Monday, December 17, 2012

This Bird Has Flown



This Thanksgiving we gave thanks for having a whole day to wreck and re-wreck the kitchen. It ended up just the two of us, so that took the clock away, plus that old problem of how do you entertain guests and prepare to feed them simultaneously, assuming they don't want to watch a live cooking show. (Remember, cooking shows now tend to cut the cooking itself out or insist on an Alton Brown for play-by-play.) Nope, the day was just us having at a wide range of recipes in a dishwasherless, microwave-absent kitchen.

Along with a works-well but is of its era Wedgewood stove/oven. That partially led to us eschewing a big bird, not to mention Chryss is a pescatarian to boot (to fin?), so a Cornish hen seemed plenty for me. Othwerwsie it was about sides, for if you serve enough, they take up the center of the plate anyway. Especially when one is a potato and mushroom goat cheese gratin en croute, since potatoes need some flaky crust atop to be complete (especially when laden with cheese-daubed bechamel). This was a recipe from Hatfield's in the LA Times, one of those dishes that ends up looking simple but is multi-stepped, and turned out even better with a few dashes of hot sauce that all that carb-starch-creaminess just devoured.

For a hint of heat never hurt any dish, just ask the long-cooked green beans (recipe by Suzanne Tracht of Jar; secret theme of the day--let us give thanks for great chefs 90 miles to our south). These cook slow in a soupy-stock but you still flash blanch them, and then they get onioned and chili-ed and bay leafed and balsamiced up. Never give thanks for a green been casserole when you can do this to them instead.

Do give thanks, however, for Plenty, Yotam Ottolenghi's brilliant non-vegetarian vegetable cookbook (that's a crucial, no brown rice has been steamed to bland your meal, distinction). His dish was our yam substitute, not that I don't like sweet potatoes, and I know the two are different things even if they're collated-confused in our culture. I'm not so sold, however, on the super-sizing of the sweetness of sweet potatoes. Who wants marshmallows on that? Why bronze the orchid? I prefer sneaking some savory in, and that's where Ottolenghi's recipe was brilliant. You slice the squash thinninsh (and any winter squash will do, even if he asks for pumpkin--we used both butternut and kabocha), at about a quarter inch, and then coat that with a zippy mix of olive oil, Parmesan, breadcrumbs, parsley, thyme, lemon zest, garlic, salt and pepper. Roast. They get soft enough you can even eat the skin. On that you dollop sour cream stirred with dill.

Fresh herbs, what a wild idea, at it would be if I were transported back to my childhood, when I believed basil and thyme all had the last name McCormick and came from jars that grew a bit dusty in my mom's pantry. Now, rosemary always grows in my yard, the chopping of it brown-greening the cutting board as it was prepared for the Cornish hen. Again, growing up my mom would have stuffed the hens with Rice-a-Roni (I was surprised to learn what a different treat San Francisco would be when I finally got there as an adult), that ersatz saffron something I once actually craved (or was that the MSG?). Now I know better, and stuff the hens with dried cranberries plumped in Grand Marnier, chopped toasted walnuts, and sauteed kale. The hen gets rubbed with butter (a word I often typo as better, a true Freudian kitchen slip), sprinkled with orange zest, liberally seasoned. Roasted. To be honest, the bird was delish, but I sort of liked the stuffing best. Just like any more traditional Thanksgiving, I guess.

There's a Turley White Coat, as you can't have too much Roussanne. I mean too much great Roussanne.

And then we do have the neighbors and their friend over and Cattie back for dessert. There's a lot of after dinner stuff to drink in this house, so we did. And had a bourbon pecan pie from John Besh's My New Orleans (and why, of all foods, is he eating ice cream on the cover? that's clearly not a Cajun-Creole food, as it so rarely has pig in it). After all, one of the trips we had to give thanks for this year was to New Orleans. The recipe opts for 3/4 cup molasses to a 1/2 cup corn syrup, which for Chryss's taste made it too shoo-fly, but I liked its deep dark sweet--we didn't sweeten our whipped cream and that worked perfectly (to my palate). It could have been pecan-ier, perhaps, but can't we all.

Overall, the message was this--there's always something new for which to be thankful, so don't get caught in ruts.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Meditation at Campanile

All the new blogging is about loss. In this it resembles all the old blogging. Or so the story goes with Mark Peel, as I've blogged about the demise of his Tar Pit, and now it's time to bid a fine farewell to Campanile too. Yes, I'm going to over-romanticize this, and perhaps blow it out of proportion, as I only had the chance to eat there thrice, but when someone like Jonathan Gold can write, "It is hard to overstate Campanile's contributions to American cooking," I'll take his word for it. And indeed, beyond being a paragon of California cuisine--by partially helping invent it--from 1989 until its close this November, Campanile was also a kitchen that launched a thousand careers, it seems. It would be hard for me to imagine the LA dining scene without Suzanne Goin and Lucques and AOC, Suzanne Tracht and Jar, Nancy Silverton--originally co-owner and Peel's ex--and La Brea Breads and Mozza and Short Order, Matt Molina and Dahlia Narvaez, also Mozza, and more (I miss the Kidders' closed Literati II, I wish I could afford Manfred Krankl's Sin Qua Non wines).

Simply put, the spot just felt special. Part of that is the incredible space, all air and light and arch. It's one of the rare spots in LA where things truly feel Mediterranean, and then knowing the history, that Chaplin built it, lost it in the divorce to his child bride--well, it's all high Hollywood and just enough tawdry to be everything you believe LA to be, isn't it? Plus, while I'd never been until probably 2005 or so, well past the restaurant's most acclaimed ground-breaking days, it still always had that air of "this is where things happened." (Go back and look at that chef list, or a fuller one here.) It's sort of like the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, and those Massacio frescoes that first put perspective onto a wall. They are gorgeous on their own, but you stand there knowing in your spot stood Michelangelo 500 years prior, studying, studying. That all adds up to something.

Our last visit was mere days before the closing, and was not altogether auspicious. We had a 5:30 reservation as we wanted to get back to Santa Barbara at a reasonable hour (and had run a half marathon that morning, if I can brag a bit), but they were just clearing out the ending at 6 wine tasting, the very last they would do and a sparkling wine blowout (people seemed immensely, bubbly festive). Somehow just one poor waiter had the whole front room, and that included the worst behaved non-drunk table I've ever seen at a restaurant--three generations from one family, with the grandmom the most demandingly worst: every time anyone on staff went by, she'd bug the person for something, and somehow the table, all the way down to the base tablecloth, got reset 3 times. The unfortunate waiter did his best--that table was one clearly determined to remain unpleased--and we got a free glass of wine, so he did his best to make us happy.

And we were. For it still was that beautiful room, and Peel himself peeked in at one point looking a bit like an uncle surprised to see all his family in his house, and those cocktails, if arriving a bit late, were the even more cleverly made than named Pancho Victorias--think of it as a high class margarita with grapefruit juice, kaffir lime, and a float of Lagavulin (there's the Brit for you, and a smoky one it is). I can't vouch for Chryss' meal, although she seemed mighty pleased with carrot soup to start and fresh sheep's milk cheese ravioli with wild mushrooms and tomato cream sauce. I started with a strawberry salad, the berries themselves still vividly ripe despite it being fall (I guess it's strawberry season all year anymore), but they really were mere jewels amidst the greens of all sorts and the Humboldt fog cheese smearing about, making the dressing a creamy delight.

I had to eat something light like that as I followed with one of Campanile's signature dishes--aged USDA prime rib with flageolet beans, bitter greens, and black olive tapenade. At least that's how it's billed on the menu, but what arrives might surprise. For, and perhaps all my Florence talk earlier helps make me think this, it seems this might be bistecca alla Fiorentina by another name. It's not--not that thick, not that hanging over the platter. It's more refined, if a big hunk o' beef can ever be so, not even the prime rib of a Lawry's; indeed, there's no rib on the plate at all. The beef arrives, sliced, still done to perfect order, its juices mixing onto the beans (never enough beans) and greens beneath, making a sauce combo few plates can match. As for that tapenade, it's not doled on after grilling, it's fired right onto the beef, so the charry, crsipy crunch isn't just from the grill, it's the olives, too.

I guess the good news is Campanile can't ever really be gone--Peel promises to do something new (but he said that about Tar Pit too, so I worry); all his former chefs cook away with bits of Campanile set in their repertoires; even the space will be a restaurant again, run by a well-respected chef I like, Walter Manzke. And then there's that steak. I can still taste it, almost as if both its charcoal/olive crunch and then sweet sweet melt were still on my tongue.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Pa-tay-toe, Pah-tah-toe, Let's Call the Whole Thing Soup

Sure, there's that Italian dish called acquacotta (cooked water soup), but that seems more a misnomer than merely meager. For humble, it's hard to top potato soup, and I'm not talking vichyssoise, which besides being haute coutured into French, gets chilled, and that wait for it implies a certain extravagance of time and denial of immediate hunger. No, nothing gets more humble than hot potato soup, particularly one that won't even allow anything porky to give it crunch, or, well, porky goodness. (Lave me in lardons and I might make a meal of myself.) A few quick snips of chive, that, sure, a bit of simple zip from what looks like a grass. But otherwise, just potato.

On a recent what passes for a chilly night in Santa Barbara, a perfect potato soup could be had at Petit Valentien. Leave it to the French to make something so simple sing, but it did, of the comfort of the earth and a creaminess my waistline can only hope was mostly just from the potatoes themselves (but it sure tasted rich). They must take great care with their food, as it leaves them no time to put up a website.

You can enjoy that with Bonaccorsi Syrah by the glass, and that will lead you to a delightful plate of duck breast, red-centered and skin well-grilled, in what seems more an essence of orange sauce--nothing sticky, just a light lovely jus, that's jus right. (Sorry, the food's way better, and much more deft, than that lame joke.)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Project We Own It and a Fab Feast


 So amidst my self-pitying after the kick to the writerly nuts, I never got around to linking to this story as I should have, about the amazing thing the IV Food Co-op is trying to do--crowdsource a purchase of its building. It might end up being (probably) the first cooperatively purchased co-op in the country, something so wild and whacky other co-op vets tried to talk the IV Co-op out of doing it for fear they'd fail and embarrass the whole "industry." Now the IV Co-op is close to attaining its goal, and if you can give anything you should--it's history, it's the future, it's the only real food for 23,000 people in 1.8 square miles. So read more about it and donate at projectweownit.org.

And feel sad you missed the Farm-to-Table Benefit dinner for the Co-op last night, held at the very generous (and ever tasty on their own, too) Goodland Kitchen. This five-course feast was put together by Karla Subero, and had one of the warmest, coolest vibes possible, as you'd expect for an event all about people who love food and the people who sell them the good stuff. The donor list was a veritable farmers' market all-star parade, from Tom Shepherd (the IV Co-Op was the first commercial spot to sell his produce way back in the '70s, in fact) to Roots Farms. With all that good stuff, you just know the vegetable-driven menu would deeply please. After all, that's one reason we eat that kind of food--it does taste better as it's grown with more care and the grower might actually look you in the eyes someday. Sysco's got trucks, no eyes.

Perhaps the epitome of the evening was the the simply billed salad trio, artfully plated. Sweet slices of the last of summer's heirlooom tomatoes sat beneath a clutch of tart purslane and some toasted pine nuts. Roasted, thinly sliced baby beets sat atop peashoots, the heavy and light flavors melding well. And in a pleasing fan of the season's shifting, fall's apples were drizzled with the last of summer's pesto, a surprising perfect touch.

But it was an evening of surprises--chicken zipped with not just grapefruit marmalade but also pickled mustard seed, beet greens and kale subbing for spinach in ricotta dumplings--and no surprise at all, that the IV Food Co-op is community, and what could make more sense than supporting ourselves? Even better, you can have a damn fine time doing it, too.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

I Blog into the Light

Peter Gabriel, with his ever-weary old voice now emitting from an older, unweary body, is at the keyboard and the house lights are up and the SB Bowl might be a 4,000 seat piano bar, it's got that acoustic-intimate feel, with Tony Levin all cool-cat on his bass, Manu Katché doing something luscious with brushes on the too loudly named percussion. The song is "Family Snapshot," about a political assassin ("if you don't get given/you learn to take/and I will take you") who by song's end turns out to be a dreamy boy, his toy gun on the floor. What this song means to me is much more, beyond its 4:28 length, and more like the 32 years I've lived with it since I discovered PG3 and Gabriel and music so "weird" to my more normal high school friends that I had to turn a cassette I made of it off on a summer drive to the Jersey shore. This song had me good, its pulses and silences, Levin's slippery bass work, and then when it and I locked into similar tapes--"Come back mom and dad/you're growing apart, you know that I'm growing up sad"--and there I could say it or sing it as I couldn't do on my own despite my parents divorcing and all the early lessons of distance getting taught in a way only absence confirms. All that. One damn song. This current performance drags my memory's lake and fishes up 17-year-old me, mawkish and needy and not as dead as I might want to think and connected to at least this, my hurt made real in another's words. This is too a kindness. At least 49-year-old me gets to hold that young me for the bars of a tune.

Not that Gabriel leaves it to that, and, of course, he has no idea what personal odysseys his songs evoke in what might be the millions--we'll get to "In Your Eyes," closing clench to a thousand proms, I promise. But he does know how to perform, that a concert is a show, and that any damnfool can listen at home to better quality and not have to suffer loud show-talkers, iPhone filmers who assume it's more important that they get to watch the show twice than you--with an arm and a phone in your sightline--need to see it once, and/or a nearby seat-mate who has to singalong sourly, earnestly, and always knows all of the words. Gabriel had warned us of the show's contours: acoustic, then electric, then all of So. He didn't say, however, how that would happen, and he took advantage, quick-cutting the house lights and using the projection screens as ways to blast even more light, visually making the stage electric right at the moment "Family Snapshot" kicks into the louder gear when killing gets near and he's sung "I'm alive" in a way he certainly means it. It's nearly hokum, but it certainly put the adrenalin pedal to the metal. Music is meant to sucker us, after all, to sneak past the frontal lobes and light up our antediluvian reptile brains like Christmas morn jackpot Saturday night. And it did that. Only to ratchet back down again to its quiet end, its confession, its moment I had multiple me's to deal with.

I don't really mean any of this as a review of Gabriel, anyhow, who always wows in his ability to put his music into action, to use big screens but then mess with the projection, making you think about seeing, make you rethink abut hearing. This is about how songs lodge in us, sweet viruses. How we get old and they stay timeless, accruing us. Sure, let's talk "In Your Eyes," which is so co-opted now by Say Anything... that both Cameron Crowe and John Cusack walked onto the stage before the band played the song, with that iconic boombox held high. This is song enough to woo and win Ione Skye as the epitome late '80s babe (and, all you thinking guys, playing a valedictorian to boot), and note poor Skye has not aged as well as the song. None of us do, so we must keep singing. And the eyes in which we feel complete pile up, a lifetime of loves, of lives, and each time I meant it when I felt it and said it despite it, this very time, meaning very much just you. Perhaps more than music, more than others, we love our own ability to love. And I don't mean that solipsistically, actually the very opposite. In a world where we don't like to see so much pain, and we do, it's always sweet surprise when care surfaces, that we can feel so much again for another besides ourselves, besides all we've done and undone. This isn't nostalgia, not at all. It's re-living. All our instincts, they return, dancing to soundtracks, the light cues so precise our lives are illuminated in a flash we feel more than see.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Election 2012: Hurts So Good

Get ready for a crazy number of nose-less faces, California, as I know a slew of you voting against Prop 30. Yes, sure, it's more taxes, and we all like the feel of our wallets bulging and change a-clink in our pockets. But without it, California is in a state of, well, let's just call us West Alabama, or something.  (Sober thought: Based on state and local revenue per pupil 2007-8, adjusted for regional and competitive wages, CA is 13 states lower than AL...four years prior to Prop 30 possibly losing.)

But...Prop 30 would temporarily increase the income tax on Californians who make more than $250,000 a year and raise the state sales tax by a quarter cent. If you're making that much in CA, don't you think keeping CA CA and not caca is worth a bit more tax? Think of what your taxes help pay for--the state might not burn down thanks to firefighters tax paid, roads might not fall apart tax paid, parks stay open tax paid, the education system doesn't collapse and you don't live in a state of unemployable doofuses, tax paid. And for those of us not making a quarter mil a year, which I have a sneaky suspicion is most of you, what's a quarter cent? You probably even can't figure out that math, given you went to school in a post Prop 13 California, so consider carefully all that a proposition can mean.

Remember, especially my UC co-workers (and in Santa Barbara UCSB is the biggest employer, putting more to work than employers numbered two and three combined), that Prop 30 going down means a $250 million cut to the UC. UC President Mark Yudof says, "From a financial standpoint, it’s almost inevitable, that if it fails, [we will see] certainly a mid-year tuition increase, probably an increase in the fall, reductions in personnel and other sorts of economies would need to take place." A phrase like "other sorts of economies" should chill your blood and turn your intestines to water, my friends. It's so bad that in the same interview Yudof has to insist, "I have no plans to close or sell any of our campuses." That's sort of like a dad saying, "Times are tough, but I won't give up a kid for adoption no matter how terrible it gets."

So, yes, California's politics and budget-making is screwed. But denying Prop 30 as a way to teach Sacramento a lesson is akin to us killing ourselves to make our loved ones feel really guilty. That's a price I'm not willing to pay. But a quarter cent extra sales tax? Totally doable.

And, nationally, go read through the above and substitute Barack Obama for Prop 30. You have to make that choice, too. Cause a "fuck the 47%" Romney is something actually probably 99% of us can't afford. Or at the least the 51% of us who are women (why do the Republicans hate lady parts so?).

Monday, October 22, 2012

Ode to Uni and More

You almost have to assume the Japanese studied up their Latin before naming uni uni. For unique it is, a pungent terror to the timid, the essence of sea funk. If some chef devised a bone marrow and uni surf and turf, she might clear a restaurant in no time, offering too much mucilaginous elemental essence on one plate. So you've got to develop a taste for it, or simply like your taste buds slapped around a bit.

Or you could have it perfectly placed on a dish as it was in course three above. Draped over the miso black cod, the sea urchin turns into a hearty sauce, pushing the fish's flavors yet more forward, and black cod is no wallflower. It also, by contrast, makes the fish seem even firmer, as firm is the last thing uni ever is. That gets mimicked by the avocado appearing two ways, too, one simply sliced into artful arches, the other a loop of avocado mousse, you might say--it was too rich to be guacamole. And while it might seem from my description to be an intellectual exercise, these fine gradations of texture on a relatively simple plate, it was totally sensory as the palate got to parse smooth in a way Eskimos talk about snow.

To top the plate off, there's the element not listed on the menu, which made us think on any given night a "basic" dish might get a more market-friendly twist. We got to have a flash-fried squash blossom, delicious, and the dish's one bit of crunch, too.

Then again, Alessandro Cartumini at the Four Seasons Biltmore's Bella Vista always seems to make kitchen magic with nothing up his sleeve. These aren't tricks, but treats, from the way the finger lime made the salad pop in course one (although I have to admit the finely sliced approach--they looked like mushroom slivers--seemed to diminish the baby abalone) to the way the Inception Pinot Noir, a surprisingly lighter wine choice for short rib ravioli, brilliantly brought up all the dish's bright notes (golden raisins, indeed).

That's not mentioning the perfect salad, the late harvest tomatoes as bold as late harvest zin, practically, and then that dusting of crazy good Santa Barbara Cheese Company fresh cheese (the Carpinteria "squeaky" or the Santa Rosa queso fresco I'm not sure, alas), all cream and salt and fat. Or the dessert, which doesn't get described nearly as fully as the plate was full--that pistachio cake came in several slightly bigger than bite-sized chunks, amidst a sauce we still can't quite figure (just a-grade zabaglione?) but wish came in bottles and the freshest of raspberries, and then that passion fruit sorbet, exotic and comforting at once.

This epicure.sb thing  can sure highlight the best of SB, particularly when a Chef like Cartumini is in the kitchen.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Don't Like It But I Guess I'm Learning

Funny, it turns out you have to write to blog. I've sort of had the write beat out of me of late for a variety of reasons and I'll share two. The first is there's an actual day job, and often it takes up the whole day. Worse, it takes up the brain for the rest of the non-work day, too, and the idea of sitting at the computer for a few more hours and actually thinking seems beyond my abilities. I do love keeping up with what you're all doing on FB, though, and my head is currently crammed with more baseball ephemera than a bricked building in upstate NY.

Second, there's I'm not the Food Editor at the Indy anymore. You see, there's writing and then there's journalism and only one of them's a business and the part that's a business makes decisions the writerly part might not always like. I'm still "there" (and that's the biggest issue, I wasn't, as I worked 99.999% remotely) as Food Writer, a title parallel to Arts Writer that's held by folks I heap-ton respect like DJ Palladino and Joe Woodard, but there's understanding things and there's ego and then there's my ego and then there's the desire to say nothing much at all. So sorry for the silence, as it's not like I've ever done this for the money, anyway (cause if I did I'd be even poorer than I am; parents, don't let your children grow up to be writers if they hope to make a living, and if J.K. Rowling's parents are reading this, here's hoping you sensed she was a miraculous non-muggle early on). Hope you all enjoyed The Foodies issue in the meantime (weird timing, no?), and that you played the parlor game "which blurbs were Matt's, which were George's?" Hint: look for the sentences with lots of parenths and dashes and dependent clauses. Guess me.

So, I hope to get writing again, because reason one will be letting up a bit after a brutal stretch (day job won't be pushing into nights and weekends anymore) and because reason two simply needs me to get past wallow and do what I have to do--write. (For those of you who actually know me and have had to deal with me not writing and therefore getting crankier bit by bit, all apologies.) I'm trying to look at this as a bit of a freeing moment, if nothing else: George Listens, Reads, Watches, Runs Very Slow Long Runs, as well as Eats, and so this blog could be a bit about anything from here on out, if you don't mind. I particularly want to write about Peter Gabriel at the Bowl the other night (hence the allusion to him in this post's title), the new Mountain Goats, there's David Byrne/St. Vincent this evening, and then there's that election looming, too. Hope you don't mind a bit of a ride.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Let Me Tell You a Story about a Junket Called Fess

Why yes, since you asked, it is good to be the Food Editor. People are often extra nice to you so you will write about them. Of course, I'd like to think I can't just be won over with a few kind words and a warm smile. Or even, as the case may be, lots of wonderful things all for free. So here's a rundown of a relatively recent excursion to Los Olivos that let us (my wife and I, no royal we implied) sample a whole bunch of stuff we probably wouldn't pay for ourselves, at least in a 24 hour period.

The thing is, stuff can be free and still be crap, or even mediocre, and that was far from the case here. We got to spend the night at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa, which at 19 rooms is barely as big as its name is long. That's a good thing, of course, as its intimate but not after a buddy-buddy B&B thing, either. Everything just got a big update, too, so colors are rich and inviting, mattresses and linens are top notch, bathrooms are like mini-spas--it was too bad we didn't have a day or two alone to hang out in ours (showers with spray form the sides as well as the top are pretty cool, like a human carwash). You can get a sitting room


if you just need the extra space, or a place to enjoy the wines left for you to sample, and then your bedroom, too


and if you're like us, you add it all up and it's almost as big as your house, especially since you don't have three dogs tromping about sharing the bed with you. Peaceful, pleasant, elegant. Very helpful folks at the desk, and not just with us, but with all the guests (got to overhear a lot of good interaction). There's also the great convenience of staying in "downtown" Los Olivos--so much wine and food just out your doorstep, with your car absolutely not needed, which is a good thing with so much wine just out your doorstep.

For instance, we had a lovely tasting at Presqu'ile led by the charming co-owner Amanda Murphy. If you want to know what some of the most interesting Burgundian varietals coming out of the Santa Maria Valley taste like, taste here. A true slap in the face to full-blown, that is over-blown, chards and pinots, this is food-friendly, acid-happy wine still packing plenty of fruit. The winemakers just know how to get out of the way and let the grapes sing. Oh, and not to get too tangential, but here's why wine writing is a scam; read this write-up of the Presqu'ile Sauvignon Blanc--"Palest gold in color, this wine smells of the classic combination of gooseberries and cat pee, with a good measure of cut green grass thrown in. In the mouth, the wine has a cracked glass tinkly acidity"--yum, piss, lawnmower droppings, and broken glass. You'd never guess that review ends, "Delicious."


Speaking of delicious, we lunched at Sides Hardware and Shoes, and I've got a whole article with the very talented Nichols Brothers here. There's almost too much to like at Sides, even with its select menu--the vibe is comfy yet still with character, the help pleasant and skilled, the food delicious and often with just a bit of an edge (those cold summer soups served with a dollop of savory ice cream they were making I can still taste). Here's the Hammered Pig, which made me feel a bit like a G-d pig by the time I finished it--that's a heck of a lot of fried pork tenderloin. And speaking of fries, theirs are spectacular, served piping and just the right crisp on the out, creamy on the in.


The photos end here because next up was a couples massage at the Fess Parker Spa, and after getting oiled up and rubbed down I could no longer hold a camera.They've re-done the spa, too, and there's now a pool to enjoy, not that we had the time, so busy having a good time. There's not much better than not having to do anything but feel someone's hands work the knots out of your body.

Before dinner we had another tasting, this time with Andrew Murray himself at Andrew Murray Vineyards. Talk about a man who can talk a great game--all engaging stories all the time. It's particularly fun to hear how he landed himself an internship in Australia before he really even knew anything about vineyards and winemaking, or Australia--discovering it is one big continent to fly across. Of course since then he's become one of our region's Rhone varietal-producing rock stars, and so then it's only more fitting one of his newer projects is E11even Wines, what they call "approachably priced, with an aim to over-deliver." It also gives him an opportunity to play with grapes he often doesn't, so if you can find the 2009 E11even Red blend, do so--an amazing mouthful of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and Grenache.

Dinner was at Petros, right in the Fess Parker Inn. I wrote about Petros for the Indy way back when it opened and it's still quite fine, starting with the bright, airy room--light wood, clean lines, it somehow suggests the Mediterranean while sitting in the mild, wild west that is Los Olivos. Upscale, definitely, and nothing like a stereotyped Greek spot, from its look to its menu to its ingredients-sourcing. There's always something a bit surprising on a dish, from the way the assorted dips don't shy away from garlic (if you're part of a couple, never eat this alone) to the almost intellectual cleverness of a surf and turf appetizer that matches up grilled octopus, wonderfully charred and not at all chewy, with beets. Not your usual turf representative, but they add a vibrant color to the plate and that iron zing you can taste. For assertive flavors, you can't beat Petros--I had a special of short rib over pasta that had such a deep, complex flavor I almost wanted to assume it was the Greek take on mole. The evening was made yet more enjoyable as we were joined by Kris Parker, COO of Fess Parker Enterprises. I have to admit I usually don't hang with such a heady crowd, but Kris had many a tale to tell about life as Fess's grandson and it was one of those nights were your mind gets expanded getting to discuss a bit of everything. The talk ranged wide from the glories of the Bruery to life on the road in a band, from the difficulties of managing a restaurant (Kris had managed Marcella, which previously occupied the Petros spot) to politics. It's always good to discuss, seriously, and with much humor, with someone who has had a very different experience than your own. Enjoying first the cocktail Glen’s Girlfriend--Glenlivet 12 year and Barenjäger honey liqueur shaken and served in a chilled martini glass with a lemon twist--and then Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir along the way certainly didn't hurt, either.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Burgers, Beers, Punctuation Fears

Cattie said what all of us we're thinking when the waiter left the plate, "It's four barnacles." The surely looked that way, inch-wide onion rings from the fullest diameter of heft onions, leaving me wondering what might happen to piles of abundant onion innards. The panko crust gave them a definite crunch, and it stuck: you didn't have that awkward onion ring moment when the veggie slips free of its fried sheath, leaving you with a breaded straw and hot greasy onion down your chin. The spicy ranch, hard to get at since the rings were wider than the container holding the dressing, not only packed a peppery kick but also seemed a bit sour, hinting at buttermilk, perhaps. Overall the rings were fine, but they were four, and were $4.50.

Suffice to say, Eureka! Burger, despite its excited love for exclamation points (see the menu), didn't leave me running naked down the streets of Santa Barbara shouting about the thrill of discovery. (Here's hoping you know your Archimedes, or now I sound odder than I even am.) Eureka! Burger is a place that whelmed, particularly for the price.

What they definitely do best is put tasty craft beer on tap. But even then, beware, as they have a policy to give you less of a beer as its alcohol level goes up;* my 6 ounces of Firestone Double Double Barrel Ale--served as it was in Billy Barty's brandy snifter--certainly was a treat, but for $7, the treat was on me. And the swarming staff--we had a a waiter who took our order and checked in, but then every time something came to the table, a different person brought it--isn't quite up to speed with the definitely wide-ranging beer list, which I always find disappointing. The guy who dropped off that Double DBA said, "Well, it's really strong, it's 14%," when it's really only 12% (I know, I know, why quibble over 10%--it's going to weaken your knees no matter). Later when I asked our server whether the Cismontane Black Dawn, listed under porters & stouts, was a porter or a stout, he said he'd have to ask. I ordered it anyway and really liked the coffee-kicking stout, and later found out the name is actually Blacks Dawn, after the beach. Guess you can sweep some precision under the rug with a few exclamation points.

As for the rest of the food, my Pearl Street Blues burger was ok, a bit less medium rare than I like and asked for, a bit undistinguished--not even the blue seemed zippy enough, and the same was true for the chipotle ketchup, which isn't easy to do, I imagine. Chryss's shrimp po' boy came on ciabatta, and therefore someone had a miraine for no reason in New Orleans. Flavor wasn't that bad, she reported. Cattie's veggie pattie got one of the biggest thumb's up for the evening, something a bit unusual by answering the question "where's the beet?" plus you could order it sans bun, too. (The burger menu is nothing if not adaptable to all sorts of eaters.) The thin and short fries were literally a mixed lot-- some seemed cooked crisp, others were colder and mushier.

Sure, I'll probably go back as that beer list is a temptress I have no resistance for. And maybe the staff will learn as it works, assuming they keep that fully staffed. As for the food, there's more to try, so they've got that going for them. Although I have to admit upfront a starter called Osso Buco Riblets terrifies me in the way deep-fried butter at the county fair does.

*I know numerous other places do this too, but are usually more upfront about it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

What's Soup, Doc?

Think of all the pressure there is on you if you're soup. You're not just food, you're supposed to warm, be both a balm on a cold evening and a calling to home and hearth. You're full of mom, even if she merely emptied Campbell tins. Fancy doesn't suit you; you don't want to show up in an evening gown and pearls while always scuffling in your fuzzy slippers. (Consommé just sounds fancy--it's really about patience and our thievery of most fine cooking from France.) Ah, but there's that danger of being just soup, too, the water something flavorful took a bitty bath in. We all like you enough, dear soup, but you might be, and sorry to sound mean, a tad boring, familiar like the Eiffel Tower must get to Parisians who barely stare up its lacy legs anymore.

So we owe it to ourselves to exclaim, Yum soup!" when the opportunity arises and our spoon lowers into the bowl. Such was the case last night as we redeemed our TravelZoo deal at Seagrass, at last (and, does everyone else start to feel the almost daunting pressure of reclaiming such deals on time? do not ask for whom value's clock knells...), and one of the two first course offerings for the $49 for $104 value deal was a soup. It was something new to the menu, if not on the actual menu (the joys of special deals), so much so our fine waiter Ruben Perez (part of the family that owns Seagrass) had to confab with the sommelier to figure out the best wine pairing. And they nailed it, pouring me some Cypher Grenache Blanc 2011, a bit puckier, you might say, than the typical GB, heading toward Gruner with an apple in its mouth. Which is only fitting, as the soup--yes, this is about soup, promise--was made from pork belly stock. Clear, if darkly tan, and light on the tongue, if deeply flavorful. Layers, from pork, of course, to some fresh ginger, to sesame oil, to black pepper. Yes, it was Asian inspired--there even was a light threading of soba noodles, cut short and still firm as a bit of a bite in your soup never hurts--but in a way to prove inspiration does not mean aping or going rote. Instead this was a soup that went in many directions and still found its way back home.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Bob Spitz Brings Julia Child to Life

Like everyone who had the good fortune to meet Julia Child — the iconic television chef and longtime Santa Barbara resident whose 100th birthday would have been on August 15 — the author of her new biography, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, has a tale to tell.

“I was in Italy in 1992 working on magazine articles when I got a call from the Italian travel commission,” said Bob Spitz. “They asked, would I mind being an escort for an older woman? I told them I don’t do that kind of work, but then they said it was Julia Child, and I said I’d be right there. I got to spend three weeks in Sicily with nothing to do but eat and talk with Julia. It was a foundation experience.”

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

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

C-Food, A+

How fitting it was that for our anniversary celebration we got to enjoy one of the best marriages of talent Santa Barbara could muster on Sunday night at a pop-up dinner at Municipal Winemakers featuring Cindy Black of the Blue Owl cooking using the seafood caught by Sea Stephanie Fish (aka Stephanie Mutz). This was truly a feast, listed as a three-course meal but much much more, especially with Dave Potter pouring generously, and for the last two courses from milk jugs (you can age in them! only kidding) since the 2011 Moorman Vineyard Pinot Noir and the delectable 2010 Lopez Ranch Cucamonga Zinfandel Port aren't bottled yet. But that does mean there's lots to look forward to from Municipal, and when I go on and on about the food you didn't have, there's at least that consolation.

The evening kicked off with lots of 2011 Bright White Dry Riesling, the perfect pairing for a salad that could have easily been my entire meal and left me totally happy. Part of that happiness comes from getting to include the words Semicossyphus pulcher into this entry, a name much more suggestive and catchy than California sheephead, which is the type of fish featured in an incredible salad. Stephanie joked she liked to call lobster "rich man's sheephead," and it did have more of that luxurious taste and texture, especially when Cindy Black got done with it, both grilling it and then pickling it (or vice versa?), so it had some of that good charcoal flavor and then the quick zing of the pickle-process too. That set the chunks up well to star in a salad full of all sorts of greens, from mint to dandelion (I think) to other herbs too numerable to mention. Then add pistachios, grapefruit, and tomatoes-a-bursting with flavor for more brights and acids and different levels of chew. Oh, and there was even quinoa, and it was so good one of our finicky tablemates exclaimed afterwards, "That's the most quinoa I've ever eaten, and I liked it!"


The menu for the evening suggested that for course the second "You should go outside." There we were met with platters of rock crab, mallets, and trucks waiting to whisk our soon-to-be-crab-besplattered clothes off to the dry cleaners. (OK, made that part up.) We got to whack away at our crabs, served cold and doused with a lemongrass-chili oil, plate them up, and then head back in to enjoy, where a platter of grilled vegetables (oh those romano beans--now that was edible summer rich in garlic oil and carbon char) and corn grilled in uni butter awaited. Now, I did my time in Maryland so I still long for the tradition of camping out at a table piled high with Old Bay steamed blue crabs that you pick at all day while drinking beer, so this was my idea of a great time. Rock crabs are heartier than blues, though, so one of my thumbs took one for the team getting through the shell some--the good news is a bit of blood is a fine accompaniment to lemongrass chili oil. By the way, in that photo, that's a big chunk of bread on my crab, soaked with the oil, too, because you can't get too much of that good a flavor.

Here's the vegetable platter we got nowhere close to finishing, despite 6 of us at the family-style-served table. Warning-the tomatoes in the photo are yummier than they appear.


I didn't get a photo of another portion of this feast, Kellet's whelk flatbreads, another item I could have eaten all night. Black has a way with dough, so simply the surprisingly thick bread itself was wonderful, with good pull on the inside and some crunch on the out, but then the chopped whelks were a cross between abalone-snail-clam to taste and not in the slightest rubbery, and atop all that was a healthy handful of chopped cilantro. So good.

As for dessert, there's no photo of that either, as I think I ate it. Dessert, that is, not the photo. I'm a sucker for gallettes, as the dough is always tasty and it doesn't bother with nicety--it's just folded over in a rustically beautiful way and let's the fruit peek out suggestively. (The suggestion: eat me.) This gallette, fired up in the oak oven so it had that extra character, too, starred apples and grapes, but then also was sprinkled with figs and berries, so was a fruit-wonderment. I only regret I was too full to have two pieces.

Cindy, Stephanie, and Dave, you all knocked it out of the park.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Telling Tales of the Cocktail

Cocktails are always about tales — whether tall or twice-told, honest or half-forgotten, centuries old or made up on the spot—so there couldn’t be a better name for the libation celebration known as Tales of the Cocktail, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Even better, it goes down annually in New Orleans, home to the oldest of drinking tales, and replete with bartenders both knowledgeable — such as the chap who poured me a drink named after Betty Flanagan, the 19th-century James Fenimore Cooper character who supposedly first stirred a drink with a cock’s tail — and quick-witted, like the nattily dressed mixologist who, while finishing a table of drinks with mist from what looked like a perfume atomizer, told an onlooker that the drink contained “Chanel No. 5.” (It was really absinthe.)

If you want to read the rest do so at the Indy's site. (This is the overall over-view feature that ran in the paper and online.)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Pulling Out the Stolps


They call it Magic Hour for a reason, the last hour of sunlight each day allows. Contrast flattens, it seems less possible to hide in shadow, land and sky meet easily in an in-between glow. Terrence Malick figured this out when he shot one of the most gorgeous films ever, Days of Heaven, and you can see a bit of it and hear from its camera operator John Bailey here. Or you can go have your own day of heaven by attending an event like Dinner in the Vineyard at the Stolpman Vineyards back on August 4.

Part of the fun was a hayride about the property with either Tom or Peter Stolpman as your guide. Incomparable views greeted you from every hilltop--especially when you didn't have to get out on too steep a hill so the truck could putter the rest of the way up with less weight. It's fun to see where what has to be the best white wine in the region right now--L'Avion Roussanne--grows in the very level spot where barnstorming fliers once touched down (hence the name). But you also learn that this place is so dedicated to organic farming and to dry-farming that it's slowly converting its vines to own-stock. They bank on the phylloxera not being able to get across the dry soils, and therefore, there's no need for grafting onto resistant rootstock. And then there's Ruben's Block, the grapes growing in tight little upside-down V's on a quickly-dropping crest, meaning everything must be done by hand. Welcome to the U.S. doing its best Cote Rotie impersonation.

Of course, festivals do not exist on tours alone, so there was also plenty of good live music (wish I caught the band's name), fine wine (of course, it was all Stolpman, and winemaker Sashi Moorman is a master), and a buffet provided by J.R.'s Gourmet Catering beyond what was needed given everything else was so great. It kicked off with a salad that could have been a meal on many nights, not just greens but very ripe pear slices, blackberries, goat cheese. It didn't feature tomatoes, though, for they got their own special plate, with basil and a note from summer saying it was happy to be invited. And when I say plate I need to clarify--the tomatoes were brought out on a platter carved out of wine barrel staves--very fitting, very large, very lovely. Then there was one of those platters brimming with roasted vegetables--this was very much a BBQ under the graceful old oaks--and then some salmon, some roasted potatoes crisp on the outside and creamy inside, and tri-tip too, with horseradish waiting to give it a bit of a whipping. A feast, all done to perfection.


And can't forget the bread from New Vineland Bakery--another Sashi Moorman project, along with his wife Melissa Sorongon and Kate Heller and Peter Pastan. They're growing their own wheat so they can sell it at Farmers' Markets. (You might need to read that sentence again.) And the bread has got a richness and depth and soul you'd expect from someone who makes L'Avion and Hilltops Syrah and the people he'd choose to hang with.

So here's hoping that Ballard Canyon AVA goes through to further cinch the special nature of this spot so close to Los Olivos but so far away even from that mostly sleepy town. The Stolpmans (and Larners and Beckmens and Jonata) are all on to something back there--even at times when the sun isn't perfecting a slow set, setting the evening gorgeously aglow.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Blue Good Bye to You

Had to have one bayou-esque shot, even if this is just one of the lake-like spots in New Orleans City Park out by Bayou St. John. We spent a big chunk of this Sunday out here, since TOTC had pretty much wrapped up and we were in NO and wanted to see the sites, not just drink them. You can take the Canal St. streetcar out, even, which is good given the Charles St. one has a big chunk of its route closed for repairs, hence death marches like the day prior.

Day 5, Sunday, July 28

Weather:

It does not rain this day. We are sore afraid. And still sweat enough to make up for the lack of precipitation (which you can't spell without perspiration).

Quote o' the Day:

"Oh my, today the [Monteleone] lobby sounds of children, not barkeeps who look like the dream of the 1890s."

Event o' the Day:

We do nothing directly TOTC related this Sunday, as there are few events on the get-away day. We do not pass the Bloody Mary Bar. It is closed. We are lagniappe-less.We do enjoy the trip up to City Park, where just the park itself is gorgeous and then there's historic stuff like what was a casino and now, sadly, is a souvenir/snack shop but still has this great mural.


There's the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, with plenty to contemplate amidst a bucolic setting, so much so nature often makes its own comment on the art.


There's the New Orleans Museum of Art itself, that we felt we barely got into but still enjoyed the extensive glass, pottery, and ceramics collection--how cool so much that was just usable house stuffs are now art (and how impoverished so much of our own daily wares seem by comparison)--, plus the small Dario Robleto exhibit was fascinating--how much totemic power do our fetishized pop object possess? Does that transform the mundane into art? And you can get basil lemonade at the cafe at NOMA. Very nice. Plus we learn that only in New Orleans would they try to save their daily newspaper by suggesting you drink cocktails. This is so totally my kind of town.

Surprises o' the Day:

Even a place that borders on one of the most touristy spots in town, Jackson Square, can still be good and not a trap. Stanley just does food straight and good, with fine service and Bloodys with zesty pickled beans and okra (had to pay for the darn thing, but I'll get over it). Here's an eggs Benedict with a brilliant addition--fried oysters.


Perhaps surprise of the trip, this is as close as we got to any of the town's magnificent cemeteries. No doubt we'll be back.


This is actually a comment for Monday, but I'm not doing a Monday entry as it would be--"damn, planes are small and we have to be in 3 of them to get home." In addition to that, the food at the New Orleans airport is surprisingly blah. While in San Francisco you can get a tasty tuna panini and a giant Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA and feel much better about flying.

Best Food Non-TOTC Edition:

For dinner we went to the dopily named GW Fins that overcame that initial disadvantage to be a treat. I started with the seafood gumbo that was richly rouxed with seafood that wasn't mere over-cooked floats but shrimp and crab with flavor. Chryss had the lobster dumplings, more like potstickers but feathery light with a bonus boost from some lobster butter. Then for mains Chryss had the blackened swordfish as you've got to have something blackened in Louisiana, and they do it right, not searing the crap out of the fish but giving it a quick shot with some very good spices--it added, and wasn't meant to hide. I had to try their signature dish, Scalibut, which sounds like the name from a very bad musical about gossip on the Gloucester fishing fleet but is actually scallops sliced and "fused" around halibut as a sort of scallop-coat. The two textures and flavors play well together, indeed, and while it's a bit of a stunt, it's yummy, too--not that some lobster and tomato risotto hurts the plate any. Sorry this iPhone photo isn't so great. And we paired it all with a bottle of Tablas Creek Patelin White, to get us ready to come home.


Other Drinks Not Mentioned Above:

Since we had the time and didn't get there prior, we pre-gamed for dinner at Arnaud's French 75 [sorry, that link opens with music], directly across the street. This is another NOLA classic, richly woody with funny monkey statue lights and dressed up service and incredible cocktails. Somehow we passed up things like a Herbsaint Frappéthat was barrel aged and a N'Awlins Christmas in July Chatam Artillery Punch (that truly would punch you as it features tea. Catawha wine, rum, gin, Cognac, rye, orange and lemon juice, sugar, Benedictine, Champagne, and love). Instead we opted for The Dealers Have Chosen, with Chryss enjoying two "shaken and "refreshing" stimulants from the PDT Cocktail Book and I had two "stirred and boozy remedies from the Northstar Cocktail Book. Do we exactly recall what went into those cocktails? Alas, no. But they--all four--pleased perfectly, doing exactly what their descriptions suggested. My second, that I could swear he called a St. Martin (or should it be St. Marteen and Dutch?) was a mighty yet smooth blend of gin, Aperol, and Averna, and I wish I had one now. We also got a shrimp roll, as we were drinking and not eating and hadn't since Stanley, and didn't want to go all Kowalski on the refined crowd thanks to our liquored-up empty stomachs.


And then after dinner, after a last loop about the Quarter avoiding the sodden sadness that is Bourbon Street, we settled back in to the Monteleone and had last call (ours, not the bar's) at the Carousel, as it was easy to fit and nearly quiet and Faulkner and Williams drank there, so here's a corpse reviver #2 and a sidecar and a wish to be back very very soon. So many tales, and not nearly enough time to tipple them all.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Streetcar Named Perspire



Two different ways of looking at NOLA, one a bit more romantic than the other, although I never felt much defended against--everyone seemed more than welcoming. Still, there's that part of New Orleans that seems a bit wild that makes it more thrilling, isn't there? The air feels a bit like sin.

Day 4, Saturday, July 28

Weather:

Today's daily downpour comes courtesy of the people who decide to shutdown their establishments for a week (or more--one place was closed since May 19!) in the summer. How European of them, and miserable for us, as we did a lovely hike that slowly converted into a miserable death march through the Garden District this day. Plenty of cool shopping and architecture and people watching along Magazine St.


One fun stop for a beer (see surprises). Then a lot of disappointment trying to find a place to: eat lunch, stop sweating, stop moving, avoid the deluge clearly on its way. Domilise's closed. Casamento's closed. Le Petit Grocery turns us away at 1:40 even though they supposedly serve lunch till 2:30 and we assume we look too bedraggled and be-touristed (caps! a big camera!) for their preciousness, or did I mean pretentiousness. (Ha, no good review for you!) A fourth place whose name is washed away by the beginning rain also on vacation. We wonder if we missed the "Garden District--Closed for Summer" sign when we entered. Luckily we find Slice, with solid pizza with an intriguing cornmeal-featured crust and a good enough salad. And a roof. Best restaurant feature, ever.

Quote o' the Day:

"After four days of cocktails, don't you want a beer?"

(Clever marketing by Newcastle, giving beers away at Happy's, which just happened to be a breastaurant, and schoolgirl outfits and beer after lots of drinking, well, they might just have something there if their goal is to part middle-aged men from their money.)

Event-and-a-Quarter o' the Day:

After recovering from our Garden Street debacle a bit in the hotel, we hike back out to the Hyatt Regency, which seems too corporate a place for Tales, in a way, but there's a Taste the World's Best Spirits Grand Tasting to attend. It's the kind of event where all the Johnnie Walker's are on a table for you, through the blue, green and gold, next to a table of the Classic Malts (when in doubt, seize the name and make them pry it from your peat-y fingers, I guess)--Talisker, Dalwhinnie, Lagavulin. Yeah, and that's just whiskeys and leaves out my favorite, Aberlour's A'bunadh, aged in solera casks and presided over by this dandy chap.


There was Lillet with their new Rosé, that you want to drink straight and fiddle with at the bar too, and Del Maguey Mezcal with a good 8 varieties to try and you want to linger just to play with their little clay tasting cups. Somehow, the only edibles at this event, though, were chips, popcorn, pretzels, and nuts. Seemed like they thought it was a light beer fest, and, alas, nothing was light about these fine sips.

So, our spirits emboldened by consuming the world's best spirits, we take the escalator down a floor and discover the Spirited Awards are beginning and no one is really paying attention if you want to sneak into the pre-event reception. We figure, as long as we don't go in and sit down for dinner, who will know we don't belong? Part of it is this is the first and last dressy event, so we might stand out a bit for being too casual, but cocktails make everyone civilized, as long as you don't cut in line when they're hoping to score a slider or grill cheese. We have some more drinks, one a pinkish straight martini, and that makes me wonder if I've had too much.


Not that we saw this while there, but it seems they really do the awards portion right, too, based on the videos they ran during the event that are kindly now on YouTube like this one, "Shit Brand Ambassadors Say":



Surprises o' the Day:

House Spirits Distillery out of Portland, OR doesn't just make Aviation Gin, and will make you a fine whiskey Bloody Mary. Conveniently this will be in an art gallery on your way to Cafe Beignet.

In swagland, the loot is always greener in another conventioner's hands. Where did those leather-looking books go at the Herbsaint tasting room? How did we miss that one attractive bag? Why do we think we need everything given to everyone at TOTC?

Parasol's is our dream of a neighborhood bar--big scary dog that's actually nice allowed inside, people of all ages and races, locals and us, smokers and not (OK, not my favorite part about New Orleans bars--I've become a true anti-cig Californian), a hipster bartender with a Dr. Who obsession, and NOLA Brewing beers on tap, including my new favorite, Hopitoulas...of course a West Coast IPA.


The Columns is nowhere near as fascinating when Susan Sarandon and Brooke Shields aren't staying there.

Best Food Non-TOTC Edition:

Even closer to the Monteleone, Cafe Beignet has better beignets than Cafe du Monde. There, I said it. Much doughier, less sugar, better coffee. It has nothing to do with having had three Bloody Marys before the first fried dough hit my stomach, promise.

We also had a lovely late dinner at Eat New Orleans, a place that takes the classics and freshens them without going frou-frou. A mustard green and artichoke gratin to start was everything you could hope--rich with the two different textured and tasting greens, just enough of a creamy sauce but not so much you need a defibrillator nearby, and some crunchy pita-ish chips to scoop it all with. Chryss has a butterbeans with shrimp bowl, I had the trio--cup of gumbo, cup of red beans, a roasted stuffed red pepper, rice, and a Caesar, and we both hailed our meals. Simple, satisfying, soul-quenching. We also got an inadvertent show out the window as a drunk crashed on the curb, letting his two dogs loose to wander out into Dumaine Street. Luckily, they didn't get run over; the cops visited the guy but left him; our waiter brought out a to-go tray with water for the dogs. Ah, the humanity.


Other Drinks Consumed Not Mentioned Above:

Eat is BYOB, so a six pack of Abita Jockamo IPA from the corner shop down the street did the trick. At one of the Saveur Snack Stand events we got a pleasing Breckenridge Rocky Mountain Rickshaw, zipped with some ginger. Martini (as in Rossi) concocted a very elegant The Monteleone Cocktail--not to be confused with the different one the Carousel Bar serves--of cognac, Martini Roasto Vermouth, Amaro Avena (which will be in the surprise list tomorrow)--and then a misting from a perfume atomizer. When asked, the one bartender said it was Chanel No. 5. (Actually it was Herbsaint--even better.)

And we finally got to the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel to enjoy the namesake drink in a truly swank location ringed by Paul Ninas Art Deco murals that make you expect to see some unholy drinking party of Huey Long and Noel Coward to wander in. A very civilized spot, and fine drinks, although their Sazeracs are much redder than mine--perhaps that's because I use both Angostura and Peychaud's and they only use the carmine latter. No matter, can a lovelier thing be done to rye than make it into a Sazerac? Even I'd be better with the perfect combo of bitters, citrus, sugar, and a bit of sticky Pernod.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Bugs, Bitters, Bacardi


Perhaps things get blurry, what with a Bloody Mary Bar open every morning at the Monteleone--a feature it seems every hotel needs. But let's get right into day 3, and note there's no Best Food Non-TOTC Edition section for today's write up as what we had was mostly meh--perhaps the idea of Cafe du Monde is better than the lost in puffs of sugar reality? Or maybe it's because their coffee seriously burned my tongue (horrors!).

Day 3, Friday, July 27

Weather:

It's NOLA. It's sweating weather. And there's a good drenching with some lightning every day; this day it's all done by noon. Well, not the sweating.

Quote o' the Day:

"What did I drink that made my pee smell funny?"

Event o' the Day:

The Bacardi 150th Anniversary USBG Hand-Shaken Daiquiri Competition made me like daiquiris more than ever before, although I still hate having to type the trickily spelled name. This party featured some yummy tuna tacos, with the tortilla shells pleasantly fried, plus poor young things in red dresses that looked like tightly wound windowshades about to pull up--there was no way for the outfits to be flattering even on super-slender, non-Bacardi-consuming models. But those bat belts they wore were Adam West cool. And, as part of the event, Bittercube let 10 people at a time make their own bitters, preferably one that would work with a rum-based drink. At events like this, it's easy to become bossy/pushy--simply talk more quickly and louder than everyone else, and soon your herb/spice choices are part of the mix. Supposedly we'll get a mailed sample of the bitters we helped concoct soon. Can't wait. It's like cooking for your cocktail's pre-goodness.


And if I'm allowed a second event of the day, and it's my blog, so I'm allowed what I want to, it's our visit to the media Lagniappe Room. That means a little something extra, but as with most of TOTC, a little goes a long way, and this room was like walking into a minibar. Which was free. And maxi, or it was like that great episode of Lost in Space when the Robot grew giant and Will had to go inside to fix it, then get out before it shrunk to normal, not fit for a boy to be inside, size (tell me someone else has seen this and I didn't make it up?). Plus there were free bags to carry all your loot, and stirrers and matches and mixes and shirts and and posters and keychains and olives and cocktail cranberries posing as cherries and bitters bottles so tiny you could smuggle one out in your nostril and still have room to breathe. Here's what that looked like back in the room. Even better, it got back home after riding in our suitcase through 2 plane changes.


Surprises o' the Day:

You can jog in New Orleans in July and not die. You simply won't do it again.

I'll drink your green kale smoothie...as long as there's Tito's Vodka in it. Thanks, Vistamix!

The Audubon  Butterfly Garden & Insectarium, or the ¡Insectaria! as we like to call it, is fun and not just for kids, although it's a crazy science turn on for the pre-teen set. You do not get to see the worm from the mezcal, but you get to see pretty much everything else. Do not go if you get the creppy-crawly hebbie-jeebies easily. Take photos of butterflies up close so they look like Son of Mothra.


Here's a semi-random picture of a huge tableful of oysters. Just to point out it was that kind of an event. Ile de Ré Fine Island Cognac is quite lovely, btw, but I'm not sure cognac goes with oysters.


There's something called crispy Armenian bread that's like a flatbread. What's no surprise is it's not so good burnt. (Sorry, Carmo, which tired very hard but didn't succeed quite enough.)

You can make seriously charged ice cream--say a Ramos Gin Fizz ice cream (now that egg does double duty) and mezcal chocolate ice cream. Or perhaps that was all an end of the day dream.

Best Food TOTC Edition:

We didn't take as much advantage as we should have of the media events in the Vieux Carre Room, high atop the Monteleone with views of the mighty Mississippi and most of NOLA. But this afternoon we hit the Taste of Italy Media Luncheon presented by the Spirit of Italy, which is evidently a typically handsome Italian guy telling you how special Italian spirits are while showing you slides of gorgeous Italian locations, all of which you want to visit on your next vacation, which has to be to Italy. We had cocktails made from Amaro Lucano, Luxardo, Distillerie Moccia, Distilleria Nardini, Pallini, Toschi, and Distilleria Varnelli--a lusciously vowelly mouthful of drinks.


But then there was an amazing buffet, too, starting with the ever present oysters, but also a lovely primavera pasta with fresh parmigiano grated atop, some redfish en croute, melon and prosciutto, etc. This was not your usual free spread, not in the least. We get to sit next to Amy Stewart from yesterday's presentation, too, and then ride in an elevator with Dale DeGroff, who hums his way to his floor. Oh, sorry, I'm dropping names, aren't I.

And as for a perfect bite, in the Angostura Bitters’ tasting room we enjoyed channa on bara (chickpeas on what else but fried dough--perhaps the savory island version of beignet?) at a Taste of Trinidad. 

Other Drinks Consumed Not Mentioned Above:

Sure we tried the recently imported to the US Edinburgh gin (smooth), and some St. Germain drink we missed the name of (it's that kind of party, TOTC), and some Abita at Carmo to be New Orleans-esque, but what I really need to talk about was my time at the Craft Distillers Tasting where so much was good I would have denied me Satan right there on the spot for only something approaching the godhead could man these stills. At the Anchor Distilling table I told them I knew and loved the Junipero Gin so I didn't need to taste it and the guy's eyes lit up. "Well, try this," he says, pouring me something that smoked as it fell into my glass. OK, it didn't smoke, but it was lovely, a new hops-flavored spirit. Beer-loving me heartily approved. Speaking of the beer-spirit nexus, esteemed brewers from New Holland, Michigan are aging whiskey in old beer barrels, and that certainly works if it seems backwards (and they admit it). And then there's Corsair Distillery, that features nifty Reservoir Dogs inspired t-shirts and a wonderful range of liquor, from gins to a red absinthe (you do taste the hibiscus, plus red means it's not green like everyone else's) to a Ryemageddon that is sure to please any rye lover and if you're not one you will be by your second sip. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Someone’s in the Kitchen at Esperanza

The class, a wide-raging group from their twenties to their fifties, listens attentively as Chef Anita Krissel lectures, highlighting their notes about dry-heat cooking methods for chicken. As they are about to break from the lecture portion of the evening and move to the hands-on cooking, Krissel drills them: “What do you do first in the kitchen?”

The class responds: “Wash our hands.”

“And second?” she asks.

“Set up our mise-en-place,” they reply, using the French term for kitchen prep like it’s an everyday term.

Krissel pauses and then says, “And what do you do before anything else?” There’s a tiny moment, and one student suggests, “Have a cigarette?”

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

Friday, August 3, 2012

Let's Slip Out of These Wet Clothes and into a Dry Martini


No, that's not me after just one day at Tales of the Cocktail, that's Papa Gede at the Voodoo Museum, because when in New Orleans you need to know how not to become a zombie, let alone know enough not to drink one. (We won't even begin to consider the Hurricane--if you want to drink just to get smashed, it's cheaper to buy a mallet you can reuse and just thwack yourself in the temple with it and repeat as necessary.)

Day 2, Thursday, July 26

Weather:

Does this photo capture the thrill of t-storms tearing down the Mississippi? The rain eventually made it to our side of the river, too, and we tried to wait it out, but finally ran a single block in it, and were soon ice cubes, as we'd been soaked and then back into an air conditioned inside.


Quotes o' the Day:

"This Blackwell pool party is kind of like MTV meets rum--so many yo-ho-hos."

"Why isn't their promotional giveaway one of the Becherovka chick outfits?"


Event o' the Day:

The only seminar we attended, one called "The Drunken Botanist." It was a sneak peek of science writer Amy Stewart's next book, and she presented very well, doing that "I've come across a whole bunch of cool things, wanna see?" style of a "lecture." Her tag line was, "You're taking plants and putting them into bottles," but then she told the tales of some of the coolest plants we've done that with, including a bunch that might be a titch poisonous, like tansy and gentian. Yes, there was a cocktail, too, a Pineapple Surprise, redolent with a pineapple sage leaf as a garnish, and with that sage, tequila, Kummel, agave nectar, and lemon juice.

Drinking event of the day was the Diaego Happy Hour "A World Class Affair," like the Absolut party the night before, but not quite as magical even with a wider range of liquors used to make the 25 or so cocktails available to sample. And, for something odd, a strong drink with which the bartender offered a shot of granola back as a way to cut the kick.

Surprises o' the Day:

A mouthful of granola after a shot of strong drink is pleasing.

One scientist swears that the variety of apple doesn't matter, it's the type of yeast that makes the flavor difference when you make hard cider. It's not that I find that fact so odd, it's that somewhere on a college campus a professor gets to do this for his research. I want to start my career again.

The margaritas at what seems to be the tourist trappy El Gato Negro by the French Market are quite good, with actual pulp from the fruit that's supposed to flavor the drink (mine was pineapple-cilantro). So if you get stuck there in a rain storm, don't feel too bad.

DBA doesn't open until 5. So if the door is ajar and you walk in at say, oh, 3, and then walk back out, the guy who finally realizes you were in there will act like you were trying to rob the place.

Best Food, Non-TOTC Division:

This was our best overall day of eating, a very good lunch and even better dinner. We hiked out to Butcher, the deli component of Chef Donald Link's (also owner of Herbsaint from the evening before) Cochon. Now, this wasn't exactly the perfect place for pescatarian Chryss, but they kindly made a roasted turkey sans turkey (arugula, tomato, Fontina, and basil pesto aioli on 7grain) for her and even cut the price a bit. I went whole hog, and couldn't refuse the pork belly with mint and cucumber on white. This place even does white bread well, and since mint and cucumber are two of our favorites to play with in summer cocktails, this sandwich called out to me like a long lost edible friend. There was also microbew in bottles, totally needed after the walk out along Tchoupitoulas (its name is as long as our trek), and mine was particularly southern, a nut brown made with pecans. That cucumber-tomato salad side was summer, too.


Then, for dinner, Bayona. I've been a huge fan of Chef Susan Spicer since she published her cookbook Crescent City Cooking, so keenly anticipated this meal and it didn't let me down. To get in the mood I sipped a Bayona martini, Hendricks gin with a cucumber slice for garnish and a bit of rose water instead of orange bitters--very sophisticated. Then the food started, with Chryss having a special "salad," crabmeat with a jalapeno kick in an avocado soup.(Oh, excuse the no flash iPhone pictures--it's a classy place so we acted as restrained as we could.)


I had to try her famous sweetbreads, because I'm offal like that. She does have the recipe in her book, btw, but I haven't attempted to convince my butcher I need the "noix" and not the "gorge" sweetbread, or as she calls them, tenderly, the "heartbreads," aka pancreas. (Never underestimate the power of naming.) They are a wonder of eating, though, fried crispy, yet so tender inside. Again, in her book she explains a randy old chef taught her the procedure and that he suggested "they should have the feeling of a firm, young breast, and would say that looking directly at me to see me blush!" We've got all our hungers so easily cross-wired, don't we. But back to the plate, beneath the richness of the sweetbreads are little squares of beets and then super-crunchy pan-fried mushrooms, and those two totally ground the dish. The sherry-mustard butter sauce sends it all singing.


Trying to avoid going on and on, for mains Chryss had the triple tail special, done very New Orleans style over peas that weren't black-eyes, but certainly seemed to be.


I had one of the best pork chops of my life, truly done medium rare and not in the slightest chewy despite being very thick, with mango salsa and a deep sauce and great green rice--more Caribbean than New Orleans but totally delicious.


And we couldn't, ok, I couldn't, resist dessert, a classic chocolate caramel tart with the crust made with the wisdom of a thousand mothers, and hazelnuts, and for a bit of twist, some Earl Grey ice cream.


Other Drinks Consumed Not Covered Above:

Bloody Mary from the Absolut Bloddy Mary Bar (every hotel needs free Bloodys from 8:30 - 10:30--it's a reason to wake up); a couple of drinks at the "Tales of Two Cities: Bean Town and the Barbary Coast" thingee Anchor threw; a Woodford Reserve Bluegrass Breeze; some Blackwell rum drink; Becherovka, a Czech liqueur, so close to my Slav (no, not slob) roots; and an adult chocolate milk. Note: this day as every, many of these drinks I sipped twice or thrice and then put on the clean-up trays. Nonetheless, I am a professional food and drink writer, so do not try this amount of consumption on your own.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Muse Is Always Half Drunk In New Orleans


Tales of the Cocktail is a marathon, not a sprint, as one of the drink descriptions at Arnaud's French 75 put it, but I did have to write the sprint version for the Indy, the long but not long enough feature that will run August 9. In the meantime, I want to provide some daily snapshots to give you even more of a sense of what a festival honoring the cocktail, in New Orleans, means for one's mind and liver and deodorant.

Day 1, Wednesday, July 25

Weather:

Post-plane touchdown thunderstorm, Thor v. Zeus division. Even after that, hot and humid, which I'm pretty sure is human-controlled as a clever plot to keep you inside in air conditioning, eating and drinking.

Quote o' the Day:

"This is insane--I've only been here two hours and I already have icing on my arm."

Event o' the Day:

Welcome Reception at the Contemporary Arts Center sponsored by Absolut

You know there's this dream in your head of the perfect happening party, the kind even movies never even seem to nail properly, when the setting is magical, the drinks tasty, the people fun, and a row of models greet you as you enter? Well, that was this shindig. It snowed. Inside. The blue lighting added to that effect, but then there were all these separate bars to go to, themed sort of internationally, like It's a Drunk World After All, but without the insipid earworm of a song. (Instead, a DJ not quite getting people to dance, but perhaps that's just because we were all too f-ing cool.) You could get temp tattoos (not many takers, as most people there didn't have enough un-tatted territory on their bodies for one). You could pose with New Orleans appropriate costuming (masks, etc.) for an Absolut ad photo. You could get a t-shirt silk screened with one of 8 designs. You could drink, plenty--probably 20 different Absolut cocktails, including one made with dry ice, one featuring ice cubes carved into diamonds. One spot featured Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders side-by-side making you drinks like the king and queen of boozy prom. The waitress with the little grilled tuna cubes remembered you liked them and that one of you was prescatarian and kept hunting you out with a fresh tray. All the models went back to your room at the Monteleone afterward. Perhaps I made a part of this up.


Surprises o' the Day:

At a tasting called Better with Age, where I somehow avoided any jokes about my magnificence because of my midlife status, during a blind tasting I actually preferred the young Glenfiddich to the 15-year aged one, mostly because it packed more punch so stood out in a room of fantastic tequilas, whiskeys, and Armagnacs, and a bit because it was aged in old Solera barrels, giving it a pleasing Sherry push.

You can make a lovely sipping whiskey...from wheat. At least Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey can.

Evan Williams does a single barrel whiskey that you can buy for $21. Maybe the best value tasted at TOTC.

You actually can make interesting cocktails with vodka. It's a challenge, but that's the fun, no?


Best Food, Non-TOTC Division:

Herbsaint. We'd do further homage to Chef Donald Link on the trip, but this was on the way back from the Absolut party so we decided to do a bit of the small plate action and everything was pitch perfect with prime ingredients. Simply the fries, with pimenton aioli not so simple, were divine. We also enjoyed Seared Louisiana Shrimp with Summer Squash and Chili Oil and Butter Poached Gulf Tuna with Criolla Sella Chili and Lemon--the seafood clearly the stars of each plate, but all the other ingredients whipping up spectacular supporting symphonies. We had a dessert, too, that the receipt calls a BB tart a la mode, but somehow we can't remember what the BB is--butter and bourbon is what I'm going to say.


Other Drinks* Consumed Not Covered in the Above:

Tito's Cherry-Vanilla Limeade, Jasmine-Spiked London Lemonade, a Sazerac at Herbsaint, a Vieux Carre at the Carousel Bar in the Monteleone, and an Abita Turbo Dog draft at Acme Oyster House, where we ate after our long, foodless plane flights out, a soft-shell crab po' boy and an oyster po' boy and some raw oysters, too (see below)


*Note, this really does just mean cocktails and beer, so liquor straight is left out of the equation.