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Let's eat.

From Big Sur's killer cliff-clinging eateries to Salinas' unparalleled produce, this blog aims to sniff out all things Monterey County can stomach, via picture and prose, curiosity and appetite, hand and mouth.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Monterey Bay Restaurant Week Returns

Last year's virgin adventure (promoted in the above vid) succeeded in giving locals a chance to test out restaurants they've always wanted to in accessible ways—by way of set menus designed to highlight what they do best at affordable price points ($25/$35/$45)

This year's dates—Nov. 11-17—were just announced. They are going to have to throw this thing together quickly.

Fortunately they've already scored some nice spots like Basil, L'Escargot, Montrio, Jacks at Portola, Cafe Rustica, Andre's Bouchee, Lalla Grill, Rio Grill, Fresh Cream, TusCA, the Chart House and The C Restaurant.

The list of restaurants is growing at MBRW's website.

Buen provecho, mi gente.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloween Appropriate Food Fun

Think pumpkin carving, only more imminently edible.

You may never look at cauliflower or that roll in the bread basket the same again.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Only in California: Alvarado's Sakana Sushi

Some folks might balk at the sight of Jordanian prepping their sushi.

Those folks would likely miss out on having the superior Sakana Sushi experience, where owner-chef Fadi Nimri often steps in for his main chef, as he did the night some friends and I came in to celebrate a birth-to-be in the family.

The new spot in opened in the high-ceiling space right next to the Golden State Theatre, a space last seen used as a satellite gallery for Alternative Cafe's stirring art exhibits. It's a perfect size for a handful of tables, including a couple of window two-tops.

We sat at the cute little five-seat sushi bar so we could talk with Nimri and see the rolls come together with jewel-like pieces of yellowtail and salmon from Monterey Fish Company.

As Nimri schooled us on how fish is treated on the boat—he says sashimi grade is bled on deck so a purer cut results—we happily grazed on the results.

Like most California sushi dens, specialty rolls, or maki, proliferate here. Like the appropriately prodigious Godzilla ($15.95), with tempura shrimp, avocado, salmon and cucumber, which is all fried, sauced and crowed with tiny slices of green onion.

Or the Elissa ($13.95, left), with blended krab, roe and cucumber, topped by barbecued eel and tare sauce, and the exotic and surprisingly cohesive Rio Roll ($11.95), with eel, avocado, mango, macadamia nuts with a touch of tare sauce. (Of note: each special roll comes with miso soup or a simple salad.)

The Falling Stars ($9.95) starts off with a plate full of spherical fish cakes packed into the best balls on the boulevard, deep-fried and dressed with a sweet reduction and chives...but they disappear quickly.

Given the dearth of Seafood Watch friendly sushi spots around here—coincidentally, October is National Seafood Month (scroll down for the list of local restaurants who honor the Watch)—it's nice to see many maki options that go vegetarian. There's the big "Arti-san Roll" ($9.95, above), for instance, which brings artichoke hearts, goat cheese and sesame seeds to the taste equation. Turns out goat beats cream in pulling things together. Nice idea.

While he whisked together more maki, we suggested that a lot of conscious eaters would flock to the first sustainable sushi spot anywhere near here.

The house blended, unfiltered saki flows happily at $2.95 a tall shot. So does the draft Sapporo or Kirin, albeit less happily given the steep price ($6.50) for a pint—though Nimri says he is open to price adjustments.

A little family history helps put the welcoming ambiance in perspective. Nimri's brothers are involved in two of the genuinely friendliest restaurants between Point Reyes and Pismo, International Cuisine (formerly Chili Great Chili) in Pacific Grove and Dametra Cafe in Carmel.

"Out family just likes to take care of customers," says older brother Faris Nimri, who pulls off his own cross-cultural wonders at International Cuisine. "To be honest, not like we're faking it, it comes naturally, we like people, like the industry and there are a lot of nice people we have as customers."

Seafood Watch Local Partners
Café Fina, Monterey
Courtside Café at The Chamisal Country Club, Salinas
The C Restaurant and Bar at The Clement Hotel, Monterey
Domenico's on the Wharf, Monterey
The Duck Club Grill at the Monterey Plaza Hotel, Monterey
Esteban Restaurant at the Casa Munras Hotel, Monterey
Favaloro's Big Night Bistro, Pacific Grove
The Fish Hopper, Monterey
Hula's Island Grill and Tiki Room, Monterey
Jacks Restaurant at the Portola Hotel And Spa, Monterey
Montrio Bistro, Monterey
Old Fisherman's Grotto, Monterey
Otter Bay Restaurant at California State University Monterey Bay, Seaside
Pacifica Café and Bar at the Embassy Suites, Seaside
Passionfish, Pacific Grove
Peter B's Brewpub at the Portola Hotel And Spa, Monterey
Portola Café and Restaurant at The Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey
The Restaurant Ventana Inn And Spa, Big Sur
Sardine Factory, Monterey
Schooners Bistro at the Monterey Plaza Hotel, Monterey
TusCA Restaurant at the Hyatt Regency, Monterey

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Running the Game: Notes From the Wild Game Barbecue

As field scouts go, it's tough to top this dynamic duo, Weekly enviro reporter-Assistant Editor Kera Abraham and photographer-chef Hanif Panni. They've got more than an expansive appetite for good grub going on—they know how to document the deliciousness for the rest of us with aplomb. For the Wild Game Barbecue yesterday, they jotted notes and took pictures, respectively:

A gentle rain didn't intimidate the hardy fishermen, hunters and other supporters of the Carmel River Steelhead Association, who turned out in force for the Wild Game Barbecue on Sunday, Oct. 24, at the Carmel Valley Trail & Saddle Club. The crowd of 200 packed the family-style picnic tables in the dining hall and spilled onto tarp-sheltered tables outside, where the air smelled fresh and earthy in the drizzle.

Among our personal best in show: 1. "Cowboy-style" sea bass, cooked tender and smothered in a smoky, peppery barbecue sauce, by chef Horace Mercurio of Coffee Mia Brew Bar in Marina. Just as good was Mercurio's white sea bass with pesto sauce, lemony and basily in just the right proportions.

2. Wild boar bourgignon, by Bruce Brown of Otter Bay Restaurant & Catering. I'm guessing that it took hours of slow-cooking to tenderized the swine that in some other dishes was gristly and tough.

3. Hungarian Hunter's venison stew, by Roberta Campbell Brown of Two Chefs Catering. The deer was in its natural habitat in a thick brown sauce evocative of the valley floor in autumn: multi-layered and rich.

4. Oak-grilled Sicilian-style albacore, by Rose Di Girolamo of Carmel Valley Fish House. Not much needed to dress up this fresh-caught tuna: just a smoky, oaky essence wrapped protectively as a poncho around the flavorful white meat. Every half-hour the rubber-booted CRSA volunteers picked a lucky raffle winner, who got to select a prize from a table full of trinkets.

Meanwhile, Barry Brandt hawked the higher-stakes items in the silent auction, from a gorgeous pair of Big Sur jade earrings to a burly camp-kitchen set. And wine, lots of it, to keep the outdoorsfolk toasty.

Rival bidder Bob Perkins gracefully let us prevail on a set of vintage bottles from Roy Thomas' Monterey Peninsula Winery, dating back to 1974, 1975 and 1976.

A careful corking will reveal whether they're liquid gold or vinegar, but the local history—Thomas' own daughter tells us her 5-year-old feet were among the stompers back in those Carmel Valley flower-child days—makes them precious enough already.

All told, the event raised as much as $6,000 for CRSA's good work on behalf of the valley's most imperiled native fish: rescuing steelhead trapped in dried-up stretches of the river, building a new fish ladder and trap at Los Padres Dam, breeding captive steelhead to replenish the threatened gene pool, helping supplement the water in the Carmel River Lagoon and working to re-establish woody debris in the lower river.
Now we'll just have to wait for Cal Am to comply with state orders to stop sucking the Carmel River dry.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sports Bar Nirvana: The New Knuckles

I have seen the future of sportsbar. It arrived with the Knuckles (647-2039) makeover at the Hyatt Monterey, which is now complete.

And it has conveniently shown up in time for the S.F. Giants' first shot at breaking their half-century championship drought.

The fanciest bell/whistle of the future: the Table Tender, which will appear at one table and provide two taps for patrons to self-dispense; beer will be metered out by automated ounce. (Ironically, the Knuckles staff has always been pretty darn attentive. You don't have many servers with this much seniority, which tells you they are doing something right.) Hyatt's hype machine calls the Table Tender the first of its kind in the Golden State.

The place looks a lot slicker and sleeker and silvery—note the year 2075 bar—but might have lost a little of its local character with the exodus of the area memorabilia. The 24 flat-screen HD TVs will help people cope, including an 84-incher.

Among the important notes:

Sierra Nevada will remain available in many flavors, more (10) than anywhere outside the S.N. brewery. So will the free popcorn and peanuts.

• There are a league of new menu items…

Anticipate appetizers like locally harvested clam steamers cooked with Gilroy garlic, lemon, white wine and butter and served with sourdough bread ($11); sea salt calamari with peppadew pepper aioli ($9); warm Castroville artichoke dip with toasted ciabatta bread ($7); Buffalo spiced cheese sticks and jack and blue cheese sticks with green onions and spicy ranch dipping sauce ($8); and wild boar ribs dry rubbed and slow roasted with honey chipotle barbecue sauce and pineapple slaw ($10). Yes, wild boar. That's good game.

The new signature sandwich ("The Knuckler") brings some gargantuan game of its own: shaved beef rib eye, slow roasted pork, a fried egg, avocado, fried onions, portobello mushroom, shredded lettuce and a three-cheese sauce luxuriously slapped on a sourdough bun and sided with Gilroy garlic fries ($16.50). They're also promising new salads, build-your-own burgers and pizzas.

Then there's a new carnitas quesadilla with roasted tomatoes, green onions, Monterey jack, smoked cheddar cheese and chipotle salsa ($11), and fish tacos with locally caught cod, cabbage slaw, pico de gallo and Oaxaqueño cheese ($11).

New closers include a Guinness and vanilla ice cream float ($8) and a Snickers pie with brownies, caramel, peanuts and a tart cream cheese filling ($6).

• A new pool table and a "kids gaming area" are coming soon. I hope that might means a little boxing ring, maybe a putt-putt arena and Ski-ball. But I think it means shotgun shooting range video games. That part's not quite done yet, though.

• The most daring food deal in town continues on Tuesdays. For Toss Up Tuesdays, a coin flip decides if you win your dinner (food only). Even a loss nets a $5 food certificate to use another time.

Yes, the future is fun. Game on.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Sardine Factory Cellar: High-End Holiday Dinner Inspiration

Intrepid Weekly food contributor Tony Seton went down to the cellar the other day and came back dizzy with delight. Apparently this wasn't just any cellar. I'll let him explain.

Though the room is a catacomb, it has a surprisingly similar feeling to the great dining hall in the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, in part because of the large table and the high-backed chairs. Mostly though it’s because of the sense of history. One can see and smell—even hear—the years of living that have gone on in this room. Grand moments in the lives of important individuals. And maybe those not so important, or at least not well known, but the hours they spent in The Wine Cellar beneath the Sardine Factory were significant.

This was my first experience of this extraordinary place. I was a guest at a political fundraiser. I have been in a number of wine cellars in restaurants, vintners, and private homes, both here and in Europe. They can vary as much as rooms used for other purposes. But here at the Sardine Factory, as at a few others I’ve visited, there is a spirit that is much deeper than the grapes.

It’s actually a small room, only 14 feet wide by 30 feet long with a nine-foot ceiling, and even though it is filled by an immense table, no one feels cramped. Around this dining room are myriad racks where the Sardine Factory stores its wine, with more than a hundred private lockers where various individuals keep their own private stock. Terminator and Dirty Harry both have lockers there. Altogether there are some 35,000 bottles in the cellar, among them some historic works, including a $10,000 1870 Lafitte Rothschild.

There’s something about dining amidst such time-honored splendor; something akin to perusing a good book in a private library filled with only the leather-bound and many of them first editions.

The dining area itself is rich in history. Two huge wooden doors lead into it. They were discovered and “rescued” from the old stone Christian Brothers Winery in Napa Valley, during a remodel for the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America. Inside is the massive table. It was built from a thousand-year-old Sequoia that had fallen down in Big Sur and was, with special government permission, brought to Monterey, where it was cut into appropriate form using chain saws specially ordered from Alaska. The pieces were then brought down to the cellar and assembled into the table.

The former tree—there was much left over—also contributed its grand wooden self into beams to support what was built above, plus the stunning bar that sits in the ante-room to the dining area. Many people enjoy a glass of something before they take their seats inside. For us, Veuve Cliquot was certainly a good starter.

Complementing the huge table are heavily but delicately upholstered high-back chairs that once graced the elegant dining room aboard a 19th Century luxury steamship. There are 14 on each side of the table with comfortable spacing between them. The table has three leaves that can be removed for more intimate parties.

On the walls are wonderful paintings and along them other artifacts, some of which once lived in a Spanish abbey during the 16th Century; other pieces hail from the Louis XIV era.

The dinner was staged by the Cellar Master Giovanni Sercia—he has worked for S.F. founders-owners Ted Balestreri and Bert Cutino for 35 years and held his current position for 10—and was ably abetted by two assistants. We started with crab ravioli in a truffle sauce that I would have re-ordered several times. It was followed by a salad of mixed greens and vegetables in a red wine vinaigrette. Next came something of a pièce de resistance, at least visually: each of us received a dish of sorbet served in an ice swan, lit from below.

We had a choice of entrees...pan-seared wild Alaskan halibut fillet in tarragon beurre blanc sauce, chicken breast in a Madeira wine sauce, or filet mignon in a port demi sauce. I got a taste of the halibut next to me—you don’t reach across the table at an event like this—it was delicious, and thoroughly enjoyed my beef. The entrees came with risotto with chives or potatoes and sautéed vegetables. The meal ended with chocolate Marquis, a surprisingly and pleasantly light dark chocolate sponge cake with vanilla crème anglaise.

The wines were an excellent 2005 Rombauer Chardonnay and a 1995 Galante Red Rose Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. Plus there was a glass of delicious 1970 Taylor Port with the dessert.

A dinner in the Wine Cellar in the catacombs beneath the Sardine Factory is clearly a special occasion. If you have the inclination to so celebrate, you will have the opportunity to custom design your meal and your wine pairings. The cost factors include not only the victuals and libations, but of course the number of people. There is no charge for the room; the minimum expenditure is $1,900 on food and drink, plus tax and 17 percent gratuity...figure $2,400 and up. Don’t expect to necessarily get your first choice around events like AT&T and Concours. Contact Dawn Rodriguez at 373-6625.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Food Self Control: The Concept

Maybe the best way to test your will power would be to leave you alone in a room with a steaming-hot piece of Pizza My Way's Big Sur pizza. Or a glass of Heller Meritage with five Bourdeaux varietals blended into heavenly harmony. Or a Wills Fargo steak with cauliflower gratin.

For the purposes of this simple experiment, it was a marshmallow. The results make for one of the best edible videos on YouTube:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

One Sheep's Story: Clint and Clyde

About a week ago, Clint Eastwood knelt low over “No. 36”—one of Mission Ranch’s iconic sheep had a shattered leg. (Eastwood owns MR.)

When my colleague asked me if I heard what happened next, there was only one word to mutter.


Nope. Eastwood, Banquet Director Michelle Alway reports, “decided that No. 36 deserved another chance, and gave the OK to drive him up to UC Davis Large Animal Teaching Hospital for surgery.”

No. 36 got a plate in his leg, a cast and a new name, applied courtesy of the UC Davis vets. He’s now called Clyde, after Clint’s sidekick oranguatan in Every Which Way But Loose.

Maybe I’m weird, but that makes me hungry for some Mission Ranch (625-9040) brunch.

It goes 10am-1:30pm Sundays, and might be the best one in the county at $29.95 per person ($13.95 for children age 5 through 12).

Chef Owen Appelt's menu, which includes a complimentary glass of champagne or a mimosa

Salad station
Fresh Fruit
Chinese Chicken/Napa Cabbage Salad
Caesar Salad
Traditional Salad Bar with Fresh Field Greens and Condiments
Other Assorted Seasonal Salads

Savory Station
Classic Eggs Benedict
Whole Baked Salmon with Dill/Crème Fraiche Sauce
Pasta Primavera
Prime Rib Beef Burritos with Mole Sauce
Mission Ranch Boston Clam Chowder

Omelet Station
(made to order with choice of fresh eggs or egg whites)
Fillings include:
Cheese, Mushrooms, Tomatoes, Avocado, Tomato Salsa, Ham, Bell Peppers, Bacon, Zucchini, Red Onions, Scallions

Carving Station
Roast Prime Rib of Beef with a jus
Nueske Baked Ham

Traditional Breakfast items
(included on buffet)
Homemade Granola
Fresh Croissants and Rolls
French Toast with Pure Maple Syrup
Pork Sausages or Bacon
Home Fried Potatoes

Dessert Station
(freshly baked)
Coconut Cake
White Eclairs
Variety of Cheesecakes
Chocolate Dipped Strawberries
Lemon Bars
Chocolate Raspberry Cake
Key Lime Pie
Fresh Cookies
Fudge Brownies
Fresh Fruit Tarts

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Go Wild: Annual Wild Game Barbecue Benefit

These guys know how to hunt. And they know how to eat.

So they will have everything on the grill—everything, it seems, except squirrel.

Here comes the wild boar bourguignon. The oak-grilled, Sicilian-style albacore, back by popular demand, after it was done so deliciously by Village Fish House's Rose Girolamo a year ago. She's joined by other Carmel Valley studs like Cachagua General Store's Mike Jones—doing chile verde, "Cachagua style"—and Wills Fargo master of grilled meats Jerome Vail. The chefs keep coming from there, Bruce Brown of Otter Bay Restaurant, Horace Mercurio of Coffee Mia and Roberta Campbell Brown of Two Chefs Catering among them.

With them comes what benefit co-organizer Brian LeNeve calls "the most diverse" lineup of grub he's seen at this annual event, which is saying something.

He says that means lobster bisque. Yellowfin tuna poki. Pheasant pear sauce. Dove, wild turkey and quail. White sea bass done two different ways—with pesto and "cowboy style" (I'm told that means it's got some kick). All the game is procured by the Department of Fish & Game and licensed individuals, and the $40 ticket ($20 for kids under 16) benefits the Carmel River Steelhead Association.

It happens 1-4pm Sunday, Oct. 24, at Carmel Valley Trail and Saddle Club , 85 E. Garzas Dr. in Carmel Valley. Call 626-6586 or 625-2255 for more.


Monday, October 18, 2010

How Sweet It Is: KT's Sweet Lunch Delivers

Allow me to introduce last Friday's lunch: a half turkey sandwich with red pepper pesto and carmelized onions on ciabatta, packaged with a peach and a mixed green salad armed with apple, avocado, walnuts, blue cheese and a connective tangerine dressing, and...

a little homemade treat: a mini caramel-apple cake.

Not bad, huh?

It gets better.

The packaging is all compostable, from the bags to the containers to the fork. The fresh goods are delivered for free if eight amigos and/or colleagues jump on board (it's $3 otherwise). And it costs $8.

Such succulence is possible Wednesdays and Fridays thanks to a new venture called KT's Sweet Lunch (214-7465), Monterey Culinary Center grad Katie Martin's answer to what she sees as a preponderance of overpriced and unhealthy lunch options.

"And I love cooking and baking for other people," she says. "It comes naturally, and I love it."

Sign up to get her menus by e-mail at the start of the week by way of her website and log your order by 2:30pm the day previous. She compiles them with farmers market fare at The Kitchen in Sand City and then rolls out.

The options with her soup-salad-wrap/sandwich staples are many. You can combine half orders of two of the three or just get after a full serving of your favorite (the wrap, above, is joined by some savory baked chips).

My sandwich was delicious, with a nice sweet and smoky note from the onions balanced by the earthiness of the ciabatta and the tasty red pepper pesto.

The salad's stars—blue cheese, walnuts, avocado and apple—always play great together, but do so even more socially with the help of the smooth tangerine dressing, which was a nice surprise.

I also tried the curried sweet potato chowder, which was robust to the point of chunky. (Don't be fooled by the big container; Martin ran out of the half-size vessels so this looks deceivingly like a skimpy order.) The peas provided a nice presence and I loved the pepitas in there. The only thing it was missing something to counteract the potatoes' sweetness—like some heat. My colleague/design guru Gretchen Miller suggested some chipotle action. I second the motion.

The bonus closer, a caramel apple cake, underwhelmed, which is surprising because it's Martin's signature and the first dessert I've had from her that didn't completely rock. I'm gonna chock it up as an aberration.

If life is to be sweet, lunch should be too. How sweet KT's is.

Coincidentally enough, Martin sent out this week's menu right after I posted this. Here it is:

Menu for Oct. 20 and 22

Pulled Pork, Mozzarella, BBQ sauce on Caramelized Onion Bread (from the Bakery Station) with Kettle Chips

Roasted Pumpkin, Chicken Sausage, Roasted Red Peppers, Green Beans, Lettuce, & Feta with a Mustard Balsamic Vinaigrette

Beef, Shiitake, & Barley Soup

Friday, October 15, 2010

Saturday: Made for Farm Fun

No fewer than three cool local gardening/farming open houses sprouted up this Saturday (tomorrow)—including one starring a couple who abandoned urban life to live closer to their food—so Weekly contributor Janet Upadhye, herself a recent transplant from San Francisco, take a closer look at this Saturday's earthy possibilites (scroll to the bottom of the post for event specifics and addresses and links):

When it comes to gardening, Cole Canyon Farms owners Steve Rehn and Pamela Mason are good at giving advice to the clueless. They once were somewhat clueless themselves—coming from San Francisco’s theater district they were worlds away from rural farming.

But they had it in their blood. Mason comes from three generations of farmers and Rehn’s mother was an avid gardener with quite a green thumb. When Mason got a job with Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, they knew they should follow their own green thumbs and migrate down to farm country.

With genes like theirs, it didn’t take long to learn what grows well in this area and when (like capers!, above). Heading into fall and winter, they are particularly eager to remind locals that in Monterey County you can plant edibles year round if you know what to use. Hence the inspiration for their sale/open house, A Celebration of Winter Gardening at Cole Canyon Farms.

This event caters to newbie food growers and old hats alike. Check out the selection of seedlings and perennial herbs at up to 50 percent off, ready to be planted in the fall, and gain first hand knowledge on how to not kill your new babies, and how to actually turn them into something edible.

Then stuff seedlings in your basket for veggies such as broccoli, cabbages, and multiple members of the greens family and stick in some herbs like oregano, sage, and rosemary, and go home and plant them. Come winter you’ll be making homegrown stew from your own garden in the backyard. Imagine.

Or just stop by to see up to 34 varieties of tomato in one place.

Over in Salinas, ALBA's Let’s Go To The Farm offers fresh, organic produce, straight from small local, organic farms and a chance to talk with farmers and get all the secrets to getting your own little farm into the ground.

Bring your own bag and load up on produce from the heart of the Salinas Valley salad bowl.

Hayrides will also tour the fields—there is no better way to see the farm than from the cush seat of your jacked up tractor of hay. And last, decorate and carve your own local pumpkins for Halloween. ALBA, a local nonprofit that aims to incubate small organic farmers with limited means.

Earthbound Farms offers more fall farming with Fall Fun and Flavor Days at their Farm Stand in Carmel Valley. On Saturdays in October behold their famous pumpkin and squash poles. Think totem pole of multi-colored gourds straight into the sky.

Also participate in cozy autumn activities like cornhusk doll-making and pumpkin carving. If you get hungry, stop by their certified organic kitchen (only the third open in the US) for smoothies, bakery goods, soups, salad bar and in October some special fall goodies. Scarf down your treat out on the deck among their organic flower garden. And don’t leave without attending a cooking demo to learn what to do with all your fresh new food.

Really, the tagline of Cole Canyon Farms sums up the joy of the harvest: If we forget how to grow our own food—others will decide what we eat. Never let anyone decide for you.

“A Celebration of Winter Gardening with an Open Greenhouse & Sale” at Cole Canyon Farm, 1495 Cole Road, Aromas. Saturday, Oct. 16, 9am-4pm.

“Let’s go to the Farm” at ALBA, 1700 Old Stage Road, Salinas. Saturday, Oct. 16, 11am-4pm, Suggested donation $5/group,

“Fall Fun and Flavor Days” at Earthbound Farms, 7250 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel. Saturdays Oct. 16, 23, and 30. 11am-3pm, Free admission,

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Herald Food Bites Bites the Dust

Monterey County plays home to hundreds and hundreds of restaurants. Every single resident is impacted by the industry, either fundamentally (because they're one of the masses who works the kitchens and tabletops from Moss Landing to Lucia), or directly because they eat out, or indirectly (because restaurants and events like Pebble Beach Food & Wine bring in big crowds and big income). Most of us are impacted in more ways than one.

So when the Monterey County Herald quietly scrapped two regular food columns—which happen to be some of its strongest elements, food or not—it didn't make a lot of sense to this omnivore with an admitted appetite for good food, wine and journalism.

"He Said, She Said"—the restaurant review in Go!—is sayonara. Same goes for "Food Bites," Mike Hale's stew pot of food updates and items, most recently appearing in Wednesday's Taste section.

I know the corporate fathers of the paper are more into bottom lines than community commitment, and find savings in slashing staff (I sense more cuts coming) who covers local beats in favor of vanilla fare from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But still.

The insiders I know weren't ready to go on the record with their understandings of why the food coverage was skewered like jerk chicken. "There's no right answer I can give," one said. So I called Publisher Gary Omernick.

My three or four calls went unanswered. Somewhere in the sequence I noticed his outgoing message changed to an out-of-the-office reply (coincidence, I'm sure).

The best I could surmise from my contacts is that his response to the groundswell of e-mails asking Why abandon a helpful local connection point? is this:

The decision to discontinue the food review column was based on readership and available resources… while we believe the readership of the column to be loyal, it was not a comparably large audience compared to other readership initiatives.

May our cleaning staff forgive me for ralphing a perfectly good lunch on the linoleum—is the readership initiative more syndicated stuff like nutritionist Barbara Quinn, which replaced Food Bites this week? Is it more theater stories in Go!, given that they often run several, though there's only a handful of houses in town, counting high school shops?

Ray Napolitano has followed the food and wine scene locally for decades, first as a club/restaurant manager, then as a wine rep, then writing Special Edible's forefather food flavorings, Food Chain, for seven years or so.

"It doesn't seem very sensible," he says. "My guess is that is a good barometer that, financially, the paper is in deep sh*t. In a community like this where there are more resturants per capita than almost anywhere, to not have a connection between the local daily and the restaurants is really a sad and mournful day."

True dat. Cue the frowny faces. :(...

Oh Clementine's. You're closed. And that sucks.

They never failed me. Every time I needed something thoughtful for a friend who likes food, cooking or just life itself (read: all of them), that was a go-to spot. There were cleverly engineered pans. Fancy plates. Mustards from France. Crazy tasty oils. Knives. Spices. Bamboo cutting boards. Atypical cookbooks. Cooking classes. Creatively curated wines. So many practical things with personality, interpreted by a classy and good-humored staff that might even have a wine tasting going on while you shop. Last visit there I tracked down an imported Chianti, a jar of sun-dried tomatoes in delicious oil and a elegant little kitchen contraption that diced, scooped and chopped—all for maybe $25. No fail there.

So perhaps it's fitting that, even as their business failed, the good folks at Clementine's didn't fail to make one thing clear: They wanted to thank the good people who frequented their spot next to Highway 68 and Tarpy's for eight mostly glorious years.

"That's the most important thing: "To really thank people." says Drew Chernoy, partner of owner David Babcock (above, with Bourdeaux, a rescue from Katrina and successor to Clementine, the dog the shop was named after).

Chernoy cites "a combination of things" that won't likely surprise. Local retailers are hit hard by economic slowdowns. The spot they enjoyed was not cheap to lease. Their business isn't must-haves—"it wasn't food, housing and gasoline," he says—but instead gifts bought from discretionary funds. Now he and Babcock can concentrate fully on Babcock's recovery from a stroke in March of '09 that continues to require rehab five days a week.

Now the good news: Clementine's allies-in-arms, Brinton's (624-8541), are still around for those who can make the drive. Closer to home, Lula's Chocolates (655-8527) addicts can swing by the Ryan Ranch factory to feed their fix and Parker-Lusseau (655-3030) lovers can find their third outpost in Ryan Ranch too. And the adorable ladies like whiz-chef Dorothy McNett, Becky Waters and Mary Panziera would all boost a short staff big time.

"It was definitely David's baby," Chernoy says. "It's heart-breaking. We are gonna miss customers as much as they missed the store."


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Powerful Lessons From TLC Ranch's Recent Closure

When an ex-marine beats a horse in a 50-mile race, you know he's up to a challenge. So that tells you how hard it is to keep small organic poultry and livestock farm afloat.

One-time horse-versus-human champ Jim Dunlop and his wife Becky just announced that they are closing up shop at Aromas' Tastes Like Chicken Ranch to travel the country working at small sustainable farms. That sucks.

My first introduction to TLC locked in my adoration immediately. I was committed to a 150-mile-radius diet for a Weekly cover story on eating locally and quickly learning that local bacon was as easy to get a hold of as a greased pig. Dunlop hand delivered some. It wasn't cheap, but it was wonderful. I didn't know if it was from the free-range grass diet, the strict organic upbringing, the expert butchering or the right amount of fat, but I didn't care. It was too good to care.

Now the amazin' bacon and delicious eggs and superior chops are being sold off to their loyal shareholders one last time. The crucial thing in this loss, though, is not to lose the valuable look into what makes such a pasture-fed, organic operation—the kind we want more of in our communities—work or not. That was the priority of the Dunlops' announcement:

"After 6 years trying to create a sustainable farm and a sustainable business, we are throwing in the 'farming towel,'" they wrote to their newsletter subscribers. "Some of you may have already heard, but we wanted to give you a more detailed story of WHY. It is our hope that by understanding why it didn't work for us, you will have a greater appreciation for the farmers and ranchers that continue to provide you amazing food and that you might work even harder to build a mutually beneficial relationship with them.

"We also think it is especially important to support farmers/ranchers that are local to your watershed because they not only provide a huge economic engine to your watershed but they also protect the farming and ranching lands around you by simply being able to continue what they do.

"Likewise, support the new, fledgling, and limited-resource growers who may not have the privilege of land or monetary wealth, but have the drive and creativity to try farming for a living."

The reasons provide passionate and potent (albeit one-sided) insight, and look to me like required reading for anyone with an interest in viable small farms—which, really, should include all of us.

Here's their reasons for closing, in their words:

We rent land in North Monterey County, California. Half the land we rent is in an active floodplain and is under water for half the year. The other half of land we rent is a steep, overgrazed, parched hillside with no water to help bring it back to life. For all 48 acres we rent, we pay about 10 times the going rate for pasture.

The best grazing lands in this region are locked up by a handful of long-time cattle ranchers, the fertile bottomland locked up by capital-intensive berry farming, so we are left with the dregs. To top off the over-priced land, our leases are too short to build a long-term business, the landlords too inflexible, and ultimately, we are building no equity for all the effort we put into the land.

What can you do to help solve the land problem for farmers? Make sure your city and county planners don't pave over any more good farmland in your county and don't let them rezone farmland for things like rural "ranchettes" and other developments that carve up viable farmland. If you or your family own farmland, consider offering a low-priced, long-term lease to a good farmer to help them build their business.

This topic warrants a much longer post, but basically California has only a handful of USDA-inspected slaughter and butcher facilities. Because there are only a few, it is hard to even get an appointment to bring your animals in (one place we called had a 7 month waiting list!).

Also, because these abattoirs don't have much competition, they don't have to provide high-quality customer service to ranchers. They can charge what they want, they can choose not to follow your detailed butchering instructions (for example, put nitrates in the hams that you asked for "nitrate-free", cut all the fat off your pork chops when you asked for 2 inches of fat on them, etc.). These abattoirs charge you by the carcass weight of your animal and then sometime they won't even give you the whole animal back that you paid for, such as taking the head, the organ meats, the feet, etc.

So we work our butt off to raise this amazing animal and then the butchers devalue your hard work. Having zero control over our processing is extremely frustrating and costly. To top it off, the rules for ranchers processing their own meat are different than those for small custom butcher shops.

They can take their meat products to farmers markets without a USDA-inspection but we cannot (Corralitos Meat Market or El Salchichero is an example of this). This is a double standard that most customers are oblivious too.

We certainly have some amazing customers, some who have been with us since the beginning, others who have loaned us money, and many who put faith in us when purchasing an egg share. We also had over 100 amazing individuals donate to help replace our stolen laying hen flock. We get the occasional compliment like "your eggs changed my life" or "I feel comfortable eating meat again when it is from you".

Yet we have other customers who want our products to be cheaper, for us to stop using organic feed, or for us to lower our standards in other ways. There are people who want us to use a soy-free feed, but yet are not willing to pay the added price that a non soy feed will cost (it takes longer to grow out an animal without soy and laying hens produce fewer eggs when not on soy).

Many customers, in fact, will choose to get eggs from several states away from a farm they have never seen in order to get a soy-free egg or they will buy bacon or sausage that is sugar or nitrate-free but happens to come from some nameless farmer in Iowa. Many people prioritize their personal dietary preferences du jour (I say "du jour" because these preferences change often over time) over supporting an actual local farmer or perhaps over humane animal care, environmental sustainability, etc. I encourage you all to look at the bigger picture and think about what values you want to support.

Added to this, the bleak economy is encouraging many of our former customers to pinch pennies and discard their values for foods that are organic, local, environmentally sustainable, etc. While I understand the need to be budget-minded (we haven't seen a movie in over a year), I don't think people should skimp on the food they put into their bodies and the kind of planet they want to see. If we want local farmers to stay on the landscape, we must support them over the long term.

When we shop around, try to save a few pennies, or preference our dietary fads over the realities of local livestock production, we are taking away that vital support that keeps local farmers around.

We both used to be avid mountain bikers, backpackers, rock climbers, all around adventure-lovers. Since starting a farm, we have had almost no time to do anything fun. Our daughter's only 'fun' time is when all three of us are washing and packing eggs to music at night.

We live next to a highway because that was the only land we could find to rent that also had a house for us to live in. We farm in an area rife with criminal activity and had 300 of our laying hens stolen in the spring, but it is the only place we could find that would rent us land.

To top that off, we can't find any good employees that would enable us to work less than 80 hours a week and have some semblance of a life ('cept for Loren & Felicia). So unlike the beautiful, joyous life that many romanticize for farmers, we don't have that. We need a better life.

So off they go, loading their daughter Fiona in the RV to volunteer on farms and ranches "around the country that we admire and hope to learn from."

Just as we have learned from them.

Star Market's New Star: Cat Cowboy

Sometimes the benefits of shopping locally takes unanticipated shapes.

Former Chamisol GM and friend-to-the-animals/organic farmer Nicole Tonti discovered this one the other day at Star Market (422-3961) in Salinas. It was wearing a leash.

Tonti goes to Star for a lot of things, number one among them, she says, the honeybee goat cheese from Michael Burke's undeniably great cheese constellation.

Victor Kong, meanwhile, keeps a superlative selection of wine intact, and then there's everything else a sturdy supermarket can have if you (for some reason) need more than wine and cheese to survive.

In this era of elections—coincidentally, the district that Star Market belongs to is particularly contested, with incumbent Jill Barnes facing opposition from sunshiny Steve McShane, among others—Special Edible Food Blog believes in equal time, so here's a little video from the opposing camp, dogs.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Shake It For Salvation

Weekly food writer Tony Seton made his way over to Portola Hotel (866-711-1534) to look in on an annual benefit for the Salvation Army put on by one of the county's first families of food, the Shakes, in honor of their iconic patriarch immortalized by the wooden statue on Fisherman's Wharf, Sabu. Here's what he came back with, alongside some photos from Nic Coury:

Oh what a night! The Shake Family held their third annual “Sabu’s Safari Goes Caribbean” event at the Portola Hotel. It was a grandiose event to honor their iconic father, Sabu Sr., while raising funds for the Salvation Army.

More than 350 attended, among them the incumbent splash of community leaders including supes and councilfolks, a sheriff (above left) and a bishop.

A silent auction featured hundreds of items, among them sports memorabilia, bottles of wine, a few art pieces, vacations, dinners and spa treatments preceded the dinner, with the local glitterati wandering among dozens of tables, writing their bids, sipping libations, and nibbling a delicious array of appetizers including abalone, white anchovies bruschetta, Caribbean papaya with prosciutto, ahi carpaccio...

chevre-stuffed figs (above), and baby artichoke hearts with crab meat.

One of the highlights of the evening was the menagerie of live animals carried among the guests. There was a skunk, a five-foot python named Tarzan, a monkey, an owl who was obviously up before his bedtime, and Wally the alligator. He was only about 20 inches long but would grow to 12 feet; he had his mouth taped shut. The animals were from Wild Things at the Vision Quest Ranch, a primary sponsor of the evening. (Guests also got to have their photographs taken with an animal.)

The main course, of course, was the food. The executive chef was Mo Tabib, who also runs the kitchen at the Fish Hopper (372-8543). He was supported by a number of other culinary pros including Juan Ponce of the Old Fisherman’s Grotto (375-1331), and Jason Giles of the Portola Hotel. And oh my goodness, the food was downright excellent: tables of sea bass, halibut, king crab, lobster, chops, and prime rib, ably supported by steaming dishes of rice and pasta and vegetables, plus various salads and breads. There were also several tables of dessert, including cakes, pastries, and fresh fruit. The food and drink were contributed by dozens of local companies.

The problem with all that food and hours to eat it is that one does one’s best to diligently consume all of these delicious goodies. All-you-can-eat is a marvelous concept if you have a semblance of discipline. Otherwise you eat too much and there’s nothing semblance about the feeling of over-indulgence as you waddle home. Still, it was for a good cause.

There was a video celebrating the life and spirit of patriarch Sabu Shake, who passed to the great restaurant in the sky about a decade ago. And there were stirring reports on all the good that the Salvation Army has done since 1895 when they saw to the needs of the Chinese fishing community in Pacific Grove, and is doing today in our own tough times. Thousands of families, children and individuals get food and shelter, training and counseling, along a path to a better future.

A live auction after the dinner was emceed by KSBW anchor Dan Green, who at one point offered the line that this wasn’t the first time he was upstaged by a monkey in a diaper. He helped raise tens of thousands of dollars (they’re still counting) by bidding out vacations from Kona to the Caribbean, premier treatment at a Giants (baseball) game, and a sparkling variety of special dinners for you and your 10, 20, or 40 closest friends.

The Tropicalismo Dance followed, and then there was dancing to Jeff Narell and the Bongo Beach Band.

The Shake organization ran the affair well, and they were proudly complemented by excellent service by the Portola staff.