Sunday, August 19, 2018

SB Poets Take Ireland: Day 4


That's David, Paul, and Chryss and the Santa Barbara city flag, at Blakes of the Hollow Pub in Enniskillen.Yep, it's really named after William Blake, but nope, not that one--
Catherine Blake, grandmother of the current owner, named it for her son William when she bought the spot, already open for 50 years, in 1929.History, I tells you.

Here they met with and read with the Fermanagh Writers Group, doing their round robin thing for a bit, then letting the group do a round robin or two, too. So we got to hear quite a range, from finely crafted light verse to much heavier political prose poems and all sort of things in-between. One of their readers managed to work in a different instrument (flute, fiddle) each time he took his turn. Not surprisingly, a pub helps blur that line between music and poetry a bit. Our agenda put it plainly, but this phrase actually means quite much: "compensation: fellowship with Irish poets." Indeed.


Here's a different view of the place we got to stay for two nights (such a luxury on this whirlwind adventure), as you would see it from the dock on the River Erne. Those little gable windows were ours.


Having an actual place to stay with a kitchen meant we packed in some groceries and simply had great bread and even better butter for breakfast, as we knew this day, like most, would more than likely become a rolling feast.

So for lunch we ate at the Stables Tearoom at Florence Court (see Toured). I also offer up Stables Tearoom as a particularly UK kind of oxymoron. For what's basically a cafeteria in a historic site, the food was pretty tasty, as perhaps the photos suggest here, balsamic drizzle abounds across our two very different salads, but there's good ingredients at the dishes' roots, which there better be as you can buy produce from the estate's garden at the gift shop. As the spot was home to generations of Earls of Enniskillen, we had to eat cake, too.

Dinner was at Cafe Merlot, the restaurant tucked under Blakes of the Hollow, as we figured we couldn't get lost on the way to the reading then. (Plus, it seems easy for Irish dinners to stretch, so the less time it took to get from dinner to reading the better, we learned.) It's a quite opulent space, arched brick ceilings, marble floors--not exactly what you'd expect to come across at pub-bottom.

And then the food started with plating like this, that evening's antipasti platter, as they billed it. What you see top to bottom is a perfect little prawn, a mushroom tarragon bisque you instantly wanted as your whole meal, and a delightful smoked salmon.
I ordered what was not just a special but truly special, a duck confit salad with rocket (such a better name than arugula, no?) and pistachio that looks lean on the duck but its flavor was so deep and rich the mix was an exquisite balance.
Then for my main I thoroughly enjoyed  roast fillet of hake with pepperade, Parisian potatoes and asparagus. We'll get to how ugly hake are whole in a photo in a couple of days, but they make a delightful, full flavored flaky whitefish when cooked, especially when cooked so well, the skin crispy, the flesh tender but far from hammered. That pepperade added color and crunch, especially as it included very fresh tomatoes for acid grip. Who doesn't want some asparagus and pea shoots on a plate when possible? And then Parisian potatoes--hey, don't blame your potato obsession on the French. (They were yummy, sure.)
Vegetarian-leaning Chryss was more than happy to try the Thai green vegetable curry featuring haricot beans, basmati rice and fried red skin peanuts, the last two so special they get their own bowls (hey! we're important!). A rewarding, warming direct dish.
Cafe Merlot also offered one of those early bird deals, this time billed a Pre-Theatre Dinner, which is close enough to pre-poetry to work. App and main for just £18.95--beat that, USA.


Once again we had a very pleasant, chatty, aiming-to-please manager/owner(?) giving us advice on drink. Oddly, given they're under the pub, they only have Guinness and Heineken on tap, and of course given the name we probably should have had wine, but there is no Irish wine, is there. So because his wife is German, and he said for a long time you could only get this beer in Germany so he was proud to have it, he suggested this.

And that's how we had German lager in Northern Ireland. Fine for what it is, and at a meal there's a purpose to a beer that roots quietly from the culinary sidelines and doesn't hop bomb your taste buds to death.
We also went local, with this Inish Mac Saint Fermanagh Beer, a bit more heartier ale than the lager, made at a brewery right on the Lower Lough Erne. A bit of a 'tweener beer, a pale with some Belgian notes, like, perhaps, a saison without the strength of its convictions. Solid enough.


Chryss and I drove the 8 miles out of Enniskillen to explore the grounds of Florence Court, a countryside estate that's part of the National Trust. Just like the Hearsts figured out owning Hearst Castle would hurts-so-bad their finances, so left the mansion to California ("but we'll keep the land for grazing and vines, thank you very much"), the landed wealthy in Ireland and England know when to give up their ancestral homes. That does mean the current creatures who live there seem quite at peace. Just ask the birds and the beefs.

The place itself defiantly thumbs its nose at historical accuracy if you care to decide how and when it all got built, who the architects were, and that's sort of lovely for something so grand, to the point its history does feature someone billed the Dowager Countess. Even better, one of the highlights touring the grounds (once again, we only did that, especially since here all the furnishings have been brought it from elsewhere) was finding the grave of Nelly Woolly, the children's beloved dog.
Otherwise, there was a lot of green--indeed, the Irish Yew that has propagated all Irish Yews in the world is here--plus some more gardeny gardens that made us, uh, green with envy.
Our, perhaps, we simply wanted to get the job of gardener, as here's the Gardener's (Rose) Cottage. Not bad digs.
Although you'd think you'd get a riding mower for a place like this.
Afterward, back at our Air BnB, we did some exploring by the River Erne, and discovered we were actually next to a theater complex, too, the Ardhowen, not that we had time to indulge. But we did get a better look up the river to where a rail bridge clearly once ran.
And while standing on the dock, got visited by a family. Dad made sure he looked fearsome, and we weren't quite sure if he was shaking us down for treats or simply saying no one messes with his cygnets.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Around the Table: Chefs in Santa Barbara

Every once in a while I have the good fortune to have Visit Santa Barbara ask for some work. In that vein, here's a n article I did for them based around three quick Q&As of some of our best local chefs, talking about ho great it is to be a local chef in this, uh, locality. So consider this one more start and a nudge.

When legendary chef John Downey put farmer Tom Shepherd’s name on his menu in the mid-1980s, he kicked off a trend not only for Santa Barbara, but the entire world. This region has been all about farm-to-table since long before that term became marketing catnip. Visit any local farmers markets, and you’re sure to bump into chefs loading carts with just-picked produce. And of course, the Pacific is rich with seafood, while the county’s vineyards produce some of California’s top wines.

Three of the region’s top chefs dish on the region’s bounty: Alexander La Motte, Hotel Californian; John Cox, The Bear and Star; and Greg Murphy, bouchon Santa Barbara.

Want to read the rest then do so at the Visit Santa Barbara website.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

SB Poets Take Ireland: Day 3

Welcome to a day where we saw a lot, including our rental car's "check tire pressure light," which we finally figured out you could just reset on the car computer. But given trying to figure out how many miles/kilometers you'd driven on the same dash was so hard it took two guys at the rental agency to figure it out when we showed back up in Dublin with our Volvo S60, we didn't end up feeling too badly about being slow. (Not that that later knowledge helped us when we had views like this from the car while our dashboard blink dire dread.)


Didn't. That part's easy.


Late in the day, but amazing, the top, very garret-y floor of a house right on the River Erne between the Upper and Lower Lough Erne. But, with all that, really a mere 5 minute drive into downtown Enniskillen. Everything you want an Air BnB to be--seemed just renovated or built, too, so very clean and fresh. And then this view.

Happily, we would be here two nights, almost a luxury on this trip.


We started off with the buffet breakfast included at the Dillons Hotel, full of Irish breakfasty things like sausage and rashers and potatoes and grilled half tomatoes (they were at every breakfast, some better grill-melted than others, and we grew to love them).

Lunch was leisurely, mostly as the one server in the very uncrowded Arnolds Hotel Restaurant in Dunfanaghy (see Toured below) disappeared a bunch, perhaps in search of the missing apostrophe in the establishment's name. Still, it was a lovely respite with a view of a gorgeous garden, which happens in summer in a place that has this unusual thing called rain. (Perhaps that's an Irish word.) We didn't take photos of the food, I'm not sure why, but I had a ploughman's lunch, as I had to as I'd been in the country for three days, hadn't had one yet, so risked deportation. The key to this cheese sandwich is not really the cheese but the relish, and theirs was very good, both sweet and pickly at once. Chryss had an open-faced salmon sandwich that went down swimmingly.

Dinner came at too much car time/cranky time, so we were happy to end up in The Horseshoe and Saddlers, the upstairs more bistro-y, less pub-y part that had a very proud display of its desserts including mighty, the size-of-your-head meringues, we did not partake of. Instead we chowed down on some pretty straight-ahead and pleasing food, because that's the kind of place it seemed to be--steak and seafood, horseshoes and saddles. I went for the sizzling T-bone with tobacco onions that came to the table like fajitas. Very tasty, especially because you could order Bearnaise, and to their credit, they didn't nickel and dime you or whatever you do in Pounds and make you pay for the sauce extra (I hate that). Plus, who doesn't love an unhealthy mound of skinny fried onions?

Chryss had the Cajun spiced salmon fillet over a bed of sweet chilli noodles and stir-fry veg, a bit of a cultural mish-mash, but tasty, as many different cultures know how to cook and the English (remember, this is the UK now) know how to steal from other cultures with the best of the Imperialists.

The manager (owner? I really don't know) was quite chatty and friendly, complete with his visit to CA story to tell us. (People like telling you about coming to our state. I get it.) Certainly a bargain meal, if nothing else, as that 14 ounce steak was just $26 and the salmon, a whole dish, please note, and not a naked entree asking you to get vegetables at $10 a pop, cost $19 (I did the conversions for you).


At lunch it looked like they had Kinnegar Scraggy Bay on tap, but unfortunately their draughts were on the fritz, so I had one in the bottle. Still, quite good, low enough in alcohol for day drinking, yet in a 500 ml bottle, so you can order one and feel you've had enough. The Irish really do having drinking down.

As for dinner at the Saddlers Bistro & Wine Bar, well, you see what's there at the end of that name, yes? Somehow it had a wine menu that made no sense to me. There was clearly wine by the glass, but none of those were marked (I ended up with 1 LRG GL RED for 4.70£). Not that I'm mister somm savvy, but when I can't tell if the pricing is by the glass or the bottle (or some carafe system not introduced to me?), it perturbs me. Especially when one of the listings is simply Chateauneuf du Pape, no vintage, no producer, and it's ridiculously affordable. Oh well.

Our favorite drinking experience of the night was checking out the off-license sales from The Horseshoe downstairs after dinner. Having never done it before, I asked the friendly barkeep what to do, and he said follow me. We all went into a 8 x 8 foot room off the bar. On one wall was a cooler with a depressing selection of beer. But behind our barkeep was Irish whiskey, so that clearly was the correct call, especially when a  375ml bottle of Powers sold for a mere $15. We nightcap nipped from that for the rest of the trip.

Oh, and the best part of the off-license was discovering that our couldn't be more than 25 years old barkeep wanted to move to the U.S., but to northern Texas or Oklahoma. Our quizzical looks about that location led him to explain--he wanted to become a tornado hunter, even knew a friend who died as one, so he felt he had the other guy's unfinished business to do. We got a lot for that $15 bottle of booze.


While still in Letterkenny, we decided to explore a bit, given there was a church like this one, on a hill, as that's what the religious do to lord over you, after all.

I'm just happy to see that first, it's named for two saints, as if just one won't do, and second, it might be named for two because St. Eunan and St. Columba, well, is there such a thing as D-list saints? (And here we pause to hear my mom turning over in her very Catholic grave. Sorry, Mom.) We do love us some old graveyards, though.

And a view, who doesn't like those? (That was the typical Irish sky, by the way; perhaps a threat, but more likely just posing for dramatic effect.)

Then we decided to test our ability to drive on roads that look like bike lanes, heading as north as we could go with an ultimate goal--to loop Horn Head on the Wild Atlantic Way (rejected slogan: if the sea spray doesn't dampen you, you might just wet yourself). That's how we ended up at lunch in Dunfanaghy (see above), where a group of horses, some clearly island ponies (that's what more horse knowledgeable Chryss called them, don't ask me), strolled in across the shallow bay like some mirage.
As a place where sky, land, and sea meet at odd angles, Horn Head is high on the sublime list, indeed, making one wish one had purer poetic thoughts to even scratch the capture surface of something so stunning. Here's a photo of it, not doing it enough justice, and then some people in the way of the view, as it's the 21st century and that's what humans do now.
I've never been more north; that's something. (And yes, I'm wearing a t-shirt from Australia, when I'd been most south, for what that's worth.)

And as spectacular as that was, the view back down from the Head across the bay to Dunfanaghy, if you like how people add to the landscape, well, not bad.

So we drove, headed for Glenveagh National Park to hike about Lough Veagh.

We fell in love with it lough, stock, and castle, especially as it had a dog. (Our dogs never bring us flowers, but then again, they're not made of stone. That would make them a tad bit quieter, I'd imagine.)

OK, the real story of the castle is a downer. While it's been part of a national park and open to the public since 1986, its original builder/owner John Adair kicked with police help over 240 tenants off their land that he wanted to be his. Somehow he wasn't much liked. He died in 1885, only 12 years after the castle was finished (justice? health care Republicans hope we can have in the US soon? you decide), but his wife kept beautifying the place, especially with all the pesky peasants out of the way. So, yes, verdant gardens.

You can hike a lot around the castle, which we didn't go in. But from the right vantage point, you can seem so much greater than a mere mansion on steroids.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Bright Lights, Black Market

And we take a break from our irregularly scheduled Irish programming to bring you crispy spring rolls you really need to have from a spot much closer, Studio City. For before the amazing, he's a national, if still quite edgy treasure Randy Newman show at the Hollywood Bowl last night, we finally got to Black Market Liquor Bar, under the watchful eye of executive chef Antonia Lofaso (you might remember her from two Top Chef seasons). It's just down Ventura Boulevard from Barrel & Ashes (which somehow I have never written about, sorry), which makes this an enviable neighborhood for eats.

Those are some of the better spring rolls I've ever had, so it was no surprise to see servers bringing them out to pretty much every table in the wonderful room with a brick-barreled ceiling and fans run by old-school pulleys. Cool in so many ways. As for the spring rolls, they were crispy indeed, without any oily ooze, and stuffed with flavor, shiitake as umami stars. Your server suggests you wrap the roll in lettuce and add Thai basil, mint, and cilantro, so you get all that fresh herb kick (should be even more of those, actually, and fewer of the bean sprouts, but that might just be my particular palate talking). Here's hoping you're with a loved one sharing these, as that meager spoon isn't going to do; you're going to want to dip, and sloppy seconds and more, your roll in the yummy nuoc mam sauce, ripe with fish sauce and vinegar and lime.
Next we did the kale salad because California. It comes with pickled shallot, pecorino romano, bottarga, crushed egg, and the last three sort of do an unusual, no mayo gribiche thing, so picking them apart is tricky. But it's all direct, simple, and delish, so you won't mind, unless you need to feel you're paying for salted, cured fish roe.
You might have figured this is mostly a shared plates place, because you're smart and that's what we did. So here's perhaps the star of the evening (which means something): smoked ocean trout, ciabatta, pickled baby veg, quail egg. Think of it as an open faced, less Provencal Nicoise, with smoked trout standing in for tuna and you're sort of on the right track. While beautifully composed, it also was deliciously mixed together, so, for instance, you got a bit of pickled baby green bean with some of that superb smoked fish, and eggs the right size to match.
And then there's the crispy mackerel, that's truly crispy even in a bunch of sauce, redolent of coconut, cilantro, ginger, green papaya, peanut, chili, and lime. Now, there might be too much accoutrement, and not enough fish (particularly at $24), but my god was that unctuously oily fish scrumptious. And it's not like the last seven ingredients can really go wrong, especially as the dish also is braced by enough vinegar to keep a spiky sour spine through every bite.

And I didn't even mention the pleasing cocktails. We would go back, but while it's closer than Ireland, it's still a bit of a drive.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

SB Poets Take Ireland: Day 2

For a quick summary of what's up this day, we motored from Dublin to Letterkenny, Donegal, a three-and-a-half or so hour drive that takes you in and out of the UK on the way (and the borders are unarmed, mostly unmarked--think of their history, and no walls). And, it's time for the first of the seven readings!


This day's event was hosted by North West Words, a wonderful organizations of poets and writers that hosted the PLs with a grant even, as part of their 2018 Arts Council funded series. They have great posters to stand next to.

Organizer Deirdre McClay was a gracious host, even getting us a place to stay. The program was emceed by the drily witty Eamonn Bonner, who gave away poetry books and wine for trivia questions, such as, "What's the distance between Santa Barbara and Letterkenny?" (5,069 miles, if you were wondering.)

David, Paul and Chryss decided to do a round-robin style reading, where their goal was to come up with a poem that somehow connected to the previous poet's work. Soon we learned such segues might be a tad tenuous--"my poem, too, it turns out, has words" kind of thing--but that only added to the fun. And the three PLs exhibited their very different approaches and styles; David the sharp-eyed cynic; Paul offering odes to nature; Chryss displaying a mastery of form and feminism.

The full artistic program of the evening also featured local singer Hannah McCosker, who not only wins busking contests, but just happens to be studying medicine in her non-musical time. Eamonn joked for our group he asked her to play older songs--a highlight was her slow-burn gender turn on Bruce's "I'm on Fire."
A particularly fun part of this evening is that North West Words asked the SB PLs to send a poem each that Irish poets could then write response poems too. It was fascinating to see the Santa Barbaran works seed others' thoughts. Even better it got all of us introduced to Teresa Godfrey, a very talented writer who will be back in this story when it gets to Enniskillen, where she lives.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the great site for this event, Florence Food Co.,  a just hip enough coffee shop with plenty of space for an event like this one but even more the heart to hold it. Plus, check out the photos on this wall and think about its name.


One of our three nights in hotels on the trip, all paid for. (That's correct, people paid for poets to stay someplace. Civilized countries.) Dillons was a fine place to spend a night, a couple of blocks down Letterkenny's main street from the reading, and a few the other way to our dinner the next section, eventually.


Since we need to start with breakfast in Dublin. We were so impressed with the Winding Stair the first night that we returned to its sister restaurant Woollen Mills for breakfast. To be honest we spied it out the evening before, mostly hoping to poach WiFi, but then we got instantly intrigued by the food on display.

Supposedly James Joyce worked in the building back in the day when it was its name and not a restaurant with its name (kind of the US equivalent of naming the new housing tract Christmas Tree Farms....), so there's that. More importantly for today, well, just look at that photo. Killer coffee, lovely baked goods. Scone better than croissant, but hey, what country are we in after all? What was I thinking?

Lunch proved there's plenty of meh in Ireland if you don't bother to look for it and just stop into a town and try a luncheonette. About half way between Dublin and Letterkenny is Monaghan, a cute town if sort of undistinguished (especially in a one hour visit), so we picked Caroline's there and have a perfectly serviceable lunch. Here's fish and chips and mushy peas, if you please.

Dinner, though, more than made up for the ok lunch. The Lemon Tree Restaurant is in an odd spot in Letterkenny, down off the main street backed up to a mall that seems to only contain shops that are going out of business, like it was designed to be a mall for the lost. And then this place. Larger and a tad fancier than you'd expect given the town and even more so they actual location by the mall of the dead, but not stuffy at all, either. And, like many places in Ireland, they do an early evening menu that turns out to be a "you will eat more than you should" bargain--first course and main for 20 Euros.

All six of us were eating together, and we feasted.

That's a fish cake, definitely mostly seafood and little filler,with some piquant tartar sauce and just enough of a salad to add a bit of crunch. Even more adventurous was their beetroot (it seems crucial in Ireland to call it by its full name so no one things you're just serving the greens) salad, complete with a beetroot ice cream in the center, delicious, unusual creaminess to set off the earthiness of the rest of the plate.

For a main I couldn't resist the nationalist call-to-arms that is Irish steak burger, matured Irish cheddar, Irish bacon, brioche bun, and chunky chips. I'm not sure why they didn't insist the chips were from Irish potatoes, beyond, I guess, that's just given. Oh, and that tomato compote, so much more than a ketchup (sorry, Paul!).

It truly was the kind of burger that hits every "that's what a burger should be" sensor--very flavorful beef cooked to the right medium rare temp, cheese that had a bit of bite, bacon that you really had to bite. Chryss, shaming meat-eating me, went with the veggie dish, which was no less lush, though, mushroom arancini, parmesan, mushrooms,toasted almonds, buttered broccoli.


Not a big drinking day, to be honest, and one of the lessons learned back at the bar at Dillons after the reading for a nightcap was even good breweries, when they start trying to expand the brand, can end up making Ireland's Blue Moon. (I'm looking at you Guinness's Hop House 13 Lager.) Another fascinating lesson was you can consume liquor cheaper than ale; a Guinness cost 4.70€ when a Powers on the rocks cost a mere 4.40. Drink hard, my friend.

Or drink one of my favorite beers on the trip, and not just for the goofy art or the grungy name--Hairy Bollocks (please, trust me, don't Google this name brand, especially at work). Sure, I might enjoy this American style pale ale as its features Cascade hops, but it's just darn tasty, and all at a mere 5%. And I dare you not to giggle when you learn the following from their website: "Boghopper Brewery is an independently owned micro-brewery situated in the town of Muff, on the Inishowen peninsula’s Wild Atlantic Way."


Please look closely at Chryss's left wrist. Thank you, Hertz, for life-saving jewellery.

For the most part driving wasn't too bad (I'll save the scariest for later). The highways are very well taken care of, the only bad thing is suddenly a divided comfy roadway can become one lane each way and still be a major-ish road. Plus they like to paint the lines dividing such a road with white paint, which here in the States usually means that's all in one direction. That's a bad thought to have in Ireland. And then there were some odder things, like trying to figure out what this sign meant:

Wear a coonskin cap? Beware caterpillars on the road? Eventually, thanks to nature doing what the sign meant to warn us of, we figured out it was the sign for gusty winds. It wasn't a breeze to figure that out.

Speaking of the weather, as I said, it's such a scarily literate country, and that covers their weather forecasts, too. I'm not sure any of my poems reach the gorgeous heights of this posting in the Dillons elevator. Ah, ambiguity passes like a sudden cloud.