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.