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

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?).