Tuesday, January 31, 2023

A Review of "Cure: New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em"


What Marseilles is to the Mediterranean, New Orleans is to the Caribbean, a savory meeting place where countries and cultures, priests and pirates, hopeful and hucksters mix daringly and delightfully. It would be easy to call New Orleans the ultimate melting pot, but it’s probably more fitting to think of it as a cocktail shaker, given its long association with drink culture. So, who better to take us on a tipsy tour of the town than Neal Bodenheimer, founder of the James Beard Award-winning bar Cure? Heck he’s even co-chair of the Crescent City-based Tales of the Cocktail Foundation. (To produce this book he was ably assisted by longtime food and drink writer Emily Timberlake.) 

 Obviously the bulk of Cure: New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em (Abrams) is recipes, each one sounding more quaffable than the next, but one also may read the gorgeously photographed volume both as a guidebook and a history of the myriad ways the mercantile impulse charted cocktail history. For instance, in his Sours chapter Bodenheimer tells the tale of the effects of the Italian lemon trade in New Orleans—he asserts that by 1884 they were New Orleans’s third most valuable imported commodity, behind only coffee and sugar. How could a Brandy Crusta not have happened, with its horse’s neck lemon twist prominent inside the glass? And while Bodenheimer himself isn’t the biggest fan of that drink, he has to tip his cap to its more pleasing offspring, including the margarita and sidecar.

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

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Mousse That Baaa-ed: Black Sheep Is Back

Since closing down on September 4 at its longtime Ortega Street location, the Black Sheep has been reborn on Cota Street a mere three months later. In addition to the location change, it's now officially The Black Sheep, SB Brasserie, which is fitting as the new location was for two decades the home of one of Santa Barbara's legendary restaurants, Mousse Odile. Co-owner, GM, maitre-d Ruben Perez definitely hopes to invoke the French spirit of the spot, offering coq au vin and cassoulet and more, but with a definite Santa Barbara, contemporary twist. He found a great partner in the endeavor, chef Jake Reimer, who has done the high end executive chef for restaurant groups and the private chef gig, among others, but seems very happy to have fun with Santa Barbara produce and seafood.

We had the great fortune to be hosted for a culinary trip through permutations of the tasting menu they are already billing as "famous," which might not be conceited much as predictive. For everything we tasted rocked--vibrant flavors, thrilling freshness of both ingredients and concepts. So while I could go on and on about, say, the perfect steak frites, starting with the tender Entrecôte meat itself, and then a secret sauce that's got some anchovy in it but is otherwise vegetarian and rich and almost worth licking the plate to enjoy (luckily instead you have plenty of yummy handout fries), I won't.

I also won't talk about the reinvigorated creme brûlée, spanking the oft-tired dish back to life with a pinch of salt and what must be a fistful of Tahitian vanilla bean.

Nope, to focus, let's just talk about the three dishes that opened the meal and hit the table simultaneously. Above you see an essay in fishy contrasts, some lightly pickled sardines atop some sprouts atop some tuna you can't see, but it's confit and rich. Then there's a slice of baguette on the plate awash with a mustardy sauce. The contrasting textures and flavors kept your mouth alive to flavor's possibility.

Here's the evening's crudo--it's listed on the menu as d'jour, as it sort of has to be as it needs to be something just caught to sing. This one did a little aria, so might have crawled into the kitchen on its own. Well, if scallops crawled. Again, all the accents aren't just for show but push the dishing fascinating angles and richness without hiding the pleasing, starring salinity of the scallop.

And then, as a true Santa Barbara nod, here's uni with "dirty" rice, seaweed, and tobiko. Things get a bit soupy as you eat it, but with the rice it's kind of a wet porridge of big flavor delight. Here the accoutrements reel the urchin's assertiveness in just a tiny bit, which works with all the other vivid reminders of the sea in the bowl. It's a great example of lots of technique being brought to bear on something that seems simple. 

It's wonderful to have the Black Sheep back.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Consider a Kind of Chocolate College


You might think you'd have to be a bit cocoa-crazy to want to join a chocolate-of-the-month subscription box club, but Cococlectic could convince even a casual chocolate lover. That's its whole point--think of each shipment as a chocolate education in a box, backed up with Zoom tastings with the small batch producers themselves. (Yet another one of those positives that have come thanks to the terrible pandemic.)

What you see above are the four bars I got in a sample shipment (yep, I'm singing for my freebie), from Fresco Artisan Chocolate in Lynden, WA. Note--and this is typical of each month's shipment--we're talking bars sans any bells-and-whistles, even the delicious and striking kind you might get with, say, an Omnom Black and Burnt Barley (to pick one of my favorite artisan chocolate experiences). Nope, here you're going to learn to distinguish different geographic sources for cocoa bean, so you can pick out the the sweet fig jam notes from Ghana versus the grapefruit zip from Madagascar.

Heck, they even teach you how to eat chocolate. Turns out most of us have been doing it wrong all our lives, but then again, nobody needs to have that Snickers bar sit in their mouthful too long. Instead, what's recommended by Cococlectic is to break off small pieces, smell the aroma, and then let the bite melt on your tongue. It's a slow process, but what you find is more and more comes into focus, kind of like when you settle yourself into what you at first think is a dark room (fitting for chocolate, no?). Try to put yourself in a wine tasting mood. Each shipment comes with a handy, visual tasting flavor wheel with taste descriptors, suggesting you might find everything from a vegetative cooked green olive note to a caramel, molasses one, with a possible soupçon of earthy mushroom along the way.

The best part of fine, craft bean-to-bar chocolate is you need less of it to be satisfied. All that rich cocoa goodness floods you taste buds, sort of coats them if you really keep your teeth at bay and let the chocolate melt. You don't need gobs it in an impossible effort to be pleased that only ends with you feeling grossly stuffed.

A card in your box provides more information about each purveyor--their history, their methods, their sources. Every bar is "all vegan, non-GMO, fair-trade, ethically sourced," their press releases points out, continuing, "Cococlectic’s chocolate bars do not contain any soy, gluten, dairy or nut, but they may be produced in a facility that handles these ingredients." So it's good for you chocolate! Plus, the San Francisco-based Cococlectic, which began in 2014, is a women-owned and minority diverse-owned business. (That's co-founders Doreen Leong and Brett Wallace, below.)

Monday, January 9, 2023

A Review of "You'll Like It Here"


A fascinating smudging of the notions of the novel, Ashton Politanoff’s You’ll Like It Here (Dalkey Archives) alternates between being charming and creepy, nostalgic and prophetic, dreamy and mundane. As he explains in his introduction, Politanoff, a Redondo Beach, California native since he was 8, dove into local archives upon his mom’s death and came out with this odd duck book. Fascinated by what he found, particularly from 1911-1918, especially since the period seemed to rhyme with our current age, he built a found novel, of a sort, compiling very brief news item “chapters” that never add up to a distinct plot, but certainly build mood and themes. 

Dropped into his acknowledgements is this important explanation of how he saw this project: “While I have used historical situations and newspaper clippings as the basis of this project, names have been changed, dramatic structure has been favored over historical accuracy, and facts have been expanded, all with the aim toward fiction and my own poetic and aesthetic concerns.”

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