Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Unicorn Wines to Kick Cancer

When word hit the Santa Barbara sommelier community that one of their own, Misty Jackson, who currently works at Les Marchands, was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, they knew they wanted to do something to help. Jenny Mitchum Rosner, somm and assistant wine director at Wine + Beer, said at first people thought they’d have a special study session where they would donate money. But then she suggested, “Why don’t we open it up to the entire community?”

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

Or buy tickets immediately for the event at Nightout.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Sip This: Maddalena Chardonnay


The Riboli family is probably best known for its 100-year-old San Antonio Winery in downtown Los Angeles, but it’s had an eye for growth since the 1970s, expanding north and adding brands. Enter Maddalena, named after the family matriarch, and this affordable ($14 MSP) chardonnay from the Arroyo Seco and Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey.

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

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The 2017 Foodie Awards





Writer's note: Somehow it's already the eighth version of the Foodie Awards, an idea I helped concoct back in 2010 as a way to tip the toque to all the amazing food happening in Santa Barbara (and it's only got better since, even if this year we saw the first retirement of one of our Lifetime Award winners, John Downey--so that's kind of sad). Kettmann and I split the writing of these, so see if you can guess which 5 I penned. And a hint, the tartare photo above I took this past weekend on a trip to the firing-on-all-cylinders Pico.

The 2017 Foodie Awards on the Independent's site.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sip This: Halter Ranch Grenache Blanc

The heat of late summer calls for a revitalizing wine like this one from the gorgeous SIP (Sustainable in Practice) Certified vineyards of Halter Ranch in the Adelaida District of Paso Robles. This Rhône blend is 80 percent Grenache Blanc, 14 percent Picpoul Blanc, 4 percent Roussanne, 2 percent Viognier, and 100 percent delicious, from its floral and wet stone nose to its lemon/melon fruit and acid core.

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

Bullish on the Bear and Star

It takes courage to serve your charred shallot-coated filet on a black plate, or maybe it's secretly slimming--that's a big lovely hunk o' beef. But you're celebrating California if you're at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn's Bear and Star, and the Golden State is all about two things: how about our heritage/how quick can we get to the future? Turns out you do both if you eat at a Chef's Table Dinner at Bear and Star. (Oh, and notice, no +, no &. See, tradition.)

On Labor Day we got to enjoy their roll out of what's going to become a regular chef's dinner, and if the debut is a true predictor, these events are going to become some of Santa Barbara's must-book culinary events. The evening opened with a nearly furious blizzard of so-called "snacks," including a dry-farmed tomato gazpacho I could have made a meal of (lovely shooter, though) and a sea cucumber chicharrone--that's lightly pickled, fried, and sure, a bit of a challenge food. The future is calling.

There were six courses to come, and for your sake and mine I won't run through each one, although no doubt each deserves its own mini-essay as the thought and technique on each is attention-worthy. The Bear and Star's chef John Cox teamed with guest chef (also from Monterey-wards--they've got some food culture happening there, I guess, or did, since all these fine people are cooking down SB-way now) Jeff Weiss, author of Charcurtería: The Soul of Spain, which makes sense as the theme for the evening was Spanish influence. All the wines, besides the Fesstivity bubbly to kick off and the Qupe 2006 Grenache, showing incredibly well with the beef, were from Spain, too.

That's Spain via the Parker Ranch and The Bear and Star Farm, where the majority of the  meats, fowl and produce came from. So think global, pick local. I have to admit I'm not sure of the provenance of the foie gras, lovingly hidden amidst some summer-perfect stone fruit and under a lozenge of honey meringue, about as delightful a sweet cap you could have on the earthy, unctuous liver.

Or that one ravioli the size of a coaster, such lovely lively pasta in its brown butter enriched to the nth degree with some black truffle, country ham, and acorn crumble.

Or that filet, redolent with the charred shallot--such an outrageously wise rub--yet cooked to a perfect medium rare beneath its black exterior. A bit of that with some of the black garlic paste dotted about the plate was a bit of meaty heaven.

Also be ready for machines, as the Chef's Room at Bear and Star is half library and half mad scientist's lab, books on one side, machinery silently a-whir on the other. One was busy separating/emulsifying the carrot puree that set the beef filet singing, another I want to call a speed distiller (sorry, precise science ain't my thing) that the staff claimed could age moonshine to bourbon in an evening (I'm doubtful, but curious). This night they opted to make a digestif for us in it, first passing around a nose-ful of aromatics that would go into making the drink (everything from herbs to pink peppercorns) which then got macerated with plum brandy as an alcoholic base. Think clear insta-amaro. It had a bit of an absinthe edge to it, which was only fitting given both Chryss and I had some of the most vivid dreams that evening we'd had in months.

What's more, the next Chef's Table Dinner is on the books: Tuesday, September 19,  Chef/Partner John Cox of The Bear and Star will welcome special guest Chef Julio Aguilera of El Destilado, Oaxaca, Mexico and Jason Cox of Cinco Sentidos agave spirits. You can just do the mezcal tasting, if you want, even.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Feasts Fit for a (Vi)King

Despite prepping for its 81st Annual Danish Days on September 15-17, Solvang isn’t just going to roll out the aebleskivers. Not that it’s vanquishing all things Viking (heck, there are even weaponry demos), but the hamlet also knows enough to tip its horned helmet at the 21st century and its location amid the Santa Ynez Valley vineyards. That means free concerts by groups like the Ruben Lee Dalton Band, which is more SoCal than Scandinavian, but even more, it means fabulous food and drink.

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

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

That Terrific Taste of the Town



This Sunday, September 10 (12pm-3pm) is the annual return of one of Santa Barbara's finest fundraisers--Taste of the Town. (Tickets still available--go to that link.) Now in its 36th year (for some perspective, 1981 was the year Ronnie Reagan was inaugurated, for the first time), TotT supports the Arthritis Foundation, and there's no better way to help raise money to fight chronic pain than eating and drinking well. I had the opportunity to email interview Laura Kath, local PR maven (and arthritis sufferer), who offered the lowdown on this year's event.

Kath calls it "the incredible opportunity to meet area chefs, vintners, culinary, wine and food legends and legends in the making—in a one-of-a-kind magical setting AND raise needed funds to help find the cause, cure and provide hope for more than 50,000 people in Santa Barbara County with an arthritis diagnosis. Best blend ever!" 

Turns out Kath has been volunteering for AF since year 5 (1986), and she points out, "When I first started, there were more restaurants/caterers than wineries and we didn’t have any craft breweries or distillers at all, for example! The culinary and wine scene has evolved so much over the last 36 years here in Santa Barbara County and Taste of the Town really reflects all those changes including the emphasis on locavore, farm-to-fork and certainly more great wines."

That adds up to 19 restaurant partners and 37 beverage partners for 2017. And it's an incredible mix of veterans and fresh faces, too: think the likes of  Chef Brenda Simon and Ca'Dario and Michael's Catering and Renaud's and The Nook on the food side with the likes of Brander and Cutler Artisan Spirits and Potek and Press Gang and Refugio Ranch and Third Window on the drink side. We are very lucky to live in Santa Barbara.

The event also features honorees, from medical and youth honorees from the community to foodie folk, even with a lead vintner honoree. This year that's Doug Margerum of Margerum Wines. "The Taste of the Town selects an area vintner who not only has made a significant impact on the local wine industry but whose leadership has helped establish Santa Barbara as one of the world’s premier wine regions," Kath explains. "In addition to being recognized as one of the top vintners, Doug has been recognized for his excellence in the restaurant business." (Of course he's owned the Wine Cask twice now.)

It turns out Doug and his wife Marni were also crucial help in finding this year's culinary honoree, Mark Strausman. Their recommendation earlier this year led the TotT committee to discover "Strausman's outstanding culinary career AND that he also has an arthritis diagnosis and is very committed to the cause of being a champion of YES for the Arthritis Foundation!" says Kath. Strausman has led a storied career as one of New York's most heralded Italian-focused chefs, turning the restaurant at Barney's into one of Manhattan's top party spots.

Of course one of the greatest charms of the event is its location in Riviera Park, the home of UCSB way back when. The entire 2017 event is in the late philanthropist Michael Towbes' memory, and Kath stresses, "Michael Towbes and his family’s support of the AF has been outstanding over four decades and crucial to the success of Taste of the Town event since he has donated use of Riviera Park venue since the beginning. No other charity event has been granted the gift of this extraordinary setting—it makes Taste of the Town Santa Barbara spectacular!"

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Vegging Out in LA


"Fun, fun fun. We've got roving entertainers throughout the festival grounds. We've got all kinds of cool activities for children in the Kumquat Kid's area. And the energy is unbelievable. We've been putting on these sorts of festivals for 7 years now, and it never gets old. There's something magical when so many compassionate and energetic people get together for the weekend. But just remember to arrive hungry--you won't go home that way!"

That's how Sarah Gross, co-founder of U.S. Veg Corp, pitches the California Vegetarian Food Festival, which takes place September 16-17 at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. The 2nd annual festival will have beer, wine and cocktails, benefit the Best Friends Animal Society and be a showcase of 100% vegan innovation and goods, with cutting edge plant-based food, live music, fitness classes, kids’ activities, Saturday night film screening and more.

I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Gross and Nira Paliwoda, the other co-founder of U.S. Veg Corp, so here you go, a snapshot of the festival and the state of vegetarianism.

(Sarah Gross and Nira Paliwoda, co-founder of U.S. Veg Crop)

GeorgeEats: This is year 2 for the festival--how are things different from last year?

Sarah Gross: We've got two days plus a Saturday night movie screening. Last year was only a single day. Also last year we were completely outside, and it was kind of warm. This year, we've got vendors inside as well, so that heat-sensitive products such as chocolate ought to be tempting. Several of our speakers are returning for an encore since their talks were so well-received last year. But we've got new speakers too, because there's always new research into the benefits of a plant-based diet.

Nira Paliwoda: All across the board, it’s bigger and better. More speakers, more vendors, more entertainment, more chef demonstrations, more activities and more surprises. We are celebrating all aspects of a well-rounded plant-based lifestyle which includes giving back. This year we are raising awareness and money for our charity partner, Best Friends Animal Society.

GeorgeEats: Obviously we are in some strange times politically. Has vegetarianism had to face any backlash in the Age of Trump?

Sarah Gross: Our first CAVFF was just days after Trump was elected. We feel there was a somber mood and lower attendance than there otherwise would have been. We haven't seen outright backlash to veganism though, not more than usual. Nothing in-your-face or anti-veg, in the way that now people are seen openly with swastikas. Eating healthy and living sustainably really are non-partisan issues. I really can't imagine how anyone could be against these things. We always try to stay positive at the festival. We don't shame omnivores; on the contrary, we invite them in to sample some amazing new cruelty-free products they probably haven't ever tried before.

Nira Paliwoda: If there is any backlash that we’ve seen, it’s more related to sustainability and environmental matters, which are interrelated with a plant-based lifestyle, rather than the food itself. The governmental cutbacks and restrictions to organizations and policies meant to protect the environment and foster sustainable innovation has angered many conscious consumers to the point of individual action where there wasn’t action before, which is a positive, actually. Of course, one would hope that the need to protect the environment and scientific fact would not be questionable things but unfortunately that’s not the world we live in right now. Our event is ultimately about education and we welcome guided debates so long as they remain logical and civil. But it’s not a forum for in your face activism on any level. It’s a family-friendly fun festival where we celebrate good food, wellness and products that happen to also be eco-friendly

GeorgeEats: I'm sure it's always hard to choose, but if you were going to pick a few highlights of the weekend, what would they be and why?

Sarah Gross: I'm perhaps most excited for a superwoman panel which will feature actress/model Simone Reyes, journalist/author Jane Velez Mitchell, Katie Clery from World Animal News, and Judie Mancuso of Social Compassion in Legislation. These are all powerhouses in the world of veganism and animal rights--to have them all on one stage will be amazing. The Emmy-nominated comedian Charles Horn will be back this year; he gives a terrific talk on how Hollywood can aid in the push for animal welfare. And there will be about 70 vendor booths, many of which will be offering free food samples--that's always a delicious highlight!

Nira Paliwoda: The live entertainment this year is off-the-charts. We have a stellar line-up of multiple award winning musicians, including multiple Grammy Award-winning artist Timothy Bloom. We also have some incredible vegan chefs demoing their skills such as Jacques Laventure aka “The Naked Chef” showing us how to make Texas BBQ Pulled Jackfruit and Yovana Mendoza aka “Rawvana” making Creamy Pesto Zucchini Noodles. Plus I have to mention the slew of kids activities, dance, meditation and yoga classes, and for those interested in something a bit stronger, there will be alcohol!

GeorgeEats: People always joke that bacon is the gateway drug to "convert" vegetarians to eating meat. What's the gateway food that would convince someone to become a vegetarian? Why?

Sarah Gross: Peanut Butter Pit Bull made by Rescue Chocolate! It's a very addictive chocolate bar, and of course most people can't even discern that it is vegan. But for a main course, I love Field Roast sausages, Sweet Earth's bacon and burgers and cheese from Miyoko's or Treeline. So many companies are producing fabulous vegan versions of good old American classic foods that vegans do not feel deprived in the least

Nira Paliwoda: I don’t think it’s just one food. There is so much out there now that tastes so close to meat and dairy that it’s virtually indiscernible. For example, Jackfruit is an amazing bbq pork/meat substitute. Also with the many delicious vegan milks and ice-creams out there such as coconut, pea, almond, rice, etc. there really is no reason not to switch over.

GeorgeEats: What's the most important thing people don't understand about the importance of being at least a flexitarian?

Sarah Gross: They may not realize that a vegan lifestyle does good on 3 different fronts at once. First, some understand that a plant-based diet is better for their health. There are numerous medical studies that prove this, and there are more in the literature every day. Second, veganism is a humane lifestyle. It is so empowering to know that the foods in your fridge and on your table have not contributed to the suffering of other sentient beings with whom we share our planet. Even just cutting down on the animal-based products will cut down on the overall quotient of suffering. Third, Mother Earth will thank you. Growing vegan foodstuffs uses far less natural resources than growing animals for food. If you're concerned about climate change or vanishing rain forests or species degradation, going vegan is a powerful corrective for all these problems and more.

Nira Paliwoda: Just like it’s important to vote, whatever drives you, be it your health, the animals, the environment, each meal counts to the greater good. If you eat more plant-based products you are supporting all three initiatives. Even if you aren’t able to go 100% vegan but do increase your plant-based food intake, you thereby help decrease the demand that leads to things like factory-farming while improving your overall health. Logically, it makes perfect sense.

******
Paliwoda choose to sum up the event this way: "This is a festival for everyone, young and old, vegan and open-minded omnivore alike. Come with a curious mind, empty belly and a willingness to be overwhelmed with a full weekend of family-friendly entertainment, activities and, of course, a plethora of delicious food!"

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Italy's DoctorWine Makes a Santa Barbara House Call

It might seem much to call oneself DoctorWine*, but that's what Daniele Cernilli does. It's not just because his autograph looks like an EKG printout. It is because he's written this two-pound tome of a soft cover book (I weighed it--that's what kitchen scales are for, right?), The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2017, that's got more snapshot knowledge of one country's vinified output than it would seem possible to hold. We're talking facts and Facebook pages, ratings and reviews (that is quantitative and qualitative takes), head notes that establish context, cultivation, regional differences. It's a trip to Italy without an airline beating you up.

Even better, Cernilli brought a host of Italian winemakers to California last week, and in addition to visiting LA and SF, they came to little old SB too (it's good to have wine country). Les Marchands hosted a lunch for press to meet the Italians (it's good to be press). He began by saying, "My English is very far to be perfect," and I knew exactly what he meant.

His sense of what's delicious night be perfect, though, as we got to enjoy:

Pinot Grigio Colli Orientale del Friuli DOC 2016 from Torre Rosazza

Not "mother-in-law" pinot grigio, if you know what I mean, this has some body and a bit of acid bite with lovely floral and pear notes. A fine pour alongside salad.

Chianti Classico DOCG 2013 from Querciabella

The good Doctor pointed out how this wine had "more acid, more elegance than other sangiovese" from Tuscany. It still seemed a bit tannic to me at just 4 years old, at lunch, paired with summer corn chowder with cherry tomatoes, bitsy fingerling potato, equally teensy lardon, and chipotle creme fraiche. As Cernilli pointed out, it's a classic with a "t-bone, rare of course."

Saia Nero d'Avola Sicilia DOC 2014 from Feudo Maccari

This Sicilian wine, from near Siracuse where some refreshing winds blow out from the Greek isles, evidently, was one of my favorites (the Doctor gave it a 95). Rich, full, velvety tannins, plus what he aptly pointed out was a note of capers (think a bit vegetal but with a sense of place and purpose).

Asinone Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG 2012 from Poliziano

This dream Poliziano was no cheap trick...(sorry). Doc gives it a 97. Not just a berry burst delight, but named after a poet--Angelo Ambrogini, who went by the nickname Poliziano, a variation of his place of birth, Montepulciano. Ah, Italy--poetry and wine go hand-in-hand back to the Renaissance.

Barolo Classic Multi-single vineyards DOCG 2013 from Pio Cesare

DoctorWine called it a "more rustic pinot noir, not in its DNA but in its taste and character," and that seemed fair. 100% Nebbiolo, it had a lovely floral quality for all its tannic structure (two years of barreling aging too).

Roggio del Filare Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC 2012 from Velenosi

To confuse things, if you don't know Italian viticulture well, while the town of Montepulciano mostly grows sangiovese, there's also a grape montepulciano, and that's the feature in the wine from the Marche. Turns out a poet made up the word roggio, too, to describe the brightness of the sun in vineyards. The sun does wonders for this wine--bright and complex, cherry and plum, with hints of tar and oregano.

Tenuto Nuova Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2012 from Casanova di Neri

This beauty comes from what is supposedly called the heart of Montepulciano and the only horizontal valley in the area. The result is a more international-style wine, what the Doctor calls "the most powerful sangiovese in Tuscany."

Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2007 from Bertani

Nobody said this at the lunch, because, you know, lunch, but the infamous Hannibal Lecter line from the book is "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice amarone" but the producers changed the line thinking no one would know what an amarone was. (Lecter, a connoisseur, did.) North of Verona by Lake Garda, the producers take the grapes and let them dry naturally. They lose water and weight, and then go through a long fermentation, too, to get this warm and deep wine with some raisiny notes but also mint and cocoa. The Doc said, "It's particularly good with blue cheese."

All thanks to Allison Levine from Please the Palate for putting this Italian Invasion together.

*And, of course, being old and being a DJ, every time I see the name I hear this.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Sip This: Charles Heidsieck Brut 2005

If you don’t have a reason to celebrate, invent one so you can pop the cork on this elegant yet ridiculously pleasing champagne. From an acclaimed vintage, and just rounding into its form (if you are patient, wait), this 60 percent pinot noir/40 percent chardonnay blend caresses your olfactory buds with brioche and roasted nuts, and then lusciously leaves your mouth full of tart green apple, bright citrus zest, and more of the deep yeasty notes that brioche hinted at on the nose.

If you want to read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Tickled at Taste

Sure, we all love the quiet, the chance to pass far from the crush, the hope there's some land and air that's ours, as much as moments are. Small towns. Hurrah! But if I told you I wanted to take you to dinner, you'd hope to hop into your hyperspace machine and head to the big city, figuring you need that cosmopolitan edge, that sense of happening, of buzz. Small towns we go to for a sense of zzz.

Unless, it seems, that small town is Plymouth, up in California's Gold Country. For we had the lucky chance to go to the very tasty Taste recently, where the food would make any city chef proud, the service was a proper mix of professional and pleasant that city waitstaff, busy for their break in whatever their real business is, sometimes can't be bothered to accomplish, and the setting was country chic without any need for quotation marks or excuses. Plus parking is easy and we were able to walk in at 7:30 pm on a Friday night without reservations!

Since it seemed every table around us was doing it, we opted to split a serving of the appetizer mushroom cigars (see the photo above), phyllo wrapping crimini, shiitake, oyster mushrooms, fresh herbs, with the cigar than perpendicularly posted onto your plate with a dab of mashed potato. Needless to say, there's a reason the photo is of my plate in the middle of getting devoured, as I forgot my journalistic duty just wanting to chow down. Earthy goodness.

Then, I ordered my main doing the opposite thing--checking out the sides of the dish and then letting the protein slab be a sort of surprise. Here's what caught my eye: Up Country Farms shishito peppers, grilled peaches, house made chorizo, cornbread crouton. Sounded like summer in a place that knew what summer is at its best. That yumminess sat around a Beeler Farms pork chop, cooked a bit more medium than I would have ordered, but I would have been wrong, in this case. So moist, with some good crispiness, too. And, they didn't do that death by piggie product thing that happens so often when you order chops--there was plenty to eat, but I didn't feel like I had bought my next two evening's dinners, too.
Chryss wound up with Ora King Salmon with roasted marble potato, haricot vert, butter toasted almonds, whole grain mustard beurre blanc that knew exactly where to draw the mustard line, a dish with classic roots and contemporary delivery. I say wound up, as she hoped to order the local trout special, but it got bought out between her order getting taken and the chance to fire it. The clever solution? Next to her salmon, Taste gave her all the sides that were to come with the trout, too, so she got the dish fishless. A clever consolation.

And while the mains were city-priced ($33 and $35 respectively), that is without having to add to the bill buying sides, at least. The wine list, leaning towards Amador County as it should (isn't it nice when restaurants support their local wine country? hint hint), was very fairly priced, though. I couldn't resist one of the by the glass offerings, a 2011 Scherrer Pinot Noir from the Platt Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast that was a mere $12. A bold beauty at low alcohol, it was a perfect match for both the mushrooms and the pork, but what would you expect from Fred Scherrer, who did time as Dehlinger's winemaker.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sip This: Kings Carey 2016 Rosé of Grenache

This is wine done to bare-bones goodness, from its seemingly hand-drawn, homespun label (courtesy of Philadelphian Hawk Krall) to its direct, refreshing, delicious strawberries washed in light lemon loveliness in the glass. It’s made, in small lots, by James Sparks, whom you should know from Liquid Farm, which produces one of the county’s best chardonnay.

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Downey's to Dish No More






I had the great opportunity to sit down with John Downey a few weeks back and discuss, as he and Liz are shutting Downey's down after 35 years in a matter of weeks. (They're keeping the last night a bit of a secret to avoid a rush.) Alas, it was impossible to include everything we discussed in the Indy article I'm about to link to, but here's some of the extra info that I couldn't work in to that.

What's next?
"At 68 I find this really physically taxing. I know I look 40, say it," and he pauses for his very English joke to land, "but I beat the undertaker. I never wanted to be carried out from behind the line feet first."

Despite his jokes about mortality, one way he has stayed in shape over the years is hiking, including conquering Mt. Whitney. "I definitely have one Whitney left in me," he insists. "One of the retirement goals is to be in the eastern Sierras in the fall. For 35 years I haven't been able to be away from the restaurant that long, especially that time of year."

****
So here's the start of the Indy article:

“When we knew we were going to close, we thought we’d just disappear into the sunset,” John Downey said about his recent announcement to retire. “Liz [his wife and stalwart in the front of the house] and I thought after a week people would say, ‘Downey’s, didn’t they used to be on State Street?’ Instead the outpouring of support has been overwhelming; we’re honestly touched by it. We take it as a validation of our work the last 35 years.”

If you want to read the rest, you know the drill, go to the Independent's site.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Friend and Dear Friend and a Restaurant's Encouragement


Given my love for Wallace Stevens' "The World as Meditation," how could I not be taken by Odys + Penelope? (And if that isn't the wonkiest beginning of any restaurant write-up, show me its competition.) We had the opportunity to hit the restaurant on the way back from San Diego a couple of weeks back just in time for DineLA. And while I always feel like taking advantage of such promos leaves a bit of a "R" for rube tattooed on your forehead, we'd been wanting to go to O+P since it opened, as we were fans of Hatfield's back in the day when fine dining was still a phrase you could utter and not watch your business model crumble. (Come remember with me now....) That super smart room, the full-view kitchen with so many chefs moving in such precision, the delicious-gorgeous food. We only had it once and missed it ever afterward.

So we looked forward to see what Quin and Karen Hatfield had in store for us at their latest spot. It's somewhat big yet still intimate, partially as the scent of smoke from the big grills in the kitchen hold you in its elemental arms. And right away what seems the least impressive wows you--we haven't had a salad we liked more in ages than their Sugar snap pea “Caesar” with creamy Parmesan slaw and roasted pepitas. Talk about reinventing a wheel that had gone a bit flat. The sliced up snap peas, so bright and crisp and just the right sweet, playing off the right-angled Caesar notes of garlic and anchovy, then the slaw a sort of salve, plus the necessary crunch from the pumpkin seeds. We shared one, wishing we had two. (Not that the grilled Argentinian white prawns with ginger chermoula disappointed, especially with their charcoal depth.)

Fighting FOMO, we went off the DineLA menu as we had to know what the bread-like goodness going out to so many tables was (we've also been to Sycamore Kitchen, and know Karen Hatfield bakes better than nearly anyone). Turns out they were cheese puffs--think gougeres with attitude as they're twice gougere size--and at least four times as yummy, somehow flaky, puffy, and cheesy all at once. What's more, they come with a smoked tomato romesco (that grill is hiding in so many dishes) that was so rich we didn't use the leftover white prawn butter we made them keep on the table for the cheese puffs.

Mains were both also crazy good. Chryss had early summer on a plate, oak grilled salmon, English pea and basil puree, cherry tomato salad, and grilled corn, each element of the dish perfection (it made you want a side of corn, for instance). Grill grill grill. I had the house made pappardelle, pork belly Bolognese, fried sage, supposedly the restaurant's most popular dish. I can see why: that sauce had what seemed like ages of flavor, if that makes sense, rooted in meat generally too good to be reduced like this, and that grill was in there somewhere doing its fiery magic. And someone can make pasta, too, that perfect tension that says fresh.

I could go on about the desserts, like a straightforward yet immaculately prepared chocolate budino with olive oil, sea salt, and a stunning take on the Oreo that should make Nabisco cry (or sue) and a coconut-cashew lime "pie," (it's kind of deconstructed, over the flakiest of tart shells) with local raspberries and toasted coconut ice cream that's all flavor in your face. Or the just inventive enough cocktails, or the helpful, timely, friendly, unobtrusive service. It's a place about comfort edging very close to something like fine dining, but then quick to say, "Servers wear jeans!" or "Smoke is like camping--how casual is that!" You're sure to say, "I need to go back."

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sip This: Daniel Cohn 2015 Bellacosa Cabernet Sauvignon

Daniel Cohn’s family sold its B.R. Cohn Winery, famed for its cabs and olive oil, a couple of years back, and instead of just counting his cash, Daniel decided it was time to start anew. Enter this flagship of his own brand, Bellacosa, a cabernet sauvignon sourced from vineyards throughout the North Coast appellation.

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

Hawai‘i Meets Isla Vista at HiWi

If you feel like you might get reverse-carded upon entering the collegial crazy paradise that is Isla Vista — “Hey, you’re too old for this burg!” — you’re not alone. In fact, that’s how HiWi Tropical Fusion, a new spot on Pardall Road, came to be. “My cousin [Armand Bagramyan] was on the [UC Santa Barbara] soccer team, and we’d all go to games,” explains Nareh Shanazarian, the operating manager. “They’d end at 11 o’clock, but he’d never want to take us to I.V. afterward because he thought it was too rowdy for the family.”

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

Belly Up to Barbareno's BBQ

Your nose, if it's a oak smoke loving schnoz, will no doubt lead you down De La Vina on Thursdays and Fridays around lunch time. That's because Barbareño has just started serving up CA BBQ, but it's telling on their menu they don't abbreviate the words. That's because there's never a sense of a shortcut here, and they aren't going to do that for a casual lunch service that stars one of their popular-from-day-one proteins, red oak smoked tri-tip, here in a sandwich slathered with their bright and flavor-popping pico de gallo. (You can order meats/the veggies by weight, if you want to skip the bread, btw--nice move.)

So it works like this: you go and order at the door, then grab a table on their patio lovelier than it has a right to be smack up against De La Vina. You take in more of the good grill smell, and if you ordered a drink, from iced tea to beer, you'll sip a bit anticipating. (I highly recommend the poorly named but deliciously crafted Ice from Modern Times--those San Diegans make magic with everything they brew, including this pilsner that's just hoppy enough but not too. And it only clocks in at 4.8%.)

You can get that tri-tip or a smoked chicken or grilled veggies with a smoked harissa romesco I'm sorry I didn't try today. (Ah, a reason to go again.) (Wait, I didn't need one.) Or you can get the pulled pork you see above, spiced with a cumin rub, laced with bigger than you think they'd be but it works pickled tomatillos. That's a ciabatta roll that's hefty enough to hold all its contents, and that has avocado BBQ sauce keeping it moist and ridiculously flavorful--GM Jesse Gaddy said it took some tries, but in their never-ending quest to bring the avocado, they had to do it. You will get a little cup extra of the sauce and eat some of it on your fork all by itself, hoping to puzzle out its combo of tasty goodness (of course avo so that good fat and creaminess, but then smoke, too, but citrus, but just the haunt of it...). The pork is ridiculously good, with some crispy bits but mostly meltingly tender, and then occasional a bit of pork fat, for that different texture thing. Plus, fat is yummy, let's face it, as long as there's not too much.

For sides you can get their evening menu pinquito beans (and if you haven't had them why not?), a ranch slaw featuring fennel (what shouldn't?), a mustard potato salad, grilled sourdough--their in-house usual--with garlic butter, or a grilled avocado, the hole where its pit sat awash in some of that garlic butter, perhaps.

Your only regret will be the only serve lunch on Thursdays and Fridays.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sip This: Grgich Hills Estate 40th Anniversary Chardonnay Napa Valley 2014

Think of this as delicious history in a bottle: while famed Napa pioneer Mike Grgich started his namesake winery in 1977 — hence this 40th anniversary chardonnay released this year — he also was the winemaker at Chateau Montelena when it won for its chardonnay at the infamous Judgment of Paris tasting that shocked the wine world in 1976 and established California’s reputation.

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Natural History Never Tasted This Good


I've been writing about the Santa Barbara Wine Festival for ten years, long enough for it to officially change its name to the Santa Barbara Food + Wine Festival to recognize you get as much to eat as drink (more on that in a bit). But that decade really is just a grape in the bucket, so to speak, for the festival--put on by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History--is celebrating its 30th Anniversary.

That edition is happening this Saturday under the oaks behind the Museum. So it seemed appropriate to give a quick course in eight reasons you need to go if you care about southern California wine, local food, and your own satisfaction.

1) It was first. Check out that name. You don't get that by jumping in late to the "oh, Santa Barbara wines are cool" game. They've been doing this since 1983 (they missed a couple years)--that's 21 B.S. (Before Sideways). The Museum deserves huge props for supporting the local industry in its youth.

2) Because they were first, they've earned the respect and affection of the founding winemakers of the region. So not only will you get to taste Alma Rosa and Au Bon Climat and Brander and Fiddlehead and Ken Brown and Longoria and Lumen and Qupe, the odds are pretty good the person pouring that wine will be Richard Sanford or Jim Clendenen or Fred Brander or Kathy Joseph or Ken Brown or Richard Longoria or Lane Tanner or Bob Lindquist. You learn stuff here, just by being near. It's not just some well-meaning but unknowing volunteer telling you, "Yes, the chardonnay is a white!"

3) Oaks. They're really fun to stand under. They keep you cool. And there's a creek bed. Rumor has it, there was even water in it this past winter. (That is, there's no more beautiful setting for a wine event.)

4) Food is important at wine festivals, if for nothing else than to give you ballast. But it's way better than that at SBW+FF. A few years back they even had Michael Hutchings do cooking classes--now he just feeds you directly. But he's only one star, and the festival also knows how to keep track of what's latest and greatest. Highlights include Barbareño, Bob's Well Bread, Pico, Loquita, and the just opened and highly lauded Bear and Star. It's the kind of event where the DD's (who, if they pre-register are free entrants with a paying guest) get to have almost as good a time as the tipplers.

5) This year there will be booze. Santa Barbara's own Ian Cutler will serving up tastes of his deliciously distilled wares.

6) It's run, with a keen sense of everything anyone might want or need, by event consigliere (that might not be her official title) Meridith Moore. There's no wiser, more gracious host, and the museum is very lucky to have her.

7) Just as the food has kept up with what's happening, so have the invited wineries. So it's not just a respect for the long-time players, it's the folks with a strong if not as long track record, like Larry Schaffer at tercero (he will have homemade bread for you too, no doubt, the man knows his yeast) and Tablas Creek from Paso bringing its stable of brilliant Rhone wines (have their rosé, you will be hot, it will be refreshing), and Larner Wines (did you hear they've finally got permission to have a tasting room by appointment!). And then there are newer, at least when it comes to their own wines, folks like Dave Potter and the brilliance he makes as Potek (here's hoping he's pouring his Kimsey Syrah), and Graham Tatomer, making Riesling and Gruner safe for southern CA. (Correction, change safe to delicious.)

8) One hundred percent of the net proceeds from the Wine Festival supports nature and science education for adults and children. So you have a great time and are doing something good. If there's ever a time we need more education and more science, it's now.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Bacara Blast





While Santa Barbara might like to show off, it still puts its fancy pants on one leg at a time. On June 25, those festive, fantastic trousers are going to be at the Bacara as it celebrates the first anniversary of the remake/remodel of its main restaurant Angel Oak with a party called One Under the Sun. Guests will get to feast on special dishes, enjoy drinks from local wineries and breweries, and take in our coastline from a gorgeous site.

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

Sunday, June 11, 2017

All Ginned Up


Despite the lyrical wisdom of Pink Floyd, we do need an education, especially when it’s a Gin Education Dinner. Just ask craft distiller Ian Cutler of Cutler’s Artisan Spirits, who is willing to be our teacher for the evening on June 12. “As opposed to whiskey, when it comes to gin, it’s still a mystery spirit to many people,” Cutler opines. “They often don’t even know what the key flavor is, let alone there are multiple styles.”

So think of the dinner/tasting that Cutler has developed with Phil Wright at Bar 29 as a way to lose your ginnocence, so speak. After a three-course meal paired with cocktails featuring jenever/London dry, Old Tom/barrel-rested, and New Western/sloe gin, you’ll know all about that key ingredient juniper (the taste gin-o-phobes often call Christmas tree), plus a whole bunch of history. Along the way you’ll have eaten a strawberry goat cheese salad, a Wagyu beef slider with bacon onion jam, lemon aioli and garlic fries, and sesame-ginger flat iron steak lettuce wraps with peanut sauce.

Cutler, always for “getting more knowledge out,” has often had a hand in public events, and when recently talking to Wright mentioned he hoped to do a gin dinner. Before he knew it he was pleased to have a partner, for as he says, “They’ve got some classy cocktails at Bar 29.”

Cutler – who currently only makes a New-Western style gin (that is, not just a slap of juniper, but something a bit more floral with some distinct citrus notes) – sums up the evening this way: “I’m just trying to fill that information gap about gin. It also helps me get out in the community, not just to get people to know my products but to know the more global sense of gin.”

4-1-1: Don’t end up under the host at Cutler’s Artisan Spirits Gin Education Dinner, Monday, June 12, 6:30 p.m. at Bar 29, 1134 Chapala St. Tickets are $65 per person, plus service fee (inclusive of tax and gratuity). For tickets and more information nightout.com/events/bar29gindinner/tickets.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Bitter and Beautiful


First, we just have to get over that there's a thing called Negroni Week, which simply means some cocktails have crazy good press agents. But hey, it's the Negroni, and to do that horrible thing of quoting myself: "If the martini is the little black dress of drinks, the Negroni is a sequined strapless gown — not for everyone, but for those who can pull it off, a sexy stunner. Sticky, sweet, bitter, beautiful, this cocktail traditionally made from gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth beguiles bartenders as it seems so simple, yet suggests so many variations (the drink itself is a twist on the Americano)."

Just tonight to get myself  prepared for writing this post I whipped up a rye variation, as I felt a hankering for dark liquor as opposed to clear (I love gin, but it can make head hurt when it's in a mean mood, and I never know when that mood is--I refuse to see this metaphorically). Let's call tonight's drink The Rye Amar Republic (the Rye-C-Groni?) and it goes like this (for one cocktail): 1.5 oz. rye, 1.5 oz. Amaro Lucano, 1 oz. Carpano Antica Formula. Ice, stir, up in a coupe, lemon peel. It's a lovely Amaro, smoother than many, and the fancier sweet vermouth ups the viscous quotient too--it's easy to imagine the lemon peel might stand straight up in the drink.

Meanwhile Acme Hospitality is having fun with the Negroni all week, so try to check to what they're doing--some money is going to charity, and if you fill out a passport from all 5 locations, you win valuable prizes (complimentary menu goodies). One of those Negronis is a donut (stuffed with campari cream, lathed in lemon juniper glaze, topped with candied lemon zest). I'll see you at Helena Ave. Bakery tomorrow myself. (Oh, and there's also Campari washed in jamon at Loquita. This little piggie went to Negroni....)

Here's the full deal, as you want the details:

ACME’S NEGRONI WEEK IN THE FUNK ZONE: JUNE 5-9

The Lark

(Benefits Santa Barbara Humane Society)
6 Negroni cocktails featuring at least one per day, each day of the week

Negroni Jardin - $14
Dolin Genepy des Alpes, Dolin Blanc Vermouth, Suze Dandelion Liqueur, house fennel bitters, fennel frond garnish

The Bitter End - $14
Venus Aquavit, Tempus Fugit Gran Classico, Punt e Mes Vermouth, lemon twist

Florita - $14
Correlejo Reposado Tequila, Campari, Napoleon Mandarin, lemon twist

Negroni Punsch - $14
Kronan Swedish Punsch, Leopold Bro’s Aperitivo, Botanist Gin, Batavia Arrack, lemon twist

Negroni Alexandre - $14
Ventura Spirits Strawberry Brandy, Campari, heavy cream, Crème de Cacao, dollop of house Campari whip, shaved dark chocolate

California Negroni - $14
Cocchi Americano, Maraschino, Aperol, Botanivore Gin, california laurel bay leaf, citrus-poached Bing cherry, Meyer lemon peel

Loquita

(Benefits Angels Foster Care of Santa Barbara)
serving the Bellota Negroni every day, all week long

Bellota Negroni - $14
Bellota Jamon-washed Campari, Gin Mare, Vermut Rojo, Amontillado sherry

Les Marchands

(Benefits Food from the Heart of Santa Barbara)
serving the Bruto Brazillian every day, all week long

Bruto Brazilian - $14
St. George Bruto Americano, Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth, Avua Cachaca Amburana

Lucky Penny

(Benefits YStrive for Youth, Inc.)
serving the frozen Gertoni Frogroni every day, all week long

Gertoni Frogroni - $12
watermelon, gin, Carpano Bianco, Lillet rose, peach bitters

Helena Avenue Bakery

(Benefits Heal the Ocean)
serving Negroni Donuts all week long

Negroni Donut - $5
campari cream, lemon juniper glaze, candied lemon zest

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Sip This: Good Bar Special Grapefruit IPA





When tasteful, enterprising people get together, especially over a few drinks, expect good things to happen, like this collaborative effort between M.Special Brewing Company and The Goodland in Goleta. While far from the first or most famous grapefruit IPA (here’s toasting to you, Ballast Point), it’s hard to deny how well citrusy hops and citrusy citrus play together, and the grapefruit is strong in this IPA — timed perfectly as the weather warms up. It was as if they were thinking you should drink it around The Goodland’s pool.

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

No Miss Steak

Here's the danger about waiting six weeks to write about a dinner at a place that really truly is seasonal (yeah, yeah, everyone is seasonal now, which is why people are serving tomatoes like it's summer already)--going through PYT's current menu, only two things we had back in April are still on the menu and one is our dessert. So that's going to make this write-up a bit more impressionistic and less specific, but no less praise-full. For what Josef Centeno is doing at PYT (which might stand for Pretty Young Turnip), the mostly vegetarian restaurant he's carved out of the charming old school, mosaic-tiled Ledlow space downtown, is a delight. It's the kind of place you want to bring those who don't think vegetarian food is compelling; they will leave feeling both full, and very differently about the essential need for animal protein on a plate.

 OK, so that's a salad. The "greens' in this case are bok choy, grilled a bit, but then you can see how much other flavor joins them, from sultanas to what was called a snow of cheese. Fresh herbs. So much life in one dish. But with the bit of cooking on the bok choy, just enough sense of the seasons changing, too, spring warming out of winter.

 This plate might be even harder to read as a photo, but it's favas seriously seasoned and aside feta and dill and bread to scoop it all up, a sort of nod to hummus that's not so much deconstructed as un-constructed, so heartier, each element announcing itself to you as you ate it. You would be a fool not to welcome it back.
Then this, called morels and ramps. We sort of had to get it, given how you can't really buy either as just ingredients in Santa Barbara (why are we such a touch town in which to find interesting mushrooms?). If I recall correctly, there's sesame seed in there--he seems to like to dribble some seeds atop things to bring flavors together--and again, this truly sang spring.

 And those seeds are back for the hand-torn pasta, an exercise in the joys of texture. There's nothing quite like the pull-chew of "live" pasta, and this dish had that down. Centeno also finds wonderfully complementary matches from across the Pacific rim to make unusual, memorable flavors--here it's shisito peppers giving the cream a bit of zip, but then there's yuzu, and cilantro, and brown butter, and mint. Bright, brighter, brightest. Talk about figuring out how to make pasta seem not in the least bit a heavy dish.
That's dessert--peanut pudding, whipped cream, salty caramel. Perhaps the one less pleasing dish of the night, but then again, it didn't have any veggies. (Plus it could have more salty caramel, because what couldn't.)

Still, we'd go back in a sec to see what's the best stuff just fresh from the fields meant to taste even more like its own loveliness.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Bar 29 Woos Evening Drinkers

So what do you do for a sequel when you own two of the best beloved dive bars in town? Go a bit upscale. That’s the latest move for Phil and Kourtney Wright, who have owned The Sportsman (hey, Nerf Herder has immortalized it!) and Whiskey Richards and have now opened Bar 29 & Kitchen in the old Hungry Cat space.

Want ot read the rest then do so at the Independent's site.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sushi Gets Along Swimmingly with Star Lane

If you're like me, dear reader, when it's 4 o'clock you have this struggle--what in the world do I want for dinner? And when you figure it out, at 4:30, you're all proud of yourself. You have a plan.

Let me introduce you to the world of the Dierbergs, the family behind Dierberg Star Lane. They've got a 250 year plan.

Now, we could all feel embarrassed about our lack of future thought, or we could have a glass of one of the many fine Dierberg/Star Lane wines and contemplate the future in a more pleasant place. I vote for that plan, and would do so for 250 years, if I only could.

The Dierbergs have managed to buy some of the most wonderful wine-growing property Santa Barbara County has to offer, from the Dierberg Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley to the Drum Canyon Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills to the Star Lane Vineyard in Happy Canyon. Add those three prime locations up and even someone with no wine knowledge could stumble upon some good pinot, chard, sauv blanc, and cab. But, of course, you don't kick off a 250 year plan with a someone as your winemaker.

Nope, the Dierbergs hired Tyler Thomas, stealing him from the more famous wine counties up north, which shows a certain sense of commitment. Thomas has one of those stories--French grandmother, wine at the table, college years studying botany and getting into cooking. Then, after marrying young, he and his wife traveled the world, only to land in New Zealand and discover winemakers. It seemed like a cool career.


Fast forward through a Master's from Davis (viticulture and enology) and an ornery mentor, Mark Matthews, author of Terroir, and Other Myths of Winegrowing, with whom he didn't always see eye-to-eye, and that feisty back-and-forth made him a better winemaker. For as Thomas puts it, "In wine school, you tend to learn how to do stuff to wine, and that's not always good."

He got practice learning not to do too much at Hyde de Villaine in Napa and Donelan in Sonoma, but the Dierbergs came wooing, and once he saw the properties, and heard of their desire for a long-range plan, he couldn't say no. So now they get to do things like plant all sorts of clones to see which grow best ("it takes 25 years to see what clones work on your site"), and to experiment with stem inclusion (he's a fan, in moderation), and to age in oak vs. maloactic fermentation to find what creates more "body," and to see what different barrels can do, and to grow grapes at different elevations (thank you, rising Happy Canyon topography), you name it.  If there's a best way to make a wine, Thomas and his team will find it.

In addition to the magnificent sites to grow the grapes in the first place, and that they've even got 15 acres of own-rooted vines in Happy Canyon (did I mention they have 40% of the planted acreage in that Bordeaux-blessed area?) since it's protected enough from phylloxera (plus they have to water less, and the flavor profiles seem more classic, with richer textures), they've got a half acre of caves to age the wines in perfect conditions. There's something nearly religious about a place like this, as if you can feel the growth and change about you amidst the silence of the barrels.

They're also after perfect pairings, so let a bunch of us heathens, uh, journalists, in for a tasting with Chef Kiminari Togawa from Sushi Karaku in Tokyo. Alas, I have not been to Japan, so don't know the culinary highlights, but a family came from Japan to this event as they like Togawa so. That's dedication. (Here I go with my limited knowledge, but they sort of looked like a couple from Tampopo.)

The point was to prove you can have red wine with fish. It helps that Togawa does Edomae sushi, the older version that has been pushed aside by what we now know of as sushi (but that's only 50 years or so old). That means fish that's pickled, marinated, even sometimes slightly quickly cooked, yet still sushi. You don't dip this into soy and wasabi, as it's got all its proper flavor pre-packed, as it were. It looks like simple nigiri, but my god, do those flavors last and last--one way it certainly works with red wine, as it finished as fine and long as a delicious cabernet.


Take the pickled red maduro (tuna red meat) in soy alongside the chu-toro (fatty tuna) sprinkled with wine salt (photo above). The maduro glistens for a reason, hinting at its richness. It almost had red beets depth, and sure enough their handy flavor profile matching chart nailed the fish's iodine and iron core. Then the wine salt on the chu-toro excellently bridged sea and grape in one tasty bite. These two paired so well with the pinots, one from Santa Maria--the 2014 Dierberg Vineyard--and the other from Sta. Rita Hills--the 2014 Drum Canyon. Guess which one had more salt air, to match? You see how this can be, done, don't you.

Of course, there was even more, brilliant non-sushi bites between the courses, like a king crab mille feuille that had no pastry, but lots of crab, plus bonus salmon because why not, and then that rich zip of spinach for both color contrast and earthiness.


Or this modestly named oil marinated salmon with tomato water, that somehow left out the salmon roe atop that gave the dish a crazy series of bright bursts.


So does sushi go with red wine? You bet. And I'm pretty sure it would even not in a stone cellar setting, made by a chef flown in from Tokyo for the event, with wine poured from a producer with a 250 year plan. (How did I not get to the mirin marinated conger eel and the 2011 Star Lane "Astral"? Was it because I gave up on notes and was reduced to grunting with pleasure?)




Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sip This: Bluecoat Gin

If you’ve been looking for a way in to gin but don’t appreciate the fresh smack of pine many can provide, Bluecoat could be the spirit for you. Of course, its main botanical is juniper — it is a gin, after all — but Philadelphia Distilling has opted to go for a less piney juniper berry....

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

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Paso Robles Gets Posh

Allegretto Vineyard Resort in Paso Robles is one of those places that packs a lot of surprises upon your arrival. It's really only a hearty stone's throw from the 101/46 interchange (assuming an NFL quarterback is throwing the stone), but is more removed from its busy nearby world than you might imagine. Part of that is the building turns inwards on a magnificent courtyard named, not immodestly but not inaccurately, either, the Piazza Magica. Inside it, or from one of the rooms that have little porches onto it, it's easy to imagine you're in Italy or Spain, statues, stone, already mature plantings. Even better, they wisely didn't put the pool in the courtyard, making it more private in its location behind the hotel on a rise ringed by green, and thereby saving all the guests the happy, if often over gregarious, joy that is a pool in use. (One word: kids.)

Throughout the public areas, expect so much art, from some many different regions and eras, that you might feel a bit overwhelmed (they even hope to offer art tours of the resort soon). At times it seems too inspired by nearby Hearst Castle. So, yes, it's a tad over the top, but that's why we go to resorts and note just mere hotels, no? This is the first resort the Ayres chain has opted to do, and Paso of all places could use it as its wine country grows in number and acclaim. Think rooms with ridiculously high ceiling space (14 feet? more?), very fine linen, lovely wood floors. Walls built to keep the others staying there out, even the slightest whispery hint of them.

It's worth a walk of the grounds, too, especially if you're interested in bocce--there are two courts--or simply the glory of light in a serene place--the Abbaye de Lerins (their names are a bit precious) is no less gorgeous despite that name, as the day's light plays through its stained glass, making magic on the walls opposite. Best of all, you can have it to yourself often for some moments of quiet contemplation.

If you'd rather contemplate grapes, that Vineyard part isn't just for show in the resort's name. The tasting room just off the lobby offers the Allegretto line, from grapes on this property even (it's 20 acres total) and some in the famed Willow Creek district. They even do a Tannat, which wins them wine geek points.

That rustic Tannat is a particularly fine pair with the luscious lamb I got to enjoy at Cello, the farm-to-table focused restaurant on site that's whipping up some impressive dinners. Perfectly cooked and well crusted with herbs, it was a carnivore's delight. Not that the pescatarian won't feast, too, what with a ridiculously rich crab pasta featuring snow crab claws, jalapeno, and Allegretto Viognier butter. (There are even raw vegan zucchini noodles--the place aims to please eaters of all sorts.) Whatever your desire, expect there to be some wine cooked into the meal somehow, which seems more than fitting.

Don't pass on the cocktails, either, complex creations like a then seasonal (it's taken me awhile to write this!) Campfire that begins with the bartender setting a mini-slab of applewood afire and corralling the smoke into your cocktail glass. To that he will add Whistlepig Rye (nice brand call), Averna (way to be on the Amaro bandwagon), plus a housemade vanilla and chai tincture, heavy on the chai. It was something.

As is the whole Allegretto experience. I can only imagine how wonderful it will be once it has some ghosts in it, as it's the kind of place that deserves a happy haunting.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Little Something for Jonathan Demme


I'm still processing Jonathan Demme's death, as he seemed someone so alive, always working, exploring, changing, growing. So in the meantime I dug out this, the essay I did on Something Wild as part of my MA/W nonfiction prose thesis way back in 1988.



AHISTORICITY BLUES

            At a recent screening of The Manchurian Candidate, my friends and I were horrified when, at the film’s conclusion, one audience member said, “Gee, that was a well-made film for 1962.” He might as well have said, “Boy, Ulysses was well-written for 1922,” that’s how indignantly angry we became. Having a few weeks to calm down, I now don’t blame the man at all; he had simply, baldly put what is all too much truth--films, even when considered historically, are misread by false codes: say, history as continuous progress. People are all too content to let Hollywood be a dream factory that has no connection to social, political, or economic events in the world. The classic case in point is Oliver!, the big budget, mushy musical of Dickens that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1969. It’s clear what side of the barricades Hollywood felt itself on.
            Film critics of all sorts can’t be excused from this myopia. The infamous Gene Siskel can mildly like Rambo III because, in his words, “It accomplishes what it sets out to do.” Questioning what it sets out to do is beyond his 19 inch mind. Beating up on television critics is about as easy as dismissing tv evangelists--they themselves become the product, while films and God just give them something to talk about. Serious critics have also painted themselves into corners by focusing on two prevalent critical approaches--the auteur theory and genre theory.  The danger is filmmakers, too, approach their art from these angles. It’s fine to want to make a Western in 1990. But it doesn’t mean what making a Western meant in 1956 or 1969--the difference between, say, The Searchers and Once Upon a Time in the West.  John Ford made a fine film by using the image of John Wayne to question our notions of the “real man pioneer”; Sergio Leone made a fine film by turning all the 1950s Western clichés on their ears, and by questioning our very need to mythologize a violent period of colonialism--it’s Henry “Tom Joad” Fonda who is his cold-blooded killer, after all.
            Another genre periodically dusted off is the screwball comedy. The classic update example is What’s Up Doc?, Peter Bogdanovich’s mildly entertaining remake of Bringing Up Baby. Yet what Doc? lacks, not to mention stars as great as Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (substituting them with Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand is like asking Bret Easton Ellis to rewrite Absalom! Absalom!), is a historical sense. The silly gamboling of the rich had much more of a place in a Depression-mired 1938, just as Hepburn’s dangerous, since reckless, sexuality had more of a place as a threat to the (to shift decade-jargon) unliberated Grant. Instead of ending with Hepburn dangling from Grant in a desperate love-clutch, a pile of prehistoric bones jumbled beneath them, Ryan can only end by debunking his earlier tear-jerker Love Story, thereby denigrating his own work and the people manipulated by it.
            Jonathan Demme attempts to do the screwball comedy genre right with Something Wild. All the usual markers are in place, even if the place is transposed to a very hip 1980s Lower Manhattan.  Charlie, a straight-as-an-arrow businessman, still gets bored with his life, and for a bit of a thrill, runs out on his lunch bills every now and then. We see him at a now, his eyes darting about the coffee shop filled with exotics. He’s out the door but a few steps when a woman stops him. She’s dressed in hip black, covered with multicolored necklaces and bracelets, topped with a Louise Brooks-do. After some gibing, it turns out she simply saw through his little game. She offers him a ride, and his initial attraction gets the best of him.  Before he knows it, they’re in the Holland Tunnel, Jersey bound.
            Charlie, uncomfortably, goes along with the game, particularly after Lulu slops a messy kiss on him; it’s as if her character, along with her lipstick, sticks to Charlie. Of all things, he plunks down his Christmas Club funds for a motel room, where Lulu continues to surprise, handcuffing him to the bed and ripping off his shirt, then hers. All of Charlie’s world disappears, his world of work and plans and preparation. Before sex, Lulu pours out the contents of her voluminous bag: a robot-shaped cassette deck playing reggae music, a witch doctor rattle she shakes over him while forcing a little, “Woo-oo.” She does call up something, a wildness their games cannot touch, for they are privileged to have games: Charlie really can duck out of the office on motel room at a moment’s notice, not that he ever has before.
            Meanwhile, the film is filled with people who have little room to act.  In almost every other scene we see African-Americans, not just an oddity because of Hollywood’s generally white casting. Instead, Demme goes out of his way to make us confront a culture the characters in the movie seem ignorant of. The film also moves to black music; the soundtrack is dominated with songs by Jimmy Cliff, Celia Cruz, UB40; Charlie stops at a gas station where a group of blacks perform an impromptu rap, bouncing about spider-like; and the film ends with Sister Carol, playing the waitress Charlie originally dashed from in the opening (it’s her bill he cannot pay), singing her own version of “Wild Thing” next to the credits. The end suggests that no matter how grungy the Troggs may have been, black music will finally reclaim itself--rock will escape not just the Pat Boones and Julee Cruises, but also the Elvis Presleys.
            The end also suggests that music may be the only escape for the under-privileged. They don’t have the luxury a Lulu or Charlie (or a Grant or Hepburn) has, for just surviving is enough of a worry. Demme lets Something Wild show the shoulders a screwball comedy must stand on.
            Many viewers complain about the film’s severe swing from lighthearted comedy to suddenly serious revenge-play, complete with very graphic and gruesome violence. Yet the movie has no choice. Its interest is to have the screwball genre while debunking it, to devour from within. While the characters never consciously associate the world they dominate to the suffering they cause, they do learn the danger of game-playing, of the great freedoms they possess. Things take a dark turn with the introduction of Ray at Lulu’s (now Audrey--and peroxide blonde and sweet after a visit with her mom) high school reunion. Ray, too, has a role--he’s a rebel with a cause, a smalltime hood fed on dreams of one big score, of the one girl with a slightly black heart who will love you just the same, maybe all the more. We discover Ray and Audrey are married.
            Ray does more than slip out on a bill, he knocks over a convenience store with Charlie and Audrey in tow. But first he talks Charlie into giving a speech to the store’s video protection system; it’s Charlie’s play-acting image (he’s mid-sentence about his recent promotion) that Ray shoots out when he fires into the screen Charlie plays to. It’s the first sign the performing we all do might be dangerous: Ray’s act does Charlie’s in; Ray even gets to cap the hold-up in high hood style, with Demme’s help--he grabs the pack of cigarettes he initially asked for from the counter and gracefully flips them in the air, a move Demme slows down and thereby turns to pure style.
            Charlie and Ray finally have it out in Charlie’s home in suburban Long Island. The climactic battle occurs in the bathroom--stunningly white--a veritable temple to colorlessness, the void, particularly in light of what bathrooms are for. A busted pipe sprays, the two white men battle on a white floor between white walls, the fluorescent lighting brightening their t-shirts to a glow. It’s ugly violence--something entirely separate from acting, from the complementary illusions both have chased--steel-toed boots and handcuffs as garrotes. Finally, Ray’s knife flashes, the two share some embrace, lifting up as if eager to leave the ground, the knife drops. Both seem dead, the only sound the knife clattering on the tile. Ray walks over, stares into the mirror, runs a bloody hand through his hair--it’s not what he should see. The image, the game, has gone wrong.
            It’s the danger of letting play become more, become life, and necessarily death. He dies in a moment of cool--he might be Belmondo in Breathless--but he’s just as dead. He’s learned what it’s like to have only life and death choices, which sounds dramatic, but isn’t if you’re hungry, or homeless, or unemployed.
            It’s telling how in a film filled with cameos by the famous, Demme wisely chooses their roles. John Waters, king of sleazo movies, plays a used car salesman; John Sayles, king of moral, problem pictures, plays a motorcycle cop. Then there’s also Steve Scales, a percussionist most famous for his work with Talking Heads. Scales works at a highway rest area’s gift shop. Scales is black, and busy at his minimum wage work, selling Charlie tons of “Virginia Is For Lovers” goods and telling him how wonderful it all looks on him. It’s the longest cameo--Demme’s way of balancing the scales (no pun intended)--but it’s also the most menial, a perfect emblem for the screwball comedy world. It’s a genre that disregards any race but the white, for it disregards anyone without money, anyone without freedom to pretend.
            The high school reunion slyly reinforces the point. The theme is “Spirit of ‘76,” and the bunting is appropriately red, white, and blue. The tacky band is played by the Feelies, looking as bored and as uncomfortable as they do when performing as themselves. They play only covers, the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and David Bowie’s “Fame,” which is fitting in this film of trying on others’ roles. These songs say volumes about the Spirit of ‘76, the spirit of America that insists any person can do anything; that any actor can become the president if he has enough self-impetus. It’s the hopeful spirit that damns America from ever becoming truly equal. The Monkees, created from nothing, were tv darlings made stars by our desire for stars; like rock and roll Tinkerbells, they grew on applause. By becoming what they had to they proved exactly how easy role-playing is, and how we must be careful not to take our roles too seriously. The same is true for Bowie, who has developed so many Bowies to be that he only has to change his clothes and hair--from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke--and he’s new again. Fame, and any form of personality, is something willed, as it were. For those with room to be willful.
            Up to this essay I’ve remained critical of Demme’s ending, in which, after much running about, Charlie finally runs into Audrey again, and the world seems righted. But now I feel differently, because of that huge seems. Leaving the theater, I don’t remember their reunion, can’t even recall if we last see them kiss. But I do remember Sister Carol, full of life and what they’ve left behind. They’ve still ignored her world; Audrey even has a classic car, gotten from who knows where, to drive off in.
            Then there’s Ray, the casualty of the film for he plays the wrong role. In the 1930s he’d merely be Ralph Bellamy, and only lose the girl, usually gracefully, sometimes pathetically. In the 1980s the genre has to show more, has to tell on itself.  Where else could we last see him, but at the mirror, attending to his own show, puzzled beyond words, running the blood on his hand up through his hair, staring and waiting, waiting for a change.