Friday, September 19, 2014

Food 4 Thought: Restaurant Review - Four Seasons Afternoon Tea

Four Seasons Biltmore
1260 Channel Dr., Montecito
565-8237
Hours: Friday and Saturday, 2 to 4 p.m.

Afternoon Tea has a tradition dating back to the 1840s in England - though the origins of tea drinking stem from China. Allegedly Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, was feeling a bit peckish in between the usual two mealtimes in England, breakfast and dinner, so the Duchess decided a pot of tea and a light snack would suffice. One thing lead to another and everyone copied her – meaning that afternoon tea became a socially accepted practice, thus resulting in tea parties. Ah, England. Though we hearty Americans won the war of Independence, the civility and properness of British afternoon tea can still be experienced at the most non-British of places, the Four Seasons Biltmore here in Santa Barbara, which has been offering tea since 1987. Is it a more formal experience? Yes. Should you go? Yes, at least once if you’ve never experienced it, and you needn’t wear wacky hats, but I do suggest it.

Wacky British Tea Hats!
The Full Afternoon Tea ($33) includes two courses; a first course of finger sandwiches and a second course of pastries, scones and other hedonistic snacks. There are a dozen teas to choose from: standard offerings like Earl Grey (rather proper, eh Giles?) to peppermint herbal, and Japanese sencha. You can upgrade to the Montecito Tea ($36), which adds a glass of Sherry, or the Royal Tea ($39), which adds a glass of Champagne or Kir Royale.

The finger sandwiches arrive first and these will change seasonally. My visit included a cranberry-turkey salad sandwich with spinach on sourdough with delightful savory note; a smoked salmon with watercress greens on pumpernickel topped with beets which is piquant but slightly overpowered by the bread; and a cucumber, Point Reyes blue cheese, arugula, mix on raisin walnut bread topped with sliced poached pears. The poaching of the pears however removes the citric notes, which would actually enhance the flavors.
The smoked salmon, watercress and pumpernickel
The desserts on the second course will rotate every week or so therefore some of these items will change. The three-tiered tray is loaded with strawberries dipped in chocolate all juicy and ripe with a thin, not a clunky thick, coating of chocolate on them. The coconut cookie is a tad dry but definitely has a preponderance of coconut. The small current scone is served warm and is best topped with the lemon curd.
I’ve never understood crumpets, a loose battered griddlecake, but they are terribly British. Even with a topping on them these traditional discus dough cakes do nothing for me. The coffee macaroon was soft and mild almost like a mini coffee break. The bite of cheesecake is supremely decadent and frankly way too small for something this good. It’s smooth as silk with a mild graham cracker crust and the strawberry topping makes this a perfect bite of food. The tartlet is made with blueberry, raspberry, strawberry and blackberry in a small square filled with custard. There’s a pleasing burst of fresh berry fruit balanced against the creamy custard and crisp pastry shell. Save the chocolate tart for last. This has a crisp cookie crust topped with a small gold decorative leaf and a stunning creamy dark chocolate-caramel center, all ideally balanced and the exclamation point of a great time. Of course there is the addition of small dishes of lemon curd a citric tart smooth wonderful curd; strawberry jam which is viscous and sweet; and Devonshire clotted cream which is surprisingly buttery yet mild for you to slather on whatever (or whomever) you want.

Food:          ★★★★
Service:       ★★★★
Ambience:   ★★★★

Afternoon Tea - British style
(NOTE: Ratings for all foods are ranked 1-5. Each restaurant is visited multiple times in accordance with review guidelines of the Association of Food Journalists. Michael Cervin was the restaurant reviewer for the Santa Barbara News Press for more than seven years and judges at many food and wine events.)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Food For Thought: Restaurant Review of Paloma


Flying High: Paloma Restaurant & Tequila Bar
5764 Calle Real, Goleta
805/681-0766, PALOMA

Open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

There is no shortage of Mexican restaurants in Santa Barbara; there are some terrific street-food places with traditional dishes, but what Santa Barbara is lacking is a more creative approach to the incredible variety of Mexican food covering not just the border states but recipes and spices from Mexico to Central America. Paloma (meaning “dove”) has brought creative, flavorful food and an upscale but casual ambiance. Owned by the Rudy's folks this is not a rehashing of their popular Mexican restaurants around town, this is something totally different. Booths, tables and a small bar fill the space with burnt orange walls and a family festive vibe. They run specials, sometimes even up to twice a week so that will always be new coming out of Paloma in addition to their comprehensive menu.

There are six salsas at their salsa bar including the mildly spicy roasted tomatillo mixed with pepper and diced onions. Their regular salsa is a tomato based mild version, all the better to go with their chips (served warm!) and their Guacamole ($7) which is a smooth creamy version topped with cilantro and diced tomato. There's a little bit of pepper and a comprehensive lime note making this very addictive. Of course you need a margarita to go with that and their regular Margarita ($8) is a smooth sweet concoction nicely balanced with plenty of lime without being overpowering. It’s simple, tasty and hits the mark. The Paloma Margarita ($9) uses grapefruit juice, blood orange, and tequila resulting in a more tart version of this classic. They also have more than 100 tequilas to choose from.
The Chile en Nogada

A few dishes to consider: The Empanadas de Camaron ($9) is two small shrimp-filled turnovers topped with a mango habanero sauce. The pastry is soft and light, the shrimp moist and the habanero sauce has a slow burning heat to it and it’s wonderfully flavorful. The Ceviche ($10) is citrus-marinated diced halibut, mixed with a small amount of pineapple and served with thin, crisp fried plantains. The fish retains a nice tropical flavor to it, but nothing overly sweet nor one-dimensional. The Chile en Nogada ($16) is a Pasilla chile stuffed with a mix of walnuts, pine nuts, ground beef, peaches, spices and topped with a creamy and slightly sweet sauce and dotted with pomegranate seeds. Typically a seasonal dish from Puebla Mexico, Paloma brought this gem to Goleta and I highly recommend it. This offers a great balance of heat mainly from the chile and texture from the nuts, and this unusual dish is spot on being distinctive, flavorful and satisfying. 

The Tacos del Mar
The Enchiladas Paloma ($15) is shrimp and cheese enchiladas topped with a creamy chipotle sauce, served with salad and side of rice. They consider this their "go-to dish," and there’s good reason why. The velvety chipotle sauce has a roasted smoky quality the way chipotle is supposed to be. The large shrimp are moist and tasty all by themselves giving texture and flavor. Dessert-wise the Bandalone ($6.95) is their signature dish. A moist corn cake, a cross between tres leches without the milk and corn pudding, it’s served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and sliced strawberries and then drizzled with caramel sauce. This is a dense cake with plenty of corn flavor balanced by the sweet caramel and ice cream and is a terrific new version of an old favorite. 
The success of Paloma is in striking a flavor balance with their foods and elevating them beyond traditional Mexican fare. Creating wonderful and flavorful foods at exactly the right price, Paloma fills a void in Santa Barbara’s Mexican food offerings. 


Food:          ★★★★
Service:       ★★★★
Ambiance:   ★★★

(NOTE: Food For Thought Friday incorporates restaurant reviews, and Central Coast specialty foods. Ratings are ranked 1-5. Each restaurant is visited multiple times in accordance with restaurant review guidelines of the Association of Food Journalists. Michael Cervin was the restaurant reviewer for the Santa Barbara News Press for more than seven years, and judges at many food and wine events.)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Decade of Sideways: Miles of Film & Wine


When “Sideways” was released in 2004, the comedy had no way of knowing it would be nominated for five Oscar’s (with a win for Adapted Screenplay), rake in $72 million at the box office, supercharge wine and tourism in Santa Barbara, boost Pinot Noir sales, and famously malign Merlot, all in 126 minutes.

Me, Paul Giamatti & Alexander Payne at the Sideways 10 Reunion
On the 10th anniversary of the film, director Alexander Payne, star Paul Giamatti and other cast and crew met at the ranch of Jim Clendenen, winemaker of Au Bon Climat whose Pinot Noir was featured in the film, to partake in a fundraiser and reunion, and Cervins Central Coast was invited. The $1,000 a plate five-course meal – which included things like BBQ quail, grilled shrimp, and oak grilled filet mignon served with wines from the film - raised $100,000 for Direct Relief International, and was held in a tent lined with stills of the film, with appropriately spectacular views of vineyards.
At the dinner these conspicuous dump buckets reminded everyone of the film.

"Sideways" created an unexpected economic windfall for Santa Barbara when it originally hit theatres unlike any other film in recent memory. “I had no idea this would have happened,” Payne told me. “We were just making a movie. You never think about things like this nor can you predict it.” Actor Paul Giamatti, who played the central character Miles, held the same view. “I’ve never been involved with something like this. It’s gratifying to know that the film has actually had a measured economic impact on this area.” The film shot for 10 weeks in the region and three of those days were at The Hitching Post restaurant, which saw an increase in business of 30% after the film was released. “Our wine sales doubled and restaurant revenue quadrupled, and we were able to get an air conditioner. Thank you Alexander,” said owner and one of the chefs for the evening, Frank Ostini.
Along Santa Rosa Road























In the most quoted scene of the film Miles (Giamatti) vehemently proclaims he “won’t drink any fucking Merlot.” He also praised the virtues of Pinot Noir. That registered in the minds of the public, for reasons unknown. Sales of Pinot Noir increased 15%, while Merlot dropped about two percent in sales. The result of a line in a movie? Yes and no. Merlot had been over planted to begin with throughout California (Santa Barbara only produced a small fraction of Merlot at the time and it wasn’t very good) and there was a surplus of inadequate Merlot flooding the market, so the impact was actually minimal. These days the region known as Happy Canyon is producing very good quality Merlot and producers like Grassini Family Vineyards, and Happy Canyon Vineyards are solid bets.
 
Santa Barbara wines go anywhere!
Of course tourism to idyllic Santa Barbara wine country greatly increased following the film. People wanted to drive bucolic Santa Rosa Road, visit the Kalyra Winery tasting room, and eat steak at The Hitching Post. And they came…and they keep coming. The success of the film also spawned a Japanese language remake, transporting the location to Napa rather than Santa Barbara. But Santa Barbara wine country is not merely the residual “Sideways” phenomenon. The County is home to over 250 wineries strewn all across the area. For those who want classic wine tasting experiences there are plenty of wineries to visit first hand in the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valley’s set amongst unending rows of vines. In Lompoc the wine ghetto is a collection of tasting rooms set in an industrial area. The valley hot spot currently, Los Olivos, has 48 tasting rooms packed into its four-block radius, and in downtown Santa Barbara, just two blocks from the beach, the Funk Zone is popping with tasting rooms and there is the Urban Wine Trail. So it doesn’t really matter how or where you want to taste local wines, there is a spot for everyone – just make your way straight to Santa Barbara, not sideways.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Santa Barbara’s Best (Tucked-Away) Picnic Spots


July may be National Picnic Month but here in paradise, AKA Santa Barbara, it’s almost always time for a picnic. But finding the best and coolest picnic spots may be a little harder than you think. Everyone knows the obvious choices: Leadbetter Beach with its numerous tables, Tucker’s Grove with its family amenities and also numerous tables, Shoreline Park and such, so I scoured the beach, the mountains, and parks to find five less known but still classic Santa Barbara picnic places with diverse views but which are more secluded. So pack your picnic basket and discover some al fresco undercover gems of Santa Barbara.

 Andree Clark Bird Refuge





What was once considered a viable place to build the harbor in the 1920s has become something of a rarely visited respite. Set in a riparian woodland there are three small wood platforms with benches on them jutting out over the water, the last one being over a small bridge near the Santa Barbara Zoo. These wood platforms are accessed by a flat path that circumscribes part of the lake. You can sit directly above the water; the cool breezes from East Beach washing over you and you can have a modicum of privacy and quietness though these are not shaded. As the water laps up at your feet you’ll probably see diverse birds here including white pelicans on occasion. Located close to Coast Village Road in Montecito, food and restrooms are a short drive away.


Elings Park

Though it’s a popular spot for weddings, Cedric Grove atop Elings Park has easy car access, not to mention serene views back towards the city. There are restrooms nearby, plenty of picnic tables and a circular lawn surrounded by large mature oak trees. There is no food available here and they charge for parking on weekends, though weekday parking is free. Take the road all the way to the top and turn left on George Bliss Rd. The Wells Fargo Amphitheater offers the best views of the city not to mention plenty of graded seating. There are benches that flank both sides of the hill one to the city and other with views towards the park and out towards the ocean.

Lookout Park

   























You probably drive past this spot all the time and may not know it’s here. Located in Summerland right off Highway 101, Lookout Park is a small grassy bluff above the beach. There are benches, picnic tables and barbecue stands across the narrow park with plenty of parking available. The grass however is very uneven so watch your step. There is also a children's play area with swings and slides, a volleyball net on a sand base, restrooms, horseshoes and beach access. Dogs are allowed but must be kept on a leash. This is an ideal spot for a family picnic or large groups. Lillie Avenue is just two blocks away should you need to purchase food.

Sand Spit

Located at the termination of the breakwater at the harbor, there are a few whale tale benches in which to sit and watch Santa Barbara splayed out in front of you. You can also bring your own chairs and head across a short rock outcropping directly to the sand itself. To the right is Sterns Wharf, to the left are the boats moored in the harbor, in front of you is the city, and behind you is the majestic Pacific; it’s the best of all worlds. Take it all in, feel the gentle ocean breezes and hear the sea lions on the green buoy marker, but bring a hat as there is no shade. Restrooms, food and parking are all at the main buildings at the harbor. 

Franceschi Park
For the absolute best views of the city, this under the radar park located on the Rivera has unsurpassed vistas to downtown, the harbor, the ocean and islands, and is flanked by large eucalyptus trees. Part botanical garden, part city park, this is fairly secluded and quiet, set in a residential area and there is no food available near here. There are a few picnic tables and a few benches facing the ocean, and you also have the dilapidated but wonderfully odd Franceschi house nearby with its unusual embellishments, though the house is not open to the public. The park is open sunrise to sunset; there is limited parking and a restroom on site.  

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Only in Ojai: Of Deer, Hikes & Ancient Wisdom


Ojai in Ventura County, just south of Santa Barbara has long been considered a spiritual, grounded place, a Mecca for the artistic crowd, and those seeking something just left of center. A hub of meditation, spiritual retreats and teachings and simply an off the beaten path retreat paradise it was used as the backdrop for the 1937 movie “Lost Horizon.” These days the once secluded town is anything but hard to find. Summers see flocks of tourists shopping and dining along Ojai Avenue, doing yoga, getting in touch with their inner core or just escaping the hectic pace of somewhere else. Ojai built its current Spanish Colonial Revival diminutive downtown appearance because of a fire that decimated much of the town in 1917, and it’s a metaphor of the rejuvenation people feel when they come here. So here then are a few detox ideas, even for a place as sedate as Ojai.

The views from the Valley View Preserve

     




There is more rugged hiking in the Sespe Wilderness, but right near town the Valley View Preserve is a very moderate fire road hike perfect for an easy run or to take the dogs and burn a few calories. It runs its course along the north mountains looking out to the Ojai Valley on your right. Splayed out is the verdant greenery of the trees, orchards and parts of the town with views across the valley. There is no shade here so make sure you bring water and a hat. For a more strenuous hike you can pick up the Fox Canyon trail which will take you up the mountain side right off the main trail. Either way, to get there head up Signal Ave. towards the mountains and it will terminate at the trail head. There is minimal parking so early is better.
 
The library at Krotona
Also tucked into Ojai just like the trails, the Krotona Theosophical Institute is hidden away just off the main road into town on a 115-acre wooded site. Krotona moved to Ojai in 1926 when it had to abandon its Los Angeles home because of the construction if the Hollywood Bowl (back when admission to the Bowl was just $.50), however the Theosophy movement started in the 1870s on the east coast. First off, what is theosophy you ask? In their own words they, “encourage open-minded inquiry into world religions, philosophy, science, and the arts in order to understand the wisdom of the ages, respect the unity of all life, and help people explore spiritual self-transformation.” Works for me. What makes Krotona unique, aside from the fact that hardly anyone knows it’s there, is the 8,000-volume library relating specifically to theosophy, the occult, reincarnation, astrology, yoga, metaphysics and all things of paranormal nature. The library itself is intimate, a slightly Art Deco ambience. There is also a meditation school, and bookstore for anyone who wishes to visit, not to mention classes. The mirror pools behind the library are contemplative in themselves, as are much of the quiet grounds. You needn’t be a theosophist to visit and everyone is encouraged to stop in: it’s all free.
 
There are no shortages of terrific places to eat, most clustered onto the main drag, but for a unique taste of Ojai (literally) the Deer Lodge is just three miles from downtown and since 1932 this rustic, log cabin looking wood toned, animal-head-on-the-wall joint has been making people feel great. There’s live music, lots of beef and games dishes, cornbread and every Sunday they have a roasted pig. Yeah, a whole pig! But it’s their buffalo burgers and tri tip on the outdoor wood grill which is their calling card. There are a lot of bikers who come here on the weekends and it’s easy to be intimidated by the sheer number of Harleys out front, but don’t let that stop you. There’s plenty of indoor seating on old wood furniture and a back outdoor patio.