Monday, July 17, 2023

CA Shindig at the Shore

What could get more California Wine Festival, Santa Barbara edition, held this past weekend, than this view? How much could anyone argue with that?

True enough, there's so much going on--vendor booths hawking clothes, cakes, candles and more, a "Best Tri-Tip in the 805" competition, live Caribbean music from the band Upstream, booths offering beer--its emphasis is almost more on fest than wine. But wine ultimately is all about good times, making memories, enjoying. So the Festival had that down.

Not to downplay the wineries present. The event really does span the state, from Navarro Vineyards in Anderson Valley all the way to a host of wineries from Temecula with a stop at the Tri-Valleys tasting table (that's Livermore, btw), so you could taste all sorts of varietals. It does provide a kind of odd portrait if you hope to make some more conclusive opinions about the vinous state of our state, but there was plenty delicious to be had, from old faves like Navarro and Napa's Cuvaison and Paso's Austin Hope to newer discoveries (at least for me) like Mizel Estate, in the Malibu AVA, or Goldschmidt Vineyards, pouring elegant, built for aging Bordeaux varietals from Alexander Valley and Oakville.

Call me a homer, but of course some of the best showing pours came from right here in Santa Barbara, and I could have happily camped at the Santa Rta. Hills Wine Alliance table, which kept bringing out different wonderful gems as the afternoon went on, from Loubud sparkling to Pinot Noir from Dragonette, Brewer-Clifton, and Montemar. When I wind up turning one down as it's just an SRH and not a Radian Vineyard, well, we are pretty lucky, you know?

The main section of the fest certainly offered plenty for carnivores, what with all the samples for the tri-tip contest right inside the gate (each festival-goer got a vote). Other food was dotted throughout the spaciously laid out area in Chase Palm Park, giving people plenty of room (even if there's always somebody who parks himself--yes, it's generally a dude--at the front of the wine sample line to chat and drink through, folks behind him be-damned). Some you could buy--those cakes at SiSi Cakes sure looked delicious--and some you could sample, as they lured you into a purchase, like the super tasty crackers at Savory Bites

We were lucky enough to score VIP tickets, and that section of the festival offered even more upscale eats, even better, more from Santa Barbara, too. (OK, I really am a homer.) From Blue Owl's fried rice to Finch & Fork's wheat blini with Santa Barbara Smokehouse salmon, green olive, agro dolce, and bachelor button, many a taste tempted. Special credit to Finch & Fork for making something you could just pop in your mouth--people don't think through the ease of eating issues for festivals enough. Sure, it's great be generous, but if half the bigger bite you prepared ends up on my shirt, I won't think super kindly of you, restaurateur.  

That's not to say other food didn't also impress--the faux nigiri offered by Fysh Food was not just scrumptious, but also sustainable (please tell me our oceans won't be empty of fish by 2048), and Rosalynn Supper Club, which I'm probably not hip enough to eat at in LA itself, had two flavor bombs, a scallop with cilantro roasted scallion chimichurri, green Szechuan peppercorn, aged soy, and red chili oil, and a "flank steak" that was actually pork, seared and served with a mix of passion fruit herb sauce, Nam Jim, fish sauce, This chili, mint, Thai basil, and cilantro. Just the full listing of the items should make it clear how wild and rich these offerings were.

To be honest, throughout the festival, the vibe was a bit more LA than SB, with lots of folks so well-dressed and prettified that I joked many were likely to be the next victim on a season of White Lotus. But that's just me being provincial. A fun time was had been a lot of folk. I just assume many of them wound there way to the nearby train station and went south afterward.

A lucky few of us also had the opportunity to continue the party at an after event at nearby winery Skyenna. All thanks to sponsors Sommsation, who helped set up the wine and food pairings at the after-party (as that's what they do), and Hexclad, who also helped sponsor the VIP section and gave the cooks there some beautiful pots and pans to cook with.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

My Kind of Mai Tai

Here's a little summer sipper for you if you worry you don't produce enough insulin for a more typical tiki drink. Because this one mostly contains gin. That's the Empress Mai Tai, featuring Empress 1908 gin, which, thanks to the addition of butterfly pea blossom, is strikingly blue-violet (if you're old enough, think Liz Taylor's eyes). Some of the other botanicals in addition to the pea blossom are ginger and rose petals and Fairmont empress tea, so it's a quite bright and floral gin, not a piny juniper bomb like some.

Which means it somehow plays well with rum. Lately I've been fond of that Appleton Estate you see in the picture, a solid cocktail rum in that you don't feel bad paying for it and not just sipping it. As for the necessary orgeat (a French almond syrup, originally made from barley and used as a shelf-stable substitute for milk) to make anything be mai-tai-esque, I've been using one from Small Hand Foods. Their website description helps: "Made from California almonds and a small proportion of apricot kernels to give it a distinct 'marzipan' flavor without the addition of extract. Organic cane sugar, orange flower water and biodynamic California brandy are added to result in a rich, flavorful syrup with delicate floral notes."

If you're going floral, might as well garnish with an edible flower, too, and our yard is so blanketed with volunteer nasturtiums this year, I figured I could sacrifice a couple for mixology. (Do check them very carefully for bugs, though. Lots of places to hide.)

The recipe comes from the Empress 1908 website, that even features boozy popsicles we might get around to freezing up as the temperature keeps rising. 

for two cocktails

3 oz Empress 1908 gin

1 oz dark rum (Appleton Estate suggested)

1 oz Triple sec (I subbed Citronge and that worked well)

1 oz orgeat (Small Hand pods suggested)

1 oz freshly squeezed lime juice

lime wheels and edible flowers for garnish

Shake all ingredients on ice. Strain into chilled rocks glasses over fresh ice (one big cube per glass is a good way to go to prevent too much dilution of the drink). Garnish with a lime wheel (nicely retro) and an edible flower.

Friday, July 14, 2023

A Pinker Shade of Pale


After a lifetime of marketing for a living, I can get tetchy about being even in the slightest bullshitted, even when the BS comes in a beautiful bottle. So I have to admit when something arrived for sampling called "The Pale: Rosé by Sacha Lichine" in a heavy for a pink beveled-bottom bottle with a label that looks like a Roaring 20s New Yorker cover, it was easy to sigh a cynical "oh, please." Sure enough, the brand's website boasts, "An accessible symbol of luxury." At a $16.99 SRP, the accessible is certainly true. 

So of course it was important to taste. With the sudden and wonderful appearance of summer in Santa Barbara (where were you?), it seems a perfect time to chill this 2021 down and sip some in our backyard garden. The Pale is just that, a salmon going to copper pour. Not particularly assertive on the nose, there's a whiff of lemon blossom and that pleasingly clean spring smell good rosés seem to have. The wine drinks clean and lean, its fruit a mix of wild strawberry and white peach, and not a hint of flab (it's only 12.5% ABV). While not outstanding, that's actually its charm--it rings with familiarity for anyone who has quaffed a few Provence rosés prior.

They might be selling it as a lifestyle pour, but it's better than that, and you don't need to drink with someone whose voice is full of money to enjoy it. Sure Sacha Lichine "is the creator of the iconic rosé brand Whispering Angel" (as the brand's press would have it--note the terms creator and not winemaker), but that doesn't mean you can't find it worth your warm afternoon's while.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Give Me Liberty, or, Goddam....


Let's save the crap business part (almost always the only kind of business part) for later, and first pour one out for the end of a brewing icon. After 127 years, Anchor Brewing will soon be no more. It's tough to remember now, given in a city like San Diego you can't throw a rock without hitting a brewpub, but in 1980, there were 8 craft breweries in the entire country. I mean, you could count them on your fireworks-damaged fingers. So what Fritz Maytag managed to do by reviving the often stumbling Anchor brand in the late 1960s and 1970s was revolutionary. 

Leading that revolution was Liberty Ale, arguable the first India Pale Ale made in America. Sure, it might "just" be a pale, certainly by today's standards when its 33 IBUs seems almost quaint. (For comparison, Pliny the Elder from Russian River, admittedly a double IPA, packs 100 IBUs.)  But that was a heck of a lot of hops in 1975 when the beer was released in honor of the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere's ride, and they even drop-hopped, too, so when that bottle cap popped, you got tickled in the nose with hops. Unbelievable. Five years later Sierra Nevada debuted its Pale Ale and every last West Coast IPA needs to bow down to both these beers.

This will be no surprise to regular George Eats readers, but I was a picky drinker from the get-go, and my go got going sooner than many as the drinking age way back when was a mere 18 and I was tall and mothers had just barely begun to get MADD. Eschewing Bud and the like (Lite?), I looked to Europe and became a fan of Heineken (Frank Booth would have beat my ass), Bass, Belhaven. Stuff with flavor. (Yes, Heineken was a flavor choice. Simpler times.)

Eventually landing in California in 1994 meant I arrived just at the beginning of the microbrew boom. Stone would whip up Arrogant Bastard two years later, asserting "fizzy yellow beer is for wussies." But first I was able to get Anchor and Sierra Nevada regularly, and that seemed like a dream. In 1995 I even got to take the Anchor Brewing tour in their stylish art moderne location Potrero Hill in San Francisco. At tour's end, they let you drink as much any of their beers as you'd like straight from the production line for a half hour. That Liberty Ale sang to me, easily the best beer I'd tasted to that time in my life, so fresh, crisp, and bitter, to the point you could never quite quench the thirst it drove. I still wish I could repeat that sudsy epiphany.

Soon that will be no more. The typical mamby-pamby press release--sent out at nearly 2 am, as if it were a last call message--cited all the insincere reasons you'd expect: competition, Covid, San Francisco is crazy, man! You'd think Ron DeSantis had a hand in writing it. True, sales were dropping, but that's been an industry-wide issue. The real disaster is Anchor got bought out by Sapporo Holdings Ltd. for $85 million in 2017, part of that wave of crazy investments in smaller brewers by large conglomerates. Practically none of these have turned out well, because giant businesses exist to, if I may mix ugly money metaphors, always be closing. If profits don't increase significantly every cycle, someone's head is going to roll. And no doubt it didn't help that Anchor's workers unionized and got their first contract in 2020. Nothing pisses off the suits like the workers actually getting their fair share. 

 Well, they've shown the workers what's what now.

Be sure to drink up the last of Anchor, as they sell all their inventory off, as you can. Tastes great, more history. And toast to whatever it takes not to sell out.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

An Ode to bouchon at 25

Too often the food world gets caught up in flash and fashion, and forgets about the enduring values of grace, class, and taste. But people do eventually realize foams just look like spittle on the plate, that poke is just okey-dokey. Service, attention, care--that's what you really need if you want to dine.

So it's crucial to recognize the places that don't try to dance so fast you might not notice there's no music playing. That's why I'm here to praise bouchon as it celebrates its 25th anniversary on Victoria Street this Bastille Day weekend. (That anniversary day and the French name--which, btw, happened the same year somebody named Keller opened his Bouchon up in Napa--might be why people mistakenly think it's a French restaurant.) Given that restaurant years are like dog years--each one ages you like seven--you have to hand it to proprietors Mitchell Sverjen and Amy Sachs for not just surviving but thriving for two and half decades.

Even though you might want to shed a tear for the thousands of ducks done in to serve the restaurant's signature dish you see above. Take in that port-thyme demi-glace; its glaze so rich you can almost see your reflection in it. Then there's nailing both preparations, the maple-glazed breast precisely medium rare, juicy under its crisped skin, the confit leg a melt-in-the-mouth umami bomb. Plus it's a plate, not just a protein dump on a dish that insists you have to purchase sides at $10 a pop to finish out your meal. There's true comfort in knowing the kitchen thoughtfully put together that succotash of sweet corn, fava beans, leeks, applewood-smoked bacon, and Windrose Farms butternut squash. 

Also note there's a non-menu offering my pescatarian wife almost always orders, a vegetarian plate that a features whatever is most in season (the restaurant still does a market tour foodie stroll followed by dinner if you book ahead) minus anything you don't care to eat. Back in our wet spring, that meant a mound of chanterelles starred; now as summer finally peeks out from behind the marine layer, she received a luscious take on ratatouille, over fantastically flavored farro (see above).

Of course, as good as the food at bouchon is, and as appropriately Santa Barbara focused its wide-ranging wine list might be, it's the service that most stands out. This isn't a spot that grinds out servers as fast as they can graduate from UCSB. Keeping help has never been easy in the hospitable field, and has become nearly impossible since Covid shook-up notions of employment. That hasn't seemed to bother bouchon at all, no doubt because Mitchell and Amy make sure their issues are never your issues if you patronize them. Anniversary tables will have rose petals strewn atop, birthday celebrants get a candle waxed to the side of their dessert plate (it doesn't drip on what you want to eat that way). Waiters are warm, but not faux-chummy, alert, but not hovering. 

You leave pleased in every way possible, the powers of breaking bread, of celebration, reaffirmed. I'd say here's to another 25 years, but I wouldn't wish that on anybody. So here's to as long as it lasts, for that will be delicious and delightful enough.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Twenty-Five Years of Liquid Gold in the Santa Ynez Valley

 (Theo Stephan, left, and Lisa Thompson, at a Global Gardens cooking class)

Twenty-five years since beginning Global Gardens, Theo Stephan is no less passionate about her mission to preach the glories of good olive oil. With all of her business — the crucial club membership work, retail, product development, tastings, cooking classes — unified under one roof in a bright Santa Ynez cottage, Stephan seems pleased. Ever an educator, she says she’s achieved her goal “when people taste real food and realize how simple and easy it is, especially where we are in California. It’s far reaching — the story of olive oil goes back; you can see olive leaves pressed in Paleolithic stones.”

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