Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Santa Barbara’s Best New Restaurants for 2013

I eat for a living. As the restaurant reviewer for a Santa Barbara newspaper for seven years I eat…a lot. I get to travel and sample foods from various countries and judge at food and wine events, so I’m always near food, thinking about food, eating food or wondering about my next food. About 40 restaurants opened in 2013 and many are forgettable; many are good, but only a few fill a void with unique, creative food, service and ambience. So listed in alphabetical order are my favorite spots which opened in Santa Barbara for 2013. Check them out!

Georgia’s Smokehouse Here’s the truth – Santa Barbara sucks for BBQ, until this great food truck rolled into our lives. Stunningly tender ribs, pulled pork and spot on sauces proves that a food truck 
can be flat out awesome. Try the Bacon and Cheddar Hush Puppies, delightfully crisp deep-fried 
balls of dough mixed with cheese and bacon and topped with sea salt, seriously that’s a no-brainer. 
Their Smoked Burger is topped with whiskey-caramelized onions and roasted tomatoes with 
clean and focused flavors and a hint of sweetness. The Smoked Baby Back Ribs are wonderfully 
fall-off-the-bone tender ribs coated with a tangy vinegar-tomato sauce that has great citrus and heat. 

At the Paso Robles Winemaker's Cookoff judging competition

Paloma Mexican food goes where it should have gone years ago – out of the dull realm of tacos and beans, and into seasonal South American dishes with spicy sauces and real flavor. You must order the Chile en Nogada, a Pasilla chile stuffed with walnuts, pine nuts, ground beef, peaches, spices and topped with a creamy, slightly sweet sauce and dotted with pomegranate seeds. A seasonal dish from Puebla Mexico, this offers a great balance of heat and texture. The Enchiladas Paloma is a shrimp and cheese enchilada topped with a creamy chipotle sauce that actually has a potent roasted smoky quality the way chipotle is supposed to be. Oh, and there are 100 tequila’s for your consideration…woo hoo!

5764 Calle Real, Goleta, 805/681-0766

Monday - Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday & Sunday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. PALOMA

The real deal- Greek salad in Crete.

Sama Sama Not familiar with Indonesian food? Great – here’s your intro. They use rotating local farms where they get their vegetables. The foods are simple and rustic but loaded with flavor and finesse including the Tempe Rice Bowl of sweet soy glazed crispy tempe, mixed with coconut rice and topped with a gado-gado salad of thin sliced cucumber, zucchini then mixed with a peanut dressing. Hands down, one of the best vegetarian dishes in town. The Nasi Goreng is fried rice mixed with diced carrots, celery, garlic and broccolini with a fried egg on top and then dusted with green onion, and served with shrimp crackers. Uncomplicated but very gratifying food. 1208 State St., Santa Barbara, 805/965-4566

Tuesday - Friday 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m., & 5:30-10 p.m., Saturday 5:30-10 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m. - 3 p.m.  SAMA SAMA

The best Caesar Salad I've ever had in Tijuana!
Seven is located in the hip, new, trendy Funk Zone and this under the radar spot, really a bar with killer food, is as unpretentious as it is hard to find. No address, no signage – they think it’s a cool like that. It’s actually annoying, but forgive that (and the weak service) and go for Chicken and Waffles with infused maple in the chicken, their Cali Slaw (an awesome riff on Cole Slaw featuring herbs du Provence, or any of their sandwiches (named after the seven deadly sins) and yes, their mouthwatering pulled pork sliders. Simple bar foods done exceptionally well! They have a back patio, exposed brick interior, some cool cocktails and rotating art. 224 St. Helena, Santa Barbara, 805/845-0377, Monday - Friday 5 p.m. - 1 a.m.,  Saturday & Sunday Noon - 1 a.m. SEVEN

The Lark is named for an overnight Pullman train that serviced Santa Barbara for 60 years. Their Caramelized Cauliflower Gratin is an instant classic with texture, heat and spice. Gruyere cheese is mixed with preserved lemon, chili flake, bacon, breadcrumbs and cauliflower, then baked - absurdly wonderful. The Roasted Mary’s Chicken is brined then air-dried making it extraordinarily moist, served with brown butter polenta, butternut squash, and a maple Sherry chicken juice. Crispy Brussels Sprouts are a mix of Medjool date, sesame, lime, and garum for a savory element. The result is a dish of great balance and texture, with a sweet note as a counterpoint to the vegetal sprouts.

131 Anacapa, Santa Barbara, 805/284-0370,

Tuesday - Thursday, & Sunday 5-10 p.m., Friday & Saturday 5-11 p.m. THE LARK

Me and the Mrs chowing down in Innsbruck,  Austria

Toma sits in the former Eladio’s spot near the harbor and this is an absolute gem. Love, love, love the Tuna Cones which are comprised of diced ahi sashimi, ginger, sesame, soy, chile, and chives stuffed into a crisp sesame seed cone - think of this as an ice cream cone for adults. Also excellent are their pasta dishes, grilled romaine salad, and braised short ribs, frankly it doesn’t matter, it’s all so damn good with exceptional service – a shortcoming of far too many restaurants everywhere. 324 W. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara, 805/962-0777

Nightly 5-10 p.m. TOMA

And be sure to read my weekly reviews every single Friday in the Santa Barbara News-Press to see what's what in the culinary world here. I cover everything from high-end to holes-in-the-wall.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Going Green: Carpinteria’s Avocado Festival

The Best Dressed Avocados for 2013!
Fruit, vegetable, tree fruit, just what the hell is an avocado? My mom tells me the story of East Coast friends who visited her in California years ago and as they watched her prepare the salad for the evening meal they exclaimed what was with the weird shaped pickle she was cutting up? Her quizzical look revealed perhaps her disdain (I don’t know I wasn’t there, I’m just relaying what she told me), she said it wasn’t a pickle, it was an avocado. I’m guessing they are no longer friends. Anyhow, the avocado is now known all over the globe and right here in Santa Barbara is the Avocado Festival, now in its 27th year.

Yes the Golden State is a huge producer of the pickle, ah,…avocado, and Santa Barbara has groves everywhere (sadly fenced off so you can’t easily access them). About 70,000 people flock to worship the green shriveled tree fruit at this 3-day festival which is free to the public. 75 different bands perform on four separate stages, there are arts and crafts at the seaside village (some local, some not) and yes, a guacamole contest (you might consider entering as it’s open to anyone) which I was asked to be a judge for the 2013 iteration. This is one of the top attended festivals in all of California and since Santa Barbara County is the third largest avocado producer in North America, with Carpinteria being a major contributor, it seemed like a natural food festival in the making. Why have the Festival the first weekend in October? 

One of the Guacamole Contest entries
Oddly enough, statistics show that October is one of the sunniest months of the year with the least amount of rainfall. Beyond that you can sample all manner of foods with some amount of avocado on and in them like avocado brownies, avocado ice cream, avocado truffles, avocado tea cake, Islands Brewing Company makes their Avocado Honey Ale, and there’s plenty of guacamole versions to try. There’s also a flower, and avocado auction for charity.
Best of all when you come to the Avo Fest you’re on the California Central Coast, a brief 3-block jaunt to the Pacific Ocean to the flat and wide Carpinteria State Beach and you should know that the City of Carpinteria proudly proclaims itself as having the “world’s safest beach.” Carpinteria is just south of Santa Barbara which is perfection on steroids, and north of Los Angeles by 90 miles but a world away (less perfection, more steroids).

Apparently our first president, George Washington ate avocados – perhaps this is why he was such a compelling leader. At any rate here in Santa Barbara County120 trees were planted in 1895 in Montecito making it the county’s first commercial avocado orchard. And now the Central Coast grows tons of them and in California there are about 600 farmers growing avocado. So plan to come to the Avocado Festival and do you part in eating them. While in Carpinteria (known locally as just “Carp”) do check out some of my favorite spots like Sly’s for lunch, brunch and dinner (abalone and eggs, come on!), Chocolats du Cali Bresson for terrific chocolates (their salted caramel Buddha is…divine), Corktree Cellars for a diverse wine tasting experience of local and international wines, and Islands Brewing Company by the railroad tracks for great local brews ($4 pints!).
Me...Mr. Judge for the Guacamole Contest


Monday, August 12, 2013

Where to Stay in Monterey! Three Unique Properties You’ve Never Considered

The grounds at the Old Monterey Inn
The Monterey Peninsula attracts millions of visitors every year. But most people never fully flesh out their experiences by staying in a lodging that is as unique to Monterey as all the other reasons people come here. To many travelers, a hotel or motel is the least of their considerations, but staying at the right place, one which is indicative of exactly where you are, can enhance your entire trip. These three properties; in Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel, will get you grounded in the local while making your stay in Monterey memorable.
The Old Monterey Inn is set on an acre and a quarter is the only English Tudor B&B in Monterey. The lush gardens have a European sensibility with proper hedges, mature trees and thick vines clinging to the entrance of this beautiful Tudor property. It's fitting I stayed in the library room (I’m a writer, so…ya know) and this was the home of the first mayor of Monterey, built in 1929. Local wines and cheese are put out every afternoon, and there's always tawny port in the parlor (we like this idea).
The formal dining room at the Old Monterey Inn
A refrigerator holds free water and juices and breakfast is served at 9 a.m. in the communal formal dining room (I love this room), or in the garden when the weather is nice, or in your room if you want privacy. Even though this is a small oasis you're an easy 12-minute walk from downtown Monterey. Since The Inn was built as an actual residence and not a replicated lodging, you get a great continuation of history with coffered ceilings, spacious rooms and detailed hand carved woodwork – all the while knowing than families lived here for decades. The mayor's wife traveled extensively in Europe hence the English Tudor feel and this is a delightful spot, perfect for a romantic getaway. The rooms are large with comfortable beds, hot tubs and carpeting throughout which adds to the quiet atmosphere. Choose from over 100 DVDs to watch in your room as you lounge in a large Jacuzzi tub. (800/350-2344 - OLD MONTEREY INN
Pacific Grove
The Martine Inn is certainly the most eclectic lodging you'll find on the entire Peninsula. There are 5 vintage MGs on the property, courtesy of Don Martine an avid collector, restorer of old cars, and racing fanatic, not to mention super nice guy and a wealth of Monterey history. The interior courtyard contains a pool table, ping pong, board games, real wood burning fireplaces (an increasing rarity on the peninsula). Originally this was the 3-story Victorian home of a wealthy pharmaceutical owner who seemed to need to keep changing the property to suit their tastes and keep up with the latest design trends. The façade keep being reinvented, but now it’s unique looking precisely because it’s so undefinable. Scheduled for demolition Don Martine bought it in 1972 and today it's fun, funky and every room is different with a collection of wood antiques ranging rom English to Asian to Deco
The exterior of the Martine Inn

Breakfast is served from 8 to 10 in the mornings and you’re directly facing the Monterey Bay from the second story - the proper way to enjoy coffee and breakfast. Wine and snacks come out in the evenings. The property was walled-in during the 1920s when that was the design fad so there’s a lot of seclusion. The interior courtyard was once home to three koi ponds when the original owners visited Japan and wanted to relive that experience. When one of their kids almost drowned they removed two of the three ponds (why not all three, you ask? No one knows) but you can still enjoy part of the orient, as well as a variety of eras in this smorgasbord B&B. It’s located across the street from the ocean and the extensive walking path which runs the length of the south part of the Bay, so you have incredible access to the ocean, and it’s a only a few blocks to downtown Pacific Grove. (800/852-5588 - MARTINE INN)
Buddha watches at Tradewinds

Tradewinds Carmel is a pet-friendly spot, unlike anything else in Carmel, or Monterey for that matter. Featured in Architectural Digest, the 28 rooms, most of which have fireplaces and ocean views, have a unique fusion of Asian, Balinese and tropical design. Since uch of Carmel is cute Hansel & Gretel style, Tradewinds stands out as atypical. The original owner lived in Japan hence the Asian theme. Now his daughter continues the theme with beautifully appointed Asian inspired décor including Egyptian cotton linens, down pillows and featherbeds, orchids in every room and instead of standard white cotton robes, you have kimono robes. A continental breakfast is served 8 to 10 a.m. every morning including fresh fruit, yogurt and pastries which you can have served in either your room or in the dining area known as the Catlin Room. 

Tradewinds has three parking lots, so you car isn’t left on the street (common for space-squeezed Carmel) and you have quick access to it. Water features around the property include Buddha, ferns, waterfalls and reeds, creating a small oasis, and the evenings light up with the fire pit and tiki torches. You're very close to the middle of Carmel, easy to walk to restaurants and a few wine tasting rooms. Tradewinds has a tranquil feel which will keep you grounded. (831/624-2776 - TRADEWINDS)

While you plan your visit: consider these other posts:

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Room for Tasting: The Coolest New Wine Tasting Rooms in California

Tasting wine is as much about the wine as it is the place you taste it in. Got great wine in your glass but a self-indulgent server, and who cares? Sampling Sauvignon Blanc in a run down hut might seem cool, but the ambience wears thin. But great wines in a great setting equals a memorable time. These new tasting rooms in each of the main California wine country destinations combine killer juice with a unique vibe; memorable wines with a visceral appeal. (NOTE: this is an expanded version of an article originally published in The Hollywood Reporter)

Santa Barbara: Riverbench Winery
Just a block from the Pacific Ocean, Riverbench’s tasting room, located in Santa Barbara’s downtown trendy Funk Zone, is best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But they are also one of the few who make sparkling wine in the area and they offer flights of bubbly, and occasionally Riesling. The brown-shaded tasting room has an entire wall made from the wood of the historic San Ramon Chapel in the Santa Maria Valley built in 1908 (and near to their original tasting room). The wood wall seamlessly blends into the leather benches, giving the feel of rustic chic, with pops of color from accent pillows –it’s a rural setting with sophisticated juice.
Nearby: Head to the Mediterranean influenced restaurant Cadiz for immensely flavorful tapas while you wile the hours away on State St.

Paso Robles: Paso Robles Underground
Though it’s not actually located underground, this hip and funky converted garage co-op is about being under the radar. The four boutique wineries here craft small lots, less than 500 cases each, made by dudes working at Four Vines, Halter Ranch and L’Aventure, located near the Norman Rockwell-ish downtown park. Considered “the next Napa” by uber critic Robert Parker, Paso is best defined by the lush, ripe wines shown here from tiny wineries like Aaron, Edmund August, Clos Solene, and Turtle Rock Vineyards. The space itself feels more college dorm décor, hastily placed curtains and wood planks atop wine barrels, nothing we haven’t seen before. But the minuscule production of these four terrific wineries is why you’re here. You’ll find a predominance of Rhone whites and reds along with Petite Sirah and a Sauvignon/Riesling blend.
Nearby: The steroid and architecture combination known as the Hearst Castle is a mere 30 minutes away at the coast

Napa: Amici Cellars
Located in Calistoga Amici is not a new player but for years they had no tasting room. Winemaker Joel Aiken was with BV for 27 years making Georges de LaTour private reserve, so it’s a safe bet he knows exactly what he’s doing with Cabernet. The yellow hued tasting room on the second floor of the winery seats just 6 to 8 people, keeping it intimate and comfortable, with French doors leading to a balcony for views of the rugged Mayacamas Mountain range. All wine tasting comes with a cheese platter, all the better to go with their heady, intense and sought after Cabernet Sauvignons. To further insure intimacy, Amici is not easy to find - there isn’t a winery sign on the road, you have to know where it is (wink, wink).  Nearby: The coolest art gallery in the area is at The Hess Collection.

Sonoma: Ram's Gate
Most wineries seem to think crowded tasting rooms replete with forgettable local art is what people crave. But at Ram's Gate you feel like you're visiting a friend's weekend house in wine country, albeit designed by an interior designer who has worked with Mandarin Oriental group. You can choose from a variety of areas in which to taste the wines: the pavilion with a view of the pond, on either side of the double-sided outdoor fireplace, inside at the bar, in the library or even at the chef's table and there are various wine and food pairing options. The 30 foot ceilings, exposed beams, weathered wooden walls made of reclaimed snow-fencing from Wyoming, and massive floor-to-ceiling glass walls that open to sweeping vineyard views are in concert with their Pinot Noirs, Chardonnay and quite excellent Syrah – expansive and remarkable. This is not sport tasting, this is a multi-hour experience.
Nearby: You’ll love the Sonoma/Marin Cheese Trail sampling the area’s artisan cheeses.

Monterey: Talbott
Talbott Winery has long been one of the go-to Monterey producers for excessively good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. When owner Robb Talbott opened up a new Carmel Valley tasting room in May he combined two other of his passions: motorcycles and vintage peddle cars. You read that right…peddle cars, as in those tinny things your grandfather peddled round in when he lived in the Old Country. With a stellar collection of motorcycles and peddle cars from France, the U.S. and Germany, the sleek, polished wood toned room is imbued with the wow factor the moment you enter. The wines too are made to wow and Talbott’s Pinots and Chards reign as some of the best; seamless and beautifully seductive in this region known for top quality Pinot and Chard. Therefore to have both is exceptional and an experience you will remember.
Nearby: 17 Mile Drive and the Monterey Bay Aquarium offer diverse experiences.

Sierra Foothills: Andis
The Sierra Foothills, known as gold country due to the 1848 gold discovery, brought the world to California. These days the gold has dissipated but wine has exploded. Grapes have been grown here since the early 1850s and the oldest commercial winery still stands in Coloma. The Andis tasting room puts that old stone building to shame. Sleek, clean lines and a soft color palette like a pastel Italian spot overlooking Lake Como, this pulls you out of history and places you squarely in the 21st Century. Andis is at the forefront of a resurgence of the region, proving that a gold rush comes in many forms. The flagship Barbera and a racy Semillon are just part of a vast portfolio. Located in the small town of Plymouth just 10 miles from the perennially cute gold mining town of Sutter Creek, Andis is why you need to visit the Foothills.
Nearby: Head to the regions only dining destination, Taste in Plymouth. Visit historic Coloma where gold was discovered on the banks of the American River in 1948, setting off a worldwide stampeded to California.

Mendocino: Phillips Hill
Phillips Hill in the Anderson Valley integrates history and the cool factor with their all-wood open air tasting room, an antique apple dryer building. Come again? Apples and hops were the main draw in this Valley back in the day, not wine grapes. Being so remote the apple crop needed to be dried prior to interminable shipping to parts unknown. Now, no one dries out at Phillips Hill in their upstairs apple dryer tasting room. It’s mainly Pinot Noir here and a crisp little Gewürztraminer served in this tree-house wine pad. Surrounded by old, verdant green trees, you might lose a sense of time here, everyone else does. That’s the beauty of Phillips Hill - small, remote and still undiscovered.
Nearby: The nation’s first certified organic brew pub, The Ukiah Brewing Co. in Ukiah will give your wine palate a break with beer and grass fed beef.

For other alcohol and booze related info including reviews of wine, spirits and beers, visit my other blog BOOZEHOUNDZ

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Judge & Jury: What It’s Like to Judge at a Wine Competition

Lucky me, I judge at wine competitions. But I routinely get comments that run the gamut from, “I’m jealous,” to, “Michael, do you actually work for a living?” So to quash the misinformation about wine judging, I’m putting a cork in several myths. Within the State Fair system I have judged at the California State Fair, the El Dorado County Fair (known as the Mountain Democrat Wine Competition), and the Central Coast Wine Competition (part of the California Mid-State Fair) which is a competition of wines from several counties including Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey, and several other fairs. So, here’s what you need to know.

Myth #1: Wine competitions are just a chance to drink lots of wine.
Actually, no one drinks wine at wine competitions. Judges evaluate between 60 to 90 wines a day, giving full attention to each wine - a time consuming and focused endeavor. We smell them, swirl them, then spit them into dump buckets. What develops is palate fatigue, whereby you’ve had so many wines that your taste buds need a break. Each panel has a plate of celery, olives, bread, cheese and sliced beef available to help cleanse the palate. And a day’s work can mean tasting through 15 Cabernet Sauvignons, then 30 Chardonnays, 20 Pinot Noirs, 18 white Rhone blends, 4 dessert wines and then 7 sparkling wines. Yes, it’s taxing physically, but also mentally as we try and be fair to each wine, from the first few to # 89.
The back room - where judges aren't allowed
 Myth # 2: Wine judging is rigged.
All wines are tasted blind and a dedicated volunteer staff catalogs, opens, pours, numbers and delivers wine in glass to judges so we have little information about the wine – we don’t want to prejudice the outcome. We usually know the variety, perhaps the vintage date, but most other information is left with the volunteers behind closed doors. And this is exactly how a wine should be evaluated. I can attest that some wines win awards and when we find out the producer, we’re surprised, and yes, sometimes embarrassed because we think it’s a wine we would never have purchased on our own. But that’s what is so cool. Most competitions allow us to give a wine a gold medal, silver, bronze, or the dreaded “no award.”

Myth #3: Wine “judges” are a bunch of people who know little about wine.

Doug Frost (foreground)  doing his thing
Wine competition judges are comprised of professionals in the wine industry, like; winemakers, wine retailers (specialty wine shops and wine buyers for mega-stores and restaurants); wine media (seasoned wine writers for newspapers, magazines, websites, radio, and blogs) and folks in the culinary world. For example this year (2013), the Central Coast Wine Competition had judges like Doug Frost from Kansas City, one of the most respected sommeliers and wine educators in the U.S, and one of only four people in the entire world to hold the duel titles Master of Wine, and Master Sommelier. And William Bloxom-Carter, the executive Chef and food and beverage director of the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, a position he’s held for nearly 30 years (and if you think his job is cutting celery sticks for Playboy models, you’re dead wrong. Chef Carter plans and executes tons of dinners often time for over 1,000 people). At the California State Fair the pros included Joe Roberts (from Philadelphia) and Robert Jennings, two of the biggest wine bloggers, to winemakers like Leslie Renaud (from Santa Barbara), and Jackson Starr (from Grass Valley). In Placerville this year there were judges like Mike Dunne, the former wine and food writer for the Sacramento Bee for 30 years, to Charlie Tsegeletos, the longtime winemaker at Cline Cellars in Sonoma. So it’s a safe bet we know wine.

The Judges of the Central Coast Wine Competition

Myth #4: No one cares about awards and scores.
Think what you like, but a gold medal at a competition translates to sales, bragging rights and marketing potential. Judging is made up of multiple panels and each individual panel consists, usually, of three judges. It’s important to know that gold, silver and even bronze medal winning wines receive their medals by these panels, not an individual. Double Gold awards (meaning every judge on a panel gave it a gold medal) and Best of Class wines are voted on by an even larger panel, ranging from 20 to 70 people. Of course not all judges agree and I’ve sat on panels where wines I’ve loved have not been loved by my peers, and vice versa. But beyond that, for people like me as a wine writer, even for judges who work in the retail environment, we get to discover new wines, new wineries and promote them.
Wine Judging Ain't All Glamerous
County fair wine competitions are held in unglamorous settings, usually a big warehouse-type building. Sure, other wine competitions are at nice restaurants or places like Fort Mason overlooking the San Francisco Bay but the state fair system is pretty much nuts and bolts and nothing fancy. Another thing to know is that each competition has a chief judge who oversees all the other judges, makes decisions and solves problems. And there are the volunteers, all those folks who go unheralded and work the backroom to help everything run efficiently. For example at the California State Fair in Sacramento, we had 75 judges, 100 volunteers and 2,600 wines. Do the math. At the El Dorado County Fair Wine Competition they have a special award known as the Backroom Award, whereby the volunteers give out an award for their favorite wine, which is a pretty cool thing to do. So the next time someone you know is off to a wine competition, you’ll have a better understanding of what we do and when you see a medal winning wine, you’ll know that a lot of work has gone into it, so give that wine a try. And stop by your local county fair, or one of these.

Me, Having Fun

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Santa Barbara Beer Dinner

I am a beer advocate. I am not, however, an insatiable beer lover, a hop-head, a fanatic. I’m more of a wine guy so when a beer pairing dinner, one of Santa Barbara’s first, was announced with Firestone Walker Brewing Company, and Chef Budi Kazali of The Ballard Inn, well, that was a no-brainer. I had never been to a beer pairing dinner before, but have certainly been to my share of winemaker dinners over the years.

Wine pairing dinners are so common these days that here on the Central Coast you can find one everywhere you go, be that Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Pismo Beach, Paso Robles and Cambria. But surprisingly beer paired dinners are less common, though if you’re in micro-brew hot spots like San Diego or Seattle you can find a number of them. But they are starting to catch on in Santa Barbara. 
With over a dozen microbreweries in the region there should be several to choose from every year, but sadly, that hasn’t happened yet. More often beer dinners tend to be paired with pub and tavern food and that’s not a bad thing, but this beer dinner helmed by Budi Kazali meant that the food, and therefore the beers were elevated to fine dining – though still rambunctious what with a total of six beers.

The dinner was not created from a vacuum, actually the idea was prompted by American Craft Beer Week, a nationwide event celebrating the 2,800 small craft breweries who participated in events across the U.S. Budi choose the beers he wanted to work with, choosing less hoppy brew since bitter overly hopped beers don't pair well with most foods.

A brief run down of the menu is as follows:
1st Course: Tempura shrimp in a green papaya sauce, seared scallop in a saffron sauce, and seared tuna in a yuzu vinaigrette, served with a glass of Firestone Pivo Hoppy Pilsner, a classic Czech pilsner with only 40 IBU, so it’s actually not over hoppy. What was surprising was to see this beer work across such diverse flavors as these three bites that Budi created.
2nd: Crispy skin sea bass with the Firestone Lil Opal Barrel Fermented Saison which uses wild yeast aged in Opus One (a high-end Napa winery) barrels which has a light sour finish paralleling the crispy sea bass and the lemony tart sauce Budi crafted for the fish.
David Walker discusses his beers with guests
3rd: Kalua Duck, jicama salad with a Chinese black bean sauce with Firestone Unfiltered DBA, an English pale ale just slight hoppy which registered most obviously to me with the earthy mushrooms in the crisp jicama salad.
4th: Kobe beef short ribs (and stunningly tender) with a coconut sauce with the Firestone Rufus Wild Ale, a brew aged in 23 year old bourbon barrels. And here the almost sweet sense of the bourbon coaxed out the richness of the ribs.
Chef Budi Kazali
5th: Coffee pot de crème with bourbon whipped cream paired with one of Firestone’s best brews, the Parabola Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout. Long ago the Russian royal family seemed to love stouts but they wanted a kind of turbocharged version as David Walker put it. So, more hops, more alcohol and the Imperial was born. The Parabol was aged 9 to 13 months in barrel and it that kind of deep, rich earthy beer that completely stands on its own. Having been at this dinner it begins to ignite thoughts about experimenting at home. Beer and wine are food products and therefore should be an integral part of mealtimes (sure, breakfast works too) and what is exciting is realizing the endless possibilities to find flavors, textures and viscosities what work together to make a meal memorable.
So if you live in Santa Barbara or are planning a visit check out the brews of Firestone Walker – they have taprooms in Buellton in Santa Barbara, and one in Paso Robles – and make reservations for dinner at the Ballard Inn for some of the best food in the county – you can stay here too for a wine country, er, beer country getaway.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Hiking Santa Barbara

Easy paths at the Carp bluffs
Santa Barbara presents a diverse topography for hikes, from ocean bluffs to front country to the rugged back country. These three hikes give you assorted scenic vistas, a moderate workout and great photo ops. Plus none are too far from downtown. A note on hiking here in Santa Barbara, and all along the Central Coast: Yes, we have poison oak so always be cautions when going off trail. It’s called poison oak but it can’t kill you but rest assured, as a native Californian and having had my share of it – it ain’t fun. Even as of this writing I contracted some on my left leg while hiking in Big Sur. Always bring water, hat, cell phone, and sunscreen when you hike. My small pack also includes a knife, and nuts for protein, just in case. So get packed and get going!
The views from the bluffs

The Carpinteria Bluffs and Seal Rookery is less hike and more easy stroll on soft dirt paths, and the bluffs are a great beach excursion across eucalyptus-studded groves heading to the water. It’s only a mile out and a mile back, but this coastal walk is perfect for any age and fitness group, in fact the elevation gain is like 2 feet. The scent of chaparral meets you as you pull into the parking lot with low grasses and shrubs in front of you. There is also access down to the beach, however part of the beach is closed off December 1 through May 31 during birthing and nursing season for the harbor seals who seem to think mating in public is just fine (showoffs). While there, they are noisy but fun to watch. Located right off the freeway this is immensely easy to get to and gets you to views of both the ocean and the mountains and gets you to the water’s edge while still feeling like you’re in a preserve. That feeling is briefly interrupted by crossing the train tracks, but as long as there are no actual trains in your way, it’s all good. You might see whales and dolphins, certainly plenty of sea birds (not on the train, on the hike). To get there exit Bailard Ave. from Highway 101 north or south and head to the ocean. There’s a small parking lot right in front of you.
The views from Tin Can Meadow

Front Country
Rattlesnake Canyon is one of the more popular hikes and is fairly easy, and no, you won’t come across any rattlesnakes since it was named for its serpentine canyon. This is a well-marked trail and is less than 4 miles in total. You’ll pass by pools, streams and eventually come out the top of a small hill with panoramic views to the ocean and the Channel Islands. From Los Canelos Road near the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden it’s just over 1 mile to the second stone bridge where there is ample parking before and after the bridge on the road pullouts. Starting on the trail it feels like you’ve been jipped – it’s hot and dry and uninteresting. After 10 minutes on the trail there’s a short incline where you encounter two oak trees - go left (going right is a short trail, nothing exciting). 
Never know what's  you'll find on Rattlesnake trail
You soon hook up with the creek in a wooded area then cross the creek and head up into sheer diversity. You'll likely see grey squirrels and wild bunnies (not mean, just wild). It will take you 40 minutes at a moderate pace to reach Tin Can Meadow, which is a great turnaround point. There’s a flat rock there where you can sit for a while, surrounded by tall grass and absorb the beauty before heading back. There is a terrific diversity of stuff here from multiple stream crossings to wooded areas to open narrow trails, moss covered boulders, pine and oak trees, low scrub and thick trees. With an elevation gain of 900 feet it’s also a decent workout.
The rocks, ocean and Islands from Lizard's Mouth
Back Country
Lizard’s Mouth (West Camino Cielo Road) For a completely different experience, head to Lizard’s Mouth, so named for the unusual sandstone outcroppings – though not sure how a lizard affected this. On the south facing slopes of the mountain with panoramic views of all of Santa Barbara and Channel Islands (and quite possibly China…well maybe not) this a sea of wondrous boulders, curvilinear smooth sandstone, as if sculpted by hand, windswept and eerie. Take Highway 154 up from Santa Barbara 7 miles to West Camino Cielo and turn left. Follow the road 4 miles to the Winchester Gun Club entrance. Turn around here and on your right had side, about 100 yards back down the road you’ll see a graffiti sprayed brown wooden sign, about 20 feet off the road. There are no real paths here you just wander in between large boulders and on top of sandstone flats. Some boulders you can walk underneath and you swear they might collapse on you. It almost looks like a movie set and Lizard’s Mouth has an otherworldly moonscape feel to it. It’s easy to get lost so keep an eye on where you came from. Small trails head out to, and in-between, the rocks, some with small crevices and near cave-like entrances. It’s pretty much rock hopping out here. It's a little disconcerting to hear the gunfire from the Winchester Gun Club up the road at first, but you're perfectly safe. Weekdays are better as it’s less crowded.
For a totally different hike, check out my post about the Arroyo Hondo Preserve

Friday, April 12, 2013

Murder at the Mission: The Haunting at San Miguel

When Mission San Miguel was founded on July 25, 1797 just north of Paso Robles, the founding fathers could never have imagined the terror that would occur at this sacred site just 49 years later. The scene of a horrific murder, many people believe this mission is haunted. We may not know about ghosts, but here’s what we do know about that cold December night. The original temporary church built in 1797 burned in 1806, and a stone foundation church was completed in 1821. After Mexico fought against and won their independence from Spain, the Mission system began to collapse and by 1834 the Mission had become secularized. On July 4, 1846, Petronillo Rios and his business partner William Reed purchased the floundering mission for a few hundred dollars, operating it as a lodging and trading post and Reed and his family lived there. Reed, usually wearing a blue peacoat, required that guests pay in gold, and he bragged that he’d amassed a small fortune, hiding it somewhere at the mission. Remember that California was not part of the U.S. at this time and any currencies from Mexico, the U.S., and even money from Spain were probably considered worthless. Gold was what mattered.

On the afternoon of December 4th, 1848, six men arrived at Mission San Miguel. Pete Raymond, Joseph Lynch, Peter Remer, Peter Quin, and Sam Bernard, accompanied by someone only known as “John,” an Indian from Soledad. They stayed that night but left the next morning heading south to San Marcos Creek just a few miles down the road but then they returned to the mission and spent the rest of the day and part of the evening there on December 5th. It was during these early evening hours that this gang of cold-hearted men murdered everyone at the Mission including William Reed and his wife, Maria who was expecting a baby, and their 4-year old son. Also killed was Josefa Olivera, Maria’s mid-wife, and 3 other children; 11 people in total. The men had been warming themselves near a fire when Bernard offered to go outside to get firewood. He returned with an axe hidden in his armload of wood and struck Reed several times while John the Indian stabbed him with a knife. Sam Bernard and the others stalked and killed the women and children, then took the bodies to the carpenter's shop. When their blood-drenched bodies were were found they were still wearing daytime clothes.

Based on the interrogations of Joseph Lynch, Peter Quin and of Peter Remer, this is what happened that cold December night. After the ruthless murders they drank wine stealing any valuables they could find, which wasn’t much, ransacking the place in search of Reed’s gold – but they never found any. They left the mission that evening and spent the rest of the night south of present-day Templeton, and spent the next night south of Mission San Luis Obispo, but by this time a posse had been formed and was tracking them. What they didn’t know was that on the very night of the killings, a man named James Beckwourth was carrying mail from Nipomo to Monterey when he stopped at the mission and discovered the bodies. Shocked, he rode on to Monterey and informed the military governor of the murders. The gang left San Luis Obispo and traveled down to the Los Alamos area and obtained, we presume, fresh horses at a ranch. They rode through Santa Barbara stopping at Rancho Ortega, at present day Summerland, where the posse caught up with them, but this was not to be a bloodless arrest. Sam Bernard was mortally wounded. Pete Raymond jumped into the surf attempting to escape, and was drowned. Peter Quin was wounded and captured having killed a member of the posse; Joseph Lynch and Peter Remer were also captured, and later confessed to their parts in the murders. John the Indian had peeled off from the group around San Luis Obispo and was never found. 

The chapel interior
Reed’s partner Petronilo Rios, helped bury Reed and the other victims in the cemetery of Mission San Miguel, “just outside the rear door of the sacristy; a little to the southwest and near the old first church wall,” according to one account. All 11 people were buried in one mass grave and it must have been a disturbing sight seeing the bodies of the children.
Lieutenant Edward O. C. Ord (Fort Ord in Monterey was named after him) from Monterey and nine soldiers were dispatched to Santa Barbara to act as a firing squad.

According to accounts Joseph Lynch, Peter Remer and Peter Quin were executed by firing squad in Santa Barbara on December 28, 1848, near the corner of De la Guerra and Chapala Streets. Reports said they were buried in the cemetery of Mission Santa Barbara, but that seems highly unlikely that they would have been buried there considering the murderous acts they had committed at Mission San Miguel. At any rate, following the murders Mission San Miguel converted rooms into a hotel, saloon, and retail shops. Over the years many people have claimed they have seen the ghosts of William Reed, wearing his peacoat and a lady in a white dress around the mission grounds. 

Some swear they have heard muffled screams coming from near the chapel, and images of the young boys who were killed that night. Are ghosts real? And do the tortured souls of innocent victims attempt to make contact with the present world? Is the gold still there, or was it ever there? Does William Reed and his wife, Maria call out from their graves? That’s for you to decide. Perhaps when you visit Mission San Miguel you might find the answers.

Watch my “2 Minute Travel” video shot at Mission San Miguel at midnight: GHOSTS OF THE COAST