Friday, June 15, 2018

Tripping with George & Chryss--Victory Was Ours (Eureka, Healdsburg, Berkeley)

One of the great bonuses of completing a long run you've built up to for a long time is you get to take a few days off from the training regimen, and that means you can wake up and just go have breakfast. So that's what we did Monday morning, finding Los Bagels not far from our stay in Old Town. Suckers, as we are, for the Day of the Dead look, it was hard not to find the place charming. Very good coffee, whole wheat bagels (a bit too healthy for me, but I'm an East Coaster at heart), and that avocado smear was green goodness. The chorizo egg mix wasn't quite as good--again, maybe that chorizo wants to save us all from too much piggy fat, but that just meant it was a bit dry. Stick with the avocado.

Lovely-leaping signage nobody could get away with in Santa Barbara. It's good to travel.

Chryss a bit sad we didn't see the actual Bigfoot at the Legend of Bigfoot roadside crap-atorium ("you'll be thrilled to see all the junk we had shipped from China for you to buy to memorialize your trip to this gorgeous scenery!"). How is it that it's impossible not to stop at a place like this? It's like peering into America's eager-to-sell soul. Remember when we had one? Good times.

Much better times were further down the 101 as we pulled into Healdsburg for a late-ish lunch. I'm sure Sonoma natives see it as a sell out--its square ringed with spots wanting to entrance the tourist dollar--but at least a lot of that is done with some class. Take Shed. Its motto is "gather, share, and learn with us," and they leave out the buy and spend part, but that might just be because that's crass. What they sell is "curated" (as if most stores just let anybody put stuff on the shelves), and you can go on a foraging for Sonoma seaweed trip. It's kind of an upscale Williams Sonoma for people who want to take "make your own shrub" workshops. So that means it's me and all I'm not sure I like about me in a giant modern "barn" space. With food.

So, we set luncheon sail with the cured fish board, small version. If you like sea things, salt, smoke, pickling, you want this board, with all sorts of tones and tastes. Chryss would have been happy with just a bowl full of the trout mousse, piquant with dill, but then mackerel and gravlax and smoked trout and white anchovies and that lovely squid salad at the center. To drink, sweet driver Chryss had a pear shrub (what a tasty way to be alcohol free) and I had a glass of the Windgap Trousseau Gris, simply because practically nobody makes that wine, which is too bad--mysterious and alluring, a hint of smoke but mostly tropical fruit and lemon blossom in a steely package. Great lunch wine.

Then as if we didn't have enough, we also ordered the Farro Verde, which also came out on a board and pretty much looked like it was still growing. So how come people have not been feeding us fava leaves before? We love pea shoots, so think of fava leaves as their heartier cousins. There are actual fava beans in there, too, very young so roasted whole--this was a dish (a board?) that completely made you eat in ways you hadn't, but in a nudging not obnoxious way. The fava bean romesco and pine nut ricotta added depth and creaminess and a bit of crunch. What a wonderful way to welcome to spring.
Having had all that for lunch we needed to walk around, so we did, checking out the ritzy pet supply store, passing by tasting rooms, realizing it was so much hotter here than in Eureka. (Oh, I forgot to say we definitely saw the Humboldt fog--there is a perfect gray line off the coast most days, just like in one of our favorite cheeses. Talk about the scenery making one hungry.) So, we walked, and sweated, and then there had to be an ice cream shop. So despite being full, we stopped at Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar, which made us instantly wonder why there aren't more pie bars. (We'll have to add that to the brewpub+bookstore.) It's very creamy ice cream, and I couldn't resist trying the cornflake-maple flavor, which was the teensiest too sweet for me, but I guess I should have expected that. Should have had pie.

Then, more car, luckily going the opposite way versus the out of SF end of work day traffic, and our next night's rest--the Bancroft Hotel in Berkeley. It's a National Historic Landmark, for good and bad. The building, from 1928, was designed by a guy who had worked with Julia Morgan. It's very California Craftsman, and that's great. It's kept up well, too, and they've gone very green with it--this is Berkeley, after all--from drapes made from recycled soda bottles to EcoTimber hardwood floors. But the rooms are small (as people a century ago didn't need as much space as we do) and our room was on the third floor and there's no elevator. You feel every step of those floors a day after 13.1 miles. But, it's well-priced and directly across from the Berkeley campus. Location, location, look out for the screaming homeless person.
Or duck into a bar, after spending lots of time and not too much lots of money at Moe's (hooray old school bookstores!). That's the board at Raleigh's on Telegraph, and to show you how long it had been since I'd been to Berkeley, I thought I remembered a Raleigh's as a good place to drink interesting beer, but the place I knew burned down and took 6 years to get rebuilt and I missed all of that. So it's much more modern, and, to be honest, there's even more great craft beer, so much so it was hard to leave. So when you don't know the beers--and we didn't, as most of them were northern CA made and therefore don't make it to SB--pick based on what's important to you. So, IPA. So, hazy, because it's a trend we like. So, a Santa Rosa brewery called Henhouse, as we have one. A solid IPA from Sonoma, perhaps the least notable of the four we tried. So, an Oakland brewery called Novel and a beer called Dust Jacket--perfect for readers like us.Perhaps the favorite we tried. Then one from Nevada City, Ol' Republic, called Cosmic Fly By. Another solid, satisfying pour. And then an Alameda Island Island Haze, a perfect name for a New England style IPA.

So then we continued, IPA fortified, down Telegraph a bit to an odd international food restaurant mini-mall featuring Peruvian, Korean, Swiss, and our goal, Ethiopian food at FinFine. You see above a double order of the vegetarian combo with more injera than you can eat, especially since you're going to want to gobble up the giant one that has had your food soaking into it for a bit, too. Nothing like having a whole different spice rack than you're used to working to please you (alas, we don't whip up some berbere often at our house, and it's our loss, of course I'm not quite sure where I could get korarima, either). But odd-toned gingers and rue and nigella make for some delightful eating. Even better, they like to shop from local organic farms, so it's farm-to-table exotic. Although the owner did joke, "I have to add some salad, this is America," a line that reverberates in so many ways.

So much food on so much beer means, what else, more walking, so we head over to the Shattuck business area to the west of the Berkeley campus just to check that out. And after a 30 minute walk we're, of course, up for more adventure so visit Jupiter. Not the planet, but the pizza joint/brewpub, as my FOMO still hasn't settled since we wee in Raleigh's.

As you can see, the left side of the board is all their own beers, but the guest taps also rock--it was very hard not to go with another Novel, especially when it was called Gravity's Rainbow. But I figured, when in Jupiter, feel heavy, so I had to try one of their experimental beers under the Launch Pad name, High Gravity. It was delicious, with its heart full of Mosaic hops. Chryss, meanwhile, went for a kombucha, which it was probably a good thing she didn't quite know what it was before she ordered it. From Sacramento, Zeal does truly unique flavor combos, and the one Chryss had and loved featured pine, hibiscus, chamomile, lavender, ginger and vanilla. The balance made it all work, given any one of those ingredients added heavy would have made some disaster. Fascinating.

We walked home. We made it up to our third floor room. We dreamed dreams of the full and pleased.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Tripping with George & Chryss--We Run, Then Eat and Drink a Lot (Eureka, Arcata, Ferndale)

So it's simple. We do this:

So we can do this:

That first part, though. It's hard.We are joggers, not runners, in the way that we are cooks and not chefs--nobody is paying us for our skills. But that doesn't stop us from doing, and that's a half marathon in a nutshell--just keep doing. There are all sorts of tricks: have a bouncy bit of music run in an endless propulsive loop in your head (the chorus of this one kept me chugging); try writing in your head so you forget your body; pick other runners as pace rabbits and try to stick with them; count the distance up to 6.5 miles, just over an easy 10K, and then back down, comparing the distance left with trips you know you can do easily ("heck, this is just our house to State St. and back!"). And, of course, for this run, you just had to look around and think, "Goddam world so pretty!" A bonus of being slow--you have that much more time to take it all in.

Beyond staying hydrated, I like running on an empty stomach, so post race our first need is coffee. We can't even make it all the way back to Eureka, and instead visit Victorian Ferndale, which was recommended by one of the race volunteers at the packet pickup the day prior. It is something--looks like a movie set.

You even have to get there via Fernbridge, a concrete arch bridge from 1911 (things weren't so wide then) over the Eel River (they're really lampreys and the difference matters to eel people). Despite all the old-timey, good-feely stuff, there's still the Mind's Eye Manufactory & Coffee Lounge--caffeine, tasty baked treats, and a maker space. Yeah, we find the hipster place in the squarest place every single time.

After hitting our Air BnB for a well earned shower, it was time for BEER! We decided to also check out Arcata, Eureka's northern neighbor, so saw more of the down-on-its-yet-digging-them-in-heels Eureka and drove over the causeway looking for Redwood Curtain Brewing Company, since it's best to try stuff that you've never had. You see our first two pours up top; the one on the right was mine, the cleverly named Sellick Stache American Pale Ale. Here's how they describe it: "Magnetic aromatics of citrus blossoms with an essence of spring pine, followed by a gentle earthiness. Tropical Starburst fruit with a firm dankness blanketed with our signature bready mouthfeel." As my first beer after the half, I describe it as heaven. It did just the right amount of hops bitter with rich malt mix at a not huge ABV (5.6%) as a fine place to start the drinking day.

We needed food, too, and luckily there was a food truck, because that's what chill breweries do now. LoCo Fish Co. was parked outside, and Chryss went for some bowl thing while I didn't listen to their name and thought "cheesesteak!" It was good, but had a design flaw; they upgraded it some with goat cheese instead of good ole American or cheddar, and while that's great for flavor, and Humboldt local to boot, it's the wrong texture, too dry for a cheesesteak. Not a huge problem--I still ate the whole thing, but it meant I needed more beer, that's for sure.

And that was part of Redwood's intriguing Funky Notion series, AKA brewers play with brett. All of them were fruit-brewed, but I opted for La Baie D'Oie, because who gets enough gooseberries in their life? Here's their take on it again: "Tight and dissipating head. Golden sunburst in color. Pleasant aromatics of sweet yet acidic Nopales cactus, prickly pear and slight desert horse blanket. Firm and gooseberry mouthfeel followed by a tender nectar with approachable acidity. Brewed with Simpson Maris Otter, Weyermann Pilsner, Weyermann Munich, Crisp Wheat, Tettanger hops and our Proprietary Belgian yeast strain. Aged for 12 months on French Oak barrels with our Wild Yeast Blend and then aged on gooseberries for another 6 months." Luckily, I didn't get much horse blanket, but did get much sour delight.

Let's skip ahead, already, to dinner, then (I think there was a nap--every good race deserves a nap), or should I say pre-dinner, for in the very building in which we were staying on the third floor (even harder to climb those stairs now) was Humboldt Bay Provisions on the first floor, and that meant oysters. I'm pretty sure they go to their own special stomach when you eat them--I mean, who gets filled up on oysters?--so we figured sharing what they call a Captain Sebastian, 6 raw, 6 broiled, each with a special topping, would be a way to get the evening going and celebrate where we were, blocks away from a bivalve-full bay. Of course there was more beer--I got to have that Redwood Curtain Imperial Golden Ale I skipped there (good choice!) and Chryss had a Six Rivers IPA, which was solid. But the oysters were much more than that, from the ones just mignonette-ed out to one dressed with Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, spinach, and lemon juice. A very chi-chi place.

So for actual dinner, we had to go to Eureka stalwart, that just happened to be around the corner from our digs, Lost Coast Brewery. It's more, well, Eureka, if quirky; look out for that giant spider that lowers when you walk in the door!

Did you know they're one of the older microbreweries, and started by a woman? All very cool. So while many places have beat them at what's latest, greatest, hippest, hoppiest, they still aim to please beer-loving folk. And their new-ish Revenant IPA matches any standard West Coast hop bomb, rich with the classics, Simcoe and Citra. Plus you pay $4.75 for a pint. As for food, it's not gourmet in the slightest. I'm pretty sure my giganto portion of Chipotle Shrimp Macaroni (that name leaves out there's bacon in there) was as irresistible as it was unhealthy, but that didn't stop me from eating all the equally addictive cheesy garlic bread that came with it too. Chryss, insisting she wasn't just trying to make me feel guilty, had one of their veggie burgers.

After that, there was Rose's Billiards with no one but us there. For you can't have a vacation until you shoot pool. Family rule. (Yeah, we shoot pool like we run, er, jog, but we still enjoy it.) There may have been more beer....

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Tripping with George & Chryss--A Bit Closer to a Half (Santa Rosa, Laytonville, Eureka)

One of the trickiest parts of running a half marathon--assuming you've put yourself through the training, which isn't tricky as much as grueling--is figuring out how to eat the day prior. What complicates that for us is we like to do destination races, so we're often in vacation mode the day prior. And, at least for me (go look at the name of the blog again), vacation mode means celebrating with the food and drink of the region.

Needless to say, you don't want to run 13.1 miles the day after a celebration. So, you have to pick wisely, and I usually don't have any alcohol the day before a run (sometimes the week before a run if I'm feeling particularly noble or in need of any edge possible).

Luckily that doesn't rule out a good latte and some scrumptious baked goods for breakfast. So we took out the Yelp machine and hunted for delicious in Santa Rosa, and managed to find the town's artsy district as a bonus. Somehow we weren't smart enough to take our own photos, so the one above is one of theirs, but it seems fitting to pinch a picture from Criminal Baking Co. & Noshery. It's tiny, but its display case will make you mighty desirous, and fretfully indecisive. You'll want a scone, a muffin, a savory pie, a piece of pie. Then there's actual breakfast sandwiches that other tables seemed perfectly pleased with. I somehow focused on the bacon, apple, cheddar scone, all those flavors an equilateral triangle of balance, and the scone itself manna from heaven. Chryss had a savory pie, chard and goat cheese. Noble sounding can still be delicious you know.

The couple of blocks about Criminal featured more coffee, studios, graffiti/art--all the kinds of things you might not imagine in a town most famous for its longtime artist Charles Schulz. But the vibrancy in this area was more than peanuts, let me tell you. (I'll show myself the door.)

Or, we showed ourselves the car and drove north. Walked about a bit in Hopland, and were distressed to see the old Mendocino Brewing Company spot empty and for rent, plus, of course, I instantly wanted to open a brewpub.

Kept heading up the 101 to our destiny with doom, I mean the race the next day. But we got hungry, of course, so ended up at Big Chief in Laytonville. If you think you're pulling in at a laundromat, you've found the place. Of all things, this spot, which seems from the outside to be a typical greasy spoon roadside diner, serves Cajun food (if Yelp can be trusted--hey, no snickering--the owner is from Louisiana). So we ordered a shrimp po'boy and a mushroom po'boy and each had half. Tasty, if not terrific, but such a surprising find. And I'm not going to talk about their self-billed Draft Punk taps--we're talking beers I haven't seen in Santa Barbara (like stuff from Bagby in San Diego!). Cause I wasn't drinking. Running long distances hurts.

The Avenue of the Giants is the term for the 31-mile portion of the old 101 that snakes alongside the new, multi-lane 101, because logging trucks! It's about an hour south of Eureka, where we chose to stay for Saturday and Sunday, since not much is in-between the two and we didn't have enough time to build a treehouse. Yeah, there's camping, but me and camping are a long story (or maybe a short story: I came from an indoor family), and it's better to wake up in a bed and then go run 13.1 miles, than wake up on the ground and try to do a long run thinking there's still a rock lodged in your erector spinae (that's what the kids are calling back muscles these days).

We stopped in to grab our numbers at the race packet-pickup and to figure out exactly where we had to be Sunday morning. Turns out even the felled redwood by the visitors' center knew we were coming:

And if you were wondering, "up" is "way" in this neck of the woods:

But the good news is we knew it wasn't going to be too hot running the race, since the sun generally can't quite makes its way to you. OK, enough wise-cracking, the redwoods are the kind of place where words don't suffice, photos don't suffice, even your memory assumes it's failing, for it assumes what you want to think you saw can't be that sublime.

We continued on to Eureka and checked in to our AirBnB, right in the historic area in a historic building...that meant we had to walk up to our third floor room. We're talking rooms with 12 foot ceilings, btw, so a floor up is a hike. So much good last day training! And then we got to be so happy during the race, not having to hoist our suitcases too. It turns out it's some special art on the town kind of night (every town does these now, don't they?), so we wander a bit for that, and Eureka kind of rhymes with quirky for a reason--there's a nifty novelty store (I was a 70s mall child and miss Spencer's), vintage clothing stores for when women were half Chryss's size (really, I mean, women weren't 5'10.5" once upon a time), quaint people tabling for Delaine Eastin for Governor, and the cool Eureka Books, which has a huge display of Amy Stewart titles because she and her husband own the place. (So that brewpub we own will have to be a bookstore too.)

For dinner we chose Oberon Grill as it was near, cute, and offered us something relatively simple and direct, so we both ordered the same thing (we never do this, that's how weird the night before a race is). What you see is a pleasantly grilled filet of steelhead (it's Humboldt County, seemed like a good local call), lapped in a chipotle sauce with a bit of zip but more smokiness (again, anything too spicy will hurt you running morning, no pun intended), and some spinach and mashed potatoes for the traditional carb packing part of a meal.

No wine, no beer, no cocktail. Their bar was pretty though.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Let Those Without Tickets Start the First Whine

I've been writing about the Santa Barbara Wine + Food Festival for 11 years, which sounds like a long time, but that only means I've been covering it for slightly more than a third of its history. A mainstay, and fundraiser for the education programs, of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the SBW+FF has been around so long it even was not at the museum for a couple of years--think of that period as the Avignon Papacy of the festival (yum, Rhone wines!).

Fortunately for the event, and even more so for us, it's been in the incredibly capable hands of organizer Meridith Moore for the last many years, somehow ever out-doing itself. It obviously has a headstart with its setting, the oak groves behind the museum on Mission Creek. You get to feel like a sylvan wood nymph as you enjoy tastes from 50 fine wineries, mostly from SB County, with well-curated space found for a few makers from further north like Toucan and Tablas Creek. Even better, since so many of the region's founding winemakers have been part since the beginning, they've got a sense of loyalty to the event--once it was the only tasting of its type in town (can you imagine? it seems like there's a festival every other weekend anymore). So that Longoria might likely be poured by Rick Longoria, that Alma Rosa by Richard Sanford, that Ken Brown by, oh, you get it by now. It's not one of those, "I'm just a volunteer--I know nothing about wine, let along this wine. I'm just waiting for my pouring shift to end so I can get looped," kind of festivals.

As for that loopiness, if that happens you can only blame yourself, for few such events offer so much food, wait, make that ridiculously delicious food. If I counted correctly there's almost 40 food purveyors (and 50 wineries), and somehow Meridith just keeps adding the hottest spots in the region each year--new adds for 2018 include Blue Water Grill, Goa Taco, and The Little Door. And anyone who went in 2017 has to wonder what Bear and Star will do to outdo itself from last year. From Barbareno to Via Maestra 42, it's a culinary delight; that's why they added Food to the name last year.

I'm not going to praise the event too much, though, as I left the bad news for last...while it happens Saturday, June 30, 2-5 pm, it sold out yesterday. So if you don't have tickets, you're not going to be there. You see, they limit the number, too, to keep it at a buzzy happy size and not a "I hope I get to the front of 5 wine lines this hour" size. It's that good.

Here's a bunch of other times I've written about this, if you need to read up:

Natural History Never Tasted This Good

Away from State Street for Solstice

A Festival from the Winery's Perspective

Under the Oaks

A Museum-Quality Wine Festival

Monday, May 28, 2018

As Good As It Gets


Just had to get that out of my system. Since Friday night I'm pretty sure I had one of the meals of my life. While on any given night The Bear and Star is providing what it aptly bills "refined ranch cuisine," Chef John Cox and his team (and team is important here, you'll see) want to get to show off too, to spend some more time on the refined end of the spectrum. Hence the kick-off of Friday Night Chef's Tasting Menus, served for no more than 12 folks in the Chef's Room, the one that looks right into the kitchen and is a cross between a library and a mad scientist's lair--what's more fun than that?

Maybe the soft-shell crab up there in photo one. I fell in love with soft shell crab back in my Baltimore days, but generally it was yummy barfood, something surprisingly delightful in a sandwich. This presentation, however, was something else, starting with its texture, where it seemed just the coating was the crunch, not even a hint of shell. Its crabiness played off the silky sweet corn puree it sat on, and then there's chorizo aoioli--no, not pork-laced but all the spices they use to make their chorizo instead. The greens, billed a pea shoot salad, was the ultimate spring slaw.
(Oh, there was a new prototype oyster from Morro Bay to kick off, but my photo didn't happen. It's delight did, though.)

Here's a dish called Spring Strawberries, not that all the courses didn't sing of spring. Atop the rich goat cheese smear sat the berries, and an intense berry compote spiked with jalapeno, and some pickled green strawberries, and then some strawberry "glass." So much flavor and texture. Adding to the spice was the fiercely peppery wild watercress. Oh, and cacao nibs, little bitter crunches hiding. This dish was the brainchild of one of the younger members of the kitchen, trying to build his muscles so he can be a sous chef soon. Based on this dish, he's well on his way.

Ah, and the wine pairings. I've already, for no good reason beyond hoping to keep this paean under 1000 words, left out the greeting wine, the Fesstivity Brut Rose (a fine oyster match) and the 2015 Tatomer Riesling (Graham just rocks it), but for the strawberries they found a truly odd wine, 2017 Harrington Mission, Somers Vineyard. Lodi isn't just for box wines anymore, you know, and this dusty red, partially fermented carbonically, made the berries even berrier, somehow Inspired.
This was called, simply, Baby Fava Beans, but while the youngest ones they served whole, there are more mature favas pureed (one of those "essence of" kind of purees), and then some of the young fava greens, too (why have chefs been holding out on how good fava greens can be?). Some shaved managlista gunciale didn't hurt if you were a meat eater, and Chef Cox wistfully remarked, "It's not from the farm...yet." The quail eggs were, though, although I'm pretty sure they don't come out gilded. (A gorgeous touch that made something so straightforward slyly decadent.) As for the wine pairing, it was the light on its toes 2012 Domaine Rolet Arbois from the Jura, just your usual 40% Poulsard, 30% Trousseau, 30% Pinot Noir blend.
While this dish is billed Morel Mushrooms, I want to rename it best grilled cheese with fancy stuff on the side. Because, despite morels having "more" in them because that's what you say when you eat them, what engaged me most in this bowl was the Midnight Moon fondue someone dreamed up that you got to scoop up with some brioche perfectly tan and toasted and seeming to have just come off a butter IV drip. The greens were vivid garlic scapes and Vidalia onion scapes and flowering asparagus, again, so much spring. This time the wine pairing went to Spain for a 2015 Pardas Sus Scrofa, a bit rustic like the boar on its label, but full of mushroomy umami, so a pairing win for the Sumoll (that's the grape, it's almost extinct, I didn't know it either).
While I guess there has to be a meat course, everything up to now hit so many great notes there didn't have to be one. (And they even switched out a pescatarian dish on the fly for Chryss in the course of the evening, so mad service props, too. Somehow they managed to make what could be a very formal event really welcoming, with lots of informative chat about the food and wine and just the proper kinds of formality--like plating the table of 12 at once for each course.)

Meanwhile as to that Parker Ranch lamb--one of the 20 ingredients that came from the ranch, btw--Chef Cox talked about how he liked how beefy it was, and he was right, even to the chew. They also came up with a brilliant caramelized buttermilk "crumble" to coat the loin with, a winning texture-flavor combo for the hearty meat. That's a smoked sunchoke puree holding in the little reservoir of jacked up lamb jus, and some salvia marinated cherries (spring spring spring). The pair was a 2015 Villa Creek Avenger, kindly decanted as their tannic and hearty wines tend to need air or age. As the evening's somm Allison put it, "It just gives you a hug."
And then dessert as art project, Whipped Cheesecake. Smart move, as the whipping makes it much lighter than a typical cheesecake, of course, especially with some anise hyssop meringue providing yet more lift. There was a pistachio crumb for those really hankering for hints of crust, and then rhubarb in silky curls, raspberries in jellied dots. The pairing again delighted, a 2006 Domaine des Baumard, Quarts de Chaume, kind of the Loire Valley's answer to Sauterne (it's made from, not surprisingly, Chenin Blanc). Its apricots and floral notes liked the "cake" as much as I did.

So, if you're looking for something special, look Los Olivos way. Chef Cox and his team are calling.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Tripping with George & Chryss--Off to a Half (Los Alamos, Salinas, Santa Rosa)

So there's a rule in our house for when we head north--we have to make it a certainty to be in Los Alamos for breakfast or lunch. If you don't know why, that means you've never been to Bob's Well Bread, and I pity you. I've waxed eloquent about this ridiculously good spot before in the Indy, as we gave Bob's a Foodie back in 2016 and I wrote: "Whatever’s in the soil that’s made Los Alamos our county’s hottest foodie mecca has its mother lode under the 1920s gas station Bob and Jane Oswaks turned into this inviting breakfast and lunch oasis in wine country. Killer croissant ​— ​you got it. Scrumptious scone ​— ​no problem. Egg-in-a-jar ​— ​poached perfection."

Given we were on our way up, up, up the state so we could run in the Avenue of the Giants Half Marathon a few weeks back, we had to hit Bob's, just in time for brunch. Chryss had to have the avocado toast, pictured above, as avocado is a perfect food and Bob's makes it perfecter. After all, anything with bread here has a leg up on any other slightly-sandwichy thing, but they also must test their proportions endlessly, for they always achieve a nirvana-like balance. And pepitas, of course, how better to give it all a tasty crunch.

I've been into ordering whatever the special is, as I take them at their word. This visit it was a torta al pastor, and here's hoping a picture is worth a thousand drools.

I particularly admire how whatever meat a sandwich features is always juicy and tender--they can even do that with a chicken sandwich. So with pork, no problem, especially with the grilled pineapple and avocado and sauce. And then the bolillo, both hearty and soft at once, a miracle of texture.

At some point I need to write a separate ode to Bob's Morning Roll, but just get one. It's like a croissant and a churro had a baby, but the croissant was Amal Clooney and the churro George Clooney. That gorgeously delicious.

Sure, this didn't stop us from visiting our favorite, and not just because it's our only, place to eat in Salinas, El Charrito. Since I last wrote about it in a 2012 post, they've removed the market part, so it's all food and a big spot for waiting on the very quick line. But it's hard to beat their tortillas, so whatever you put in them, whether just beans and rice for Chryss or chile verde for me, sings. While you eat it in your car--still no seating. Good thing they are smaller than the football-sized burritos popular in so many SB spots.

Obligatory Golden Gate Bridge shot.

Given Eureka is a light year away from Santa Barbara--my, what a big state you have!--we spent the night in Santa Rosa. And who knew this place was there?

OK, I sure knew, so that's why we got an AirBnB a mile's walk away. Laid back and hopping, outside of trends yet followed by everyone who loves beer, Russian River Brewing is sui generis, and it's either very sad it's so far away, or a very good thing (George's liver waves hello, gets back to work). It's been a few years, so the  board had some new names; like everyone else Russian River is doing session beers, and Chryss liked the unfortunately named Dribble Belt so much she ordered it twice. (OK, it refers to part of a hop picking machine, but sounds so much more saliva-soaked.) How they get so much hop power into a beer that's just 4.5% ABV, I don't know. Speaking of trends, I had to order their hazy, CFJ-90, which delights, and then an IPA that I'd never heard of, Tempo Change (sort of a bridge beer between the NEIPA and the next...), and, of course, finished with a Pliny the Elder, because as they say, when in Rome, order the beer named after an actual Roman. It still is the ur-double IPA, the heavy hopping matching just enough malt that it just sings in harmony.

They do yummy pizzas, too, because beer bar. We had a Nu Deal that comes with pesto, mozzarella, spinach, caramelized onions and mushrooms--veggie with just enough going on to make it super-tasty.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Finney’s Curates Craft on Lower State

While Finney’s Crafthouse & Kitchen — which opened in the Hotel Californian complex on April 9 — offers the slogan “Craft beer spoken here,” it nearly needed something closer to “All about béarnaise.” 

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

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Frankland’s Crab Crawls into Montecito

Why let words get in the way when you just want to make great-tasting food? That explains why what might be labeled a lobster roll somewhere else is “just” a buttered Maine lobster sandwich at the new Frankland’s Crab & Co., recently opened in the old bar space at the Montecito Inn.

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Libation-Inspired Poetry @ The Good Lion

Liquor inspires countless creative endeavors, from brilliant to foolish, and it’s caused many a writer to pour their hearts into poetry as well.

As part of National Poetry Month 2018, Santa Barbara’s finest wordsmiths will share their booze-backed verse for the fourth year in row at The Good Lion (1212 State St.; on Wednesday, April 25, 6:30-7:30 p.m. The free affair is called Spirits in the Air: Poetry and the Liquid Muse, and The Good Lion’s mostly mustached bartenders will be mixing up literary-themed cocktails to pair with the pentameters.

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Bluewater Grill Shines in Lighthouse

When is a mini-chain not a chain? When the just-opened edition — Bluewater Grill, in the lovingly restored lighthouse building on Cabrillo Boulevard — is helmed by a chef who’s pals with the region’s most renowned uni diver. That’s the case at Bluewater, where Chef Chanel Ducharme chums around with fishing superstar Stephanie Mutz. They met when Ducharme was chef at The Hungry Cat on Chapala Street, and the cook even occasionally helped the fisherwoman sell her Santa Barbara Channel catch. “I’m really passionate about sustainability,” explained Ducharme, “so what she does is awesome.”

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Sip This: Tatomer Pinot 2015

Graham Tatomer is widely (and wisely) lauded as the winemaker who proved Santa Barbara can make outrageously tasty German and Austrian varietal wines, such as riesling and grüner veltliner. But while his time at Austria’s Weingut Knoll was transformative, he did first cut his teeth on more typical grapes from around these parts, and he hasn’t lost his magic with those, either, based on this delectable pinot noir, which is also a relatively affordable $35.

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

Mad About Vermouth

“If you look them up online, you’ll see that, seven years apart, I’m quoted in articles in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle that vermouth is about to have its moment,” says vintner and, yes, vermouth maker Carl Sutton. “If you keep saying it, it has to happen.” That’s the very short answer as to why Sutton is in town, working with Jesse Smith from Casitas Valley Farm and Kyle Hollister from the just-begun T.W. Hollister & Co. Wines.

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Uni + Pinot = Very Happy Me-o

I was hoping I'd get to write something about a fantastic feast from World of Pinot Noir closer to the feast itself (on Friday, March 2), but perhaps I'm still recovering, lost in the sensory world so much that I don't want to spend too much time in contemplation. True, that might be my usual state, but a dinner like The Art of Japanese Cuisine and Freeman Winery Pinot Noir, with Guest Chef Ken Tominaga, puts the you in voluptuous, if that makes any sense. I did do a write up/interview with Ken Freeman prior to the dinner, so go check that out if you haven't yet for more winery details, but the quick lesson is his wife Akiko Freeman makes wines of grace, poise, depth and acidity, and they cry out for pairing with food.

This evening wasn't just any food, of course, as Chef Tominaga is a star of the Bay Area and Sonoma, and he and the Freemans are friends too, so it's a very simpatico pairing. Since it's been awhile and much of my memory of the evening is a rosy glow of gustatory glory (plus my notes in the darkened dining room at the Spa at the Ritz Carlton Bacara are hard to the read to the point that one scribble I can make out taunts future-me with "you will not be able to read this"), I will focus on two delectable courses, numbers 1 and 4 (of 5 with an unannounced dessert too), both pictured above.

Course the first is Happy Spoon with Golden Osetra Caviar, but it seems a bit misnamed, as it's really Happy Happy Eater Left with Golden Smile. Chef suggested we get it all in one bite, and while it wasn't too big for that, it was a tad sad to see it all gone in a minute of mouthful, the oyster and uni and caviar and sauce all and everything of the briny sea, as if you'd cleared out the pantry of Davy Jones' Locker (ignore all the shipwreck imagery, though). You did get to wash it down with the 2016 Freeman Ryo-fu Chardonnay, mostly sourced from stellar Sonoma Vineyards Keefer and Heintz Ranches, so it is a Happy Glass of elegant juice, some more tropical notes yet underlined with citrus and apple fruit, and, as with most Freeman wines, a finish that could match the power of the urchin you ate with it.

Course the fourth is Uni and Hokkaido Scallop Risotto with chive blossoms and shiso, so yes, Chef likes his urchin and you better too. Somehow this kept from becoming an umami atom bomb that blew your taste buds into submission--it kept revealing itself gradual, almost a bit coy, as long as you nibbled a bit at the uni tongue atop the plating and didn't gulp it at once. The rice was perfectly cooked (always a bit tricky for serving a room at once, even if just about 35 dinners tops), and those scallops had just the sear you want, just the give, and more taste than you might ever ask for. That got paired with a 2011 Freeman RRV Pinot Noir from a vintage about which Akiko joked "it was the summer that never came." Now, you might think that's a worry in an already cool climate region, but perhaps it just gave the vines more time to work and think, probably about how someday their fruit would have to stand up and deliver next to such a ridiculously good plate of food. They did. The Freeman website describes the wine well, noting its "alluring deep ruby color, with a ripe nose of blackberry, toast...a racy entry that erupts into flavors of wild berry, olive and smoked meats. The large-framed palate, and long, fruity finish...." Well, sometimes what sounds like pr puffery is merely apt description. And at a grand dinner like this one, it's hard for any write-up to not sound like fantasy.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Coast Village Road’s New Clubhouse

While it took five years for the sleek Oliver’s to happen in the spot that used to be homey Peabody’s on Coast Village Road, the new plant-based restaurant opened last October 29, firing on all cylinders. “We had incredible momentum building,” said Assistant GM Phillip Thompson, “lots of guests, good social media reviews, regulars after the first week, a big Thanksgiving.”

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Wild, Wide World of WOPN

Illustrating a story about a 2018 World of Pinot Noir Grand Tasting (that's their adjective, and it isn't just puffery with more than 150 producers usually pouring at least two wines each...see, it takes a grand amount of even parenthetical words to describe the grandiosity) with a single bottle of wine might seem perverse, but in this case I promise it isn't. There's my first taste of a very long day (this will actually be two blog posts, it's that long a day into night) last Friday at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara, and I choose it specifically because its winemaker was sitting next to me. That would be Karen Steinwachs, who people probably know better from Buttonwood, but then she's got this even smaller designer label to make pinot and chardonnay, and she just happens to be on WOPN's Board of Directors, too. That mostly means she does a lot of work and can talk to the press and say clever things (very much so--she's one of our wittier winemakers).

Turns out the media room makes you very glad you're media; call me fake news all you want, I'll just be over here pouring myself another sample of delicious pinot. Like Seagrape's 2015 Jump Up, a perfect expression of the magic of the Sta. Rita Hills--both light on the balls of its feet and a bit ballsy, too--think Gene Kelly jammed into a bottle. Sure there's cherry, spice, pomegranate, but it's how every tasty bit adds up to a greater whole that makes the wine so lovely.

And that's the best way to think about the somewhat daunting event. You enter into Bacara ballrooms that look as big as a football field, and while some of that is tables of food and cheese and lots of Fiji water (hello plastic, goodbye sustainability), most of it is producers pouring wines and stories. You might walk in just as Santa Barbara legend Richard Sanford walks in, and you feel all historical--he spotted greatness here (well, not at the Bacara--you know what I mean) before nearly anyone. So you go drink at the Alma Rosa table, and he tells you "It's fun again, George," as he's the kind of man who remembers your name and uses it, and times better be jolly as the wines are joyous, especially the 2015 Barrel Select he shares that's blueberry, blackberry, violet, but more than anything, delicate.

But there's so much to taste there's no good way to list all my notes, not even the highlights, like Greg Brewer pouring a 2007 Ampelos Vineyard pinot (yum!) as he discusses the 10-20 year out sweet spot he believes our local pinots find, using a metaphor of flowers that when you get them they aren't quite open and full yet, and then dead the very next day, no, he sees Brewer-Clifton wines opening and opening, growing into their beautiful bloom.

And, of course, WOPN's not just local wines, because why buy the cow when the SYV's a car-ride away? (I think I mixed a bad metaphor there.) No, you can try a producer like Nimrod from Hungary, where the volcanic soil leads to a more minerally wine, and perhaps a better cuvee with only 20% pinot, but mostly built on kekfrankos, and I'm not trying to be wise to say that's just Hungarian for Blaufränkisch, but now you can see how far from just pinot we are, let alone Santa Barbara. 

Of course you've got people like Josh Klapper from Timbre sharing a hard cider (very refreshing, especially amidst all the cherry/berry bursts elsewhere), and tables pouring regions/AVAs for you--Morgen McLaughlin was back in town repping Willamette Valley and their typical Oregon earthy-shroomy notes, for example--and soon you run into people you know, and people you just know as you've met them at another table, and everything is a bright bow of delight. 

That's what a grand tasting can do for you--prove pinot is doing very well and you can do better if you drink enough of it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Freeman Wines Star at WOPN Dinner

Sure, there's that old idea about someone being born with a silver spoon in his mouth (it's probably a him, c'mon). But how about having a happy spoon in your mouth, one filled with golden Osetra caviar? I mean, what other kind of spoon could it be? And what if I told you that's just course one? Forget about a life of stereotypical privilege, just sign me up for the The Art of Japanese Cuisine and Freeman Winery Pinot Noir, with Guest Chef Ken Tominaga, at the World of Pinot Noir this Friday at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara.

While many people are (wisely) perfectly happy just hitting one or both of the two grand tastings WOPN (pronounce it like you mean it) holds every year--fantastic ballrooms full of the best pinot you can have in a three hour period in the world--the evening events take on a decidedly even more exploratory and opulent edge, and the Freeman dinner is exhibit A. Freeman can boast sheets of 90+ scores for its Sonoma pinots and chardonnays, from vineyards getting closer and closer to the Pacific (Freeman--along with Peay, Littorai, Red Car, Freestone and Failla--is also one of the six founding members of the West Sonoma Coast Vintners, fantastic wineries all.)

I recently got to ask Ken Freeman, who runs the operation with his wife, winemaker Akiko, "Freeman was cold climate before cold climate was cool, in a way. What drew you to make such wines?" And he said,  "After coming back from living in Asia in 1997 we joined the mailing list of Littorai, Flowers etc. We loved the acidity and complexity of the grapes coming from this high elevation, foggy region."

While Freeman Vineyards & Winery was founded in 2001, it took some time to pick the perfect spot for their own estate wines, so they sourced from some of the best, like Heintz (a long-time spot for stellar Williams Selyem chardonnays) and Keefer Ranch. Now, I asked, what do they get from growing their own fruit in the Gloria and Yu-Ki Vineyards they own? "We were and are so fortunate to be able to source fruit and work with these leading growers," Freeman explained, "but we were able to purchase two amazing vineyard sites, and select and plant the clones that we really wanted to work with, and farm the vineyard exactly how we wanted." You can go to their website to see a detailed maps of clones and a discussion of drainage, row design, etc.

That kind of pride, and yeah, sure, geekery (in the best, you taste it in the bottle sense), is well-earned. "We have been coming to WOPN for 15 years and have also looked forward to the road trip south and the seeing existing customers along with meeting new potential customers," Freeman remarked. "We have also found the audience of pinot noir lovers to be passionate, informed and wanting to learn more. This is a real honor for our wines to be featured at a dinner."

That five-course dinner closes with a beef-eater's dream, Schmitz Ranch 28-day Prime Dry Aged Ribeye with Squash Puree, Mushrooms, Black Truffles, Baby Kale, and Au Poivre Sauce, paired with 2014 Akiko’s Cuvee (which scored 94 points in Wine Enthusiast). I asked about how the menu was developed--food first? wine first? a bit of both? "Chef Ken is very familiar with our elegant and balanced style of wines, and we are very familiar with many of his dishes so this was an easy pairing," Freeman pointed out. "I am especially excited about his Uni and Hokkaido scallop risotto." (Now that he mentions it, I am too.)

Just as the wine/food pairing for this elegant, extravagant meal seem to happen easily, choosing Tominaga was also a match made in culinary heaven. (Tominaga is so good, Michael Mina eats at his restaurant.) "Ken and his wife Emiko are close friends, so it was so nice of him and his team to drive all the way down to prepare this dinner," Freeman says. "Ken also owns and works at Hana in Sonoma on the weekends and we get to see him on a regular basis."

We're all going to be sad we don't get to see him regularly, after he spoils us on Friday.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Pico Perfection

Just wanted to make sure you all knew that Pico is nearing perfection. The comfortable yet classy former Los Alamos General Store was excellent when it opened, but keeps finding ways to get better and better, and not the least of that was a redesign of the space. Originally it was set up to look like you still were entering a general store, with the main room featuring cute country housewares for sale, but now the bar is on the right side of the room and looking more like a bar, there are tables in the room--up and down the two levels--it's as if some feng shui master whipped everything into rightful shape.

Chef Drew Terp has had enough time to figure out what works, what grows, what smokes in Los Alamos, and you'll get all the best of that on your plate. Like the ingenious scallop starter above, one scallop, sliced, infused with about as much smoke as the mollusk can hold and not just be vapor, then caressed (it has to be some lovingtender gesture like that) with a hit of lime, tarragon, and that pomegranate seed like a button of flavorful crunch. (The salad ain't bad neither.)

Then there's the secretly simple wild mushroom consomme, a dish name that fails marketing 101--some hypester would no doubt dub it with a moniker like Mad Mushroom Mania! For it packs a vavoominess of shroominess in what looks like mere broth, and then there are tiny pearl onions soft as tears that are all onion without any sting. In this scrumptious bath are several perfect tortelloni you will want to cut with with your fork to make them last over several bites and the pasta will give pleasingly before it breaks as its very fresh and then inside you'll find a ricotta stuffing that no doubt is housemade ricotta, moist enough to delight yet something substantial enough to taste.

There's more, there's always more...ah that grilled pork secreto, part of the shoulder of a mangalista pig, a cut that comes fanned out on the plate like duck breast, pink in the center, grilled crusty goodness at the edges, and all pork flavor (and more of that smoke). And a new dessert, a pot de creme de la creme, as I'd like to call it. Better yet, call Pico for reservations.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Sip This: Barbie's Bath Bomb @ Finch & Fork

Those who’d write off a pink-ish drink with a Barbie doll boot hung from its rim will be missing out. For Finch & Fork has landed George Piperis behind its bar, and his time in hip Los Angeles spots like The Fiscal Agent and Otium — plus his lauded albeit short recent stint at the ill-fated Somerset here in Santa Barbara — couldn’t have prepared him better for the challenge of a hotel bar that wants to find the sweet spot between comfort and creativity.

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

Monday, February 12, 2018

Wowing It with Women Winemakers

March 8 is International Women's Day, and its organizers call it "a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity." Of course in Santa Barbara County, we like to celebrate everything with a party of sorts, especially if wine can be involved. So that explains the genesis of the Women Winemakers Dinner to be held at the K'Syrah Event Center in Solvang (and a tasting event prior, in a closed down street, of all things--you can buy a ticket for the whole grand evening or just for the tent tasting).

It turns out Santa Barbara County has a higher percentage of female winemakers than most wine areas in the world. I decided to ask Karen Steinwachs, winemaker at Buttonwood Winery and one of the planners for the event, why she thought that was. "It's probably the same reason we have fewer winemakers here, no matter what gender, without formal degrees in enology," she theorizes. "The somewhat 'maverick' nature of the valley allows and embraces people moving outside of their defined roles. And because we are not (yet) locked into a corporate wine ownership, assistant winemakers, cellar masters, heck – tasting room people – are often given a chance to make their own wine. This blossoms into those folks either heading out on their own, or having the benefit of their own label while still working at their 'real' job, like what I do with Buttonwood and Seagrape. Yet, we have some of the state’s women pioneers – who also fell into this from another field. Kathy Joseph [of Fiddlehead Cellars], Lane Tanner [of Lumen Wines], Denise Shurtleff [of Cambria Estate Vineyard & Winery]."

I couldn't help but ask about the seemingly simplified shorthand of calling wine styles masculine or feminine. "A more ethereal and delicate Pinot Noir is described as feminine, and a big, bold chunky Zin masculine," Steinwachs says. "Doesn’t bother me really. It’s difficult to describe wine – everyone’s senses are so different. To me, comes down to whether you love it, like it, prefer not to have that one."

Since this is the second year of the Women Winemakers Dinner, I queried about the highlights from last year. "It was so celebratory and joyful!" Steinwachs recalls. "Although somewhat a political statement being on International Women’s Day, everyone just so enjoyed the company. As Supervisor Joan Hartman paraphrased 'instead of building a wall, we need to set a longer table.'"

That doesn't mean there wasn't room for improvement this year – in fact more room was one of the keys for round two. "It was a little chaotic with wine and dinner service, and it oversold so quickly that we are trying this year to accommodate more guests, more winemakers, and more price points so that we donate even more to the Women’s Fund of Northern Santa Barbara County (we gave just over $6000 to them last year)," Steinwachs says. "All proceeds go to the charity, with all wine, winemaker time, chef time, and most rentals and some of the menu ingredients themselves donated."

Then there was the issue that since all the chefs are women, from Brooke Stockwell at K'Syrah to Cynthia Miranda at the Lucky Hen Larder to Theo Stephan at Global Gardens, and more, and all the winemakers, of course, are women (pretty much all the SBC women winemakers, from those already mentioned to Morgan Clendenen from Cold Heaven, Sonja Magdevski from Casa Dumetz, Angela Osborne from A Tribute To Grace, Tara Gomez from Kitá Wines, Clarissa Nagy at Nagy Wines, etc. etc.), some men felt somehow unwelcome. "I was a little worried last year that our messaging was off and that men didn’t believe they were invited," Steinwachs admits. "A survey showed that most understood it was open to all genders, but many women felt comfortable coming to this solo. An interesting thing…."

Steinwachs couldn't be more excited for the event. "To me, this is what wine does," she enthuses. "It brings a lot of different people together, and when one sits down at a table with wine – sometimes world peace can ensue. As Kathy Joseph said last year, 'Stop the rhetoric and pass the Pinot!' People are still talking about last year. No pressure on us to make it even more enjoyable this year!"

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Santa Ynez Valley Wedding Style

Who writes wedding guides? Well I write wedding guides, it turns out. Just see the Winter 2017/18 issue of Inside Santa Ynez Valley for all the tips I managed to nick from all sorts of talented people in the wedding business. Plus a wedding is just an excuse for a really good party, and I know how to do that.

You can check the story out by going to the link for their current issue and then jumping ahead in the viewer to pages 54-55.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Painting Toward the Essential (A Profile of Nicole Strasburg)

I had the privilege to spend some time interviewing Nicole Strasburg for Montecito Magazine. You can read the full profile by going to the Montecito Magazine website, clicking on the current issue (which is fall 2017/winter 2018), and following the left navigation link to "Nicole Strasburg: Cover Artist" (that's pages 66-69 in the magazine and its online viewer).

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sip This: 2013 William Fèvre Chablis Premier Cru

If you want to know what separates French chardonnay from American, and you’ve got a spare $50, here’s your bottle. Since 1959, William Fèvre has been making great Chablis, and now it’s one of the area’s biggest landowners. Montée de Tonnerre is one of the domaine’s eight 1 er crus, and it’s a balanced, knife-edge of excitement. Unfortunately, hail storms mean that there is very little of it from this otherwise fine vintage.

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

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sip This: Bettie Page Rum

Michael Cobb, the man behind the High Roller Tiki Lounge in Solvang, where the tiki drinks are made with wine and not spirits to honor wine country (and to comply with his liquor license), is far from spirits adverse. For now, he’s developed this kicky spiced rum at the request of CMG, the company that holds the Bettie Page trademark and hired Cobb due to his love of all things kitschy and ’50s.

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

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Canary Hotel Hosts Community Cocktail for a Cause

Since the holidays were mostly impossible in these parts, the Canary Hotel and Finch & Fork restaurant are stepping in to raise our spirits. On January 20, on their closer-to-the-stars rooftop, they’ll be throwing a party called Community Cocktail for a Cause.

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