Friday, September 19, 2014

Food 4 Thought: Restaurant Review - Four Seasons Afternoon Tea

Four Seasons Biltmore
1260 Channel Dr., Montecito
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 are ranked 1-5. Each restaurant is visited multiple times in accordance with guidelines of the Association of Food Journalists. Michael Cervin is the Santa Barbara region restaurant reviewer for, and was the restaurant critic for the Santa Barbara News Press for eight years. He judges at professional and charity 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.)