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.