Friday, December 20, 2013

Two Gentlemen of Verona

Mixologist Alberto Battaglini hadn’t seen Chef Luca Crestanelli in nearly a decade, since back when they attended the same culinary school in Verona, Italy, where they both are from. “It was my second night in Los Angeles, and I walked in to a new job at Bar Toscana, and there was Luca,” Battaglini recalls. “We were like, ‘Whoa!’ Somehow we both ended up there at the same time.”

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

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bijoux, Beaute, Legume

If you want to take people to a place where every cliche that Los Angelenos are too damn beautiful for their own good comes true, take them to Gjelina.

If you want to take people to a place where you can eat only vegetables and not for a second bridle at the seemingly limiting fact that you're eating vegetarian, take them to Gjelina.

That's a really nice double whammy. It's been open for five years, which means just yesterday if you're visiting from Santa Barbara, and is an easy strike from LAX as it's on Abbot Kinney in Venice. (Easy to get to, less easy to park near, that is.) Yes, you're a bit in the heart of the heart of hipsterville, but they sure do clean up and dress nice. It's easy to imagine casting agents try to apply to work as the hostesses here, as it would make their job super easy--just sign up all the customers.

Luckily, as with real estate where you want to have the least expensive house in a ritzy neighborhood, I have no problem being the least good looking person amidst the beauty. None at all. And that's just the start, as you really need to go check out the Gjelina (it's named for the owner's mom and it's pronounced, of course, jewel-lina) menu and then nothing I write will matter. It's super clean, clear direct food made with topnotch ingredients, the kind of thing that's become bestselling cookbook porn thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi. Note there are 12 plates listed under vegetable for $8 a pop--three of us ordered 4 of those and had a perfectly pleasingly lunch sharing. Not that we wouldn't have eaten more--it all tasted so good--but we had a modicum of self-control.

Consider, for example, purple Peruvian potatoes, horseradish aioli, pickled red onions, and dill. That color is crucial, the violet potato almost adding flavor via sight, but they are sliced and cooked to just enough, cirspy on the outside, soft on the in, and then they get zipped three ways with the horseradish heat, the pickled onion acid, the dill's sharp floral lift. Simple and exquisite. It's just the same for crispy Brussels sprouts, jalapeno-lime, cilantro and walnut (the crunchy cabbage on their way to a border town if not quite Mexico, a clever unusual approach) and charred romanesco, Fresno chili, sofrito, anchovy, capers, and mint. Each dish allows its ingredients to sounds its own notes while adding to an exquisite multi-layered song.

And then there were the grilled king oyster mushroom, tarragon butter, lemon, and sea salt, the shrooms so meaty they had to be cut with a knife like some new exquisite cut of meat. You knew they came from the grill and the butter lemon and salt just enhanced their flavor more.

That's all we had, plus some beers, and it was everything we could want. Except for another visit, soon.

Bubbles for Your New Year's Eve

It's time to crack a bottle across the bow of 2014, as we launch another year into the heavy seas of the world. There are more embedded historical and cultural reasons that we drink Champagne for celebrations than there are bubbles in a large format bottle, but basically most of us strive and emulate, and while we might not be able to be rich or royal, at the least we can tipple what they do. Winemakers, that is the good marketers amongst them, figured that out, and soon sold us the lovely lifestyle of the sparkling wined and famous. For instance, they have hidden sparkling wine's beginnings in England, as France is a better vinous home to hail from. Few know of the actual creator, Christopher Merret, meanwhile Dom Pérignon got his name on a bottle and a whole lot of fame.

Want to read the rest then do so at KCET's blog.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

We 3 Wines of Christmas Are

You don't have to be Scrooge to think Jacob Marley is a terrible Christmas spirit. Indeed, one of the great joys of the holiday is there are so many appropriate tipples to savor this time of year, as there are so many traditions to celebrate. Here's a peek at just three ideas for some right time, right place pairing for the holidays.

Want to read the rest, then do so at the KCET blog.

A Toast to André Cold Duck, and That First Sip of Wine

This is about the first New Year's Eve I remember as NEW YEAR'S EVE, and no doubt this was a late revelation, say when I was 12 or 13, but I'm just that way -- slow to what matters most. For this is a memory of first buzzes, and in a lifetime of them, that means something. What's lovely (and yes, there was childhood lovely, not that it ever felt that way while actually being a child, of course) is so much of childhood gets wrapped up in this neat little bow that lets loose an arrow that pierces the Sears catalog, André Cold Duck, and Pong, not to mention my neighborhood friend Dennis Puglia, as it was at his house this happened. It was his parents' largesse that plopped the world's first home video game and two glasses of infernal bubbly in our barely teen laps, as if barely teen laps didn't have enough to deal with, suddenly recognizing what they were for and having no way to do anything about it.

Want to read the rest then do so at the KCET blog.

I Could Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death

In a whole new approach to a start and a nudge, here's your chance to listen to me yammer for a half an hour like I know something about writing. I got to be the honored guest of the show "Writers' Cafe" on KCSB, hosted by the omni-talented Chryss Yost. If you want to hear about my life as an educator, a food and wine writer, a press release pro and more, you can listen to the podcast of our show, originally broadcast December 10, on the KCSB website.

Friday, December 13, 2013

When Batali's in Your Eye Like a Big Food Mall, That's Eataly!

The worst thing about Eataly--beyond, of course, it's merely at best first blush clever name--is its muchness. It's sort of a Costco of Italian gustatory greatness. The best thing about Eataly--it's sort of a Costco of Italian gustatory greatness. There's no way you could eat it all, even if you were as big as Mario Batali himself, so mostly you walk through with your eyes agog and your salivary glands mimicking Niagara. For it all looks good--it's Italian food, after all. Even just the marbled swirls of perfect prosciutto is enough to make you want to pen prose poems.

In case you've never been, it goes like this--New York City, whole block, extra glam points for being across the street from the Flatiron Building. Walk in and it's a bit of a maze of a market, arranged around topics like kitchen goods or cheese or the wine store that has its own separate entrance, plus 11 restaurants/prepared food stops. For instance, you can get lattes that had some fancier name than latte that will be some of the best coffee you've ever had, very rich and, yes, European. Plus pretty.

After that, the ogle is on. More dried pasta than there are ways to misspell strozzapreti, more gorgeous Alessi-designed gadgets than guesses as to what the gadgets actually do, more imported artisanal beers that you've never seen imported before, more more more. It's impressive and at a certain point almost frightening, to live in a world so rich of things you never before knew you needed to want.

And we're not talking about a watering down of things--this isn't Disney does Italy featuring your host Pinocchio (be sure to buy your wooden dummy on the way out the gift shop). It's all fine quality stuff, often at the price too match. At least the restaurants aren't too dear, and we can vouch for the pasta at La Pizza & Pasta, as well as the good service, and that it is enough separated from the market floor you don't feel to hustled or rushed. I savored my Gnocchi al Ragu di Agnello, the gnocchi tasty and substantial but not too doughy, the lamb ragu just what you want of anything long-stewed, flavor left to sit in itself and become more if itself. (There's that more theme again.)

We also had to take the elevator ride to the rooftop Birreria, even though we had already lunched. It's probably even more pleasant when the roof's glass can be cracked open on a warm day (we were there on a chilly, if clear, November one), but it's a charming space with some good Manhattan tower views. And beer. The house brews have been dreamt up by Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Teo Musso of Baladin, and Leonardo Di Vincenzo of Birra Del Borgo (alas Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River dropped out, despite having clearly an Italian enough name), and on cask they are truly unique. We had the chestnut mild ale Wanda and the thyme pale ale Gina and preferred Gina, liking the herb attack more than being nuts for the nuts. Even better, the bartender was one of those teasingly-insulting types you sort of hope you get in NYC, even if he was too young and handsome to fill out the stereotype of the crotchety old bar keep perfectly. This, I guess, is a sign of progress.

Then, just before we left, to give us one last "this might be some sort of set for a reality show of a life you aren't worthy enough to live" vibe, we walked by cheftestant Travis Masar from the current season of Top Chef. Ah, New York.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Plate with a View

I've discovered there actually is a way that New Jersey is similar to Santa Barbara. Both suffer from being so close to a true power player--New York City in NJ's case, LA in SB's--so it's easy to remain the provincial cousin, the country mouse, the place with too many Italian restaurants and not enough creativity. If you've got a bit of chefly gumption in Jersey or Santa Barbara, you just move to where the real action is.

So it's great to run into some truly fine dining in NJ, as we did on a recent trip back east. What's even more surprising is the spot was the Highlawn Pavilion, nestled atop a ridge of the Watchung Mountains in the Eagle Rock Reservation about 15 miles out of Manhattan; it's the last tallest thing around. So, yes, the views are stunning (even if it's surprising how much a November day can smog up in NY--or maybe they were just trying to make us Californians feel at home). Somehow Highlawn Pavilion beats that old saw "the better the view the more meh the food."

We opted to do it for lunch as it costs a bit less--you do pay for that fine food and view--plus there's that trade-off: the glamor of glittery skyline at night or the day's cool clear views. We did keep largely focused on our plates, though, all put together with an artisan's skill of pretty precision. For example, here's the tuna tartare we shared:

On the menu it's listed simply as Yellowfin Tuna Tartare, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Fleur de Sel, but as you can see Chef Mitchell Altholz does a bit more, pushing it towards salad Nicoise with the perfect haricots vert, a few olive halves, the bus-colored pear tomatoes (that equally popped with sweet-acidity), There's also the finest slice of cucumber helping the fish hold its shape, both functional and delicious and something you'd never bother to do at home.

I'm going to skip the entrees, although they were delicious too--a mushroom risotto, a perfectly turned piece of Arctic char. Because I want to write about the dessert we didn't want but had to have. It's this:

Which is New Jersey Blueberry Crunch: Crunchy Blueberry Cake, Popcorn Ice Cream, Fresh Blueberry Sauce, and Hazelnut Tuile. That I had never had let alone heard of popcorn ice cream is a tragedy--of course something that's salty and buttery makes for perfect creaming. Then that cake, almost more fruit than dough, but it held together and had just enough crisp to it to make it crunch. Oh, and the ice cream was perfectly smooth, so having that tuile, aka gussied-up brittle, atop, with those three perfectly popped kernels attached....a kind of simple, thought-through brilliance, both fancy and not at all all at once. Now that's fine dining.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Reborn at the Red Barn: The Nichols Brothers Unleash Their Classic Cuisine

Despite how delicious and welcoming Los Olivos restaurant Sides Hardware and Shoes is — and it’s a 2013 Foodie Award Winner, so you know what The Indy thinks — it’s possible it’s sort of a, well, side project. For when you talk to Jeff Nichols, who, along with Matt, are the owners/chefs/brothers behind Brothers Restaurant projects, it’s clear their latest project is the one. “We’re really excited about our future; it’s what we’ve been dreaming about and working toward,” he enthuses.

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

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Santa Barbara's Wine Industry Changes Course

Morgen McLaughlin should have one of the best jobs in the world. As the executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Association (SBCVA), it's officially part of her job to visit the over 100 wineries and tasting rooms the association represents. It's like being named mayor of Grape Town. As she says she tells her staff, "If you're having a bad day, remember you're in the wine business."

Want to read the rest then do so at the KCET blog.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Evening SB Dining Got Goin

It hurts even more now, that Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne’s restaurant project rumored to be coming to Montecito isn’t. That’s because Goin and Styne brought their acclaimed Los Angeles hotspot a.o.c. to Santa Barbara for an evening on December 2 and that dinner was a total delight. Of her many going concerns now, from Lucques to the Tavern to the Larder, a.o.c. is where she helped birth the small plates revolution. I like to think of Goin as an ascetic sensualist with enough talent to make that seeming contradiction not just work, but illuminate, refreshing a diner’s jaded mind and palate. There’s never an ingredient wasted on a plate, but what is there adds up to a whole beyond her always market-driven ingredients.

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

Monday, December 2, 2013

Blend Your Own Wine with a Kit

Perhaps you've never given much thought to the percentages listed on the back of a bottle of wine. Enter the Wine Apothecary, a new kit that lets you play with wine. You get a box filled with bottles of syrah, grenache, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot, some cool tools like a flask and pipette, and you get to go to work, trying to make a mix that pleases you. After you do, you mail your percentages in and order bottles of your blend, accompanied by a label of your design. Think of it as the ultimate adult chemistry set.

Want ot read the rest then do so at the KCET blog.