream of her red curry shrimp roll, ordering each other around, saying, "Bring me a Cindy Black sammich!" But then we hardly ever go, as the thought of getting food at--or pretty much even staying up till--11:30 pm is too daunting. This weekend a friend who hadn't been told us he'd meet us there on Saturday, so we sort of had to, and that appointment helped it happen. Do note things are casual at the Blue Owl; we got there a few minutes early and were a tad distressed there was no sign of life inside Zen Yai. But sure enough, at 11:32 or so Cindy herself showed up at the door, and soon Blue Owl spread its wings to the drunken world, and us. (Indeed, at one point one large maybe just out of Velvet Jones group milled about outside and one dude almost came through the window, but I guess the plus is--free floor show!) Oh, and that is good news, that you can actually sit down inside and not just order to-go; turns out it was too cold for Black to be sending everyone away to eat on benches. See, winter does to happen in Santa Barbara.

As for that red curry shrimp roll, I doubt I can fully capture its magic in words. The shrimp themselves actually taste like shrimp, which is important--they don't get lost amidst the rest, or even in the toasted ciabatta, which is big but doesn't dominate the way a crusty bread can for such a sandwich. The curry has heat but flavor, too--it really rings royally true to its Thai-ness. Then there's plenty of cabbagy crunch, green onion zip, and cilantro pep. Finally there's the tofu, rectangles wisely the same size as the shrimp, so each operate as equals, but the tofu must be baked or something first as it's crispy almost and fully flavored. You could eat the sandwich made solely of tofu and be content.

The rice is nice, too, again an attention to detail making it all so much better--why she bills it "gourmet drunk food." Nothing like a truly fried egg, all sizzled at its edges, but still able to ooze yolk over the rice, adding even more richness to the dish.

And in case you're wondering, if you get a second shrimp sandwich to go, they hold up really well for a next day lunch, right about when you start getting sad it's been a few hours since you'd had one. Ok, you'll want to eat lunch early....

Friday, March 11, 2011

All Hail the Slyly Served Snail

It's a tricky task to single out one thing at Sly's as the place tends to do no wrong. Cocktails, well, Mandy and her crew has got them, and every part tends to be made from scratch, from the orgeat in the Mai Tai to the bitters in the stirred, not shaken Manhattan (as that drink is fond of foaming when shaken vigorously). The service is ever professional and friendly but it still has that old-fashioned air, too--it's not about palsing around, but performance. The bread service I could have easily heaped hearty wheaty hosannas on just as much as the one at Coast's (or the one at Downey's--that Irish soda bread...yum)--how can you beat warm black bread with gooey raisins?

But given all that goodness, this entry's going to be about abalone, even if it took a snail's pace to get around to announcing it as my subject. James Sly gets his from what he bills as Dos Pueblos Local Abalone, for a wealth of reasons, no doubt, not the least of which is nostalgia (Sly's is nothing if not the steak house of your dreams you think you remember, but even better). Abalone hankers back to a different day in California, when the world was rich in their veal-of-the-sea loveliness, when living the coastal life didn't require oodles of cash. Of course that world is long gone--the price of the abalone main course attests to that ($48)--but it's nice to reconnect to a simpler age, even if at a premium. Sly's, too, also loves the local, having been on that trend before it was a glimmer off Michael Pollan's bald head. What's more, Sly is sly about language as much as anything else, relishing in the corniness of pitch-talk like "just blocks from the world's safest beach!" For let's face it, Dos Pueblos Local Abalone is relatively sexier than the Cultured Abalone, from where the little mollusks actually hail. The good news is they are farmed sustainably, so you can eat with a clear conscience.

And you will, as Sly serves them up totally tender, lightly breaded, perfectly pan-fried. Cut each one into tiny pieces and savor--it's a meal that teaches you to eat slow (the one part of slow food perhaps not emphasized enough: just take your time and enjoy what's going into your mouth!). If a clam and lobster mated, they might hope to give birth to an abalone, but it would have to be an exceptional child. That breading adds just enough, well, even crunch is too much of a word, but it's all about texture, something to play off the tender abalone (which isn't chewy in the slightest). All of this is napped--and that's the only word that works for just the exact amount of saucing so you'll get just a bit on each and every bite and suddenly your plate will be spotless when you're finished--in a doré sauce, proving so much of cooking is really just nailing the simple. Butter, wine, shallot, parsley, salt, pepper, and I'm guessing maybe a dash of cream (it's like the exclamation point of Angostura in the Manhattan mentioned above).

If this plate isn't heaven, damn me right now.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Putting the Fun in Gumbo

Last night's Mardi Gras meant it only seemed appropriate to turn to New Orleans for menu inspiration (and a cocktail, of course, in this case the delightfully layered Vieux Carre), and after a bunch of internet and cookbook searching for some sort of gumbo that didn't lay on the links too much (sausage sausage everywhere, and not a gumbo for pescatarians to drink!), we found this Shrimp and Collard Greens Gumbo. So, yes, this isn't my recipe, but we did some tweaking and have some warnings, so I'm going to run through it our way for you to enjoy the next time you want a big bowl of slowly simmering Louisiana heat. Plus one more excuse to eat collards, not that you should need one.

4 TBS. safflower oil
2 TBS. flour
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 medium sized green bell pepper, chopped
4 ribs celery, chopped
1 pound frozen cut okra
2 bunches collards, washed, stemmed, torn into bite-sized bits
5 cups shrimp or seafood stock (we used Kitchen Basics seafood stock and it was perfectly fine)
1 14.5 oz can whole tomato, undrained
3 cloves garlic, crushed (these will fall apart more in the soup and be delicious)
1 bay leaf
2 robust tsp. Creole seasoning blend (of your choice)
1/2 TBS. hot sauce ( we used Caribbean Chile Habanero)
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined, 72-90 count best size

In large skillet make a medium roux of 2 TBS of oil and the flour. Stir constantly over medium high heat till the mixture gives off a rich smell and is peanut butter colored--at least 10 minutes. Add onions, bell pepper, and celery and cook till the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

In soup pot cook okra over medium heat in remaining 2 TBS of oil for about 10 minutes or until soft and a bit gooey (that gooey will add to the dish's consistency). Add the collards and stock, bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmering, and cook for 15 minutes. Add roux-vegetable mixture, tomatoes, garlic, red pepper sauce, bay leaf, Creole seasoning, salt (start lightly as boxed stock can be sodium-full), and pepper. Stir to combine and break up the tomato a bit. Simmer for another 20 minutes. Add shrimp, cover, and cook slowly for no more than 10 minutes--keep checking on how much those shrimp have pinked up and tightened their little circles.

This goes well with a mixed greens salad and some crusty bread, maybe even a crusty-garlicky-cheesy bread, would be great.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Chicken Pot Chicken Pot Chicken Pot Pie

It's not really that I need another reason to head to Hollister Brewing Company as Eric Rose's ever-diverse and totally-tasty brews would get me in the door all by themselves. (And how wonderful it is he tweaks recipes, too, so, for instance, the current batch of White Star XPA is the creamiest ever.) But having Dylan Fultineeer in the kitchen certainly doesn't hurt HBC any. And while Dylan's mastery tends to show best at the magnificent beer dinners and on the daily specials, the latest re-vamp the regular menu helps show how comfortable he is with comfort food.Veggie lasagna. Pot roast. Cioppino. Pork belly sandwich (bacon's beefier cousin, if that's not an oxymoron).

But this entry is about the beauty photographed above, the new chicken pot pie. (And if you don't know the allusion in the title, please don't get Cross with me if you follow this link.) Get it while the weather's still a bit iffy, for it will warm you deeply, and not just because it comes piping hot from the oven and that crusty cap holds the heat. Nope, it's body-pleasing good--the kind of food we all dreamed our mothers made (instead of serving up the Swanson's frozen models). That puff pastry is flaky and layered but then doughy inside, too, cooked to perfection. And the contents, not just any chicken but the oh-so-au-courant Jidori. A luscious sauce with not trace of flour to thicken it up. Carrots and snow peas that haven't gone to mush in the saucy baking process.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Dough That to Me One More Time

Man does not live by bread alone, but he just might if he got to eat at Coast every night. On a slow Tuesday evening, the pleasant dining room was a wonderful spot for a respite from a crazy work week. And while the entire meal was fine--chef Brian Parks certainly knows his way around a piece of fish based on the fine arctic char and halibut we enjoyed--there was something particularly pleasing about the bread service. Sure, it's homey and all, coming out on its wooden cutting board. But even better, it's all warm, all the better to slather the very cold butter on. And then there was variety, too. Two lovely pretzel rolls, rich in Kosher salt, caraway, and rye, chewy on the outside, delish in the center. Then there was one harder roll sort of shaped like a breaded snail, but it was far from sluggish in taste. And then was a round softer roll, proving two crusts that looked somewhat the same could be totally different animals (if crusts were animals).

It wasn't easy to say no, when we got offered a second board.

Other good news about Coast is how Open Table-friendly the restaurant is: they offer 1000 points 5:30 - 10 Monday through Thursday, 11-2 and 5:30-10:30 Sunday (there's a great jazz brunch), and then 5:30-6:45 an 8:45-9:45 Friday and Saturday. Does wonders for your Open Table account (and your stomach).