Monday, March 30, 2015

A San Diego Trail Blais-er

Like no doubt most of you, I don't want to be one of those people. For instance, when I do go to a regular supermarket (and just by making that distinction you know more about me than you need to), it's stunningly clear the checkout aisle magazines are not for me. I do not know who any of these people are, the ones on the covers we're all supposed to be so worried about (are they too skinny, fat, unloved, overloved, under-pregnant, a Duggar?). "Celebrity" culture makes little sense to me. OK, I'd probably get tongue-tied in the presence of an Elizabeth Warren or a Brian Eno, but again, there you go.

All this is prelude to say, the title celebrity chef doesn't mean too much to me, unless said chef can bring the bona fides. It might not hurt if he's endearingly self-doubting and it looks like he's used a trick of molecular gastronomy to make his hair stand up just so. Of course I'm talking about Richard Blais, winner of Top Chef: All Stars but probably more importantly not-winner of season 4. Everybody loves a redemption story, and the man came back and did it.

So when I heard he'd opened a place in San Diego, I wanted to go. It took a year, but we got to Juniper & Ivy recently and in short, he's running an amazing place, even if he wasn't in sight that night--a recent Eater interview suggested "Richard, Anthony [Wells, chef de cuisine] and I [Jon Sloan, executive chef] aren't on the line, we're coming up with the dishes and our staff's executing it."

That quote isn't precise, though--they're killing it. We hadn't had a meal so tasty, clever, and inventive in a long time, and we do a lot of good eating. It starts with the space, surprisingly large (seats 300), but spread out over levels and zones, so things end up intimate anyway. The staff is surprisingly young (especially the "should they be out on a school night?" hostesses) but well-trained and professional. At one point a guy next to us bumped his knife off his table and a server practically picked it up before it hit the floor. Even better, it wasn't that table's server; it's kind of a professional swarm that appears when needed, yet doesn't hover. People who can describe the menu, and make you want everything.

The menu is split up into Snacks, Raw, Pasta, Toast, Small Plates, Plates, and if you turn it upside-down, Last Chance (aka dessert). Wines are on the back, split by red and white, but also by Tried & True and Leap of Faith (and there's Special Acquisitions for the high rollers, and I assume some La Jollans love to splurge). Despite, wait, because we wanted everything, we decided to build a meal out of as many Small Plates or smaller as we could. And despite seeing our knife-dropping neighbors get amazing-looking (and soon clean, so probably amazing tasting) bigs of Alaskan halibut and beef shortrib, we didn't regret.

For example, consider the raw razor clams. I've never had a clam that tender, that melt in your mouth. And its seemingly odd accompaniment of oro blanco grapefruit (perfect citrus zip), raspberry (clever color and an acid on its way to sweet), and white Swiss chard (cooked but providing the plate's chew, too) all made for a series of angles totally complementary.

A toast on some serious, tasty bread might seem the most typical of dishes--isn't this just dressed up bruschetta?--was nonetheless dressed in unique style. Green tomatoes (a perfect promise of summer coming), burrata (in all its creamy goodness), and ice wine verjus (since just regular wine verjus is so passe already).

English pea captured winter into spring on a plate, as the peas where paired with some garbanzos, too, and mint (even when being inventive, classics are classics folks, and that's a sign for Blais form follows flavor), but also green hummus for depth. And then what's billed as feta snow, perhaps blasted with liquid nitro to get suitably cold, but a vivid way to concentrate the cheese and chill the entire plate.

Then there was the molcajete (yeah, things all came served unusual--lots of boards, etc.) with Orchard Morels. As if the mushrooms' own fabulous funk wasn't enough (perhaps there's dried morel in the sauce alongside the fresh? just a guess), the dish features "burnt bread," too, that makes you think maybe a kitchen disaster got rescued one night when someone over-toasted the toast. That char and crunch is everything in this dark dish, laced with some chevre and adorned with "onion glass"--think onion sliced membrane thin, then made into something like brittle. Sure, it looks cool, but it provides a sharp onion shock with a minimum of material.

Finally, my dear sweet pescatarian wife let me order one small all my own--foie gras and duck confit terrine. It was my first foie since the ban lifted, and while I had a soft spot for the luscious liver, I forgot how much I missed it until the first taste of this incredible dish hit my tongue. With the vein of confit running through it to add a bass note, it couldn't be better, especially when you scooped a bit of the quenelle of mustard ice cream with it. Yep, you heard right, and it wasn't just frozen mustard, this just-a-touch sweet custard. A dish to prove there is no too rich, if people make things right, and then give you some caraway rye bread to devour it all upon.

Sure, there were fine cocktails, and a Leap of Faith white 2013 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage, because if you want to blend Marsanne and Roussanne well for me, I will say oui. (And then stop trying to say anything else in French, promise.) We didn't have room for any Last Chance, even after we had run in a 15K earlier that morning.

We left delighted, sated, provoked, pleased. That Blais really is a top chef.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Sip This: 2010 Hugel et Fils Pinot Blanc

2010 Hugel et Fils Pinot Blanc ‘Cuvee Les Amours’: How to win a bar bet: ask someone what’s the most planted grape in Alsace, and when they say Riesling or Gewürztraminer, collect. That’s because Pinot Blanc has taken over, perhaps partially because of the version this well-respected house (in business nearly four centuries) makes.

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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Freeman’s Flying Chicken Delivers Fabulous Fowl

It was a simple desire that led Paul Freeman to start Freeman’s Flying Chicken. “Let’s do what we said we’ve wanted for all these years,” he told his wife, Tracy. “Let’s make something for a busy family that wants to order in but doesn’t want pizza again.”

The Freemans were certainly busy, with two sons (now 17 and 13), a mom who worked in advertising, and Paul, a UCSB grad who went to culinary school and worked in Los Angeles kitchens for stars like Joachim Splichal (of Patina downtown) and Joe Miller (of Joe’s Restaurant in Venice), but he soon realized, “While I had a passion for food, I was more interested in the business side.”

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Happy Canyon's Grassini Family Vineyard and Winery

It's just like Santa Barbara to name a location Happy Canyon without an iota of irony. The thing is the location -- the westernmost, and therefore warmest, part of the Santa Ynez Valley -- is ungodly gorgeous. There aren't many folks to clutter up the scenery of rolling hills and horse ranches.

It's in this location (and American Viticultural Area, or AVA, since 2009) that the Grassini Family purchased 104 acres of undeveloped land in the late 1980s. "At the time, there was a lot more cattle than vines dotting the landscape," says Katie Grassini, daughter of founders Larry and Sharon, and current CEO of Grassini Family Vineyards and Winery. "Our land was used for grazing cattle until 2001, when my parents decided to plant 35 of our 104 acres with five Bordeaux varietals. As a child, my father spent years gardening with his grandfather, Articondo, who had emigrated from Pisa. It was his fond memories of tending the land with his grandfather that first inspired him to plant the vines. As an homage to Articondo's influence on Dad's green thumb, we named our red blend wine 'Articondo' -- I think he'd be very proud!"

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

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Acing the All-Star Academy?

You may not like being described as “on the edge of brilliant and crazy” on national TV, but it turned out fine for Vanessa Craig. Those were the words of celebrity chef Michael Symon, who picked Craig for his team during episode one of Food Network’s new All-Star Academy. At the end of this competition’s eight-week run, one home cook will walk away with $50,000.

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

Garagiste Festival 2015: Preview

Two-Buck Chuck produces and sells over 13,000 cases a day. The 156,000 bottles in those cases are enough so that every man, woman, and child in a city like the size of Lancaster, could drink one bottle everyday for a year. One might not want to imagine what this would do for the future of the city if this should ever happen.

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sip This: J. Wilkes Santa Maria Pinot Noir

J. Wilkes Pinot Noir: This winery has a sad, happy story: original creator and namesake Jeff Wilkes started his business in 2001 after years of working for Bien Nacido Vineyards, but Jeff unfortunately passed away in 2010. Central Coast Wine Services decided to keep the brand alive in his honor, with his assistant Vidal Perez taking over as winemaker.

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

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sip This: Pisco Porton

Pisco Portón: From Peru comes this national heritage white spirit distilled from grapes. So think grappa, but mellower, especially this one by Portón, clearly targeted for the international market.

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Navigating the World of Pinot Noir

While I never feel like Warren Buffet when it comes to dollars, I do feel like him when it comes to the richness of Burgundian varietals every time I attend the World of Pinot Noir, which just held its 15th anniversary at the Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara. Talk about your wealth of riches -- there are over 200 wines to taste between two days, there's a media room (see that picture above) with the perimeter of the walls lined with bottles, and there are food-focused events (I previewed one about mushrooms and uni a few weeks ago). There's also a seminar featuring the renowned wine writer Jancis Robinson, who has authored so many books, including The Oxford Companion to Wine, that her bio she says she doesn't know the exact number (this fact might be the only thing she doesn't know).

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

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

(Craft) Brewed Boys Can't Fail

Perhaps Tom Robbins was thinking of Santa Barbara when he wrote, “Never underestimate how much assistance, how much satisfaction, how much comfort, how much soul and transcendence there might be in a well-made taco and a cold bottle of beer.” We should all know where to get tacos in town (La Colmena!), but the exciting thing is that the places where one can get the beer (if not a bottle, yet), keep growing, seemingly by a new brewery per month.

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

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sip This: Bell's Two Hearted Ale

Bell’s Two Hearted Ale: Sure, this is California, land of IPAs so brilliant they could numb your tongue permanently with hops, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t welcome one of the U.S.’s most wonderful IPAs: Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. This Michigan ale has long been considered one of the country’s best, and at last it’s available in Santa Barbara County.

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

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Family of Luscious Wines: Jonata, The Hilt, The Paring

While football fans might know Stan Kroenke as the St. Louis Rams owner eager to bring NFL football -- and his team -- to a new stadium in Inglewood, vinophiles hear his name and get an especially tingly feeling. That's because he also invests in some fine wineries, like cult Napa cabernet producer Screaming Eagle and Jonata (hoe-NA-ta: it's Chumash for "live oak"), in the newly-minted Ballard Canyon AVA near Los Olivos.

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

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hello Crabby!

We make dinner home often, if not often enough. So I figure we're like most people, pleased take-out exists, but quick to feel guilty, too. The plate above we made at home, but we also completely relied on the kindness of strangers. That's crab cakes over some some arugula (pretty much 4 out of 5 dishes in our house include arugula, if just in the salad alongside--peppery greens, what more could one want?). Topped with a sauce whipped up from Vegenaise, Hitching Post's Smoked Tomato Pesto (onions, garlic, smoked, tomatoes, lime juice, spices), and capers for yet more acid and texture. And then a kale-Brussels sprouts salad that's vaguely Caesar-ish and all together delish.

We even cheated on the crab cakes, buying them from the Santa Barbara Fish Market pre-made. They come from a place called Handy, based out of Maryland with crab out of Thailand, but even with all that airfare, they sure are good. Very little filler, no shell, all sweet crab. Fry 'em up in some sunflower oil (about 5 minutes a side) and they're browned and crisp and fresh.

And then you want a bit of everything in a bite, it's one of those meals. The arugula, dressed in a bit of very good olive oil (in our case from Global Gardens) and a bit of Maldon smoked sea salt, because a hint of smoke in every meal makes us feel more primal, etc., complicates the fish in lovely, uncomplicated ways. (Crab cake as zen koan.) The sauce adds richness, acid to the oil. Color. And who doesn't want more smoke and tomato on pretty much anything neutral?

Better yet, this all took nothing to do. (It helped the kale salad was left over from Friday's dinner, and what's nice is the still chilled from the fridge dressing adds an emulsified richness.) Sure, you can buy crab meat and cook up garlic and red pepper and mix it all with panko and herbs and find it doesn't hold (those recipes who pretend you can do this without any egg are just cruel teases), but if someone wants to make you no-filler good ones to buy and fry....

As for the wine, that Refugio Ranch Ineseno is a blend to make everyone love white wine, no matter how much they prefer red. Roussane over Viognier, it's all Rhone white grape goodness, rich but not too, bursting with exotic fruits and spices and making the meal more exotic than it would be on its own.