Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Sips & Sears of Summer

The third annual serving of The Santa Barbara Independent’s Sizzling Summer BBQ Contest revealed that the more the venues and categories change, the more the winners stay the same, as two of this year’s four awarded chefs also prevailed in previous years. That said, the quality of both pro and amateur chefs steadily climbs each year, and this year’s competition proved tougher than ever before, with mere points separating the victors from the runners-up in each category.

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

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Top of the Scallops

Not to go on and on about a place, but we've been totally taken with Pace food + drink, and this plate last night embodied all the restaurant does well. Those scallops are perfectly cooked, and anyone who has ever tried that at home knows how tricky that is. Sure, they have to cook fast, but you can sear them so quickly you end up with scallop sashimi in the middle. Not these. Instead they have that nice surface crisp but then are actually cooked, too, but not a bit over. They play very well with the shiitakes sliced over the top, the mushrooms' earthiness meeting the scallops' sea. The sauce is sake based, and that gives another kind of sweet, but more importantly another kind of off-sweet sweet (so unlike, say, vanilla, which however pleasant inevitably pushes a dish towards dessert).

The rest of the plate works well, too, the saffron rice bringing back childhood memories of, and this is going to sounds like a bad thing but it isn't, Rice-a-Roni, but sans the MSG, and buttered, not margarined. (I am a child of the '70s, I can't help it. At least the rice isn't stuffed into a Cornish hen.) And then the care of cooking that met the scallops also was brought to bear on the asparagus, just at the point where it's soft and not a bit stringy, and really taking on the almost-down-to-caramel onions and the red pepper flavors. Perhaps there's a bit of broth at work there, too, making sure the side dish isn't just a sideshow.

Wash it all down with a Cismontane Citizen, a California Common lager that is anything but common (thanks for re-inventing this old style, guys), and you have a perfect dinner, so much so we blew off buying stuff at the Farmers' Market as what could we do at home to compare?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Hunger? I Hardly Even Know Her

You might know that old Woody Allen joke*, "I was a very insecure child...I was breast-fed from falsies."The good news for the Wood-man is some of the most booming business in the food industry is in "breastaurants." Couldn't give a hoot about what the term means? Haven't been keeping a-breast of the latest? This commercial might give you a hint:

That's the Tilted Kilt for you, sure to put the starch in a man's tartans. So you have to love this passage of a recent AP article about the market segment that's been on the rise:

That growth is one reason Tilted Kilt CEO Rod Lynch, bristles at the "breastaurant" moniker. He says the word implies that the company's success is based purely on sex appeal. To the contrary, he says his customers – about three-quarters of whom are men and of the average age of 36 – consistently say the experience is about far more.

Wait a second. I do marketing for a living, and you're trying to tell me that 75% of your customers are men past the age that they're going to "get" anything like the women in that ad for anything beyond a babysitting job (ok, there's another ugly fantasy, so here's hoping that restaurant chain never opens) but instead they are all coming in 'cause your Irish nachos† are so tasty, well, you could knock me over with a four-leaf clover.

Or, perhaps, "the experience is about far more." Not to get all Freudian on your cheap thrills, but it's quite possible we really never do quite separate our hungers and sex and food connect even more than we might imagine. Not that I've discovered anything new here. The reason there's such a zing to part of George Carlin's 7 words routine is just that he, and you, and I, and the newborn drooling down the street know it: "And tits doesn't even belong on the list.... It sounds like a snack...I know, it is. New Nabisco Tits--bet you can't eat just one!"

That doesn't mean it's any less degrading for the poor women who work these places, as if waitressing where the tips top out at $6/per, bonus leers free, is any kind of wonderful. (I have to admit I keep thinking the waitresses at Twin Peaks should all go by the names Laura, Maddy, Donna, and Audrey, and dance up to your table like this, but maybe I've revealed too much of my fantasies now.) It's just part of their jobs--wear little, get the men-folk a-wanting, and then pull the bait and switch. Sublimate ends with "ate" for a reason.

*I mean the joke is old, not Woody. Although he's old now, too.

†Come for the boobs, stay for the bastardizing of numerous world cuisines!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Easy Valley

From Mendo, after another lovely MacCallum House breakfast, we make the trek inland, through the Navarro River Woods redwoods (how often do you get to drive through what seems so old?) into Anderson Valley, a land where beautiful rolling hills, vines, pines, and an abiding sense marijuana isn't such a bad thing--this webpage's first line is about medical marijuana--all come together to make for some easy-going living. We do stop for a quick peek at the Apple Farm, but May isn't exactly apple season, and more or less we just want to slow down before we make our first wine tasting stop, Navarro.

Does it really matter what else I write, when there's a view like that? Of course they offer their usual huge range from white to red of generally very good or better value play wine, all of which supports a program that's land and farmer friendly. What's not to like? If you've never been to Anderson Valley or Alsace, here's the place to learn to love Gewurztraminer, and you really owe it to yourself to get to like it. Sure, the bad ones taste like candy-coated wine, but Navarro's dry has just enough sugar, something left at the tippy-tip of your tongue, and a mix of oak, citrus, bread, and a bit of something exotic, as if Alsace was code for Asian, somehow.

And while Navarro does several fine pinot noirs, and their best, Deep End, you don't get to taste as it's so limited, we need to go to Anderson Valley's holy church of pinot--Goldeneye. Setting matters, let's face it, and Goldeneye has one of the best, as you enter through a brilliantly restored Craftsman cottage all Arts and Crafts furnitured out to then get to taste in a bit of outdoor paradise. The patio is perfect, edged with flowers and with a pizza stove at one end for parties, but it's the view that's entrancing--a slip of valley, running near to far with vines, heading into the hills a-burst with pines. It would be easy to stay here for an hour or a year.

The pinots are delicious and dear, reminding you there's a reason to make lots and lots of money. Tasting them with a dish of almonds and dried cherries only makes them more lush, or maybe I mean it makes me more of a lush, I'm not sure. But cherry and flower is all what Anderson Valley pinot is about, so this tasting is superb.

We do manage to rouse ourselves and head to our digs for the next two nights, the Boonville Hotel. It pulls off that simple but chic look only a place in the country could do--call it comfortable Shaker style. Plus it's right in the downville (it's absolutely not a downtown) of Boonville, so you can walk to what there is there, and that's convenient when you're in wine tasting country. For instance, you can lunch across the street at the Boonville General Store, which is much better at food than it is at naming itself, as it's really more a local-organic deli bakery. Alas, we're moving far enough away from the trip I'm not sure what I had (I think it was a quiche-y thing), while Chryss had the salad sampler, aka more food than one person should order. All very fresh. Perhaps naps happened. This was vacation, you know.

Then, a walk through Boonville to get to (eventually, it was a longer walk than I remembered), Anderson Valley Brewing Company. I like their beers but am still bitter they built a tasting room that looks as if it's major function is to be washed out with hoses--it's not a homey spot. But they do let dogs run about inside, and I'm a sucker for canine company, and they offer beers that don't make it out of the brewery compound, namely the premium and barrel-aged ales listed here.

Everything was quite yummy, with just enough sour but not so much you felt like you ate one of those persimmons that suck all the moisture out of your body if you eat them before they're fully ripe.

Then for dinner we stuck in town, for the very homey Lauren's. Imagine a diner that cares about what you eat, then make it even friendlier and you've got Lauren's, from the piano anyone may play to the crayons for your dinner table art to the pool table for after dining. Spring rolls with a spicy peanut sauce or a good place to start, crispily fried, stuffed with vegetable lusciousness, and the sauce has a true kick. Lauren's has been doing the local thing years before it became de rigueur, and that carries over to the almost all Anderson Valley wine list, and they barely mark up the cost, so sure, we enjoyed a Toulouse Pinot Noir.

For mains, Chryss was thrilled with her gussied up grilled cheese of Fontina, avocado, tomato, onion, and basil aoli with a salad that was a seasonal star all by itself and I liked my hearty if a teensy bland fettucine with asparagus, green garlic, and prosciutto in cream sauce with a side of steamed broccolini, so you can feel even more righteous about the cream sauce. Lauren's is the kind of place for direct comfort food made with good ingredients at a fair price, clearly a home for the locals as there's not quite enough tourist trade for them to make a go of it otherwise, but there's no sense of exclusion, either. Anderson Valley always aims to please.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Pig in Pig's Clothing

Still sort of recovering from the double barreled blast of contest that was the Indy's Third Annual Sizzling Summer BBQ & Cocktail Soirees, so I can't post a ton, but I did need to give a big shout out to what my better half aptly dubbed Pig-Pig-Fig. That's the dish above, my lovely entree Monday when we were out celebrating the birthday of a good old friend who shall remain nameless as he feels past birthdays and all that (but he sure does have a good radio voice).

What you see above is pork tenderloin that still owns the rights to the tender part of its name--how often does that happen out?--wrapped in bacon, so you get crispy and fat in each doubly porky bite. Very clever. The sauce is a port and fig reduction that might pass for 10W40, and I mean that as a compliment, gooey and tasty. It all gets to sit on some mashed potatoes that are light as a starch can be, yet still tater-tasting, and a bit of spinach--for color, for health, for a couple of Popeye jokes.

Goes mighty well with a Jaffurs Petite Syrah, the wine equivalent of the reduction, a jammy delight.

Petit Valentien's the place, if you're wondering. What I wonder is how they get by without a website.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Museum-Quality Wine Festival

That there’s a waiting list for wineries hoping to pour at the Santa Barbara Wine Festival is a hint you need to go. Now in its 25th year at the S.B. Museum of Natural History, the event that winds throughout the enchanting, oak-shaded grounds is a taster’s delight. This year’s event is Saturday, June 30, 2-5 p.m.; tickets are $60 for members, $85 for nonmembers, and $95 at the door if available. For tickets, see The museum’s events manager Meridith Moore recently answered questions about the fest via email.

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

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Pace Is the Place

The space at 413 State Street has been home to so many establishments during the past few years — Lettuce B. Frank, Billies, Momma Donna —it’s easy to wonder if the place is jinxed. But the latest occupant to give it a go-round — Jeff Snyder, owner of Pace food + drink with his wife, Kim Snyder — isn’t buying any notions of a curse. “Too many people get into the restaurant business that shouldn’t,” he said. “We’ve been in this business so long we knew what we were getting into.”

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wham Bam Thank You Lamb

It's a sunny, rosy day in Mendocino, so get those pruners out! At least that's how I see the photo above, one of many we took of the bounteous botanical gardens in Mendo. If you have a thing for rhododendrons, this is the garden for you--it's a riot of bloom in May. Luckily we went to the 47-acres of the gardens well-fed, for another MacCallum House bonus is that breakfast is included, and it's sit-down, order from the menu, and enjoy it with a complimentary mimosa, even. (Don't mind if I might be a Tuesday, but it's vacation.) I was very happy with my Benedict, and Chryss liked her breakfast burrito so much, she ordered one both mornings we were there. This is direct food made good by a sure hand and high quality, fresh ingredients.

In between is walking, lots, along the headlands and along the mouth of Big River. And then that trip to the Botanic Gardens. All that walking meant we got a hungerin' and a thirstin', so we went looking for a deer we could chase down and a fresh mountain spring. Oh, ok, we just continued up the 1 back to Ft. Bragg, and let Yelp once again be our guide, leading us to Piaci. It was after 2 so we worried we might be caught in the not-serving-vortex between lunch and dinner, especially when we first peeked in and saw no customers and just one worker, back in the kitchen, busy prepping at a meat slicer. But we also saw this beer board, so we asked if it was too late to get food. Turns out it wasn't, and even better, it meant the lone worker sat down on his side of the bar and we chatted away.

Topics ranged from Piaci having some roots to Russian River Brewing--and indeed, their styles of thin crust pizza are similar--to the man coming from the Yucatan, but really liking it in Fort Bragg, to how border towns (like Tijuana) are bad, as they can attract the worst from both sides. He knew his pizza and knew his beer and by the end we knew he had a hard time communicating with his teenage daughter and we got a beer for free. It was like making friends, which northern California seems to do so well. Now why Santa Barbara can't have more casual spots like this--good, simple food, great beer--I don't know. To add insult to injury, I had to be introduced to one of our beers from (mostly) back home, Firestone's Wooky Jack, way away here. It's a silly name for a fine RyePA with a lot more malt and alcohol kick than most.

We did something in-between lunch and dinner, promise, but this is a food blog, so whatever it was doesn't matter. Let's let this photo, more or less the view from our room (well, outside the fence that protected the hot tub privacy by our room), suffice as a breather. (And no, we didn't see or hear any ghosts in the graveyard. Rats.)

Dinner was at the MacCallum House itself, and somehow we lucked into having one of the several small dining rooms all to ourselves, too--a bonus romantic touch. Our breakfasts had us very excited for what was to come, and we weren't disappointed. Chryss kicked off with the hearts of romaine salad, sans the bacon (they're very accommodating de-meating stuff for vegetarians, btw) but with Point Reyes farmstead blue cheese dressing, herb croutons, roasted peppers, and oil-cured olives. Reading that list, you know it was fine. I had the soup of the day, a green garlic/leek deeply rich with those enticing spring flavors. Somehow we both skipped the grilled clam flatbread with Trumpet Royale mushroom duxelles, garlic, Vella dry Jack cheese, house made mozzarella, oregano, and chile gremolata--partially because we just had pizza for lunch, partially because it sounded like a main masquerading as a starter. But we both were sad, too.

 For mains, Chryss chose the chive gnocchi alla gratinata with morel mushrooms, snap peas, creamed spinach, and Vella mezzo secco cheese that turned out to be much more a gratin than a pasta-ish dish, as you can see. It's also a rebuke to anyone who thinks you have to have meat to eat well.

Not that that stopped me from chowing away on a hunk o' animal protein, for lookie here, I was very un-Mary like for I had a lotta lamb: a braised Niman Ranch lamb shank over mascarpone polenta, bathed in a gloriously gooey cherry and cabernet reduction, and then topped with its own salad of sorts--Point Reyes farmstead blue cheese, toasted walnut & arugula salad. The salad was completely necessary, for a mere smear of gremolata would not have offered enough balance. Nope, the peppery greens and bit of an acid tang from the dressing was absolutely needed to cut all the richness of the braised to ultimate tenderness lamb, that sauce, and the cheesed-up, soft polenta. We're talking flavors pushed to their extremes yet in fine harmony. (Although I might have cut the blue cheese--as fine as it tastes, it was one more push on the rich side of the scale, and perhaps a bit too much.)

We had no room for dessert, and can you blame us. Plus there was a bit of our 2009 Breggo Pinot Noir to finish, a fitting way to set up a transition to our next two days in Anderson Valley.

Monday, June 11, 2012

No Longer Just a Night Owl

Perhaps you’re afraid of the State Street scene, where the only thing in shorter supply than sobriety is the fabric of young women’s skirts. Or perhaps you go to bed so early you don’t even know there’s another 11:30 on the clock. If so, all the hot talk — an Independent Foodie Award last year, mentions in the New York Times and Food & Wine since — might not be enough to get you to the late-weekend-night-only Blue Owl at Zen Yai. Well, there’s good news for you, as Cindy Black is opening a second Blue Owl, this one in the former Bitterman’s Deli spot on Canon Perdido — and it’s only open for breakfast and lunch. Oh, and a laid-back tea time, the very antithesis of the original Owl’s drunken rowdiness.

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

Friday, June 8, 2012

My Steak Has a First Name, It's D-I-A-N-E

Enough oysters--let's get meaty! Or that will be my theme for this day (the third of the trip), as we'll get to in a bit. First there's a quick breakfast at Blackbird down the street from the motel, a cute coffee shop with a not-particularly-cheery clerk but good lattes, an indescribably gooey sticky bun that comes from Bovine Bakery in Pt. Reyes Station (great baked goods, but that's got to be the worst name--"eat here and become a cow!"). The photos on display are impressive, too, very much Walker Evans-esque black-and-white shots of the same people in the same poses and settings years apart. It seems an easy cliche, capturing time on the move like this, but the portraits are all gorgeous.

As is our drive, up and up the Sonoma and eventually Mendocino coasts. There's a quick stop to see the church in Bodega Bay, luckily free of birds, a peek at Land's End in Jenner, to watch the Russian River pour into the Pacific, and a lot of thinking about Denis Johnson's wonderful, twisted gothic Already Dead, which describes this coast so well. We also stop at Fort Ross, as a bit of a walk mid roadtrip is always welcome and the place seems so odd: what did they need to fight off then--nobody is here now. Just to show we took pictures of things other than food, here's one of my favorites from Fort Ross:

Now the dress up kids camp that was occupying the other end of the fort in their faux Russian colonial wear didn't offer us any of their rations, so we got back to the car and kept heading north, through Sea Ranch, the most branded community in America it seems (especially given its paradisaical location), to Gualala and a Yelp-aided chosen place called Bones Roadhouse, that offers Texas-style wood pit barbecue...with a view of the Pacific. There's also several Lagunitas beers on tap so the food almost doesn't matter. It ends up fine, the slow smoked Memphis pulled pork I have is deeply flavorful and tender and of the two squeeze bottle BBQ sauce choices, the mild is actually better--more range of flavor than just hot. The mac 'n' cheese side is a bit too soft, but we'll make up for that with an amazing mac 'n' cheese in a few days.

Full, we head north, with a brief stop at the Point Arena lighthouse as we seem to be collecting those. (It is worthy, if nothing else than for the view, and the bit of a charge being 115 feet up in the air in the replacement for a lighthouse that the 1906 earthquake toppled.) Our goal is Mendocino, where we have a great TravelZoo deal to stay at the MacCallum House Inn for two nights. I'll get to the food there in a bit, but I want to comment on one clever thing they do--each guest gets a $7 credit wooden poker chip to use each night in the bar or restaurant. Of course you never spend just $7, so it's a shrewd loss leader.

For dinner this night, however, we drive even further north, to the town of Fort Bragg, working hard to be something as the timber industry about it went elsewhere. It's also the home of North Coast Brewing, and their Tap Room and Grill, not-quite-gruesomely located in an old funeral home, where we plan to have dinner and drink beer. And not just ant beer, for North Coast is home to one of my all-time favorites, Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. If you've never had this beer on tap, you've never had it, and if you've never had it at the brewery, you've never had it as good as it gets. Creamy on the mouth, bread and hops on the nose, and then that deep complexity of bittersweet chocolate and coffee and toffee followed by more hops than you might expect in a malt-monster like this one (it is 75 IBUs). One time when a friend tasted and it simply said, "It's sweet," I almost punched him. Luckily he wasn't there that night.

As for food, Chryss was perfectly happy with her mussels and frites, even if it was a bit of a miserly portion. No doubt, they were made in some mighty good beer (oh, they had Red Seal on cask, too--making a good beer yet better). I opted for what at North Coast is something crazy expensive, the steak Diane special for $29.95.We're talking one serious slab of Brandt beef , rather indelicately but deliciously drowned in the Diane sauce, zippy with barely crushed peppercorns and warmed (but not flambéed) with brandy.

That was a lot of cow, especially given the sides would have made (as slightly larger portions), a wonderful dinner all by themselves. The braised greens were done just to the point of soft and so redolent of garlic I made sure Chryss ate some so we would both reek equally. That savory bread pudding was sort of more a stuffing, chock-full of wild mushrooms and red pepper and the bread moist on the inside but the outer edges were pleasingly crisp and crusty from time in the oven.

We skipped on dessert as we had those $7 chips burning a hole in our pockets for back at the MacCallum. There we sat in the bar area and Chryss enjoyed an Eldeflower martini--made with St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, of course, but also Square One Cucumber Vodka, orange bitters, and sparkling wine--something light, bubbly, and lovely, while I had to have some of the best the region has to offer, a Germain Robin brandy, the Fine, which might be the bottom of their barrel, but then their barrels are so much better than most that at $8 for a very healthy few fingers of it, I couldn't say no, especially on a misty Mendocino evening alongside the hearth at the Gray Whale Bar.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

You Ate A Mouth Full

Just a quick one to alert you to one of the best sandwiches you can have without traveling to Pittsburgh, and who wants to do that anyway.* Hollister Brewing Company is offering my favorite special of theirs, a Primanti Bros. Sandwich.What is that, you may ask, and you couldn't ask if you were eating one as it's a true mouth-fuller: Niman Ranch ham, melted Fontina cheese, coleslaw, sliced tomatoes, aioli and HBC duck fat fries sandwiched between Texas toast. To do it right you have to get the optional fried egg on top, too, because, really, are you suddenly counting calories? Plus you need the soft yolk to ooze out and coat everything, helping it keep deliciously together. Somehow the Primanti Bros. legend is they started putting everything on the sandwich as it was easier for truckers on the go to eat them, which just means it's very easy to spot the truckers in Pennsylvania--they're the ones with the food-stained pants.

I'm not usually into the food-as-dare kind of thing, but the co-mingling of all those flavors is spectacular, especially when washed down with a pint of one of Eric and Noah's fine ales--the batch of White Star XPA right now is creamy and light and would make a fine balance with the bulk of a Primanti Bros. sandwich. Or perhaps go with one of the two slightly unusual Belgian-ish beers on right now, the 5th Anniversary Ale (it's got flowers and honey and is neither too floral or too sweet) or the Here and There (a mild Belgian, if that makes sense, all about elegance, and not too alcohol-heavy, either).

*I kid Pittsburgh, having been there a bunch from 88-94 and liking it, especially Kennywood. Plus I really want to make it to what looks like a beautiful ballpark PNC (no stadium this). Three Rivers was a football concrete doughnut, but I did get to see Barry Bonds pre-Clear a bunch. I wonder if a roided Bonds would have thrown out Sid Bream in 1992? More likely he would have launched one to the backstop.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Every Bivalve Has Its Day

And to keep you oystered-up, here's one from the Independent....

Sometimes a festival starts with just a mollusk and a dream. “I always wondered why there wasn’t an oyster fest in Morro Bay,” explained Neal Maloney, founder of the Morro Bay Oyster Company, “and it turns out there was one — in 1969. I wanted to bring back that feel of a legacy, of a sea-faring town.” Literally one day after first uttering the idea aloud, he got a call from Jacqueline Delaney, wondering if he’d support an oyster fest fundraiser. Said Maloney, “Her enthusiasm and experience took it to the next level.” That next level is the Central Coast Oyster Festival, which debuts on June 16.

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

Monday, June 4, 2012

Oystered with One's Own Regard

It turns out the Acqua has a pretty good breakfast, not just barely plated box mall boxes of fauxssaints and long-over-prepped coffee, but good eggs, bacon, two kinds of sausages, fruit that's ripe, a waffle iron to play with, and a woman who can make you lattes. All included in the room rate. Nice.

This is day two of our trip up north, if you haven't had your coffee yet to catch up, and today we head out from Mill Valley to hang out at the Point Reyes National Seashore, walk a kajillion steps down to and then back up from a lighthouse, avoid looking a solar eclipse in its infernal eye, discover our motel is a birder's paradise where you learn quail are silly birds (and delicious! ok, we didn't eat any), and a luck upon the finest place to eat oysters until our own stomachs begin to develop pearls.

But before all that, before pretty much anything, we are cheesy. So that means in this neck of the woods, after we get done ahhing and oohing over magnificent Pacific cliffs and rolling dairyland, we need to stop at Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes Station. It's hard to imagine the artisan cheese movement without them, and they saved Straus Family Creamery by buying in bulk before the rest of us knew enough to go organic. It's both a bit underwhelming--I guess I pictured a place big enough to host dancing cows in tu-tus--and just right, for it's all about manageable scale, isn't it. They sell their fine cheeses and many of the best of others and have a pleasing little take out counter with salads sold by weight (the fennel and arugula with a bit of a cheese I don't recall grated atop was lovely) and soups and sandwiches, all be-cheesed, of course, if some, like the one we shared (saving room for those pearls we knew we wanted to grow) open-faced so you don't get too carbed out. As snack places go, you could do much worse.

After a quick peek about Pt. Reyes Station, which is kind of like an old west town wafted with smelling salts from the nearby bay, we headed out for bivalves. I had a rough idea of where I was headed but had only been this way once years before in the opposite direction, so when we got to an oyster place, we pulled in. Well, we waited, first, for permission to pull in as the parking looked like Dodger Stadium back before everyone hated Frank McCourt. We got a spot and wandered in to what looked like a bay-side, many-grill- and beer-cooler-fueled frat party, but with children, too, and more scary dogs. Turns out we were at Tomales Bay Oyster Company, a wilder scene than we were looking for hunting for Hog Island Oysters, which was good enough for Eric Ripert, and we want to be avec Eric. So we forsook our luckily landed parking space and motored further north along the bay, finally finding our destination, which looks like this--better than those drawings of heaven in third grade Catholic school if you ask me, which might be why I don't go to church anymore but love me some oysters.

If you want you can reserve ahead of time and drag your cooler in and buy by the bushelful and those will come with shucking knives and gloves to help you keep all your fingers. I've shucked a few in my time, but then again, too few to mention, so I have no problem letting the pros do it. Those pros are housed in a boat that's been buried, prow to the sky, as a brilliant re-use shelter, and kindly help everyone through the ordering. But basically it's simple. Tell them to keep the oysters coming. At first we had to stand, but that just gives the oysters, those perfect packets of brine and sweet, a straight shot to slide down our gullets. The BBQ oysters at Hog Island might be the best shelled thing I've ever eaten--no doubt fresh as you're looking out at their still cold beds they left perhaps just that morning, then grilled just to the point where they seem they've met heat but haven't melted or worse, toughened, and then laved with a garlic-chipotle butter so good that if Pavlov had it, the saliva from all his dogs would have drowned him. (OK, bad image when I'm trying to say how delicious something was, I know.) You get to wash this down with good micros like Racer 5, and can get bread and cheese and Spanish chorizo from ace purveyor the Fatted Calf, but if you do that, make sure someone wants to help you eat it--these are sharing portions. I guess they figure enough people fight over the oysters, why cause more problems.

We did finally leave, only by promising ourselves we'd consider stopping by for early lunch on the way out of town the next day, since we had to loop down around and back up the west side of the bay to get to the Motel Inverness. This isn't a fancy place, and there's barely enough room to swing a chorizo in the standard rooms, but the location is perfect--it even has a catwalk out to a bird-blind right on the bay, and if you get lucky like us, the redwood lodge/lobby will only be visited by two folks checking Facebook on the house computer.

That meant we had dinner there after purchasing it at the Palace Market in Pt. Reyes Station, a simple one, since we sort of lunched in two-parts, of locally baked bread, a couple of Fuji apples, a slice of Humboldt Fog (we weren't going to get all the way to Humboldt, so might as well meet and greet it in our bellies--plus that ash line is such a delightful design element, isn't it?), and a bottle of Broc Vine Starr Red. The wine is lighter than most predominantly zin-based (95%) wines, but we weren't really looking for heavy, just some good berry-ness and enough acid to cut the creamy richness of the goat cheese.

It's meals like these that make you go--ah, yes, this is a vacation. And then we had a giant stone hearth with a roaring fire and a pool table all to ourselves. That last part is best for everyone, as it saved you all much laughter.

The Latest Intelligence

It has come to this: I see a newspaper headline that reads "Inside the Mind of the CIA" and immediately assume it's a story about the Culinary Institute of America. Judge as you will.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Savoring Salinas, Pleased with Picco

I owe you many an entry, having been on vacation and then buried under the "damn, I went on vacation but my job didn't" catching up to do. Plus there's the anxiety of having 10 entries lined up to write--one for the food and drink on each day of the trip--, and the inability not to think of them all at once, instead of a day at a time, which is how they'll get written (I hope). Since, of course, I'm not on vacation anymore so that whole day-at-a-time mentality thing is long blown. But it went like this, northern CA via car (since it's still CA even if it's northern)--one night Mill Valley (to get past SF where it was Bay-to-Breakers weekend and hotel rooms were hard to find and expensive), one night Inverness, two Mendocino, two Anderson Valley, two Healdsburg, one Asilomar/Pacific Grove. So that's what you've got to look forward to as I try to look back (and see over my much larger stomach)(which no, isn't in my back)(I've messed this sentence up, haven't I?).

Hyundai does not drive on gas alone, though, so on our way from Santa Barbara to Mill Valley that first day, we got hungry and Chryss let loose her mad Yelp skillz. (The "z" bothers me too but I can't help myself.) That's how we discovered El Charrito Market (122 W. Market St.), which is actually even kind to your car, as a nearby gas station had some of the cheapest prices we encountered on the trip. It's one of those family-owned, been around forever--since the Bicentennial, which was, like, a different century and all--store as much as restaurant, especially since everything is to-go. Expect very fair prices, sizes big but not all-roided-up like so many places specializing in burritos (not that they don't do other things but a plate of enchiladas in even a parked car sounds like a mess waiting to lappen, and that's not a typo), and taste you can only get by doing everything from scratch. These beans do not hail from a can from Costsco-ito. The chile verde in particular, on a trip full of great pork, stands out, succulent chunks of shoulder in a rich sauce. I'd never thought anything would make me want to live near Salinas.

Two quick, non-food side-notes: The best way to make a 6 hour car trip bearable is to get to walk in Muir Woods at the end of it. As for lodging in Mill Valley, the Acqua Hotel is affordable-ish, offers soaking tubs, is amazingly quiet as it's in the shadow of the 101 (but it's back side, which all the rooms face, looks over a lovely estuary towards Mt. Tamalpais), and chic.

For dinner we took the short drive to Larkspur to check out Picco, which recently made the Chronicle's top 100 restaurants issue, so we figured that had to mean something, getting the paper across the Bay and all. We'd never been to Larkspur before, and while the downtown is charming, it also seemed to be the town where everyone you ever disliked in high school moved to when they grew up--somehow most of the population we passed evinced an ex-jock nouveau richness. Larkspurned, perhaps?

That doesn't take anything away from the fine meal we had. It got off to a bit of a rocky start as the very lively restaurant had no one at the host station when we walked in and the servers all seemed too busy to do that polite "someone will be right with you" thing--I said to Chryss, "If this were restaurant wars they'd be so busted." Then the hostess showed and seemed annoyed she had her job to do, telling us our table would be ready in a minute quite unsmilingly. This wouldn't have seemed too bad if she didn't chat up the table next to us--clearly regulars, and poster children for the Larkspur smugs--later in the evening. Oh well.

Fine food and cocktails smooth a lot of tepid service. This place is serious enough to barrel age its own cocktails, and a Manhattan out-of-barrel is as smooth and rounded as a baby's bottom, if the baby were made of oak. Chryss adored her Agent Zero Zero, the epitome of the salad-in-a-cocktail she so likes with its Square One cucumber vodka, lime, basil, cilantro, and cane syrup all perfectly balanced.

The food supposedly comes small plates although the prices and the classic apps to the top, entrees to the bottom menu design hint even Picco doesn't believe that. We kicked off with a special hamachi crudo that sat in what seemed too much juice, but a surprising amount of it was oil, not just vinegar or citrus. Somehow the extra oil made the fattiness of the fish extra luscious, and then that contrasted with the zip of pepper and micro green.

It seems they relish in making odd things like that work, for we also thoroughly enjoyed avocado bruschetta, the just-ripe avocado slices on some very hearty toasted bread topped with Manodori balsamic and sea salt. Between the acid atop and the hot bread a-bottom, the avocado sort of, well, not cooks but melts. Usually cooked avocado is something like putting water in a martini, but this dish offered something delightfully new.

The choices were hard so we skipped the chance for the place's famed risotto and instead went with grilled artichoke agnolotti, with ricotta, spinach pasta, fava beans, Calabrian chili, and basil as that seemed so California and so spring. It was. There was a grilled prawn dish with a succulent broth over some  Israeli couscous, the prawns deftly grilled yet still tender on the inside--they have flash grilling down.

And then there was dessert, and talk about things that shouldn't work: the waitress (who was much better than the hostess) described part of it as "upscale Cap'n Crunch." And that nails what was strewn on the plate along with what could have been more caramel (five of the most redundant words in food writing?) all supporting the star--a corn ice cream cookie. There's that old New Yorker cartoon of people approaching an ice cream stand that has 3 flavors listed--vanilla, corn, and wood--and the vendor tells them, "We're out of vanilla," but the joke doesn't work at Picco. Obviously corn has a creaminess, and freezing it with actual cream and sugar (probably not much extra added, for this was far from sweet) can only make it better (of course you strain all the pulp out). The cookie itself also had cornmeal as its backbone, and add all that up you get one of the more intriguing and yummy desserts I've had in a long time. Who knows what Picco could do with wood?