Thursday, December 23, 2021

Stone Cold Stupendous at the Stonehouse

Even for Montecito, the San Ysidro Ranch is something special. Its tree-lined, cobbled drive takes you to leisure's lair, not just a stunning physical location in the Santa Barbara foothills, not just a connection to a more gilded time (here's the obligatory mention of JFK and Jackie O's honeymoon and Olivier and Leigh's wedding), but a different sense of time entirely. It's not as much time stands still but that it slows and thickens so you can float above it, a peace that lets you accept the distant lights of the offshore oil rigs as beauty meant for you as much as the productive gardens pumping out gorgeous produce even in December.

Of course part of the site's natural awesomeness nearly took the historic spot down, first with the Thomas Fire and then the subsequent debris flow that roared down San Ysidro Creek. A gas main explosion took out nearly half the property, including much of the Wine Spectator Grand Award wine cellar. It took 15 months to re-open, but that time also became a chance to do a freshen up. Then COVID came along, throwing all of the travel world into another mess.

So, pretending Omicron isn't as scary as it is, Chryss and I were hosted for a dinner at the Stonehouse the other evening, and based on this visit, it should move to the top of anyone's special event planning list. Of course there's just the location, captured best in the photo atop this post, provided by the hotel. (Note the rest of the photos were taken by phone without flash as that's too rude in dim light, so they don't do anywhere near full service to the food they attempt to capture. Think of them almost like a court artist's drawings....) The Terrace is a magical spot, both indoor and outdoor at once, glimmering with each table's gas lamp--such romantic lighting--and then the strewn twinkle of lights above, the fireplace aglow, too. You almost feel worthy enough to have the food you are about to enjoy.

Even as you ponder the menu, let alone the 12,000 bottle wine list, you get a relish tray--perhaps that's the ranch part of the Ranch?--to nibble on, some French breakfast radishes (both milder and more elegant) and a pile of piquant olives, and bread, three kinds (popover, Parmesan crisp, kalamata) that means you have to try all three, of course. There's olive oil that shames you for what you use at home. Waiters welcome you by name, warn you that the Santa Barbara lobster specials are about to sell out. They are old school professionals you can feel smiling behind their masks they wear for you.

And so we dug into our appetizers, the roasted chestnut and porcini soup for Chryss, a half dozen oysters for me. That soup was just what pre-Christmas ordered, something Dickensian and delicious and not done by enough places. Maybe that's because getting its balance isn't easy? Full flavored, creamy textured, this soup was spot on. And then the oysters, well, you have to start with prime bivalves, and these certainly were (I missed their provenance). The hard thing with an oyster is not gussying it up so much it becomes a dish with oyster-flavoring, and Chef Matthew Johnson and crew were deftly up to the task, even with a lot of moving parts for bites, well, let's call them Kennedy half dollar size, given the location. The Prosecco gelée gave them a bit of sparkle and then the supreme of Pixie tangerine provided each bite its own palate cleanser, almost. The tiny hits of mango and Persian cucumber drew out both bass and treble from the oyster and its briny blast. Plus the seaweed bed underneath was delightfully edible and crunchy.

For mains Chryss went with the extravagant Maine lobster cioppino complete with Maine lobster tail, Atlantic halibut, Hope Ranch mussels, Little Neck Clams, tiger prawns, and calamari--it almost seemed that the only seaworthy thing missing was Coelacanth. They pulled off the trickiest part of fish stew--making sure nothing was fish rubber or fish glue, as it's so easy to overcook an item or two. And all that now swam in a roasted tomato and saffron broth the Stonehouse could serve as a soup on its own, it's so don't-miss-a-drop-of-it good. Luckily, there was grilled ciabatta for sopping.

I opted for the appropriately fast-selling special local lobster, which came with house-made spinach fettuccine, a lemon-wine-butter sauce that tasted terrifically of all three components singing a happy harmonic song, and then chanterelles, lots (just saw them at the supermarket for $70 a pound--did not buy them). But the star was definitely the lobster, so fresh it might have swam ashore and into the pot they cooked it in, buttery itself, sweet, and then that quick shiv of iodine only great lobster has--you get to taste the kelp the lobster itself enjoyed. An indulgent, elegant, extravagant bowl of delight. (This photo doesn't do it any sort of justice.)

If you were wondering, we wined by the glass, which you can do perfectly well. Chryss had a Mail Road pinot noir, I had a Racines chardonnay, and my god is Santa Barbara making world class wines befitting a world class meal. This might also be the place to discuss price, and again, we were comped so.... This was not a cheap meal by any means (that cioppino goes for $76, if you were wondering, so you can extrapolate the rest). That pointed out, every bit of your time at the Stonehouse will be extraordinary. So you decide what such an experience is worth to you. 

Especially when you can end with fire or soufflés. Despite the cold and considering that perhaps having something flambéd next to us might be worth it, we opted against items like a baked Alaska or crepes Suzette. (We did get to enjoy a nearby couple's tableside flaming of a steak Diane earlier in the evening, that brandy sauce letting its tarragon waft wonderfully across the terrace.) No, we went for the soufflé, in particular the Valrhona Manjari Chocolate one. Our waiter insisted we try the mint chocolate chip ice cream as the mint came from their organic garden and it was the best in the world, so we said sure, thinking it would sub for the dish's usual espresso ice cream. Nope, they brought us both. We ate almost all of it, somehow. Oh, who am I kidding, we ate it because everything was exemplary--that soufflé so light it hit with all its eggy, cocoa flavor and was gone from your mouth, an elegant memory. 

Monday, November 1, 2021

A Review of "Lush Life: Food & Drinks from the Garden" by Valerie Rice


I’d argue that the best cookbooks double as secret memoirs, often telling us more about the author than a straight-ahead account that began, “I was born in the house my father built….” We are what we eat, and even more how we eat what we eat. Too many in our country don’t have the time and money to consider that question while they sit in the fast food drive-thru, and that’s not a personal failure of imagination, that’s a condemnation of a series of horrible systems trapping the unfortunate in their bad fortune.

Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Riviera Bar Goes Old-School on Figueroa Street


That marvelous sailfish on the wall at the new Riviera Bar certainly looks familiar, but it’s not as familiar as you think. Sure, it came from the old Paradise Café, as is the case for many of the people behind this cozy establishment on West Figueroa that opened July 29. But it’s not the fish you stared at over your margarita above the bar — it’s one from an office. 

 “Paradise was more a general attitude toward customers and building a community,” explains the new bar’s owner, Kevin Boss. “This is Riviera, a new thing.”

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

Monday, October 25, 2021

A Review of "The Baseball 100" by Joe Posnanski


It took Joe Posnanski three attempts to accomplish the feat that is The Baseball 100. When he finally pulled off the basis of what became this book, publishing it serially on The Athletic website from December 2019 to April 2020, the intro for each entry included boilerplate that offered, “In all, this project will contain roughly as many words as Moby Dick.” For the record, the Avid Reader Press hard cover Baseball 100—869 pages, the Penguin paperback edition Moby Dick—a measly 687 pages. Suck it, Melville. 

I must admit, that’s my tone and not at all the way the very level-headed Joe Pos would put things. As for calling him Joe Pos, that’s how he’s known to those who have been reading his award-winning journalism for years, from local sports columnist duty in Augusta, Ga., Cincinnati, and Kansas City, to time at Sports Illustrated when that meant something. He has also authored six books, including one on his hero Buck O’Neil and one about how Houdini became not just a magician, but the Kleenex of magic.

Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

A Review of "The History of Bones" by John Lurie


John Lurie, musician, artist, reluctant actor, avatar of 1980s downtown New York City cool, makes this pronouncement fifty pages in to his fascinating memoir The History of Bones, “Also, people always talk about talent. But really, of this I am quite certain. There is no such thing as talent, there is only cleaning the mirror.” 

 How better to clean one’s mirror than to pen a revealing memoir? You don’t have to read deep in the book to decide Lurie is an uncompromising artist more than willing to be an asshole, but by the end he seems more sinned upon than sinning. 

 Want to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Alisal Ranch Fires Up California Cookouts in Santa Ynez Valley

You are drawn into a magical world when crossing the wooden bridge over Alisal Creek, as the enticing smells of oak smoke and barbecue offer more olfactory goodness than you can parse, other than sensing you want it all. Next, you’re crossing the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort’s broad Oval Lawn, festively set with numerous tables topped with fresh flowers, Edison lights strung high above for when the sun sets over the ridge. And suddenly you realize that there’s nothing cuter than kids in cowboy hats. Welcome to the newest version of the Old West, family style. Welcome to California Ranch Cookouts.

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

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Good Plow Gives Carpinteria True Farm-to-Table Cooking


If you ask Katie Lesh — who owns The Good Plow in Carpinteria with her husband, Jason Lesh — to describe her new restaurant, she puts it this way, “Sexy fast-casual farm-to-table.” And then her chef, Pedro Garcia, emphatically adds, “It’s fucking good food!”

Given that a meal rarely rises above its ingredients, these emphatic Good Plow claims are bound to ring true: For almost a decade, Katie and Jason have run Farm Cart Organics as a farm stand and CSA delivery service, and she’s the daughter of the revered farmer Tom Shepherd. One of the first farmers to get his name onto fine-dining menus — thanks, John Downey! — Shepherd started farming organically in Carp in 1973, blessing Katie with the heartiest of, uh, roots.

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

Monday, September 20, 2021

Beds to Bet on in Nevada City

If, like me, you think that one of the best reasons to stay in a hotel is to live with bold and beautiful wallpaper that you don’t have the courage to risk at home, then you really need to stay at the National Exchange Hotel. The wonderful dark stuff above is in a hallway, where it's easier to risk a wilder print as no one stares at it for too long (I mean, what are you, some kind of hotel hallway creeper?), but it certainly sets the stage for all sorts of restored Victorian loveliness. 

But not Victorian fustiness--note the prints on that wall, too, which give more of a science-y feel, a bit like you'd fallen into a study of someone who aspired to being part of a Society, as in "of Explorers," not society, as in grand. Much better than randomly decorating with garage sale purchased creepy dolls like you'd find in too many B'n'Bs to mention. Of course, one key with any old hotel restoration is to hint just enough that things could be haunted, but never by creepy dolls. You want it to be lovers who could never leave, they had such a great honeymoon, or something like that....

Such ghosts would be very at home in a bedroom like this one we recently got to stay in, part of a king suite that was plenty sweet enough to be suitable for royalty (those sheets are soft as butah, and sure, I see all the problems with that simile, but you get it). Also note while the wallpaper is still fun, it's not quite as dramatic as the kind in the hallway--after all, you spend some time in this room, especially as once you're on it, you never want to leave the bed. 

You will leave the bed, for many reasons, since you're in Nevada City, a cute as a button California Gold Rush hamlet (that's when buttons were still cute) quite happy to show off its history and natural beauty. We'll get to all that. But first you get to your sitting room, which invites plopping down with a good book--high ceilinged, well-lit, no wallpaper to distract you. 

Note much of the furniture is antique, clearly hunted for and curated, so each room has its own charm. Also note--no TV. You better be able to make your own fun, or better yet, your own peace. The quiet of the place, despite being resurrected from the bones of a hotel that originally opened in 1856, is surprising. Neither crotchety creaks or your neighbors behind a century-thinned wall will disturb you. If you're desperate for the 21st century, there is wifi. There's a tablet next to the bed with Netflix fired up if you need it.

There's also a view of Broad Street, Nevada City's main drag (although this photo is taken from the second floor balcony that any guest has access to, off an inviting lounge--featuring the world's longest sectional couch--where each morning there's coffee and scones). Yep, it's a town with saloons, some vacant spaces because it's 2021 post?-pandemic America, art galleries, and some recognition of the Native Americans who came before those hungry for gold in the 1850s and those hungry for vacations in the 2000s. 

There's even the Nevada Theatre, which might not look like much from the outside, but is California's oldest existing theater building. It opened a few months after Lincoln was assassinated, evidently not too worried about the scare John Wilkes Booth put into play-goers. Mark Twain performed there. (Yeah even then writers had to do tours to make some bank.) They're hoping to start performances again, too, COVID-willing.

Alas, from what I can tell, one of the region's most notorious performers might never have performed at the Nevada Theatre as she was "retired" for the two years she lived in nearby Grass Valley. That's Lola Montez, who I first learned of from the Max Ophuls' film Lola Montès, which tell you more about obscure-film-loving-me than about Montes or Nevada City. She was a character, though, an infamous international lover--her affair with Ludwig I of Bavaria led to his abdication--and she danced the tarantella, complete with rubber spiders flying out of the folds of her frantically twirling dress. To honor her, the National Exchange Hotel has named its dining room after her.

And now is as good a time as any to mention another smart, successful, adventurous woman, Sherry Villanueva, managing partner and owner of Acme Hospitality, that people Santa Barbara will know for some of the town's best dining spots, from The Lark to Loquita to La Paloma. Acme is behind the restoration of the National (and of the also historic Holbrooke down the road a patch in Grass Valley), and that does mean the food program is going to be a focus, no mere afterthought.

And serious cocktails will be the first thought. Of course, anyone serious about cocktails knows to be playful, too, so you could order something like a Morning Glory, that comes with a special teabag infusion.

Or something a bit more direct, the Limelight, that I made the mistake of not taking notes about, and the bar menu isn't on the website. It was delicious, though, and I recall chartreuse was involved, so what could be wrong?

It's a gorgeous room, with nifty light fixtures and plenty of mirrors, so lots of reflected glow that makes you and you fellow diners even more beautiful than you are (and I have no doubts you are). Blue banquettes line the walls, both for comfort and sound absorption, always an issue in a building with so much exposed brick. And it's a perfect place to feast on frites, as we both did--Chryss had the moules frites and I had the steak frites. There was a lot more cream in that wine sauce than in some versions of the mussels, so it was pretty decadent, and also just pretty, with sea beans scattered atop adding crunch and even more salt. The steak was perfectly cooked to medium rare, and speaking of decadent, I would have bathed in the Bearnaise. Many of my fries certainly did.

I do not mean to slight the precursors to our mains, either, a savory smoked salmon mousse with potatoes gaufrettes--a fancy name for chips that these delights earned--and a farmers market fresh salad of butter leaf lettuce, cherries, pickled onion, pepitas, and a healthy toss of Humboldt fog cheese (Northern California, represent!) Or our server, who paced the meal perfectly, offered wonderful advice, and really seemed glad to be there, as was true for all the staff in the hotel. (Side note: all through our two night stay we repeatedly witnessed staff training other staff--a lot of learning was going on, no doubt as the hotel has faced the same employment issues everyone in the service industry has faced of late.)

Oh, and the next night we returned to the bar to have more from that cocktail list, and while those drinks we consumed are lost to our gullets and history, they were delightful, too. Plus, here's what that bar looks like--spiffy time travel.

Of course, Nevada City itself is a trip back in time. At least two times, I should say, for while the predominant building style is Gold Rush meets Victorian chic, the town was re-infused with architectural goodness during the WPA, and that means there's a cool art moderne City Hall and this County Courthouse that sits atop one of the town's many hills, so is yet more imposing.

Meanwhile, all the old school brick places tend to be re-purposed for more modern uses. Take the old Assay Office, which now houses Harmony Books, a wonderful independent book store with a fine selection plus cool stuff like lots of tarot cards and jigsaw puzzles. It even had a book Chryss and I have poems in displayed in its window, California Fire & Water: A Climate Crisis Anthology, edited by local poet Molly Fisk. So we felt particularly welcome.

And indeed, there are other places to eat and drink in town, although we weren't there long enough to sample that many. We did dig the old time atmosphere at the Golden Era, with one of the prettiest tin ceilings I've ever seen, plus cool cocktails like the Repeat Offender, which made bourbon and mezcal sing together, with the help of some super syrup, old fashioned bitters, and a flamed orange disc for yet more smokiness, and the Bandito Escondido, an amped up margarita variation with mezcal, lemon and lime juice, Ancho Reyes liqueur, and hell-fire bitters--spicy fun.

And there's a perfect place to eat and drink, Three Forks Bakery & Brewing, which left me with the pressing question--why aren't there a million bakery/beer brewers, or at the least one within walking distance of my house? Turns out we wound up there three times in one day, kicking off with scrumptious baked goods and lattes to start our morning, having a post-hike beer midday, and then returning for dinner, too, splitting a pizza and a salad that was all of late summer freshness. And yes, the beer is great, too. We can't say enough about the cosy, casual Three Forks.

As for that hike (just one of many in the region), you can start right from the hotel, traipse through town (past the winery we never visited, the Odd Fellows Hall now an art gallery we didn't peruse), then into a neighborhood of houses (some with "we believe in science" posters in their yards, one with a giant InfoWars banner on its side--neighborhood gatherings must be fun!), and eventually you get to the Deer Creek Tribute Trail. The titular creek runs through a gouge of rock, and you even get to cross it on a very current suspension bridge that can still give one the willies as it shimmers many feet above the creek bed. Still, gorgeous (no pun intended). And about as easy a hike as one can take and get to see lots of actual nature. (It eventually loops you back into downtown.)

I hope I made it clear how wonderful the renovation of the hotel was, but if not, here's one more photo to convince you. Isn't that an eye-catching stairwell? The sense of detail and design is truly spectacular.

So let's not forget when and how it all began for this property that's been on the National Register of Historic Places since the Nixon presidency, so even its historic nature is historic. Not sure why pointing out this was the site of the first whipping post in the state is a plus, but maybe when the plaque went up someone really loved the Allman Brothers? I promise if you stay at the National Exchange Hotel, you will leave your blues at home.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Review of Jo Ann Beard's "Festival Days"

There’s an honored and honorable tradition of writers writing to explain why they write, from George Orwell to Joan Didion to Annie Dillard. Jo Ann Beard, author of The Boys of My Youth and In Zanesville, joins that tradition with her elliptical, associative essay “Close,” that is found in her new powerful collection Festival Days. “Close,” which bumps amongst ducks, preparing for an academic talk, a poem by Dennis Nurske, also offers straight forward advice likes this: 

 “So in order to make art (literature) out of just that—human experiences and emotions—we have to find new and surprising ways to convey our insights. That means we have to have insights, which means we have to think, and that means we have to work to create art out of life, to bring something new to each sentence, a surprise for the reader. Not in a pyrotechnic way, but through intelligence, through our powers of imagination, and through the rigorous refusal to waste a reader’s time.”

You can read the rest of the review at the California Review of Books.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Julia Child Birthday Dinner Sings at the Canary


Julia Child spent the last years of her life here, so of course Santa Barbara is still throwing her birthday parties — this past Sunday, August 15, would have been her 109th. 

The Santa Barbara Culinary Experience, in partnership with the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, celebrated in a variety of ways, the capstone being a blowout dinner on the Canary Hotel rooftop featuring Finch & Fork’s recently hired executive chef Craig Riker.

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

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Sta. Rita Hills--20 Years of Excellence and Elegance

The Sta. Rita Hills Alliance threw itself a heck of a party this past weekend, as it's been 20 years SRH has been an official AVA--my how time flies when you're making great wine. But even better, it's 50 years since Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict planted the vineyard that bears their names, and fittingly, that's where the Wine and Fire festivities began on Thursday night.

I'm going to get a bit highfalutin here, so hang on, please. There's something holy about that mossy Sanford & Benedict barn. After all, it's not that often you get to stand where something began and by standing there totally feel history in all its effort and magic. Look at that wind whipping the banner in the photo, bringing the Pacific in thanks to Santa Barbara's famous transverse mountain ranges. That it's all beauteous scenery is just sort of bonus, but still. It makes me think of the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, where a young and too-soon-dead Masaccio figured out perspective and then painted some stunning murals that kick-started the Renaissance. Michelangelo would stand in front of these master paintings for hours, tracking to crack the new code. And we sort of know what he ended up doing.

Well, Richard Sanford, fortunately still with us, is our Masaccio, and since several generations of filmmakers have stood in Sanford & Benedict Vineyard and made some of the best Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs California has ever tasted. Many of them were being poured at Thursday's event. Bryan Babcock (more on him in a bit) poured a Pinot from the AVA's first vintage, for instance. Twenty years meant its fruit had faded, of course it was a bit brickish, but the acid life made it clear what a wine it once was.

(And on a crucial side note, that's a cutout of Jim Clendenen, who's spirit infused the weekend. While his winery Au Bon Climat is in the Santa Maria Valley, as a force of nature, friend, teacher, there was no escaping his influence anywhere in the county, and yes, he did make S&B wines that are still sophisticated and delicious.)

Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini were both on hand, regaling the crowd with stories at the Hitching Post table, while taking us on a hop-scotching vertical journey through their S&B's, 2018, '16, '14, '01, 1999. As someone said, "Hey, we're drinking a wine from a different century." But it was all very much S&B, which in general features lip-smacking dark cherry to blackberry fruit, but then something special--a saline hint of that marine influence, some coastal herbal notes (no, not the recent coastal herb crop...), some floral notes. Always complex. An S&B Pinot, for me, is like when you meet someone you find intriguing and they only get more lovely the more you get to know them. 

Again, the oldest vintages were interesting to taste as how often do you get that chance?, but I'd still argue the sweet spot for the wines was eight or nine years, as that HP 2014 and Richard Longoria's 2013 were simply singing arias of Pinot magnificence that night. And it wasn't just the "old" masters of SB winemaking that knocked it out of the park--we also delighted in the very first Dragonette S&B Pinot 2019, a wee but big baby that's worth waiting out, the delicious, light on its feet Liquid Farm S&B Pinot 2018, and two wines from Tyler, who poured both S&B Pinot and a supremely elegant S&B Chardonnay.

And Full of Life Flatbreads kept is happily munching away as we sipped, with their usually fine flatbreads, but also some killer summer-in-a-cup gazpacho and corn served as "ribs." They take a bandsaw to the cobs and then roast them in the pizza oven, serving them slathered with a garlicky aoli. 

Friday we got to attend the sold-out Dinner Honoring the Pioneers of the SRH La Paulee, held at the Alma Rosa Winery. What a group of honorees that was--Wes Hagen was emcee, and he led a pre-dinner panel of  Bryan Babcock of Babcock Winery, Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton, Ken Brown of Ken Brown Wines,  Kathy Joseph of Fiddlehead Cellars, Rick Longoria of Longoria Wines, Bruce McGuire of Lafond Winery, Frank Ostini of Hitching Post, and Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa. Everyone reminisced abut Jim Clendenen to start, an emotional, but still often humorous beginning, for as Hagen said after, "We didn't hold a moment of silence because Jim would have hated that." Instead, Joseph recalled his kindness letting her make her second and third vintages at his production facility for free, Sanford charmingly called him a "rascal," and Ostini summed it up by saying, "He always offered us a challenge...Jim was as important as any winemaker in California."

The panel also concluded with the naming of the 2021 Vintner of the Year, Bryan Babcock. Presenting the award, Hagen recalled decades ago when Babcock pulled him aside and said, in contradiction to some press at the time, "This isn't the west side of the Santa Ynez Valley, it's the Santa Rita Hills." And certainly the evening was a proof of that.

For, as you might know, a La Paulee dinner has its roots in Burgundy as a harvest celebration. The feast featured winemakers bringing their best wine both to impress and to say thank you to their crucial community. Things began with lots of sparkling from Flying Goat, Kessler-Haak, Pali, Sanford, and Spear, with Aaron Walker's Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir a definite highlight (plus, I got at least this picture!).

Then throughout the meal it sort of came down to what winemakers were sitting nearby as to what wines you got to enjoy. Luckily, we were next to Greg Brewer who shared a wealth of big bottle brilliance, from a 2011 S-D Chardonnay to a 2009 Ampelos Vineyard Pinot. Again, Brewer's wines proved a decade is a sweet spot for SRH wines, so if you have some stashed, drink up. (If you didn't hang on to any, that makes plenty of sense, too.) The honorees/pioneers were pretty good about making the rounds, too, so you got a sip of Babcock, a splash of Longoria, a taste of Fiddlehead, plus Kathy Joseph's story about how she beat rock promoters to the word Lollapalooza. Plus, many fun folks to dine with. (Side note: Wine Alliance, make it clearer you want guests to bring wine too, or drop that maybe they should. And no, I'm not just whining because I did bring a bottle and most other guests didn't.....)

And, of course, there was food, plenty of it, courtesy of the team from the Alisal Ranch led by chef Anthony Endy. Buffet feeding is always a bit tricky, but they pulled it off with aplomb and a lot of red oak--it was a true, classic Santa Maria style feast. But that said, it's always hard to compete with all the wine buzz at an event like this.

At that point I was celebrated out, but there were more events--focused tastings on aging wines, sparkling, and a grand tasting on Saturday at La Purisima Mission. It's been an amazing 20 years for this AVA, and one can only look forward to the next 200. To leave you with one last Sanford & Benedict image, here's a view out the barn itself, with all apologies to John Ford's The Searchers for the framing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

A Review of Marc Ribot's "Unstrung"


Brilliant guitarist that not enough people know by name Marc Ribot has written his first book, Unstrung: Rants and Stories of a Noise Guitarist, and all those scary words in the title are meant to warn you. Not very many pages in, while eulogizing Derek Bailey (yet another level of obscure guitarist deep), Ribot writes: “The palpable fear of beginning from, of returning to…silence/nothing…is an expression of the fear that the sounds you make won’t compare favorably with the silence which preceded/follows it. This in turn represents a deeper fear. In music, too, silence may equal death. The suspicion that both are preferable, and all this implies, is among the oldest of terrors.”

You can read the rest of the review at the California Review of Books.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Presidio Neighborhood Welcomes Alessia Patisserie

Alessia Patisserie + Café has such a musical ring to it that it’s surprising the name wasn’t the first thing that popped into Alessia Guehr’s mind before opening her jewel box of a spot on East Canon Perdido. But given that her parents, Brigitte Guehr and Norbert Schulz, are Santa Barbara food scene veterans — arguably, the creators of it — who both owned restaurants named after themselves, Alessia eventually realized, “I should keep up the family tradition.” 

 And that she does, not just in name. Guehr’s team had to demo pretty much everything in what was briefly Miso Hungry to create this inviting urban space of hardwood floors, copper banquettes, and a pastry display that demands damning the calories, as full devouring is ahead. “People eat first with their eyes,” Guehr explained, “so everything has to be beautiful.”

If you want to read the rest of this story, you can at the Independent.

(Photo of the duck confit sandwich mentioned later in the story)

Sunday, July 25, 2021

A Review of Cecilia Tichi's "Gilded Age Cocktails"


If you’ve ever wondered how historical nonfiction can be dry like a martini and not dry like a textbook tome, you need to pick up Cecelia Tichi’s Gilded Age Cocktails. A professor of American literature and culture at Vanderbilt (and the Commodore who founded that university even makes an appearance in the book, as both a figure and a cocktail), Tichi brings to glittering life what it meant to drink from 1870-1910. Chock full of quotes from primary sources of the day with titles like 1890’s Society as I Have Found It, Tichi makes clear how much lubrication kept this period of history afloat, prior to the double blow of a first World War and Prohibition.

You can read the rest of the review at California Review of Books.

Friday, July 16, 2021

A Review of Richard Buckner's "Cuttings from the Tangle"


Richard Buckner, songwriter, singer, can open a song with the lines “Tough is as she does, won’t you slump on over and stir my shuffle down,” and you don’t get too hung up on not parsing each word exactly. Part of it is this is a song, and while the melody is simple, it’s still catchy enough in its strummy guitar way to draw you in. Part of it is Buckner sells it with his emotive baritone that helps make the somewhat odd words feel lived in. You get the emotional weight of a relationship from these lines even if you don’t get the outlines of the actors.

Want to read the rest of this review, then do so at the California Review of Books.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Review of Alice Waters' "We Are What We Eat"


In Charles Laughton’s fantastic 1955 fairy tale noir Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum’s curdled preacher is infamous for having “love” and “hate” tattooed across the knuckles of his hands (see Spike Lee and The Clash for just two echoes). As Mitchum puts it, these fingers are “always a-warring and a-tugging, one agin t’other,” but luckily, it’s love that’s won. 

 Reading Alice Waters’ We Are What We Eat, it’s easy to imagine she’s a preacher for a food revolution with “fast” and “slow” tattooed across her knuckles. And alas, we don’t yet know who will win. But if Waters has the slightest say in it, the whole world will soon be eating slow.

Want to read the rest of the review then do so at the California Review of Books.

Friday, June 25, 2021

A Dees-licious Wine Dinner at The Lark


So I could simply say just read that menu and that would save both of us a whole lot of work--you can probably taste the yumminess just from that.

But I still want to write about how well a wine dinner can synch, for the one last night at The Lark (ok, actually held at sister property the SB Wine Collective, but created by The Lark team) featuring wines from the wondrous Matt Dees--namely Mail Road and Kimsey--danced like Rogers and Astaire, harmonized like the Temptations, even comically contrasted like Laurel and Hardy.

Let's start with dessert, shall we? See what wine paired with it? Now, when does a wine dinner end with rosé? But it totally worked, here, its copper color fitting in with the playful mix of balled melons, and the wine's acid cutting the sweet of the granita. Even the kick of the Aleppo pepper--and it was pretty kicky--turned the dish into something more (the borage flowers, so pretty and a bit tart, didn't hurt). Such a clever, refreshing course.

And refreshing might be the key word for Dees' approach to whites, too. That Mail Road Chardonnay illuminated the brilliance of the unique Mt. Carmel Vineyard, a site Dees clearly loves. (He likes his vineyards a bit harsh and unforgiving--remember he gets to work with Radian and Bentrock, too.) If you're looking for oak, this is the wrong wine for you--it's a pure expression of its fruit, with lime zest zing and then enough acid you could almost cut with it. 

Or cut a surprisingly rich dish like the opening halibut crudo, that I joked was halibut potato salad because of the grilled corn aioli that leaned a tad into its mayonnaise-ness, especially with the addition of some pickled green tomato. (I mean this is the most loving way.)  Still, that fish was rich and nearly unctuous. And then the perfectly fried avocado nuggets.... Chef Jason Paluska put together a dish cohesive and unusual all at once, and it set the tone for the rest of the delicious evening.

That's Dees explaining that when the block of marble comes in from the amazing vineyard sites he gets to play with, in this case Mt. Carmel in the Sta. Rita Hills and Kimsey in Ballard Canyon, you can either take a chisel to it and make it something else or take some sandpaper to it, and make it shine. One guess what he does.

Which he does no better than the Mail Road Pinot they poured last night. Here's how Antonio Galloni aptly put it: "A wine of structure and power…dark, sumptuous and enveloping on the palate…the 2015 possesses remarkable fruit intensity…Black cherry, plum, spice, leather and menthol…Don’t miss it." We didn't--and thanks to the staff for keeping refilling the glasses, too--very generous.

That powerful pinot was an on-the-nose match for the richness of the duck liver mousse, not quite as gamey as foie, but lavish and creamy, sort of like if meat and gelato had a baby that could live at room temp. This dish's accoutrements were equally brilliant bites, cashews roasted in duck fat so extra umami-ed, and Rainier cherries poached and plump. I might have said I would have spent the rest of my life at the Wine Collective if someone would keep bringing me boards of mousse and glasses of pinot. 

Yes, it's almost hard to see the lamb ribs in there, but that just attests to this dish being all about its strewn-composition, the smoke on the meat, the char on the eggplant and peppers, the juice of the pluot, the bite of the watercress. So much to take in, you just keep savoring bite after bite. And then there's the Kimsey Syrah, a bold wine, as it needed to be to stand up the fat and sweet lamb, but then it just cascaded with flavor, blackberry, a hint of anise, sage, black pepper, and more. 

Here are Chryss's two subs for the meaty things she doesn't eat. She says they were as good as they looked. And the couple of bites I snuck said the same.

The Lark is going to keep doing these winemaker dinners, and now that all of us vaccinated folks can sit inside next to each other and not die, they're going to be a lot of fun. The next one will be with Graham Tatomer.

And one tiny issue--why is "served to share" still a thing? I imagined COVID would have knocked that one out of the kitchen playbook, but even without the fear of cooties, it's often just awkward, especially with something like the mousse board. And our end of the table sat three people with dietary restrictions, all different (one gluten free, one pescatarian, one lactose intolerant), so they had to bring up a bunch of different dishes too. I get the largesse of it, and the sense we all dip into the communal plate and all that. But that's also not quite reason enough.