Friday, August 31, 2012

Sunday Night Specials

To many people, Sunday is the night to eat dinner with their family. If your idea of a family meal involves champagne or lobster, then today's post is for you (and your family)!

This Sunday is your last chance to get half priced lobster at Chaya Venice, so celebrate the end of Summer and the holiday week-end with a meal at one of my favorite restaurants (as evidenced by all my posts on it).

Chaya Venice on Urbanspoon

Another option (which is available every Sunday) is "burgers & bubbles" at the bar at Tavern (another one of my favorites) for only $30 you get three sliders and a paired glass of bubbles! The sliders include an organic turkey with tomato confit & arugula, triple pork slider with manchego & romesco, and a Niman Ranch beef slider with fontina, lettuce & tomato. The bubbles include J. Lassalle brut chigny-les-roses, 1er cru, a prosecco de Valdobbiadene, extra dry, and a Veuve Fourny, brut rose, 1er cru.

Tavern on Urbanspoon

So while you are making your plans now for the week-end, make a reservation for Sunday night!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Dinner & Chocolate in Santa Barbara

I use every resource I can think of when I travel to a place I have never been to before, or a place I have not been to in a long time. I used to go to Santa Barbara much more often, but it's been years since I've stayed there overnight and with that much time between visits, I knew that my old standbys would need updating. (Sorry the photos in this post are a bit blurry and dark, but in deference to the other patrons, I took pictures without flash at the restaurants where I ate.)

My first "new" stopover was the Wine Cask which has the reputation for a fine dining spot where the food was paired perfectly with the stellar local wine selection. The ambiance is welcoming and upscale, with excellent service and beautiful decor.

I was very hopeful when I ordered the whitefish, supposedly done "medium", with fingerling potatoes, sauteed mustard greens, and anise grilled caviar for $28. My first bites of the fish were good, but as I ate more than one bite, I realized the fish was woefully overcooked, to the point of being dry and tasteless. The snap peas were wonderful and the carrots were done al dente, but since the main course was the fish, I can not say that this was a good dish and after three bites I stopped eating it. The busyboy came by to see if I wanted it removed, but I told him I wished to speak to the waiter and instead the hostess came back to ask what was wrong. I told her the fish was overcooked and she promptly offered me something else on the menu.

I chose the salad Lyonnnaise, made with proscuitto, smoked egg white, spinach, and a warm mushroom-bacon vinaigrette for $12. This was wonderful, with a glass of Pinot Noir which my waiter said would compliment this dish. I left with smiling with the level of service and delight in finding a dish I enjoyed here. I would definitely go back, but order a dish that did not require a light hand (like fish).

Wine Cask Restaurant on Urbanspoon

During my stay I wanted to try Pierre LaFond's Wine Bistro since it is one of the Santa Barbara places I used to love when I came here regularly. I was glad to "rediscover" it since it was easily the best meal of my stay.

Pierre LaFond's bakery was an institution on State Street for decades, but he has now branched out to a wine bistro and a clothing store and although I miss the old place, the new ones are very nice replacements.

One of my friends ordered the seafood stew for $23 . The seafood was slightly overcooked, but the liquid was rich and hearty and the bread was wonderful, so if you are looking for a hearty seafood dish, you will like this, made with mussels, scallops, wild rice, and salmon in a spicy broth.

My other friend ordered the roasted flatbread with summer squash, goat ricotta, flowering herbs, and roasted heirloom tomatoes with a hint of truffle oil. This was a tasty "pizza" with a chewy crust and superb toppings for $13. 
I chose a spinach salad with roasted red pepper, red onion, blue cheese, spiced pepitas, toasted sunflower seeds and a sherry vinaigrette with a grilled bistro steak for $22. I devoured this plate, savoring every bite of both the freshly dressed salad and the delectable grass fed steak done "bleu" as I requested!
I was the only one to order dessert, a chocolate chip cookie, but instead we were served an oatmeal cookie, which we all enjoyed, with just enough chewiness and cinnamon to cap our meal.
We drank a bottle of a local Santa Rita Pinto Noir with our meal and toasted revisiting old friends in new places:)

Pierre Lafond on Urbanspoon

No journey is complete without a chocolate ending, and Chocolats du CaliBressan were the perfect place to end my Santa Barbara visit. Who could resist chocolate "lips" of  dark and milk chocolate ganache flavored with tangerine and covered in white chocolate? If you want other flavors or designs, there are little "buddhas" of salted soft caramel covered in dark chocolate, or "fish" filled with dark chocolate ganache and peanut butter. For purists (like moi) they also have 67% pure Madagascar dark chocolate, and for those who don't want to eat chocolate, they even sell cute t shirts with "chocolat" designs in all sizes in the back of the store!

These "French kisses" are a very delicious way to tell someone you'd like to add some romance to your relationship;)

Chocolats Du Calibressan on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 24, 2012

Breakfast in Santa Barbara

One of the best reasons to travel is to find new places to eat :) Even though I've been to Santa Barbara numerous times, there are always new places to try and I was very happy to find Renaud's Patisserie and Bistro within walking distance of my rental, just  behind busy State Street.

I was impressed that this small bakery serves breakfast made with organic cage free, grain fed eggs, and all their salad greens and coffee are also organic. Their breakfast pastries start at only $2.25 and if you want a light breakfast, you can have a bowl of yogurt with homemade jam and granola for only $4.50.

I chose the Renaud breakfast with a pastry, side of fruit (or you may chose juice) and coffee or tea for $6.95). I chose a pain au raisin for my pastry and was delighted to find it was done with real butter, light flaky pastry, and a few sprinkles of salt for a surprisingly nice boost of flavor.

The fresh fruit was a pretty assortment of peach, apricot, cantaloupe, strawberry, and pineapple.The peach could have been riper, but the rest of the fruit was ripe and tasty.

Renaud's Patisserie & Bistro on Urbanspoon

Even with coffee at Renaud's, I needed an espresso and went to French Press on State Street for my fix. Unfortunately the hype about this place far outweighed both the service and the coffee. The coffee here was much like the vibe....looked good, but tasted terrible. It was actually sour! Service and pastries both fell short of good, making this a place a "do not return" with good options elsewhere.

The French Press on Urbanspoon

A place I will definitely return is Tupelo Junction Cafe. Recommended by a local, and one of those places that made me do a second take when I looked at the menu, this is THE place for a hearty breakfast, lunch, happy hour, or dinner if you love Southern food. I chose the Wild Mushroom, asparagus, black truffle cheese scramble with baby greens and homemade bread and jam for $14. Somehow I managed to finish this gigantic plate!

The atmosphere was casual, the service was hospitable, and the food was exemplary, regardless of whether you preferred something as upscale as the omelette I ordered, or if you wanted just biscuits and sausage gravy (both made in house) for $6. For those who want a sweet breakfast, they have a Waffle Lady's pumpkin oatmeal waffle with caramelized bananas, candied pecans and real maple syrup for $12 that will give you a sugar high for the day! Water is served in mason jars, and they make all their jams and preserves, so if you love something, you can take a jar home.

Tupelo Junction Cafe on Urbanspoon

Santa Barbara is only one and a half hours away, but spending a few days away makes it feel like it's a world away from my "normal" life in Los Angeles (especially since I did not have to deal with jet lag:)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Stopover at Bacara

If you are looking for a luxurious beautiful secluded spot, Bacara is the place to stay. Even finding it (with both GPS and a friend who had been here before) is a challenge. But the views once you get here are worth it. We stopped for a drink on the patio by the lobby and we were treated to this as we sat in an alcove.

Considering this is a five star resort, the drinks and snacks are very reasonable ($15-$30). We had plans for dinner, but we could have easily spent the entire afternoon here. They recently opened up a sushi bar adjacent to the lobby with a menu which allows you to specify what flavors, kind of fish and type of presentation on your order, so instead of ordering the sushi bar standards, the chef will create sushi, sashimi or rolls based on your preferences.

The pool was full of kids, so if you are looking for a peaceful place to relax, do not go during school summer vacation, or opt for one of the private poolside cabanas. The pools are saline instead of chlorine, so it's like swimming in the ocean!

If you are planning a romantic trip, consider going in May or September, if you are going with your kids, you will have plenty of company in the Summer months!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Walking to State Street

Having used Air BnB for my last stay in Paris, I decided to try using them for a more local stay in Santa Barbara and found a wonderful 1 Bedroom only 3 blocks from State Street for only $79 a night. My host, Jessica, was out of the country during my stay, so I had the entire apartment to myself! She arranged for a friend to answer any questions or concerns during my stay, so even without her I had someone local to contact.

The entire place was immaculate, and the bed was very comfortable! She had thoughtfully pinned the laundry key and parking pass to the bulletin board in the bedroom, along with wireless information, so everything was literally in one place.

The living room was large and comfortable (even though I never used it).

The dining area faced the kitchen and was where I set up my laptop to explore with the internet all the places I wanted to explore while in Santa Barbara.

Although the kitchen was available, the only thing I used was the tea kettle and the fridge, which were both handy at the end of a day exploring State Street.

The bathroom had two sets of fresh plush towels which were color coordinated with the decor.

This is easily one of the best places to stay if you want to live like a local and walk to the center of State Street. Jessica was a great hostess even in absentia, and I feel as if I now have a pied a terre in Santa Barbara. Hopefully on my next trip, I will actually get to meet Jessica:)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Bar Pintxo Perfection

I tasted Bar Pintxos' food at the LA Food and Wine event Summer at the Shore (see my previous post) and couldn't wait to try more, so I took two guests from back East to get a late night snack at this wonderful Tapas bar in Santa Monica.

One of my guests loves potatoes and when she saw the Patatas Brava, crispy potatoes, spicy tomato sauce, aioli and chives for $5, she knew what she wanted. I'm not usually a potato lover, but these converted me! They were tender on the inside, crispy on the outside, and the spicy tomato sauce and aioli added such a perfect accent that would gladly order these every time I come here.

My other friend wanted something light, so she ordered the white asparagus with green herb puree, seasonal sprouts, and marcona almonds with paprika for $6. This was a tender dish of fresh ingredients which would be a perfect choice for any vegans, vegetarians, or simply vegetable lovers.
I had to order the grilled octopus with saffron aioli and smoked paprika infused olive oil for $10. I LOVED this dish. I could have easily eaten three for dinner. The potatoes on my plate were a nice accompaniment to dip into the saffron aioli and they added a nice textual contrast to the octopus.

The atmosphere is exactly like a tapas bar in Spain, the service is warm and knowledgeable, and the food is amazing, so come here for their happy hour when tapas are only $6, or you can get a sampler plate like this (actually 2 orders on this plate).

The calamari was some of the most tender and savory I've ever eaten, and a bargain at $6 during happy hour (I ordered TWO)!

Come on Thursday for their $34 menu of 3 courses. I plan to come next Tuesday when they do their fabulous paella for only $9 after 6pm.

Joe Miller, the owner, came over when he saw me taking pictures and asked if I was going to post them on Yelp, so I told him yes, and even better, on my blog, because after all, great food deserves great press!

Bar Pintxo on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 17, 2012

Absolutely Spectacular Auberge Du Soleil

When a place is recommended by both a French concierge and a local, it is a must for a meal in my book. The view alone at Auberge Du Soleil is worth the trip. You can come just to take pictures on the terrace, but I recommend that you make a reservation for dinner and try at least the 3 course meal ($98) or the tasting menu of 6 courses ($150).

The meal begins with an amuse guele of salmon with creme fraiche on a puff pastry shell.
A very delicate way to start a meal.
To begin, we were offered a nice shot of consomme with quinoa.
This was so good, I forgot to take a picture until I had already drunk half of it!
I started with the veal sweetbreads with lemon curd,black pepper, poppy, and watercress. 
It was a picture perfect plate, with pitch perfect flavors.
Kampachi crudo, avocado, radish, cucumbers, and shitake vinaigrette was a fresh way to offer sashimi, and the fried sliver of garlic on top added a nice cooked crunch to the raw ingredients.
Heirloom tomatoes with cow's milk ricotta, caponata, pine nuts, and black olive caramel was a twisted version of the classic. The perfectly ripe tomatoes and the use of riccota instead of burrata gave this starter an unexpectedly original flavor.
The Day boat scallop, saffron potato puree, Monterey Bay squid, hijiki, and salmon roe was an exquisite expression of rich, complex sea flavors.
Handmade tagliatelle pasta, with a ricotta stuffed squash blossom, oven roasted tomatoes and Nicoise olives was the perfect meal for the athlete in our group who was set to go on a 14 mile run the next morning. She enjoyed the combination of vegetables and pasta so much she literally cleaned the plate.
The seared Ahi tuna, hummus, celery, sunflower sprouts, chorizo, and pine nuts was sashimi quality fish, done with light accompaniments which enhanced the fish in both textures and tastes.
When I saw the spiced Paine Farm squab, buttermilk, grilled little gem, fried flatbread, and black garlic vinaigrette on the menu, I knew what my main course was going to be and I was not disappointed when my meal arrived. The squab was done rare and was perfectly paired with the black garlic and grilled little gem lettuce.
Pink sea salt and Maldon salt was served on the side of the squab (I used the Maldon salt) in case the squab was not seasoned to taste.
The least adventurous eater in our group took my suggestion to order the sauteed Tai snapper, glazed pork belly, braised vegetables, scallion tempura, Thai broth. It was a hit, especially once the server poured the Thai brother into the bowl.
A refreshing palate cleanser of watermelon and strawberry arrived before dessert.
The chocolate cherry fritters, Kirsch sabayon, chocolate one layer cake, and cocoa nibs was a brilliant take on the classic chocolate  covered cherries. It literally turned the dessert inside out and then added chocolate cake and ice cream. Yes, this tasted as good as it sounds!
I was pleasantly surprised to learn I didn't have to choose between the cheeses offered, but I could get ALL of them! Served with fresh figs, dried apricots, sliced apples, and champagne grapes, the assortment of cow, goat and blue cheeses was the perfect third course for me. Even though a small sliced loaf of bread was offered I never touched it (other than to open the napkin covering it to see what was inside).
Delta blueberries, vanilla streusel cake, lemon verbana ice cream, and soft meringue was a light dessert for those who want just a few bites of various textures.
Crisp filo wrapped chocolate dumplings, tarragon ice cream, and Arbequina olive oil made the plate look like a work of art. Unfortunately the olive oil was much prettier to look at than to eat with this dessert.
As an after dinner temptation, we were given a plate of French truffles, salted caramels, and cocoa covered almonds, which we somehow ate even after finishing three courses.

As an additional gift to take home, we were each presented with a box of pate des fruits which were  concentrated explosions of fruit. I could easily eat several boxes of these!

Service was classically French, with proper silverware (fish knife for fish courses), and expert explanations of every dish. The meal was well worth the price paid, but the company of good friends was priceless.
Auberge Du Soleil Restaurant on Urbanspoon