Friday, December 22, 2023

A Review of "Blood in the Machine" by Brian Merchant


Walter Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography sold nearly 230K copies in its first eight weeks in stores and is currently at #47 in Books at Amazon. Brian Merchant’s Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion against Big Tech sits at #17,280 in Books. That’s just one way to say our fascination with the mighty always trumps (verb chosen advisedly) our interest in history’s “losers.” The Luddites have been pummeled so badly by history we don’t even use the term accurately. 

So it’s fortunate Merchant has written this engaging corrective that leans into rightfully earned polemic in its final chapters. Merchant, a Los Angeles Times technology columnist and author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, sets himself to a difficult task, for the Luddites have been misrepresented and slandered since they first took hammer to power looms in England in the 1810s. Even today, as he points out, a Google search will tell you a Luddite is “small-minded” and “resists progress.”

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

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Cheers for Rip It and Sip It Cocktails


I have to admit I'm skeptical of premixed cocktails, as I so enjoy making them myself. Searching for a recipe (or developing my own), getting more and more and more ingredients, preparing my own shrubs and booze-soaked cherries and saline solutions, using wonderful's all part of the drinking process that connects me with history and culture. And then I share them with people I love as a way to make it clear I do.

But if someone's going to let me try their product, I sure will. And NIO Cocktails won over me over. If you're in search novelty, taste, and ease, it's a product that's hard to beat. It doesn't hurt they provide accurate takes on the classics--from martinis to mai tais--and some intriguing new concoctions, like the Garden of the Zar (free of any Russian T as who wants to seem Russian right now?), featuring Ketel One vodka and elderflower liqueur from Bols. There are 20 cocktails currently to choose from.

NIO stands for Needs Ice Only, but to be fair, they also often suggest a twist, as they should to complete, say, a Boulevardier or Sidecar. (We Californians are so spoiled with our citrus trees abundant in every yard, of course.) But if you are shy easy access to an orange or lemon, all you need to do to "make" a NIO cocktail is to shake the attractive box that at least reminds late middle-aged me of an old school 5-and-a-1/4 inch floppy disc (or New Order's "Blue Monday" 12"), rip off its corner (note--you will spill a teensy bit of the first cocktail you do this with in your learning curve), pour into a rocks glass loaded with ice, and drink.

That does mean every NIO is on the rocks, but it also means you have no other accoutrements to wash but the glass when you're done. So it's not only simple on the making, it's simple on the clean-up. Double win.  And even if your sidecar is powered by Remy XO and Cointreau, that 100ml pour ends up clocking in at a mere 28.8% ABV. Given Cointreau by itself is 40% ABV, these end up lighter mixes, too. That's particularly good to keep you from molesting someone under the mistletoe and regretting it later.

NIO began in Italy--Milan, no less, so that's why it ranks well on style points--and has had its US debut this fall. They like pushing the box as a way to order, which makes sense, as you need a bunch of cocktails ready to go. In fact, I could see these most useful for a party where you don't want to wear out your shaker muscles or just would rather everyone gets a tipple quick without much muss or effort. Plus, conversation piece! That the drinks all begin with top shelf booze doesn't hurt, either. If you're wondering about the price, they come in at abut $10 a drink, which would be a bargain at a bar anymore. 

Mollie Does Deli

Chef Mollie Ahlstrand has been a local icon for three decades. Her treasured Trattoria Mollie on Coast Village Road set the bar for Italian cuisine in the region, and welcomed patrons like Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, and Ahlstrand’s personal favorite customer ever, Kirk Douglas. In 2018, she moved from Montecito to Santa Barbara proper, opening Mollie’s on State Street next to The Granada Theater. But, as she pointed out in a recent interview, “There was the mudslide and the Thomas Fire and COVID … and the rent and the taxes.” Ahlstrand closed the spot in 2021.

So it might seem surprising she’s back with Mollie’s Italian Deli in the Shepard Place Shops in Carpinteria. The strip mall storefront has seating for a dozen people, plus a few more outside, and is squeezed between the Culture Skate Factory and an animal medical clinic. Coast Village Road the location decidedly is not, despite the attractive white tile walls inside and the homey copper pots, clearly functional and not just decorative, along the walls.

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

When They Do the Double Duck, That's Me Dancing*

To be honest I'm surprised that I have used the tag "duck" only six times in the history of George Eats. It is one of my favorite dishes to order out, partly because it still seems special to me--we certainly never ate it in my house growing up--partially because, even though I realize the ones you get out are farmed, it feels like someone had to hunt for your dinner, and how cool is that?, and partially because the few times I've tried making it at home have been mediocre at best, plus a mess to clean up after. 

So I have ducked twice in the past two weeks, both memorable, and both drastically different despite being versions of duck confit at their base. How could anything cooked very slowly in its own fat not be delicious? Duck has a distinct advantage being filled with duck fat, of course. The result is tender yet still gamey, with a flavor that lingers.

Above you see the duck from Gala, in Santa Barbara in the chic redo of the old Pacific Crepes (and beloved and lamented wine bar pop-up Five and a 1/4) location. Get ready for buzz--people are eating at the bar that fronts Anacapa, large groups are partying, cocktails shakers make their magic song--yet it can still feel romantic and special. The couple who opened the spot, Tara Penke and Jaime Riesco, have tons of industry experience and a restaurant in Barcelona, so sure enough, Gala has a European feel to it. 

And a delicious dish of duck. Note it's a full dish, too, and that's crucial. While you can get sides, what comes on this plate expresses all sorts of balance and delight. Confit by its nature is rich--that's why you order it--so having some greens with a piquant vinaigrette is a perfect counterweight. Those velvety mashed potatoes add creaminess to the mix, and a different kind of richness than what the duck delivers, both earthy--potato, after all--and ethereal--no doubt more than you want to know of cream and butter. And then there's the duck gravy, that embarrasses any pan-dripping alchemized into genius sauce before it.  They could sell that on its own, no doubt. The sprinkle of preserved kumquat adds just enough whimsy and acid and color.

Unfortunately I don't have a photo of the second duck dish, as I was too hungry to take one. We were in Cambria recently, staying on Moonstone Beach, and had the great pleasure doing a holiday twilight tour at Hearst Castle (bonus photo below). That meant we were dinner hunting on a Sunday at 7:30 pm, which, we discovered, was a risky position. We had hoped to just walk to one of the two places near our hotel, either the Sea Chest or the Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill, but both shut down for weeks in December. Thanks, off-season! 

So we ended up at Robin's in the village of Cambria itself. Tucked in a hobbit-esque cottage decked out tastefully for Christmas with a fireplace roaring, it tuned out to be a delight. Its ethos is straight from the Moosewood era, but unlike some places you might remember from Santa Barbara's not-too-distant dining past, it also evolved a bit with the times, doing veggie and healthy without simply steaming your broccoli and dousing your brown rice in Bragg's. There I ordered Duck Colorado: duck confit, roasted polenta, cumin sumac roasted baby carrots, red mole sauce, queso fresco, and a handful of tortilla chips. The old pro of a waiter brought out the sharp knife with the gorgeous bowl of food only to say, "Not that you're going to need it." Sure enough, the meat dropped from the bone like someone losing their robe to seduce you. That mole hit all sorts of wonderful notes from its mix of sesame seeds and almonds and who knows how many spices. The heat didn't blaze, but slowly warmed, perfect for a chilly December evening. 

Clearly there's more than one way to serve a duck.

*Pardon the 32-year-old Liz Phair non-sequitur of a title....

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Third Window's Boffo Bierbara

I don't know how I have been so remiss never to post about one of my favorite annual food-drink events in  Santa Barbara, in particular because it honors Saint Barbs herself. The St. Barbara origin stories, as with most of the old time saints--you know, the ones before the Romans even knew they'd need an M to count years--is murky, but basically she was a babe so her dad locked her up in a tower to keep her safe. (And keep her valuable to sell when a rich suitor came a-courtin'. It wasn't the good old days.) Pagan dad was later shocked to learn Barbara found the Catholic God in the meantime. Indeed, she convinced workmen to put a third window in a bathhouse on the family property, in tribute to how light comes in to one's soul through the trinity. Unhappy dad asks her to recant. She refuses. Turns her over to be tortured into recanting. She refuses. (Note: bad parenting.) Sentenced to death, her dad Dioscorus offers to wield the beheading sword himself, killing Barbara, only to be instantly smote by a lightning strike. So henceforth, St. Barbara is the patron of protection from things that go boom, especially thunderstorms and gunpowder.

Kris Parker, owner of Third Window Brewing, jokes, "Since all the mountain ranges were taken when we were looking for a name for a brewery that had an affinity for monastic ales, we turned to St. Barbara as a way to honor the town we are in." A graphic designer loved the idea--no surprise, as they have a nifty logo for all their merch--and Third Window was born. Every year for St. Barbara's feast day, December 4th, Third Window releases Bierbara, a strong ale that varies from year to year, and holds an actual multi-course feast. This year was number X. (Might as well stay with that Roman counting, no?)

There's Kris Parker, left, discussing one of the special pours before one of the courses. To his right is chef Logan Jones of Tamar, who has had an off-and-on pop-up at Third Window in the past (and currently at the old Tyger Tyger location Fridays), and given his foods all about Middle Eastern flavors, it seemed a particularly good fit for a feast day for someone rumored to have lived in that general region. It certainly worked this night, and he joins the line of esteemed chefs to prepare the Bierbara Feast these past ten years, including John Cox when he was at Bear & Star and Justin West when he owned The Mill's Wildwood.

Please note that non-optimal lighting makes these photos less the sell they should be. Every dish, brought out family style and placed so every four people had a platter to share, was as gorgeous it was delicious. Take that salad above, vivid with its Castelfranco and Treviso red-ivory streaks and then enough variations of shades of white to make you want to bring in an Eskimo who has all those supposed words for snow to help make distinctions--mixed chicories, Belgian endive, Asian pear, sheep's milk cheese, daikon radish. Toss with some toasted hazelnuts, sugar snap peas, and preserved lemon vinaigrette and you had a wonder of a winter salad. Especially when paired, like-to-like, with a lambic beer, a Ranch Koelschip re-fermented on Regier Farms peaches for an extra-sour-sweet snap of fruit. 

The second course offered the delight of ranch oak-smoked lamb kofta meatballs, crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, full of flavor, sat in some of the yummiest cucumber and mint tzatziki I've ever had, somewhere between that Greek dip and a raita, punched up with black garlic chili oil. As a delivery vehicle there was Michelline Parker's soul-satisfying sourdough bread, grilled and drizzled with just enough olive oil. All of that good taste was amplified by the vivid Winter Saison '23 poured alongside, an imperial aged in Cognac puncheons, mellow and bright and artfully acetous, with the exact additions of ginger and orange peel without overpowering the ale's balance. The beer did that fine cleanse the palate trick that helped keep the food course seeming light.

The third course proves yet again brown foods might be made for the belly but not for Instagram. That's the fall-off-the-bone tender braised Fess Parker (what else?) beef short rib amidst a stew of homey loveliness--braised wheat berry porridge, pomegranate, toasted pistachio, roasted turnip, butternut squash, smoked dates. Atop the savory crunch of crispy shallot. Winter savory eating at its finest, so good you could have it without the beef and be completely pleased, and I say that usually not a huge fan of the whole porridge/oatmeal/congee texture of foods. (I tell myself I'm saving them for my toothless 90s.) But this dish I ate with relish. And drank with the '23 Bierbara, this year an abbey-style quad aged for a year in Willett Bourbon barrels, then rested on roasted pistachio and pomegranate. Super smooth for its no doubt high alcohol content, it was vivid with vanilla, piquant with the pistachio and pomegranate that the food also delivered. As ever, something special. (It's probably on tap/in bottles at the brewery soon if you want some.)

Note the reason for the season beer was poured alongside course three. For dessert we each got a generous glass full of dark chocolate budino, a very adult pudding that took a bit to get to through the whipped cream, tangerine segments and candied rind, and the peanut brittle that Chef Jones should be selling on its own. The beer match once again went for the samesies trick--the method of this feast's madness was always amplification, intensity, underlining--a bourbon-barrel aged walkabout, an imperial chocolate stout made with Third Window's almost neighbors 24 Blackbirds cocoa nibs, vanilla, and backyard orange peel. It could have been dessert in a glass itself, but we also had a dessert in another glass. 

And at least two of us were very glad we waddled our fested selves the 2.3 miles home on foot, reminiscing of deliciousness all the way.

Monday, December 4, 2023

All Hail Another Year of Jubelale

Given Anchor Brewing is gone, and along with it its annual Christmas Ale, it's good some seasonal winter warmers are continuing their traditions. Take Bend, Oregon's Deschutes Brewery, which has released its 36th edition of its Jubelale. This dark ale is long lingering and warming, offering aptly seasonal notes of chestnut and allspice and smoke. Think of Jubelale as one of those beers that teaches you how to drink it, moves your taste buds around to best accept its enveloping warmth. With surprising oomph for a mere 6.7% ABV, it's a strong ale that won't punch you upside your head if you drink two. Bring on the snow, or at least the ugly sweaters.

Not that the art for Jubelale is ugly in the slightest. In face, there's a contest every year for new art. The festive scene for 2023 showcases a design by former Deschutes Brewery employee, Ben Woodcock. Deschutes press release informs: "Ben worked at the Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House for nearly a decade where he served up tasty food and beverages as he made his way through graphic design school at Portland State University. During his time with Deschutes, he also created elaborate one-of-kind chalk art that frequently graced the walls of the restaurant. Today, Ben is a multidisciplinary artist, designer and educator in Portland who still creates unique chalk art for Deschutes at the Portland Public House." So that's a cool way to support the employee team and make things a bit more personal and personable. Which is what a good beer does, no?