Thursday, August 30, 2018

Foodie Awards 2018

It's time for the 9th annual Independent Foodie Awards. Check out all the best of eating in Santa Barbara County according to an esteemed board of eaters, led by Independent Senior Editor Matt Kettmann and me. (And if you were wondering, I wrote the blurbs for Jeanine's, The Nook, Elaine and Alberto Morello, Yellow Belly, and Bear and Star, where you can get things (on a special menu) like the incredible bao shown above.

Want to read it all, go to the Independent's site.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

David Rosner Helps The Monarch Spread Wings

It’s always comforting to see an old face in a new place, so Santa Barbara should be mighty happy with The Monarch, the second of Phillip Frankland Lee and Margarita Kallas-Lee’s four concepts opening throughout 2018 in the Montecito Inn. The managing chef is David Rosner, whom locals know from his time at the Wine Cask, Café Luck, Big Eye, and The Shop and the worldly wise will recognize from stints with Daniel Boulud and Gordon Ramsay. [pictured above: sea urchin spread--you want it]

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

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

SB Poets Take Ireland: Day 6


Let's just start here, no introduction, because, well, look above. That's the page of the summer program for the Seamus Heaney HomePlace about Chryss, David, and Paul's reading. (I took the picture, so that makes me an international photographer now.) But they are the stars, of course--I mean a couple pages from their event was one with Viv Albertine! From the Slits! Like real true punk!

As if reading at a museum to the memory of a Noble Prize winner isn't enough. Heaney is one of those poets everyone seems to love, and how could you not, given his work is almost mystically musical (he mines internal rhyme like my Slovak ancestors dug anthracite out of Scranton), so of a place and instantly of all humanity. That's not easy to do without toppling into bathos, but he's far too unsentimental for that, as he knows the world is cruel and we are the world. Yet most of us still hold hope like a noose holds an adulterer's neck.

The trio was hosted by the HomePlace's manager Brian McCormick, yet one more too-kind Irish person. I mean, functionaries in the U.S. can be bored/proud/snobby, oh, you know these folks. None of that here. McCormick just wanted the best event, so you wanted to help that happen.

And the the three laureates each read for 15 minutes or so, their care and concern for words and the world dear and deepening. The small crowd in the Library of the HomePlace was richly rewarded and hung about to chat afterwards, wanting to know more.


Not only did the poets get to read at a museum dedicated to a Noble Prize winner, but said museum also put us all up for a night for free at the Glenavon House Hotel in Cookstown. A fascinating place, once an estate and now a hotel rigged about two sides of a stream, that turns out to be a famous spot for weddings--you could practically not open a hallway door without banging the butt of a mother-of-a-bride. (True story.) Super nice staff, too. After the afternoon reading and dinner we retired to the bustling bar only to have some 20-year-old Irish dude serenade us with hits of the day like "Roxanne." The world can be too international at times.


Hotel room--check. Lunch at Heaney HomePlace--check. Thank you, kind people. Nothing too fancy, but free makes up for that, don't it. You know, sandwiches, salads, some sweets. David even figured out there was a Heaney farmhouse brewing Irish red ale (don't know how I missed that).

For dinner we escaped wedding-central at the hotel and walked into Cookstown to find one of the places the hotel desk most recommended, Villa Vinci Restaurante. OK, I know what you're thinking, that means they only serve gnocchi, as it's the only Italian food with potatoes. But you're wrong, so wrong. First, here's what Sharon and Paul Willis and Chryss look like standing in front of it.

And then you open up the door, and here are all the pastas.

At least the ones Chryss and I ordered. The first is Marti Johnson’s Hot Smoked Salmon with peas, asparagus and white wine sauce with linguine. The second is Spaghetti con Frutti di Mare, featuring local seafood sautéed with garlic and white wine in a cherry tomato sauce. We do not know who Marti Johnson is, but she makes a lovely dish. All of this was excellent without being exceptional, if that makes sense, but then that's what so much of Italian cuisine seems to want to be. Pleasing without even worrying about perfect, because how pleasing is that worry? Take it easy. Order more wine. Like this satisfying tempranillo for a value play.

Somehow the poor place seemed a bit overwhelmed by our giant table of 6, or who knows what was happening, but they were out of some things, and then things they did have took awhile to come out. So that meant Italian/Irish hospitality kicked in, and dishes started showing up for free--salads and pizzas, two of which got to share a plate once we slowly pied our way through them. Quite good.


Oops, I did that already. See wine above. There was Guinness at the hotel bar.


Before Chryss and I left Blacklion, we got to hang with the cows a bit, thinking we might find a spot with coffee and scones or something, but not so (we did get to stare into MacNean House and Restaurant, but even if they were open we didn't have the time to invest there). But cows!

And as it was a short 90 minute drive today, one last pass through Enniskillen which we'd sort of felt connected too (a whole three days in its vicinity!), and off to Cookstown.

Also, we can't say enough about the Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy as a way to memorialize a poet. (Quick, name the U.S. museums that do that?) First, everyone gets a wand, so you can listen to his poems as they apply to the exhibits of his life. And hearing his music is the sweetest of singing. So sure there's a couple spots that seem too much like reliquaries--hey, here's the leather jacket he wore for too long, just like James Dean or Joey Ramone or Augustine of Hippo!--but what else should honor a twentieth century saint of the word on an island where religion can mean everything?

Even better, the museum wasn't just displays, it also kept offering you a chance to take part, from naming your favorite Heaney book (hey, that assumes guests have read more than one) to getting you to create. Irish schoolchildren are crazy lucky.

Go ahead to the post on Day 7 (Waterford, Cork).

Go back to the post on Day 5 (Blacklion, Devenish Island, Enniskillen).

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

SB Poets Take Ireland: Day 5

Welcome to a day off from the poetry tour, so we move digs, rent a boat, eat an incredible meal, and see a badger on the road (alas, no photos), for it seems that all the fairy tale animals of your dreams live in Ireland.


Day off.


Early in the trip planning we saw this would be a free day and were considering a drive up north to see things like the Giant's Causeway and the Old Bushmills Distillery, etc. But then David suggested, "It's an area known for its lakes--let's rent a boat!" So all six of us decided to do that, and we needed a third night that our Air BnB could not offer us.

So instead we landed on a place in Blacklion, only about a 20 minute drive from Enniskillen, back into the Republic of Ireland. It's pretty amazing given the history of The Troubles that the border is so porous--you drive across, there's sort of some signs, but the biggest difference is the speed limit, which is in kmh in the Republic, mph in the UK. Note, this change isn't very clearly marked, so when dumb people in rental cars start driving too slowly in Northern Ireland, don't blame us, I mean, them.

Our new place is a whole duplex house in a subdivision that maybe got the green light in the Celtic Tiger era but didn't get finished by 2008--one place nearby had clearly been for sale for some time, its backyard choked with weeds tall as I am. All the commercial storefronts leading into the subdivision are empty, or worse, abandoned with remnant of what they were. Our place was very nice, though, clearly a place no one had ever lived in and only rented out, and way too big for us with four bedrooms. But laundry! Such a luxury.

From the second floor the view caught a bit of a lake, lots of green--you're actually staring back into the UK from the Republic--and cows that in the early morning gamboled about. Seriously. One of the calves pranced about and head-butted his mom. We didn't pay extra for Bopping Bovine Theatre.


We brought groceries and lunched on the boat. We thought we'd be picnicking on Devenish (it's coming, promise, in Toured), but the bit of the rise of an island in the lot of a lough meant much more bitter wind than we expected. Not conducive to al fresco dining in the least.

But really most of this day's recap is going to be about dinner, because 28 Darling St. I'd put up against most places in LA, even. The chef Glen Wheeler, while still in his early 30s (I'm guessing), has a resume anyone might envy--he was head chef at MacNean House and Restaurant (which just happens to be in Blacklion where we are Air BnBing), long acclaimed as one of Ireland's best spots, working under Neven Maguire. But if fancy Irish cred isn't enough for you, Wheeler has also done apprentice stints at Alinea and Noma, and that he has the drive, and ability, to do so should make it clear he's a star on the rise. The front of house is held down by his wife, Zara McHugh, and service also was that perfect combo of friendly with just enough formal to make you feel special. It's a gorgeous room, almost too much of a room, with a chandelier blingy enough to belong at Liberace's house. But the black and gold flocked wallpaper and that light and the mirrors made it one of those bathed in golden glow spots--it's nice when a place lifts you into its glamor.

But the real star is the food, things like this exquisitely plated beetroot salad with ethereally whipped goat cheese.

Or this simple, simply terrific pea and mint soup with lovage, every one of those flavors bright as a spring day of your dreams.

Then how about this palate cleanser course, playing to one of my sweet spots--a granita of gin (my guess is Hendrick's given flavor #2), cucumber, and elderflower. I don't think a palate cleanser left me a bit buzzed before, but in the best of icy ways.

Chryss ordered off the vegetarian menu to get this, gnocchi that walked that tricky line of being hearty enough to actually have flavor but light enough they weren't pasty in the least.

I opted for lamb, simply hoping to limit the possible number of roadside sheep we could crash the Volvo into. I'm always thinking, I am. OK, I do like lamb, although I order it (medium) rarely as it can often be tough or even a bit dull, like it's meant to be the meat dish for those who don't have the strength of their beefy convictions. Not an issue here, either way--tender, full of that almost gamey quality good lamb has (they get scenic turf to trod and chomp, after all), and then the wild garlic set it off with a friendly funk plain old garlic doesn't have. Plus cos, which is a much cooler name than romaine (cos, rocket--they've got all the greatest greens nomenclature), grilled just enough to find a different cooked key that is brightness and not mush.

And then, we're not always dessert folks, but this was even more delicious than it was art, and it was that plenty. Those are shards of harder meringue, with little toasted puffs of softer meringue, vivid as Technicolor lemon curd, same with the strawberry essence, and then actual berries, no doubt macerated as they were double-plus good. One of those plates you want to lick to finish.
And as good as the food was, even better was the company. For we were treated to this feast by Teresa Godfrey, the poet we first met up in Letterkenny who actually lives in Enniskillen and came to the PLs reading there, too, and Monica Monaghan, cardiologist, and friend to poets. They were clearly regulars (lucky them!) at 28 Darling St., even getting the chef to come out at service's end to chat a bit with us. But as with most memorable meals, the food gets even more elevated when the company is witty, wise, discerning, and charming new fabulous friends.


There was a gin menu at 28 Darling St., as you might surmise from that palate cleanser course. As is the international rage, everyone does gin and tonics, but I still prefer my gin a-swim with the briefest bikini of vermouth, and given they had Monkey 47, the less it shared a glass with the better. Lovely, bracing, herbal martini to kick the dinner off with. Then I had a glass of wine, I don't remember what. Go back and look at the food pictures. Guess why I forgot the wine.

As for boat-cruising beer, we were in Northern Ireland, so what better than some of the UK's best, Brewdog Punk IPA? Plus, we like punks. (You know, Johnny Rotten is Irish.)


The boat trip around Lough Erne was lots of slow-knot fun. We joked they made sure the top speed of the boat was barely forward as that's the only way they could send them off with people they didn't test for their ship-shapeness, but it probably was the sad truth too. That did give us plenty of time to take in all the sites, though.

Tops on that list was Devenish Island, where St. Molaise III (or if you prefer Saint Laisrén mac Nad Froích--say that one time sloooowww), founded a monastery in the 6th century. Sad to say, what's standing on the island now at its earliest is from the 12th century--how au courant. But if you want to sense even how long human time is, there are worse places than Devenish.

Good walls make good history. Now, don't be cross with me about that one.

I mean, I can sense your stony face.

OK, enough of that. You do get to go into the 82 foot, 900 year old tower, but only one floor of it. If danger came, you knew it from here, and then you'd pull up all the valuables inside and station John Cleese on a parapet to toss insults. (I get my history knowledge from strange places, sorry.) Here's the view back out the tower door toward the dock and the boats, which look very small. Ours did fit 6 of us, though.

And just to prove why we didn't picnic on the island, here's us being freezing in July in Ireland. But then again, ten centuries blew their cold histories upon us.

After sailing the Lower Lough Erne, which is actually to the north of Upper Lough Erne, as its about how the water flows, not compass direction, we took the River Erne past the town itself, where you get the best view of Enniskillen Castle. (Guess what? We never went inside it.)

We also sailed far enough south to see the Air BnB we stayed at the first two nights in the area. So here's that ruined railway bridge, up close and stony.

And there was a badger in the road that night, I promise. He looked as startled to see us as we were to see him, as he briefly paused as if deciding whether our bumper was tasty. Instead he just made his unhurried way to the other side of the A4, a two-lane highway only a Meles meles could love.

Go ahead to the post on Day 6 (Bellaghy, Cookstown).

Go back to the post on Day 4 (Enniskillen).

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.
Go ahead to the post on Day 5 (Enniskillen, Devenish Island, Blacklion).

Go back to the post on Day 3 (Letterkenny, Enniskillen).