Wednesday, June 26, 2024

A Review of "Dogland: Passion, Glory, and Lots of Slobber at the Westminster Dog Show" by Tommy Tomlinson


As I was reading Tommy Tomlinson’s Dogland: Passion, Glory, and Lots of Slobber at the Westminster Dog Show, something delightful and ridiculous—at least in name—stuck its long schnoz into my lap, demanding pets. It was our silken windhound, a real breed (at least UKC recognized), bred mostly from borzois and whippets to create a smaller borzoi. And sure, Archie’s hair is sweetly soft, and he can run like the wind with that double suspension gallop that sighthounds share, but c’mon. Silken windhound? 

 That is all to say I’m not going to be objective in the least writing about Tomlinson’s book, for I’m a dog person through and through. 

 Of course I’m not alone in that canine love. Tomlinson informs us there’s one dog for every four people in the U.S., just one of the many well-researched tidbits he sprinkles like pills of information hidden inside all the other treats of the book that explore, well, happiness of all things. When he runs through the possible ways wolves evolutionarily decided to play nice with humans—there’s a debate—he ends “we domesticated dogs, and they domesticated us.”

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

Sunday, June 9, 2024

A Review of "And Then? And Then? What Else?" by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket


Given he has previously penned a series of four books called All the Wrong Questions, it’s not surprising author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) would suggest he relishes the frisson of being wrong. He writes: 

That light dawning, that small but potent vertigo as a beautiful idea, taken for granted, falls apart in one’s mind, feels so very essential to the enterprise of literature, not only writing it but reading it and living in a world in which it is written and read. It’s a ticket, being wrong, not only a citation but a way of gaining entrance to something more marvelous and exciting for my not knowing at all what it really is. 

Readers who opt in by picking up his latest, And Then? And Then? What Else? will get to spend 200 pages and change frolicking in Handler’s mind as he struggles to figure out what it really is. It’s a bit of a genre-buster, this book, a sort of memoir in which he’ll do infuriatingly vague things like talk about his time in college without naming where he went (Wesleyan, if you’re interested), describe in detail how he writes while shying away from the writerly phrase process, and lean in to a tradition of many before him, from Didion to Orwell, from David Foster Wallace to Zadie Smith, examining the peculiar compulsion that leads anyone to put words together, thereby, perhaps, helping you do the same.

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

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Pimento Cheese, If You Please


Food history is a funny thing, cause once grandmothers get involved, no one minds fudging the truth for a good tale. Take pimento cheese. Today we all think it's an emblem of Southern cooking--heck even Wikipedia suggests its nicknames are the "pâté of the South," "Carolina caviar," and "the caviar of the South."

Turns out mashing together pimento peppers and a soft cheese started in the northern U.S., only to make its way to a hundred southern variations by the middle of the 20th century. Arguably every family had their way, using or eschewing mayo, zipping it with more spice, subbing in red bell peppers--cheaper, more available--for pimentos (also spelled pimiento to further muddy the recipe waters). Starting the 1940s it became a thing at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, GA, its orange glow almost as famous as the winner's green jacket. It's still a thing there today, for a mere $1.50 a sandwich. That's another attraction of the spread--it could be made cheaply, if people so desired. You don' have to gussy it up like the James Beard-winning New Orleans cocktail bar Cure with Hooks 2-year cheddar. (That version is delish, though.)

All that prelude is to get us to Birdie's, hoping to take the pimento cheese market by storm. The founder of the company, Robin Allen, loved the snack as a child. As an adult, she and her husband Glenn owned their own printing business together for 25 years, and were considering trying their hand at something different.

As the website puts it: 

A revitalization grant brought a farmers market to the Allen’s home of South Hill, Virginia; and soon after catching the market bug, Robin and Glenn came up with a plan to sell three flavors of pimento cheese--just for one day--at the market, just to see what it was like. Turns out, they loved everything about it. The town of South Hill, VA paved a clean path for Robin and Glenn to get their pimento cheese inspected and their business established, and after that first day--making new friends over pimento cheese, feeling the thrill of the sale, and selling out all 30 tubs of cheese they had in stock--Robin and Glenn had a hunch that this might be their next life. A few months later, they sold the printing business and started making Virginia’s pimento cheese full-time. Birdie’s Pimento Cheese was born.

The basic recipe is the standard cheddar, mayonnaise, cream cheese, pimentos blend. They keep the cheddar in its shredded state, not doing a full whip and mix, that makes it a bit more homestyle and hearty transom variations. (Yep, even the texture is a matter of family tradition, locale, and taste preference.) What truly makes Birdie's stand out is they offer a series of variations on the basic blend, and those shine and sing--especially the Garlic Parmesan and Jalapeño in the photo, offered along with pita chips for fine buffet skimming at a friend's recent birthday fête. They certainly know how to add flavor yet keep things in bright balance. Other options include Cream Cheese + Black Pepper, Smoked Gouda + Roasted Red Pepper, and seasonal varieties. 

Note, their site also offers all kinds recipes--whipping it into your mac and cheese, slathering it on hot dogs, bringing cheesy goodness to an egg salad sandwich. It's hard not just eat it "raw" though, if you ask me, with the help of your favorite cracker. Or finger, if no one's looking.

(It's only available in northern California stores right now, but you can order online.)

Saturday, June 1, 2024

The Good Lion's Summer Sensations

(photo credit: Lure Digital)

When the owner of an establishment insists the current seasonal menu is the best they've ever done, it's nearly impossible for one's marketing malarkey meter not to register bright red. Of course the latest is always best.

Turns out if Brandon Ristaino of The Good Lion makes such claims, you better listen--and drink--up. I had the great fortune to sit down with Brandon and his wife and business partner Misty this week to taste some of the 11 new drinks on the GL's warm weather 2024 menu that also celebrates their ten years alongside the Granada on State Street. And while I didn't sip all 11--my constitution is not that mighty, dear reader--I had some healthy swigs of five of them and the brilliance and range of what the bar is cranking out easily sums up their successes of the past decade. We cannot begin to express how lucky we are to have The Good Lion and the ever-growing hospitality empire Brandon and Misty are building, now from Ventura to San Luis Obispo. Plus they've been working on three new projects all opening within seven months (one that's right now off the record I'm ridiculously excited about--sorry, won't tell). "You go from a CPA meeting to a mezcal tasting to meeting with a city council member...," Brandon describes. "It gets tough on your body--you can get loopy after four hour in a row."

There's nothing loopy at all about the 10th anniversary special menu. First, it's visually delightful, offering a map of Santa Barbara as the cocktails are named after/inspired by many of our streets. (A lot of these trifolds are going home with patrons, no doubt.) Brandon runs a lot, the two love to urban hike, and if you stare at an Olive or Nopal Street sign long enough, in their business you're bound to get boozy ideas. Some might take a bit more imagination--Islay Street might be pronounced IS-lā in town thanks to the Spanish/Mexican influence, but to a mixologist, it's hard not to think of Scotland and the home of peaty single malt whisky, EYE-luh. 

That's how Ristaino and team got to the Islay St. Penicillin, famed for its Islay whiskey float that brings the delight of smoke to the relatively familiar cocktail. The basics of the drink--usually blended scotch, ginger, lemon, honey, and that float--get rethunk and expanded at GL, to the point when you read the list of ingredients on the menu--Bajan aged rum, pineapple, ginger, mole, apricot, añejo tequila, cognac, lemon, the Islay whisky float--it's easy to panic the result will be an over-complicated muddle. That simply doesn't happen at Good Lion, though. Somehow cocktails deepen and find new dimensions, in the way a cushion cut diamond draws the light, and your eye, into its brilliance. Such richness--Ristaino suggests the añejo adds a caramel note, almost liked a baked good. And what better with the fruit, the cognac. And then the whiff of smoke.

Or take Good Lion's advanced course version of the Boulevardier, the Bananapamu Street Boulevardier. The core cocktail is basically a Negroni with whisky standing in for the gin. Three ingredients, no muss, no fuss. Here's the list for the GL take: bourbon, house bitter blend, banana, macadamia, cacao, Italian vermouths, Demerara rum. What could appear to be too much instead of 1+1ing multiplies, finds ways to make each delicious delight exponential. Overtones and undertones. All the possible poles of flavor, like sour-sweet, boozy-fruity, balanced like a Wallenda* out for a wired walk. Ristaino calls it a more tropical take, which seems Santa Barbara appropriate (May Gray/June Gloom issues aside).

* You're allowed to date yourself when discussing cocktails.

There's something for every drinker here, as the list runs from aperitif to digestif, more or less, from a Garden Street Gimlet, fittingly an herbaceous blast of green that Ristaino compares to "a brunch in an English garden," to a Mission Street (Espresso) Martini I didn't try, but which offers coconut oil vodka, pineapple rum, and Cynar (artichoke, sure!) with the cold brew. Clever cross-marketers that they are, the list points to sister properties--the State Street Spritz (cachaca, gentian, and passionfruit among the ingredients dancing with the Prosecco) nods to Shaker Mill; the Helena Avenue Fix (Fassionola, vegan yogurt--Ristaino prefers to keep his bars dairy-free or all sorts of obvious reasons--whipped like a Ramos fizz) nods to Test Pilot; the Oak Street Margarita (there's even sherry in it) nods to Ventura's soon-to-open Jaguar Moon

Things can get nerdy, if no less downable. The Olive Street Martini has both an olive oil washed vodka and a gin, so edges into Vesper land, but then heads into terra incognita with a tomato essence that kicks off with a tomato oleo. Along with the French vermouth, there's a hit of balsamic vinegar. Think of it as a dirty martini that rolled in the classiest "trash." Ristaino's aide-de-camp Jonathan Jarrett was particularly excited when he might get his hands on pineapple tomatillo to garnish the drink. 

Simply put, the inventiveness never ends, but it also never chases fancy just to be different. The first measure of any of these drink is always pleasure. "We always want to be your local neighborhood bar," Misty says. And Brandon adds, "We want to provide a singular cocktail experience, and never have people be burned out by the cost or the lack of variety." 

And to think for this summer every drink gets to celebrate Santa Barbara too.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A Review of "The Secret History of Bigfoot: Field Notes on a North American Monster" by John O'Connor


How much of writing is staring down the dark. (Just ask Dante and his selva oscura.) Of course that also means, how much of life is staring down the dark, knowing that even if we fail or fear to consider it, the dark will swallow us up in the end. So maybe that’s why we want something to be out there, and why not Bigfoot? 

 Here’s one of the nut graphs John O’Connor offers in his lively, thoughtful, funny, The Secret History of Bigfoot: Field Notes on a North American Monster

Whatever mythic yearning monsters fulfill, we’re jonesing hard. Sixty-six million of us, according to a recent survey, profess to believe in just one: Bigfoot. Sixty-six million! As these numbers suggest, it’s not only crackpots who believe. There may be no more sacred expression of American exceptionalism than faith in a monster we’ve adapted to fit our peculiar view of history, unfalsifiable by facts proffered by science or qualified experts, and suggesting a medieval belief in the raw and violent power of nature. Perhaps we all need Bigfoot in our lives, whether we realize it or not.

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

Friday, May 17, 2024

Trinity Gardens Tour


The Santa Barbara Culinary Experience (SBCE) doesn’t just feature the region’s stars — it also hopes to shine a light on lesser-known people and projects. Take Trinity Gardens, three acres nestled in the Santa Barbara Foothills near the intersection of La Cumbre and Foothill roads. The land — provided by Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church — allows not only for gardens that grow produce for local food banks, nonprofits, and the Organic Soup Kitchen, but also 23 individual plots rented independently. In addition, Dewayne Nash, chair and garden manager, says, “We also provide gardening and food education for all ages to raise awareness about sustainable and healthy growing and eating practices.”

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

The TOSB Soirée


I profiled three of the chefs taking parting the Taste of Santa Barbara Soirée for the Independent. I will include the first paragraph of each quickie, but if you want to read the whole thing, you can do so at the Indy's site.

Sandra Adu Zelli

Those attending the Santa Barbara Culinary Experience Taste of Santa Barbara Soirée will be able to indulge in three desserts prepared by Chef Sandra Adu Zelli, owner of Gipsy Hill Bakery. One of them, the decadent chocolate cake known as Reine de Saba, Zelli has been baking for almost two decades. The funny thing is, when she started, she didn’t know it was famously associated with Julia Child.

Sergei Simonov

A flair for the dramatic is simply part of Chef Sergei Simonov’s skill set, as anyone who saw him manipulate his way through Netflix’s Pressure Cooker series — Lord of the Flies meets TV cooking competition — knows. So it’s little surprise that, for the Santa Barbara Soirée, he will be live-cooking paella de mariscos, a signature dish during his run as Loquita’s executive chef. Guests can expect sizzle and fire in addition to grilled bay scallops, Prince Edward Island mussels, wild jumbo gulf prawns, black garlic sofrito, shiso, and saffron aioli.

Alex Bollinger

Turns out you can go home again — twice — if you’re Executive Chef Alex Bollinger at El Encanto. The Santa Barbara native had a plan early on; he remembers writing in his 6th-grade yearbook that in 10 years, he would be in Europe training to be a professional chef. He ended up traveling the world, cooking under esteemed chefs from Charlie Palmer to Tyler Florence, only to return to be the opening chef at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara’s Angel Oak. From there, he ran F&B for the Alida Hotel resort in Savannah, Georgia, until El Encanto called him home a second time.

Hyperlocal Vegetarian with Satellite / Mezze with the Daisy


I wrote a bunch of quickies for the Independent about the 2024 Taste of Santa Barbara. These first two were about cooking classes with Emma West from Satellite (photo above) and Carmen Deforest of The Daisy. I'll give you the first paragraph of each one, but if you want to read the rest, you can do so, as usual, at the Indy's site. (The overall intro is by Matt Kettmann.)

Hyperlocal Vegetarian with Satellite

Necessity is the mother of Satellite, the buzzy State Street restaurant and wine bar. “Vegetarian cuisine started at Satellite because we have a unique ‘kitchen’ space,” says chef Emma West, co-owner with Drew Cuddy. “We converted two offices into our kitchen and dishroom. We have a couple of induction heating sources and some refrigerators. With the limitations, I wanted to keep things simple and fresh, vegetarian was the way.”

Mezze with the Daisy

Although the Turkish word “mezze” means “snack,” if you load up a plateful of appetizers, it can be a feast. That’s especially true for the class to be taught by Chef Carmen Deforest of The Daisy Restaurant. “The plate embodies the flavors that we love, really fresh and bright,” Deforest explains, “and the way we like to eat, sharing and having a little bit of everything.” Think more typical items like hummus, marinated olives, and flatbread, but then there’s a delicious dip called beet Muhammara, pungent with garlic, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and more, and spicy California lamb and beef Kofta meatballs.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

A Review of "Come and Get It" by Kiley Reid


Kiley Reid’s second novel Come and Get It might appear to be a campus-set comedy of manners, but the joke will be on you if you think it’s only a satire of a self-involved academic/writer and a gaggle of coeds who lean on the phrase ohmygod a lot. It’s not that Reid fails to deliver witty insights about life at the University of Arkansas in 2017. For instance, at one point she describes her most sympathetic character Millie as follows: “She stood bright-eyed in her red RA polo with the posture of a zookeeper who feeds sea lions for a crowd.” But Reid has much more on her mind than pointing out character quirks, consumerist obsession, and social peccadillos. 

The academic, Agatha Paul, is a visiting professor teaching nonfiction and cultural and media studies, who gets most obsessed researching the young women of Belgrade (really its name, and it is not a choice housing location) dorm, first examining their thoughts on marriage, only to pivot to exploring their ideas about money. That’s a hint—the novel limns what one can and should do for money, but without any preachiness.

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

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Cuyama Buckhorn Makes Santa Barbara’s High Desert a Dining Destination

 “The Pickle Plate” might not sing a siren song from a menu. But if you’re dining at Cuyama Buckhorn Restaurant and Bar, the dish’s simplicity certainly should. Banish any thought of boring retro relish trays. Instead, admire its directness, its delivery of just enough vinegary sour to highlight the vegetables’ intrinsic sugar that’s often easy to ignore. Appreciate texture — the snap of carrot, the lush flesh of red pepper, the bristle of broccoli florets. Notice your appetite awaken in fuller ways than it might usually. 

 It’s both delicious and kind of Zen. 

 Let’s get even more essential and order what’s basically bread and butter. That’s a Tehachapi rye flour biscuit, a bit homely and hockey puck sized, beside a quenelle of luscious butter, scooped like ice cream, and drizzled with honey like a sundae topping. That rye flour offers hints of malt and sour — plus, it comes from a project working with heritage grain, non-GMOs, all the good stuff. It’s both hearty and light at once, and when slathered with some of the rich butter and the sweet honey, you will be nothing but happy.

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

Friday, April 26, 2024

The Black Sheep Santa Barbara Brasserie Raises the Baa


While the Black Sheep SB Brasserie is generally dark on Tuesday evenings, it will be open this April 30 to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Observant eaters will note the restaurant has only been at its 18 E. Cota Street location since December 2022, but owner and GM Ruben Perez is counting from the opening of the original Black Sheep on Ortega, which was April 30, 2014. 

To honor the day, Black Sheep will roll back the cost on its four-course, nine-dish tasting menu to 2014 prices — a mere $45. “Can’t believe it went by this fast,” Perez posted in a Facebook announcement for the event. “So grateful for the chance to become part of this amazing community and for the amazing friendships we have made. Here’s to another 10 years filled with food, love, and laughter.”

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A Review of "Last Acts" by Alexander Sammartino


If fathers and sons didn’t exist, novelists would have had to invent them. Alexander Sammartino, in his debut novel Last Acts, dishes up quite a twosome, nailing the fear, faith, and fury of filial love. David Rizzo, veteran, gunshop owner in a godforsaken Phoenix-adjacent stripmall, “had been wandering around with his head bowed, begging to be kicked in the balls if it meant he would have enough money to be recognized a decent citizen.” His addict son Nick, as the novel begins, has just been saved from an overdose. And so we will get a moment of passive-aggressive love like this, as Rizzo rails at Nick: “How about a simple thank-you for a father that goes out of his way to make sure you have snacks? How many recovering drug addicts have snacks?”

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

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Nick the Greek Gyro-ically Hits Santa Barbara’s State Street

“We’re a classic gyro house,” says Niko Heliotis, one of three partners, along with Dimitri and Panayioti Trembois, who are opening a Nick the Greek location at 508 State Street, in the former Natural Café spot. “After spending time in Greece, a lot of Greeks hold nostalgia for that food,” Heliotis explains. “We hope to bring a piece of that nostalgia back.” 

The Bay Area-based chain, now up to 80 restaurants or so (the number grows nearly weekly), certainly delivers delightful gyros, particularly the lamb/beef, with both meats tender and succulent, wrapped in a warm pita with tomato, crispy fries, red onion, and zingy tzatziki. With its extended evening hours — until 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 1 a.m. on weekends — Nick the Greek will no doubt fill many a post pub crawl craving. It’s easy to imagine the spot serving up its over-the-top Nick’s Fries slathered in feta, garlic, spicy yogurt, a protein of your choice, and green onions to a long line of happy chompers.

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

Friday, April 12, 2024

Wexler’s Perfect Pastrami and More Comes to Santa Barbara Public Market


Even though owner Mike Kassar has been tasting his Wexler’s pastrami for 10 years — they originally opened in Los Angeles’s Grand Central Market in 2014 — when executive chef and partner Chris Requena cuts him a slice to sample at their just-opened Santa Barbara location, his eyes bulge out with delight. His involuntary expression of pleasure makes clear why he wears a sweatshirt that reads “I am my own happiness dealer” across its back. 

 Kassar, New York born and bred but a West Coaster for 20 years, relishes bringing deli “back to its roots, by providing craftsmanship, quality, and tradition.” And now bringing deli to the Santa Barbara Public Market. Kassar has always loved Santa Barbara — he and his wife were married here — and admires the “warmth of the community, and how the area is appreciative of good food.”

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

Crazy for Caruso's

It goes like this (quite officially, as I've cut-and-pasted this from the Rosewood Miramar Beach website: "In honor of Caruso’s five-year anniversary and our 2024 Forbes Five Star award, we welcome the Montecito and Santa Barbara community to savor a special offer. Exclusively available Monday through Thursday, through May 23rd, we welcome our community members to enjoy the taste of Caruso’s with Chef’s three-course menu crafted to delight your senses. Available for a limited time only, explore the taste of the local landscape that has defined our culinary journey and raise a glass to five years of unforgettable moments at Caruso's."

That glass above might be a Pacific Old Fashioned taking in the Pacific views. I'll tl;dr for you right here--Caruso's puts the lie to the old saw that the better a restaurant's view, the poorer its food. Even at a "mere" three-courses (there are also four, seven, and chef's selection options for yet splurgier splurges), it's all wow. There's honeycomb centered in your ice cube's carved divot in that cocktail, sweetening via scent every sip. It's powered with Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky, itself honeyed, caramel, orange peel, and oak, and also features what the menu calls "Mango Pierre Ferrand," which is, I guess, either Ferrand's Dry Curacao with its mango notes, or a Cognac they infuse with some mango? And cardamom bitters, for a bit of a fun spice spin. It's a heck of a drink. 

But here's the danger I'm going to go on too long. That's without even discussing watching the sky drain itself of its range of pinks, and to thrill to hundreds of pelicans, arriving in line after line, dive bombing for food just off the shore. Or to mention the pinpoint, kind, service--both our plates hitting the table at once for each course, each course given a moment of post-plate clearing reflection before the next delight showed up. 

Or that amuse up top, a strawberry gazpacho, a bit punchy from pepper, a tad crunchy from ancient grains, miraculously creamy from its quenelle of mascarpone.

For this special 3-course meal, you order from the "regular" 4-course menu, and everyone at the table has to choose the same courses. We went antipasti, primi, secondi, as our sweet tooth will always lose out to our need to slake the savory itch. Still, that Dolci called Our Bees Stayed at the Miramar of bee pollen gelato, lime sauce, and buttermilk did have some definite appeal. (Plus I want to meet these rich bees....)

So there's Chryss's antipasto, billed simply a minted chilled pea soup, but that's like calling Mookie Betts a beer league softball player. (Photo note/please pardon our appearance--we didn't want to use extra lighting to get these photos and be those Instagramholes, and it got darker and darker, of course, as night is won't to do. Sorry.) What's hard to pick up on that bowl above is the lace-like, sesame seed tuile work atop it. Gorgeous, and functional, as when you break it into soup, you get texture. They love pouring stuff table side, so the cold soup goes in over both a King Crab salad, and a pea and fennel salad. Spring in a brilliant bowl.

I had the Channel Island Snapper Crudo, adorned with Pixie tangerine in precise little segments, radishes, and a poured table side wash of yuzu and verbena tea. The fish might have swum over from Anacapa, it was so fresh, and every bite of the plate was bright delight.

For her primi, Chryss enjoyed a seven-year-old Acquerello Risotto, and we discovered we need to start aging our rice. Nobody would get kicked off Top Chef for this risotto (remember the terror of risotto-shaming?).  This time the scallops came from far, far away--Catalina--and that green is from nettle. Oro Blanco adds acid zip, and jalapeño a mild kick. 

As good as that was, I think I "won" this round with my Dulse Gnochetti ai Frutti di Mare. They call dulse dulse as red algae just doesn't have the same romantic ring to it, but it packs oceanic flavor, especially aided and a-wetted by what they call Hope Ranch Broth (mussel stock?). There's the pleasingly pungent tongue of "Stephanie's Uni," too (how familiar they are with Santa Barbara's most famous fisherwoman), and chewy chop of abalone, and bites of Cardinal Prawns that make you believe why when you Google them they're called the best prawns in the world. All in a surface of the moon bowl.

While it's easy for us to let dessert go, we couldn't not pass on bread service, and are thrilled we didn't. Shows up in a cigar box, popping out like a happy Jack. The sourdough is from a 30-year starter that Chef Massimo Falsini has been feeding for decades. Great crumb, as that blue-eyed judging monster in England might say. Hearty crust. And lovely accouterments--a warmed, local olive oil; a dulse butter; a green garlic butter. Plus the butter arrives in two glass towers, so you get an odd Tolkien moment, even. (I feel as geeky as Stephen Colbert now.)

Chryss's secondi is Santa Barbara Black Cod. The rest of the official description says with green garbanzo, fava, chilled garden herb sauce, and spring pulse salad, but that doesn't quite make clear which of the many green things get to wrap the cod in swaddling clothes. Still, hyper local, super spring, both light yet fulfilling. Such a Santa Barbara dish.

I opted for the surprisingly fancy Poached Santa Barbara Petrale Sole, no mere slab of fish as it comes in a lovely faux sausage with shaved thin asparagus skin, a ring of poached sole, and then some of the sole and asparagus in a sort of mouse in the middle. Technique every which way, but all the ways lead to flavor. Then to the right a single chubby spear of white asparagus, beflowered, some thin crisps of fried shallot (I think), a dollop or two of white sturgeon caviar, a couple of morels that then make a morel-caviar mind meld on your tongue when you get both. This gets a tableside pour of Vin Santo Burro Fuso (that's buerre monte if you cook in French and not Italian), the dessert wine adding just a hint of sweetness and a lot of depth.

What a celebration of what our region has to offer, what a skilled kitchen can craft. I'd swear we left the table more beautiful ourselves, a dinner as delight, as benediction.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Ride the Rhone Range

That's a wealth of wine knowledge on the SoHO Restaurant & Music Club's stage on April 9th for a trade event as part of a day promoting the Santa Barbara County Rhone Rangers. As the newest to the business, winemaker Chris Caruso joked, "There's 140 years of experience up here, and I add one of those years." Hiding behind a bottle of his wine in the photo above, Ken Brown was hailed by moderator Matt Kettmann as the professor at Zaca Mesa "University," back when it seemed every about-to-make-Santa-Barbara-famous winemaker trained there in the 1980s. One of those "students" was Bob Lindquist, who pretty much put Rhone varietals on the SB county map, first with Qupé, and since 2018, Lindquist Family Wines. To have both Brown and Lindquist on a panel, sharing wines and stories and knowledge--well, it would be like attending a comedy panel with Buck Henry and Mel Brooks (assume Henry were still living). 

Speaking of good jokes, before I go on, if you can't read that orange sign, here it is in close up, at the bottom of the stage that holds six wineglasses for seven different drinkers. (Good thing they kept Larry Schaffer from crowd surfing after having people taste his funky but chic Tercero 2021 Counoise.)

I kid, I kid. But Schaffer is as ever indefatigable in his boosterism for Santa Barbara County wine, knowing a rising tide of vinous knowledge rises all boats. He happily reported the current 17 members in SBC of the Rhone Rangers is the highest number ever. And was even kind enough to let some SLO County wines into the tasting portion of the event, as Paso Robles certainly knows its way around a Syrah or two. Then to kickoff the panel, Kettmann asserted there's definitely a Rhone renaissance in the New World, and personally admitted, "A good, cool climate Syrah sone of the most interesting grapes out there."

While not quite all of the 22 Rhone varieties of grape were represented on the panel or at the tasting--wither thou, Vaccarese?--there was a soupçon of Bourboulenc in a blend, I'm pretty sure, and positively more Clairette Blanc than I've sipped in a month of Francophone Sundays. People are doing all kinds of interesting things, sometimes simply by reviving a grape generally relegated to blends only (that Counoise), or farming a mere 7 acres on the front ridge of Ojai Mountain, so 10 miles from the Pacific but at 2700 feet elevation, or Clementine Carter making a beautiful, vibrant Grenache Blanc with grapes from two different vineyards--Zaca Mesa and Kimsey--and treating each with different methods--the first has a carbonic fermentation, the second ferments in a concrete egg. The afternoon attested to invention, ever with an eye on tradition.

So let's leave with Bob Lindquist, kind enough to prove Roussanne can rock when aged--that's a magnum of his 2008 Qupé. It showed no lack of fruit waiting to be drunk for 16 years, yet added a stunning depth, providing a multidimensional drinking experience. It let you rethink what that grape can do. During the panel Lindquist joked, "We gain Marsanne and Roussanne drinkers one at a time," but what he poured, as there was also a 2021 Lindquist, certainly moved that needle much more rapidly. And then sometimes the needle moves too rapidly--he also got to pour what will be his final vintage X Block Bien Nacido Syrah, the Lindquist 2020. Famed for years as one of the best sites for the grape--its intensity, bacon fat, black pepper are unmatched--the old vines have sadly succumbed to leaf roll. 

But that's one more thing wine does for us, insist we love the moment, delicious as it passes through our lives. 

Friday, April 5, 2024

Silvers Gets the Gold

Welcome to a post more of photos--all mine from my iPhone so not superior quality, sorry--than words, but I wanted to be sure to attest to the greatness that is Silvers Omakase. I had a terrific talk with Lennon Silvers Lee about the spot that the Indy ran, but now have had the chance to indulge, and it is a magnificent indulgence, one bite at a time. The beauty of it is you have to slow down, you must consider, you must be as intentional and present as Lee and his team with their precise slices, wordless interplay getting out course after course, light passes of brushes to add minute yet powerful dashes of shoyu or homemade elixirs, the arrangement of flowering, flavorful accouterment without any fussy tweezer action. And the joy of some between course shimmying to the well-chosen, properly-volumed jazz soundtrack. 

That's a shot of the foyer you enter, after ringing a bell for entrance, as this is will be an evening out of the ordinary, requiring ceremony. At most there will be 10 of you eating at one time. Decompress with some champagne and enjoy the art. Not shown, a Damien Hirst behind us, fortunately not The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, as facing a 14-foot-long tiger shark in formaldehyde before a sushi meal might be a tad unsettling. Plus, that piece's owner Steve Cohen also owns the Mets, a very different kettle of dead fish. (I am a Mets fan, I'm allowed to make that joke. And go cry.)

That's dish 2--you get a couple composed dishes before diving into nigiri. Kanpachi on the left, uni on the right, the darlingest dollop of wasabi at the bottom. Clean, lean, yet texture and flavor off the charts. As with the gorgeous crystal that welcomes your hand like a handshake you never knew you longed for, the serving pieces are also artisanal bowls from Japan--but you can read about both in my Indy article.

The Kinmedai above is Goldeneye, but don't think Bond, think snapper. Its other nickname is Splendid Alfonsino, which sounds to me like a wrestler beloved by Tony Soprano, but what do I know. For a whitefish it brings colorful flavor. That's the housemade (as is everything here--they even mill their own rice) pickled ginger alongside. Lee even suggests you can pick up the ginger with your fingers. There's ritual, and then there's "you're here to have a great time." Silver's is all about the latter.

Saba--mackerel--just lightly pickled, to cut its native oiliness just the slightest. And notch the flavor even further. Note, despite my odd angle in the photo, that piece is placed on my plate to ease the way for my left-handed approach. They noticed my sinistral nature early on, switched my chopsticks and cool chopsticks holder to the left side of my place setting, and then all the nigiri came angled just for me. That's the kind of attention everything, everyone gets here. (A teenager with her dad--I sure didn't have that dad!--down the bar got the NA pairing, as special and explained to her as the sake pairings were to me, for example.)

Akami. Yep, "aka" in Japan means red. Often consider a lesser tuna (it's the least fatty), but nothing is lesser at Silvers.

Among the greater things at Silvers is Jaime Rocha, here expounding how Iwa 5 is the Dom Perignon of sake. That's no idle comparison, for it's made by Richard Geoffroy, the former Master Brewer of Dom Pérignon. This sake is “orchestrated” with three different rice varietals and five different brewing yeasts including two wine yeasts. Complex isn't word enough. It veritably danced across one's palate. Rocha knows how to pair, how to pour, how to explain, how to pique your interest so you can't wait to taste. Plus, he was the waiter for Chryss and me when we had our wedding reception at Wine Cask many moons ago, so how could we not love him?

The Zuke, which spell check doesn't want you to type, is a marinated tuna that gets a very quick sear, too. It likes to pretend it will fall apart at its segments, but won't, quite. It does bring the meaty texture to fish fintastically [sic] well, though.

And the last course before a killer sorbet was simply titled uni & caviar, but there was nothing simple about it. I actually giggled with joy after my first bite. Lee suggested we eat it in four chomps, but I kept trying to practice Zeno's paradox with it, I didn't want to stop enjoying it. He lavishes on the caviar, and those little crunchy pearls (I forget exactly what they were--a buckwheat something? sorry, didn't take notes as I didn't plan to write about it and just wanted to live in the moment) added just the right texture and crunch. Luxuriousness defined.

Here's your present for heading home, feeling a bit transformed, eyeing the world for all its delicate possibility. Inside that lovely package is some loose-leaf, organic Sencha Yuzu green tea. As the package says, "This tea is bright & smooth," and after sipping it, so am I.

A Bye to Barth


The easy joke would be to say that since I wrote a novel last November it killed off John Barth, but that’s too glib a line to honor a preternatural postmodernist who helped give contemporary fiction a big slap upside its lazy head in the late 20th century (along with others, sure, and I will get to one of them in a bit). But that photo above is the actual copy of Lost in the Funhouse I still own, the ninth printing of the paperback (as of 1980). One of the back cover quotes enthuses: “The reader has to dig. But the digging produces ore from one of the richest veins in American literature.” Turns out that was a review in Playboy. Yeah, times have changed.

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

Friday, March 29, 2024

Can't Get Over La Paloma Pairing Dinner

La Paloma Cafe claims its menu celebrates the cuisine of the Californios, early Californian settlers who incorporated Spanish and Mexican influences into indigenous ingredients cooked over fire. So how better to honor such cuisine than with a Spirited Journey through Mexico, where the spirits start with natural ingredients and are also cooked over fire (or with steam). Fortunately at a fantastic paired dinner on March 20 La Paloma had Blake Landis, cofounder of Angelisco Tequila and brand ambassador for Mezcal Nuestra Soledad and Tepache Sazón serve as a funny, informative, generous guide into all things agave.

Landis took us back through the history of distilling agave, which, goes to the Missions. The padres, happy tipplers all, ran out of the brandy they brought with them to the New World, and as Landis put it, said, "Shit, I need a drink!" They saw the indigenous people drinking pulque--fermentation from the fresh sap of agave--and thought, "Let's try distilling that." Imperialism, trial and error, time--and voila, tequila. 

Landis's own history working and co-owning bars and restaurants led him to a shocking discovery about the tequila world today--the 1% rule. While that bottle of a good brand will no doubt say "100% blue agave," the law allows that no more than up to 1% of the overall volume can be additives. Those additives are things like glycerol, vanilla, agave flavor, and caramel coloring. As always, remember natural is a marketing term, not a legal one.   But Landis and his friends hoped to build a tequila brand that refused the 1% loophole. Eventually the discovered the Aceves Family in the highlands of Jalisco, with a 100 years of mescaleros experience. And Angelisco Tequila was born.

That's Landis counting the two things in his booze--blue weber agave and water. Angelisco also works on keeping its prices down for premium product by doing other things that are equally good for the earth, by using a minimalist, bar-friendly bottle, recycled paper label, and an eco-friendly screwcap.

Which means (you thought I was going to forget the food, didn't you?) Angelisco is clean, tasty, and ready to pair with equally bright and flavorful cuisine. That bigeye tuna aqua chile above was an amazing burst of fish, each perfect little tile fresh and fleshy and the ocean at a chomp. The cucumber cooled. the Serrano chile warmed, the exact right clip of red onion gave it all grip. And atop fish #3 that's a sour grass blossom, something we take as field-filling weed this time of year. Oxalis added vivid yellow contrast to the plate, tangy floral notes to the palate. And in one more way chef Jeremy Tummel got to tie theme directly to the land around us.

The second course mightn't be the most Instagramable, but it was delicious and had a great personality. Plus, it paired with Nuestra Soledad's San Luis del Rio Mezcal, clean and lean as a Concorde (I'm showing my age here, aren't?). The dish is a Manilla clam cocktail, or as Tummel billed it, a "Baja-style campechana," and you would want to lap up that sauce/salsa/soup by the bowlful if you didn't have more courses on the way. Pungently tomato-y even this early in the tomato season, rich with Lillies (garlic and onion or shallot?), cilantro, pepper, and the magic of some smoked trout roe, briny bubbles of saline delight. A dice of avocado, a splash of lemon oil. Wow.

Obviously any meal at La Paloma that didn't take advantage of its red oak grip would be a shame. Wednesday was not in the least shameful. Those are oak smoked baby back ribs, reminding me why I need to order ribs more. They also got everyone past the niceties--looking around at the jolly group (you sit at a communal large U of a table), and everyone dug in with their hands to bite off every last tender morsel of dark coffee barbecued meat. The white sage (more local herbal call out, of course) honey granola atop provided some crunchy contrast, and then the cheesy (Parm, evidently) white corn grits beneath hit the spot where comfort food gets elevated just enough to be classic yet contemporary. The pair here was with Angelica's tequila reposado, which, of all things, they age in used Elijah Craig barrels. Peppery, with vanilla from the bourbon oak, it paired with the ribs like they were created for each other.

And here Chryss got a pescatarian sub that earned its many envious glances from other diners. Thanks, La Paloma, for being so accommodating. Indeed, overall the service was top-notch, even navigating around the large single table in the back patio. 

There might have been a bonus Por Siempre Sotol. I won't tell. 

Dessert brought out the refreshing pineapple piloncillo brûlée you see above, topped with a vanilla beanie cream scoop and drizzled with dulce de leche. Plus there's a bit of crumble on the plate and some finger lime for acid and balance and bubble-popping fun (and a call back to the roe, no?). Sweet, but far from too. The drink pairing went for the same-same rule this time, to stunning effect--we got to enjoy Tepache Sazón, a traditional Mexican fizzy fermented drink often made of pineapple, as it is in this case. Think kombucha without tea or scabby or yoga pants. Clocks in at 7%. The effervescence keeps reviving your mouth for more dessert. And isn't that what we all want?

Well, one might also want to attend the next La Paloma pairing dinner, especially since it will feature SB's now Ian Cutler and his distillery's terrific booze. It's booked for Friday, April 26th, and you can learn more and reserve on line.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Silvers Goes for the Gold


When you hear the too-common story of a Santa Barbara restaurant taking 30 months to open, you assume it will be a tale of permit hell and financial woe. But for Lennon Silvers Lee, whose big gambit Silvers Omakase finally debuted on February 6, that long wait was a secret blessing. “I had two and a half years to work on my dream restaurant,” he asserts. “I went all-out.”

Lee certainly has had help going all-out. His partners in Silvers Omakase are venture capitalists Mitchell and Lisa Green, who befriended him when he opened Sushi|Bar in Montecito with his brother Phillip Frankland Lee (the Top Chef alum who was behind The Monarch and Silver Bough in Montecito and still heads the Scratch Restaurants empire). When older brother Phillip pulled the plug on every regional business but Sushi|Bar in October 2019, hoping to spin the sushi omakase concept into more locations, Lennon decided it was time to move out on his own. “I’m just a young kid with a 4-year-old,” he admitted during a long, recent interview sitting at his sushi bar. “It was a big leap to leave my brother and do something of this caliber.”

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

Thursday, March 14, 2024

A Review of "The World According to Joan Didion" by Evelyn McDonnell


You know you’re in great authorial hands when on page two of this book Evelyn McDonnell insists about her subject Joan Didion, “Narrative was her expertise and her enemy.” Not just a great insight, that line connects the dots between these two powerful women. McDonnell skillfully offers all the lessons she’s learned from years of reading, considering, and teaching (currently journalism at Loyola Marymount University) Didion. So both can wield a rapier thrust of a declarative, quick last sentence of a paragraph. For as McDonnell closes one graph, “For Didion, words were earned, not spent.” Indeed. 

 McDonnell, editor of Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé, Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, is not attempting biography with The World According to Joan Didion, or even a literary biography, but something more attuned to her fascinating subject. It’s an examination of where Didion met the world on the page, read through a series of Didion totems that function as chapter titles, such as Gold, Notebook, Stingray, Jogger, Morgue, Orchid. For what better way to honor Didion than with a collection of essays?

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

Burger Week 2024--Yellow Belly and The Brewhouse


It's time for the Independent's 2024 Burger Week. I got to preview and write-up two, at Yellow Belly Tap and The Brewhouse Santa Barbara. Read the whole thing at the Indy's site, go support local businesses. Eat well!

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Girl Grape Power

You know you're at the right event when you overhear other folks discussing compound butters. That's just one small way to suggest what a big event--part of an even bigger event--can embody. For the 2024 Women Winemakers and Culinarians Celebration that just occurred March 6-10, with a Grand Tasting on March 9 at boutique vineyard event space 27 Vines in Santa Ynez, was, as usual, an incredible community treasure. International Women's Day has no better home than Santa Barbara. 

Winemaker for Seagrape Karen Steinwachs (in the middle of the photo above, with chef Brooke Stockwell on the left and County Supervisor Joan Hartmann on the right--of the photo, that is), one of the events founders and organizers, let on, "There are 250 guests but 70 of us winemakers and culinarians." That's a 3.57 "faculty-student" ratio that you'd be amazed to find at even the toniest of prep schools. But in this case the "faculty" makes much of the best wine and food Santa Barbara County has to offer. There's a belief that SB has the highest ratio of women winemakers, one of those stats that makes sense when you look at photos like the one that leads this post, but is hard to prove definitively (like, if Cole Ranch, which is an AVA that's a single vineyard, was owned by a woman, that would be 100%...). Most importantly, the fest exists to give back to the community, and this year's beneficiary was She Raised Her Hand, which provides opportunities for 2 million women veterans to find community, purpose, and strength.

One of the tricky things writing about this event is that it's spectacular annually, so coming up with witty insights about it gets harder and harder. Last year I thrilled to find two of our county's best winemakers, period, Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace and Jessica Gasca of Story of Soil sharing a table--well, look at that photo above from this year. Once again both poured stunning wines--Osborne offering brand new releases from large format bottles--we all need to be talking about her Grenache Blanc more, you know--while Gasca's just disgorged 2023 Pet Nat made from Gruner was a perfect working-on-being-spring afternoon quencher. Hooray for brand new releases that confirm our region's deliciousness.

Speaking of deliciousness, there was plenty, like the scarfable ahi poke lettuce wraps from Erica Velasquez at Ramen Kotori. Heck, Joy Reinhardt from Ellie's Tap & Vine made me like bread pudding (usually not my favorite texture), by making sure the edges were crisped and crunchy. Brooke Stockwell from Los Olivos Cafe spoiled us with the unctuousness of butternut uni crostini. Jane Darrah from Good Witch Farm (what a perfect name for the event, no?) showered a chicken liver mousse crostini with gorgeous, delicious micro greens and edible flowers. 

While I didn't get enough photos of the food as I don't want to show pictures of me contentedly chewing, here's one of the view. The site was something, with plenty of space so things never felt crowded. We got to have lots of lovely conversations, which is part of the point of such an event. In particular a long chat with Sonja Magdevski--while tasting wonderful pours like her concrete egg-aged Roussanne and a wine cider that's 2/3 Mourvèdre Rosé and 1/3 pippin apples--is slowly phasing out the Casa Dumetz name so all her wines will be Clementine Carter. A scoop, of sorts.

In the news to me, you decide if it's a scoop to you category--SBC is truly rocking Gamay right now. The carbonic one above from Dreamcôte was beautiful, made whole cluster from Donnachadh Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hill's grapes that only winemaker Brit Zotovich, Ernst Storm, and the vineyard owners got to play with. Another Gamay winner comes from The Joy Fantastic, from Amy Christine and Peter Hunken's own SRH vineyard. I'd love to crack open bottles of each to taste side-by-side someday and drown in pomegranate and mineral goodness.

As for out and out new winery finds, I was most excited by another pair of table neighbors. I nicked the label image from the deeply pleasing Grenache from Cote of Paint to make clear they've got senses of both humor and marketing. Couple Kristin Harris Luis and Nick Luis both have connections with the ever-impressive Dragonette, so have learned from the best. Their creation story joke is, “We don’t want to change how wine is made, we just want to throw on a coat of paint,” but they paint deliciously. And they don't even fussily mess with the diacritical mark on the o in cote, which is mighty kind. Next to them was Amber Rose Wine, and Amber also honors a terrific mentor, in this case Pinot legend Ken Brown. Her 2018 Riverbench Vineyard SMV Pinot Noir is elegant yet speaks of the Santa Maria Valley with its salinity. Although a small operation, Amber Rose also insists on every employee being a woman in her business. Hard to beat that as a way to qualify for the occasion. 

And I wanted to end here, as it encapsulates the joy of the day. I'd laugh a lot, too, if I were as talented as Jessica Foster, who came up with the brilliant, sweet-salty bite: s'mores pecan bananas foster. Beyond the Foster/foster joke, I could have stood at this table all afternoon, gulping them down. Between lots of laughs.