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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.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Let's Get Festive: Five Notable December Events

Maybe you just wish—just once—Santa would drop a bowl of Cal Stamenov's white truffle risotto in your stocking. Or that Hanukah could be eight nights of fine añejo tequila tastings.

That may not happen, but some character rich holiday time activities will. They do make good gifts—after all, studies have shown experiences are much more rewarding than material things over time.

Here are a look at some upcoming events that caught my eye.

Thursday, Dec. 2: Intercontinental-Piper Champagne Dinner

Get in good with a great chef and you might be surprised how much he or she finds Champagne an under-appreciated power in food pairing—bubbly goes beautifully with far more than caviar and raspberries.

Tonight guests see what they mean. And with gusto, given the two parties doing the pairing, namely C Restaurant Executive Chef Jerry Regester and Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Ambassador John King. GM Sonny Petersson’s orchestrated another seductive one here.

A quick teaser: Nantucket scallop ceviche with Piper Sonoma Brut; lightly smoked arctic char with
Piper-Heidsieck Brut, NV; and thyme-roasted duck breast with Piper-Heidsieck Rosé Sauvage.
A taste of King of Cognacs in our Louis XIII Lounge follows the seriously celebratory affair. Seating goes 5:30-9:30pm, $95++, 375-4800.

Friday, Dec. 3: Aquarium Members' Holiday Dinner

The best 2010 Halloween costume of the county had to be my friend and local artist Amanda Burkman's homemade leafy sea dragon get-up. As she tires of me begging her to put it on, here comes a welcome work around: epicurean inspiration to get by the Aquarium to look at her little cousins while testing the new foodie waters astir with the arrival of fresh star "culinary partner"/food director Cindy Pawlcyn and exec chef Jeff Rogers.

The Aquarium hosts its Members' Holiday Dinner featuring Pawlcyn's farm-to-table style and Rogers' favorite food sources, with seatings at 6 and 7pm. $36/adult; $15/under 12, (866) 963-9645.

Saturday, Dec. 4: Beatles Tribute Day

Steve Jobs
ain't the only dude with the hots for the Beatles these days. Gary Ozuna's been goofy for 'em long before they reached iTunes, but he's celebrating the historic democratization of the Fab Four with a tribute day that includes a free "mop top topping"—25 all told—on ice cream orders at his Beatles and Classic Rock Museum and Memorabilia Ice Cream and Coffee Shoppe (642-9789) in P.G.

The day will feature a chance to hear alternate takes and special recordings from obscure sessions. Check out the old-school milkshake machines while you're there, maybe taste some egg nog ice cream, one of dozens of Lappert's Ice Cream flavors. 1-10pm, free admission.

Monday, Dec. 6: Lopez Restaurante Tequila Tasting Event

The family of brothers behind Lopez aren't going to win any regional awards for the ambiance at their windowless downtown Monterey destination, but their Mama Chela conjures some mean mole sauces and her kids know how to assemble a serious cavalry of nice tequilas—I think they have 100 at their bar already.

That makes this tasting a pretty good looking deal at $15 (in advance). Maestro Dobel, Donna Linda, 1800, Asombroso and Azcona Azul will roll out everything from diamond blends to expertly aged añejos, while Chela sends signature appetizers from the kitchen and the casual camaraderie that is a hallmark of the family presides. 6-10pm, $15/presale, $20/at the door, 324-4260.

(In other news, the Lopez dudes took over the former Casa Bodega just across Del Monte from Wharf Two, and are adding their tasty Mexican grub to the popular sandwich lineup. I went by the other day; more on that soon.)

Friday, Dec. 10: 14th Annual Truffle Dinner at Marinus
Bernardus revisits its seasonal sensation, the annual truffle dinner. The math on this one is easy: The world's most precious food-stuff + Cal Stamenov = sold out every year (despite the spendy sticker price), so get moving.

A 6:30pm cocktail reception with champagne and Sobieski-black truffle martinis precedes a six-course truffle tasting menu paired with wines hand plucked by Mark Jensen. (And the following Saturday there's a chocolates and desserts cooking demo and tasting 1-3pm with stud pastry guy Ben Spungin for $85 inclusive. Looks like an epic excuse to stay the night.) Friday, Dec. 10, $500++, 658-3550.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Fight For Your Right to Big Mac

Apparently a new cry has supplanted the "Know your farmer!" refrain or the "Keep your crazy hormones out of my meat!" mantra:

"Don't let them take away your McRib!"

Sigh. So it goes with our reactionary, polarized and unnecessarily politicized society. Now the Sarah Palins and Rush Limbaughs of the world are attacking smart and healthy food policy as "lies" and elitist propoganda.

With today's article about the trend, though, the Washington Post's Brent Cunningham and Jane Black—last seen locally at Cooking for Solutions—wisely point out that while the right's argument that Twinkies are healthier than we think (Limbaugh) and rises in meat prices are part of a lefty conspiracy to turn us into vegetarians (Glenn Beck) might be "wrong-headed," there is a growing culture gap that bears monitoring and addressing.

The gap, which in part recasts a nutrition-based approach to healthy eating as a debate between wholesome food-eating elitists and budget-constrained everymen, is as dangerous as obesity. Just take a peek at the gridlock that's resulted from the false conversation over climate change. With ourselves and the environment, we can't choose to think the existing ailments have nothing to do with what we're feeding into the system.

It's also vital, even and especially considering prices like Whole Food's, to keep the debate focused on what's most valuable and cost effective all told (as the article points out, obesity-related disease costs a cool $150 billion annually) and not what's cheapest right now ($2.59 McRib), and even more important to fuel food-stamp system implementation at farmers markets whenever possible.

And as the authors are figuring out, with some planning, quality foodstuffs aren't cost prohibitive in the least—about the cost of a McRib, by their calculations.

The article's worth checking out. There's a reason it's been e-mailed more than any other Post piece on this Monday.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cannery Row Brewing Company's New Deal

Like its parent company Coastal Luxury Management, Cannery Row Brewing Company (643-CRBC) has a lot fermenting at once. On a recent Monday night they had a full bar tuned in to the NFL game, diners swung through for a special Monterey Restaurant Week menu and a lively 30th birthday party for Sierra Nevada—remember when they touched off the craftbrew revolution?—happening on the patio.

There's more where that came from.

A debut happy hour is in place now that the initial honeymoon surge and summer crowds have filtered away: select drafts and spirits and snacks are half off 3-6pm weekdays.

On Sunday there's a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar with premium pours like 42 Below Vodka, El Jimador Tequila and Bombay Gin for $6, mimosas for $4 and $1 off a range of draft beers.

"Sunday Bloody Sunday" includes a strong brunch menu with items ranging from the Red Zone Burrito (pulled pork, chili verde, potatoes, cheddar cheese, refried beans and pico de gallo, $9.95) to the "Hamms & Eggs" (scrambled huevos, bacon, potatoes and an ice-cold can of Hamm's, $11.95).

Discount deals equal happy locals.

And in other CRBC news, the corporate CLM team, fresh off a team retreat to the American Music Awards in L.A., is about ready to move into their minty new polished-cement-and-exposed-brick corporate office upstairs.

Their resident mascot, friend and porkchop pal, Bacon the teacup pot-bellied pig, will not be joining them. She has packed on 20 pounds and been relocated to another assignment, not for lack of resident affection, but out of traditional workplace practicality.

"We all loved the pig," CLM co-founder David Bernahl says, "but I had to be the bad guy after it got a little crazy—I'm on a conference call with the president of American Express Publishing and there's this squealing going on.

"He's like, 'Where the heck are you?'"

The biggest news of the moment, though, is yet to go public: Fresh off founding GM Gary Obligacion's farewell, CLM's importing top talent from Las Vegas and D.C. to supplant Obligacion and former Restaurant 1833 chef Tim Mosblech.

The opening of the restaurant still appears weeks, and maybe months, off: A planned American Institute of Wine and Food event there in early December was moved to the Sardine Factory.

More soon as things keep brewing.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hopefully Your Thanksgiving Is a Little More Promising Than This

The scorpion-snake liquor I bought in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City is professed to have healing powers.

In my kitchen, however, it seemed to only have the power to turn my friends' faces into dried apples.

Hey, scorpions aren't for everyone. But some people love nothing better than a good scorp or cockroach or centipede or tarantula on their plate.

Like these freaks, for instance:

If you haven't arranged your own holiday grubdown, I have good news: You won't have to resort to mining the garage for cockroach protein.

Arguably the best local blog going, the Monterey County Visitors and Conventions Bureau's See Monterey, has your back. That's where Nicole Gustas put together a nice rundown of eating out options for Turkey Day.

The best value I've seen so far might be from Exec Chef Mark Ayers at Cannery Row Brewing Company (643-CRBC). Just $24.99 for a choice between pumpkin soup, squash raviolis in brown butter or a grilled Caesar; your pick between a five-hour smoked prime rib or a beer- and apple cider-brined, seven-hour smoked Diestel turkey and a bunch of sides like homemade cornbread stuffing, double butter smashed potatoes, brown sugar candied and roasted carrots, roasted Brussels sprouts with doublecut bacon and pearl onions and pumpkin pie with brown sugar almond brittle crust.

Might merit a pilgrimage.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Tiny Place for Great Crepes

Chef conversation floated about the closet-sized kitchen in fluid French. (Yes, that's the kitchen.)

Autumnal sun lightly baked customers eating al fresco along the sea. Authentic buckwheat crepe batter sizzled, its savory scent all sensorial seduction.

It was Friday afternoon. On Fisherman’s Wharf front deck. At a semi-hidden new place—tucked inside an ice cream-coffee shop—called Vive La Crepe (601-4847).

One of the chefs, Thierry Crocquet (above), is a recovering tile contractor.

“I work twice as much and make half as much,” he says. “But I’m 10 times as happy.”

He’s also the undercover Frenchie of the two principals—even though he’s the one born across the pond and can speak fluently, Crocquet has no detectable accent.

Daniel Peron (above), meanwhile, has a distinct French lilt, but was born in New York City to Brittany-born parents.

Make no mistake, though. Both have Old World flavor beyond the imported striped French shirts and berets. They know what they are doing, as foodie citizens and industry pros alike—including spies from other creperias—are picking up on.

My favorite element of this story might be its genesis: crepes as familial comfort in tough times.

At least that’s how Crocquet tells it. He lost his mom not long ago, and realized he had a way to hold on: through the food that defined her family. So he started cooking more crepes for his kids, using the recipe he knew from summers in Brittany, the birthplace of crepes, with his grandma, and began incubating an idea to make something more of his affection.

The next steps came serendipitously. Crocquet’s then-sweetie took him to her favorite crepe place in Stockton. He was intrigued by the undeniably authentic photos on the walls from Brittany and ceremoniously wowed by what he ate.

“I thought my grandma’s were the best in the world,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘Sorry grandma. This is better.’”

He mentioned his aspirations to owner-chef Peron, who was eyeing his own change of scenery. Today, now that Peron has moved to Monterey to help launch the endeavor, even this imperfect Yankee palate can identify the collaborative excellence here.

Journo-of-the-future Janet “Up and Up” Upadhye and me tried three on that afternoon, a brie and caramelized onion number ($8.50), a seasonal veggie-cheddar-jack ($5.50) and a caramel-apple sweet one ($6.50) from a chalkboard list that includes strawberry-cream cheese ($6.50) and turkey-jack-cheddar ($6.50).

It was all systems “whoah.” I sensed genius seasoning, then realized that flavor came not from salts and spices but from the perfectly thin and rustic buckwheat skin—or in French, galette—and the onions they stir to sauteed superiority for up to 90 minutes.

The sweet one is a little hard to eat with plastic forks, but enjoys an unmistakable slow-cooked quality born of batter that isn’t doughy or eggy and housemade salted caramel.

My only beef with these dudes: Lose the all-disposable plastic flatware. Kills the buckwheat-beautiful buzz, brothers.

Should they shape up on that front, I’ll be back for the crepe Crocquet says he favors: the brie-caramelized onion-and-salmon special ($9.50). It's not on the menu, but it's on my mind like a mo fo.

Vive la Crepe indeed.

Monday, November 22, 2010

New Aquarium Exec Chef Is In

It was a day little girls dream of. Everything was perfect.

Only it didn't start that way. Rain came. Right at ceremony time. For an outdoor wedding.

But the bride's brief trembling was soothed enough to proceed. Umbrellas were assembled and trees lent shelter. A gathering came closer.

The adorable family dog and the tiny niece somehow made it down the aisle successfully. The first-time officiant spoke without stumbling more than once or twice—of themes big and small, laughter and love, family and friendship, rings on fingers and coffee in bed.

A collective breath was taken, and hearts thumped in unison at all the right moments. And even the clouds eventually parted long enough to let the dream day come completely in.

Then more magic: The food was transfixing. The dance floor might've done the food one better—I've never seen anything like that cross-generational freak out—but it couldn't have happened without fuel from one of the most pitch perfect wedding meals I've seen assembled al fresco, rain or no.

Jeff Rogers (above center) helmed the dinner as a special favor to his colleague and friend Courtney Porras, who worked with him at Quail Lodge.

It's good to have friends like "Chef," as Porras (now Ferrante) calls him: roast free-range rosemary chicken that tasted like he was mastering one grilled piece of chicken for the governor instead of scores for all of us. Tender grilled prime beef. Swank heirlooms in a killer, classic caprese. Blue Lake green beans with Marcona almonds. Yukon Gold potatoes roasted just crispy. Quince with spicy toasted pumpkin seeds. It was all served family style by lazy susan, chased by Layers cakes, mini milkshakes and Italian cookies.

As it so happens, that meal made Rogers' credentials that much fresher in my head when the announcement came last week that he's the new executive chef at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

New MBA supreme culinary commander Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards Grill) will oversee menus and the various operations under the Aquarium umbrella—from myriad special events to representation at festivals to the Portola Restaurant approach—but Rogers will be our local play caller, applying the same knack for farm-fresh tastes that made his name at Quail Lodge and Highlands Inn.

The guy sources as well as he seasons. Looks like a great choice from here.

And congrats to Courtney and Vince.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Luxe Lounge Pump Fake

Yes, those lights are nice (they're brand new). But yes, that dance floor is empty.

Luxe Lounge
got off to an inauspicious start on its opening night because it wasn't, well, open.

When I stopped by owner Dennis Barwick (above left, in full explanation mode) blamed the fire department for a last minute inspection that revealed his front doors wouldn't open in an emergency.

I blame him for having a door that doesn't open.

He assured me that it would be open today, but the wires hanging from the ceiling, the empty cigarette dispenser, the empty bar shelves and bare walls hinted at another time line.

At least the sound resonated nicely and all the security staff was there getting acquainted with the joint, so they have that going for them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Luxe Lounge Lands in Former Doc's in Downtown Monterey

One of Monterey's major nightlife venues is back. And it's schizophrenic.

Tomorrow, Nov. 18, Luxe Lounge (643-1100) will suddenly open in the Monterey nightlife venue that was previously Doc’s.

And I have to say, a split personality disorder never sounded so sexy.

By day (starting at 11am), owner Dennis Barwick (above) says, it will be a family sports bar banked with dartboards and big-screen TVs.

By evening, he says it will transition into a dueling piano bar. (Holy crescendo.)

By night, he’s talking thumping disco action, with touring DJs on the ones and two.

Come 2am, he’s thinking coffee shop-dance hall fueled by cappuccinos and late night grub.

The “corner”—which includes the neighboring/connected eateries Bellagio Pizzeria (643-9500) and Habanero’s Grill and Cantina (375-3700, above) that Barwick also owns—will stay open until 4am Wednesday through Saturday.

When I mentioned that other local outlets have unsuccessfully aspired to maintain later hours, Barwick, a consultant who has done handsomely rescuing service industry businesses for years, seemed nonplussed.

“We believe there’s a social life after 2am. It’s something we have to build up,” he says. “Denny’s is full. Ultimately when folks find that there is a place there, somewhere just to have a late night snack, that will be a place people will eventually migrate to.”

Several times a month, meanwhile, he’s pledging to pull in big-ticket musical acts—he says he’s in negotiations with Randy Travis and Michael Bolton—and comedy acts from Vegas.

“I’m looking at this as a long-term project,” he says. “We have to walk before we run, but it’s a dream to not have to drive 100 miles to get real upscale entertainment.”

His team has stocked the bar with 60 tequilas and 30 beers by the bottle to complement the 20 beers on tap—“We believe we have one of the best stocked bars in Monterey County,” Barwick says. “We spared no expense”—and patrons can order from Habanero’s and Bellagio or from Luxe’s own limited lineup of grill-style stuff like hamburgers, dogs, onion rings and wings.

While some renovations remain, Harwick—who previously partnered with former Monterey Live owner Gary Smith on the project, before a hold on Smith’s liquor license helped dissolve the deal—
is eager to get going. “My work as a consultant gave me an appreciation for bringing in something different,” he says. “We’re trying to come in with a concept that’s fresh and innovative.”

Just send the schizophrenia shrink bill to the dance floor fiends of the area, who have to be stoked to see such a key spot back and (hopefully) bumping.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Belly Button With a Major Appetite

I don't know what makes you hungry for tuna, but for me it's a ravenous screaming navel.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Local Boy Brews Good

Maybe you know Jeff Moses. He's good people, with good beer. The last luxury taste he's turned me onto: Stoney's all natural suds. Good stuff.

He triggers the Monterey Beer Festival every summer, and as of last year, launched a hyper-high-grade cousin event in collaboration with BevMo! in San Francisco.

Learn more about the BevMo! Holiday Beer Fest at the website.

I don't normally highlight out-of-the-county excitement, but this is a great value, and he's a local dude. And last year's event assembled more tiny batch, cleverly unique, high-retail beers than I've seen in one place, which speaks to how serious Salinas' BevMo! gets after their beer selection.

Here are the tastes that'll flow 5:30-9pm Saturday, Nov. 20, 5:30-9pm at Fort Mason by the bay, poured out here like one big beerstream of consciousness.

21st Amendment Back In Black Monks Blood Ace Cider Hard Cider Affligem Noel Al Hambra Negra Alaskan Brewing Alaskan White Ale Alaskan Winter Ale Ale Industries Fuzzy Snow-Beck Allagash White Dubbel Anchor Brewing Christmas Ale Liberty Ale Anderson Valley Winter Solstice Anheuser-Busch Pumpkin Spice Winter Bourbon Arend Tripel Belgian Triple Ale Asahi Super Dry Brewmasters Select Asphal Hard Cider Baltica Dark Porter Barbar Winter Bok Bard's Tale Gluten Free Batemans English Ale Bear Republic Old Baba Yaga Beer Valley Highway to Ale Belhaven Wee Heavy Big Sky Powder Hound Big Sky IPA Moose Drool Trout Slayer Bison Brewing (Organic) Ginger Bread Ale- Chocolate Stout(Organic) Black Diamond Winter Ale(Belgian Abbey Style) Blue Frog Big Dippa 3 IPA McPhrog Scottish Bockor Belgian Ale Bosteels Triple Karmeliet Boston Beer Winter Lager Coastal Wheat Camberry Lambic Bourgogne des Flanders Wild Sour Ale Brasserie Dubuisson Scaldis Noel Brasserie Dupont Bons Voeux X-Mas Ale Saison Foret Bridgeport Hop Czar Ebenezer Brunehaut Belgian Blond Ale Buckbean Black Toddy Cable Car Winter Brew Castelain St Amnd French Country Ale Chang Thailand Lager Chau Tien Holiday Pale Ale Chimay Grand Reserve Clausthaler Classic and Amber Non- Alc. Coastal Fog Holiday Ale IPA Smoked Porter Crispin Hard Cider DAB German Beer De Koninck Belgian Ales De Proef Belgian Ale Delirium Tremens Belgian Ale 2010 Deschutes Jubelale Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA Midas Touch Palo Santo Marron Drake's Jolly Roger Ale Dues Brut Des Flanders Dundee Ales & Lagers Firehouse Hops on Rye Firestone Union Jack IPA - Walker Reserve Porter -Velvet Merkin Oatmeal Stout Fox Barrel Mulling Cider Franziskaner Dunkelweiss Full Sail Wassail Winter Ale Session Black Lager Brewmaster Reserve Vesuvius & Wreck the Halls Gageleer Belgian Sweet Gale Ale - BIO Genesee Cream Ale Goose Island Christmas Ale Gordon Biersch Winterbock Gouden Carolus Noel 2010 Grand Teton Black Cauldron Imperial Stout Cellar Reserve Green Flash Green Flash Imperial IPA Guinness Draft and Foreign Extra Stout Guldenboot Belgian Wild Berries Ale - BIO Hacher-Pshorr Dunkel Weisse He'brew Jewbelation Heineken Lager Hermitage Ales of the Hermit IMP & 2 TUN Hermitage HOTOPIA MALTOPIA WHEATOPIA Menage a Singe Black IPA Heylissem Triple Brown Ale Heylissem Triple Brown Ale Hopf Dunkle Weisse Hornsby Cider Hard Cider Iron Springs Epiphany Amber Irondale Double Chocolate Stout Jessenhofke Belgian Triple Ale with Garlic John Henry 3 Lick Spiker Ale Karl Strauss Amber Lager Red Trolley Tower 10 IPA Klaster Czech Dark Beer Kona Pipeline Porter Konig Pilsener König Ludwig Weiss Beer Krusovice Bohemian Lager and Cerne La Trappe Belgian Triple Ale Lagunitas brown sugga' Left Coast Hop Juice Double IPA Lhasa Nepal Lager Lost Coast Winterbraun Lucifer Belgian Ale Mad River John Barleycorn Barleywine Magic Hat Howl Magners Cider Hard Cider Malheur Belgian Ales Marin/Moylans White Christmas Winter lager Hoppy Holidaze Spiced Ale Kilt Lifter Scotch Ale MateVeza Yerba Mate IPA Maui Coconut Porter Meantime Coffee Porter Mendocino Brewing Oatmeal Stout MillerCoors Chill Moretti Italian Lager Napa Smith Bonfire Winter Ale Lost Dog Nectar Hemp Ale Ninkasi Total Domination IPA Sleigh'r Double Alt North Coast Brother Thelonious Old Rasputin Old Speckled Hen English Ale Oud Beersel Kriek Geuze Blond Triple Ale Paulaner Fine German Beers Pyramid Snow Cap Radeberger Pilsner Pilsner Redhook Winter Hook Rogue Ales Santa's Private Reserve Sagres Portuguese Lager San Miguel Dark Santa Cruz Ale works Oatmeal Stout IPA Barrel Aged Porter Schneider Aventinus Weizen Eisbock Aventinus Doppelbock Shiner Cheers Ale Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin & Imperial Porter Sierra Nevada Harvest Ale - Celebration Ale - Pale Ale Six Rivers Brewery Chile Pepper Ale Slavutich Premium Lager Smithwicks Irish Ale So Duh! Craft Sodas Spaten Spaten Optimator Double Bock Munich Dunkel Speakeasy Black IPA - Doube Daddy IPA Satachmo Stout Sprecher Winter Brew St. Feuillien Cuvee du Noel Steinlager Pure Stiegl Austrian Beer Stone Double Bastard Ale & OAKED Arrogant Bastard Straffe Hendrick Bruges Belgian Triple Ale Strongbow cider English Cider Strubbe Flemish Red Ale - Grand Cru Sudwerk Marzen Super Bock Portuguese Stout Telegraph Winter Ale and our Oatmeal Stout Tied House Holiday Ale Cascade Amber Timmermans Lambic Trumer Brauerei Trumer Pils Tucher Heff Hefeweizen Uncommon Brewers Siamese Twin Ale an aged Baltic Porter Golden State Ale and American Special Bitter Unibroue La Fine du Monde- Chambly Noire- Maudite Warsteiner Pilsener Dunkel Weihenstephan Vitus Weizenbock Wells & Young Banana Bread Ale Widmer Brrr Ale Woodchuck Hard Cider Wyder's Canadian Hard Cider Youngs Double Chocolate Stout Zhiguliovskoye Golden Moscow

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mandatory Viewing: Organic Supermarket Star Wars

Sometimes words just get in the way...

(I just can't believe this has been floating around the universe for five years and no one told me.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gary Obligacion Reflects on Leaving Coastal Luxury Management

At the start of the year, when I was asking Coastal Luxury Management principals David Bernahl and Rob Weakley why their world takeover should involve two new restaurants—I was thinking Pebble Beach Food & Wine and American Institute of Wine & Food and their myriad other epic endeavors, including Bernahl's Pacific Tweed, were plenty to manage already—they told me they had a really compelling reason to take them on. That reason: their then-chief of ops Gary Obligacion (above).

CLM's Number Three had a decorated restaurant rez that includes Chez Panisse, Pebble Beach and Bernardus. Great restaurants are what he does, they said, and does damn well. Plus they had the capital, and the opportunity, and the talent, to make Cannery Row Brewing Company and 1833 Restaurant go. With Gary O. playing GM, they were like Denzel Washington on a train: Unstoppable.

Later Obligacion told me that as much as he loves CRBC, 1833 would be his coup—a real game changer of a place and space, the restaurant Monterey County had been long missing, and his base of operations. Though he could have a spacious office above CRBC, he told me, he was going to set up shop in the claustrophobic upstairs office of the old Stokes Adobe so he could be on site at the signature spot that would further define and differentiate CLM as the hottest thing since grilled cheese. (Read more about CLM's rise and the plans for 1833 here.)

Only now, with the opening of 1833 as little as a few weeks away, Obligacion is gone from the CLM mothership.

Here's what I wrote in this week's Weekly, out today. What follows is thoughts from a candid conversation I had with Obligacion right as we went to press.

It’s like the San Francisco Giants sending Tim Lincecum packing on the cusp of the World Series. OK, maybe Kung Fu Panda. Whatever the case, news that Coastal Luxury Management is parting ways with its restaurants chief Gary Obligacion on the eve of the debut of his baby, Restaurant 1833, in the old Stokes Adobe, comes as a brush-back pitch.

The parties concerned seem good with it. Granted, David Bernahl and Obligacion are as on-message as they come, but even conversations with the more shoot-from-the-hip Rob Weakley—whose wife Michaela was toting around their newborn Allysa at Big Sur Food & Wine—echoed the same refrain: They had diverging visions of what the plan for the landmark eatery should be.

“You don’t want to open a restaurant if you’re not on the same page,” Weakley says. “You don’t want your coach leaving midseason.” (Gary O. as Bruce Bochy?)

The team remains “dear friends.” Obligacion is already considering “new projects and generous offers.” 1833 chef-that-was Tim Mosblech will join him.

Now, without further ado, highlights from my talk with Gary O.:

On the move:
"It's a leap of faith...thankfully in this 26-year career I've had, I've never intentionally burned a bridge. I've gotten some very flattering phone calls. And I have a family, and I don't have the money to go six months without a job, so I'm looking at lots of things."

On word that he wanted to be in a bigger market:
"That's not the case. I do not have any desire to be a star. It's not about that at all for me. If I wanted to be famous, I never would’ve left San Francisco."

On whether all the surprises at 1833—the historic building code hassle, the endless funky rehab and repairs, etc.—fed frustration with the project that led to his leave:
"It had nothing to do with city, nothing to do with code. That's all been incredibly educational. The city's been beyond accommodating, as has the planning commission. [The change] is more due to internal function. I don’t think we as an entity knew what we were trying to do before we got started. [Coastal Luxury Management] doesn’t have a 10-year plan.

"And thank God. Because if they did, CLM wouldn’t be where it is today. They wouldn’t have Pebble Beach Food & Wine, Harvest Food to Table, all these little pieces that now encompass CLM. That said, there comes a time where you stop and see where you are."

On the massive momentum CLM has going:
"Growth is great. They're at a point when a one-year or a three-year or a five-year plan become handy tools—to know that, if if we as a group are going on a trip, and plan that, great. But we haven't decided where we’re going or when we're going. You show up with a suitcase and I say, 'What are you doing? We're not leaving for six months.'

"I think my giving notice was a wake up call of sorts. They’re understanding there is a need to slow down and get to the next logical step. They’re saying that. I’m very optimistic for CLM. The company has a structure and look at the talent pool in that room: [CLM V.P. of Brand Relations] James Velarde, [V.P. of Operations] Anand Menon. When you start walking around and naming names, you see a kick ass team (above).

"They have the ability to move mountains. How they got where they are is due to the members of that team. Each one of us feels failure is not an option. That kind of passion made this crazy success possible. I'm only part of the team that’s done this. I just happened be there day 1, that December, when the only ones on payroll were [Senior Event Coordinator] Tonyia Sampognaro, Rob Weakley and me. I was number three there. Now the employees are well over 100."

On the nuttiness that was starting up PBF&W:
"One of those nights I worked a 43-hour shift to get year one going. Dude, it was crazy what we did to make year one happen. No one has any idea how physically hard it was to make it happen. There were days where Rob and I will tell you we never worked as hard as we did then. Dave was definitely burning the candle at both ends."

On his recruitment from Bernardus:
"You bring in talented people so you can allow them to exercise their talent. 'Here comes Gary'—his aptitude is restaurants, that’s the rhetoric, and it happens to be true. I’ve always been allow to control my environment, shape a restaurant, to enjoy some autonomy, tweak if necessary, make substantial changes if necessary. When I got to [Pebble Beach Company's] Stillwater Grill, it was just a fish house. I was able to teach service points to a staff to where it was the first time when Roy’s didn’t win best restaurant in Pebble Beach, because we provided an experience people didn’t realize could happen outside of Roy’s. When I got to Bernardus, staff was with me, and against me. If you want to change everything, they told me, do it. Over four years, I changed it little by little, building loyalty, and got the template at Marinus and Wickets and started something special.

"Now here we are with 1833, Dave and Rob are much more hands on with details."

On the hype behind 1833:
"Looking at the situation, it's a beautiful, beautiful physical space, and the buzz around it, the hype around it, couldn’t be bigger, and the expectations, we’re gonna open, we're gonna open, there’s gonna be backlash, and if it’s not perfect, now what? Have they raised expectations to point where, well, can they be met?

"If I could adjust one thing, it would be to make it a smaller restaurant, the size of Big Sur Bakery, or Mundaka, or Wickets. Doing something that big that by definition has to appeal to a broad range of people, that's not as much my thing. And the style, it would be a hybrid of those three."

On the departure:
"It never got ugly or nasty at all. The opportunities with CLM were incredible. I couldn’t be more proud of Pebble Beach Food & Wine. No one can ever take away fact that we did the first—it can go for another 50 years or four years, but we did the first, the wonderful template is what we built. When economy was in a tailspin, we grew. As pessimistic as everyone was, we were optimistic to the extreme in another direction.

"We’ve been able to employ a lot of people and make a lot of friends. Dave and Rob (above), are a one-two sales punch that no one can match. That can be polarizing—but they refuse, because they refuse to fail themselves, they know how good they can be, they want the best of the best to come out of the organization.

"Anything they touch, CLM wants it to be the best."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Salinas Field Fresh Recipes Hit TV

Top chops TV food personality Laura McIntosh (above left) has got a little rock star to her, and not just because of her charismatic stage presence, or because she styles her half-hour home cooking show "Bringing It Home" as a sort of a cousin to an MTV mainstay. (“You’ve heard of MTV’s 'Behind the Music'?,” she says. “I see our show as ‘Behind the Food.’”)

Her rock star credentials, rather, are rooted in her affection for the classic elements of rockin' grub: farm-fresh California produce. She scours fields for the finer flavors, then arranges a jam band of chefs to deliver ideas (and recipes/sheet music) so us ham-handed mortals can play along at home.

Just the other day she and her production team rolled into the Salad Bowl of the Globe to harvest—and film—straight from the fields themselves. She plucked local romaine for Cannery Row Brewing Company's Mark Ayers to run his harmonies on. Here's the recipe for his screamin' Caesar starring grilled lettuce, a surprisingly satisfying tweak.

Wood Grilled Caesar Salad
Serves 2

Classic Caesar Dressing
2 Lemons, juiced
½ cup Garlic
2 oz Anchovies, whole
6 oz Pasturized Egg Yolk
5 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 cup Parmesan Cheese (to taste)

Combine garlic, anchovy and egg yolk in food processor and puree till smooth. Add lemon juice and with machine running, slowly add the oil and emulsify liquid. Add parmesan cheese to food processor and if necessary, thin with a little water.

1 Romaine Lettuce Heart, sliced in half with stem still attached
1 teaspoon Olive Oil
2 teaspoon Lemon Juice
Salt and Pepper to taste
¼ cup crouton
1 serving Classic Caesar Dressing (recipe below)
4 oz. Cooked Bacon, chopped
Fresh shaved Parmesan Cheese, to taste (optional)

Preheat grill to medium high. Drizzle oil and lemon juice over romaine and season with salt and pepper. Place on grill and cook for 1-2 minutes per side. Place cooked romaine on 2 plates and drizzle with Caesar dressing and top with shaved parmesan cheese, bacon and croutons. Enjoy!

Next she had Ayers take viewers through the signature CRBC belly bombers:


She also grabbed some of Salinas-based Andy Boy broccoli rabe for Chef Tim Luym of Attic in San Mateo.

Stir Fried Rabe Fried Rice
Serves 4-6

5 cups cooked Jasmine Rice, cold
1/4 pound Broccoli Rabe, stems trimmed, blanched
1 cup Sweet Peas
1 pound Cooked Chicken Breast, diced (can sub any protein)
1/4 cup Chinese Sausage
1/2 cup Scallions, green parts only, chopped
1/4 cup Onions, diced
2 tablespoons Garlic
2 tablespoons Toasted Sesame Seeds
5 tablespoons Sesame or Canola Oil
Salt & white pepper to taste

For the sauce:
(Mix all ingredients)
1/3 cup Low Sodium Soy Sauce
1/8 cup Sesame Oil
2 tablespoons Sriracha hot sauce (can substitute favorite hot sauce)
1/8 cup Chinese Cooking Wine such as Shao Xing (optional)

It is important to use cold rice when making fried rice to ensure the best texture.

Using a wok or large sauté pan, add oil, Chinese sausage, onions, and garlic over high heat. Quickly stir in the cold rice, broccoli rabe, and chicken. Continue to stir fry for 2-3 minutes or until rice begins to crisp at the bottom of the pan. At this point, add the sauce and mix evenly. Next, add the peas and scallions and continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes. Season to taste, transfer to a bowl and add sesame seeds for garnish.

A Glance Back at Big Sur Food & Wine Year Two

There was a rare feeling permeating every bottle, smile and snack at the extensive lineup that constituted the second annual Big Sur Food & Wine this weekend past: a kind of camaraderie that comes from close affiliation with our area’s tastemakers and an abiding affection for the goods they give us.

Way too much epicness to fit in here—from the head-shakingly generous auction items to the pitch-perfect new opening event to the celebratory sell-out dinners—so I’ll leave it at what event conductor of chefs Adam Olthof said to me at the grand public tasting (check out former Esalen chef Charlie Casio talking goat cheese, Pig Wizard slicing sausage and much more from that Henry Miller-centered Saturday event—who needs a rain plan, right?).

“We slayed it, didn’t we?” he asked me.

Well...hell yes you did.

Suddenly, unmistakeably, wonderfully, BSF&W is officially on my short-short list of can’t-miss events of the year.

Check out more Nic Coury photos from the public grand tasting here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Democracy of Delicious

Saturday at Spanish Bay the Panetta Institute honored journalists David Brooks, Cokie Roberts and Tom Brokaw for their service of democracy with a big Pebble Beach crystal glasses and heartfelt appreciation.

The greater honor, though, might have been a seat at the tables where the top chefs from the Los Angeles Lakers, Facebook and the Pebble Beach Company all collaborated on a blockbuster—and surprisingly creative—spread. (Buffalo tenderloin carpaccio and kimchee sliders?!)

Local legend Bert Cutino led Weekly writer/lover of democracy/devotee of good food Walter Ryce through the annals of the operation. Here's what Ryce came back with (read his discussion of the honorees' remarks here):

In the moments before the start of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy Jefferson-Lincoln Awards gala at the Inn as Spanish Bay on Saturday, “Dinner Expediter” Bert Cutino (above right) is gregarious, welcoming, and not at all nervous.

“Here we are, another show,” the Sardine Factory co-founder tells photographer Randy Tunnell. “Everyone knows what to do; they know the drill.”

He’s so unharried that he offers to take me behind the scenes to see the machinery of an operation that, in two hours, is going to deliver more than 440 four-course meals to a well-heeled capacity crowd.

He walks through empty ballroom, immaculately appointed with wine glasses, place settings, centerpieces, candles and gift boxes—44 10-tops, all told—with enthusiasm, talking as we go through a door in the back that opens to the staging/plating area, where some of his team are prepping the hors d’oeuvres that are currently circulating among the pre-gala reception.

They include confit of duck on pepper buttermilk biscuit with huckleberry jam and blue cheese, and incongruous but intriguing buffalo tenderloin carpaccio and kimchee sliders.

As he navigates us to his bustling kitchen—which reminds me of the seminal Copacabana scene in Goodfellas, which might explain why Cutino conjures Paul Sorvino— he says, “Each course plays to the chefs’ strengths. We’re contrasting classical and experimental. We’re not held back by ethnic tradition. Years ago it would be suicide. But talents want to be creative. The ultimate judge, though, is the consumer. If they don’t like it, fuggedaboutit.” He laughs heartily.

That talent, on this night includes a deep (and all volunteer) roster of L.A. Lakers Executive Chef (and committed environmentalist) Jeffrey Mora, former Google and current Facebook Executive Chef Josef Desimone, Pebble Beach Resort’s own Corporate Chef John Hui, and more than a baker’s dozen other esteemed colleagues, from El Camino Hospital’s Jacques Wilson to Johnson & Wales University’s James E. Griffin.

Together they constructed a dinner course that followed the hors d’oeuvres with a seasonal offering of soup of local porcini mushroom fume, to a terrine of Castroville artichokes and fresh beets (using 1,500 of them, hand peeled), alighting on the main course of roasted center-cut filet mignon Oscar with crab lump meat and asparagus bread pudding, ending on an indulgent "white chocolate fantasy" of white chocolate mousse filled with dulce de leche with warm cherry and pistachio compote.

Many of the vendors who provided the food did so for free. And for their own free and valuable labors, the chefs were marched through the ballroom, filled with guests prior to the ceremony, lead by bagpiper Becky Jenkins.

Democracy, it turns out, tastes damn good.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Eating Las Vegas: A Sustainable Story

In a Las Vegas land where life is writ huge—note the 10,000 square foot hotel suites, giant Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower—it's the little things that got me grinning. Not the massive Viva Las Vegas showgirl production, but the sweet little hotel cleaning lady dancing with her vacuum in a lonely hallway. Not the ever-expanding Strip but the overlooked old downtown-Fremont Street area and its speakeasy-style bars and taverns. Not the huge Luxor pyramid and sphinx, but the midget Elvis inside. Not the endless MGM buffet (though that was good), but a little bite of salmon belly nigiri.

In that nigiri, against a backdrop of record foreclosures and unemployment doubling as a cautionary tale against explosive growth, I found some hope for sustainability.

And hope tasted fantastic. Rick Moonen, the chef-owner behind the salmon, snapping fresh oysters and mouthwatering uni and I lunched on at his RM Seafood, first caught national attention for his groundbreaking work steering people away from endangered swordfish while trendsetting in NYC. The flavor behind, say, his atmospheric ahi tuna duo was already unreal; the fact that he fastidiously sourced the big-eye that went into it is a powerful departure from the wash of sushi joints here and elsewhere that have no regard for fisheries that are threatening to fold worldwide.

I first encountered Moonen’s well-schooled and charismatic campaign for sustainable seafood at the Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions a couple years back. Now the Aquarium authorities have named him 2011’s Chef of the Year.

Xania Victoria Woodman, Vegas icon/writer/editor and bona fide “career carouser,” as her biz card announces, joined me for lunch and later adjourned to the field where Moonen was prepping a “Project Dinner Table” meal for 125 folks sitting at a table 100 feet long in the middle of a field. There she says he somehow dished out whole-roasted Idaho Farms rainbow trout (with Brussels sprouts and double-smoked bacon) from a catering truck for the scores of people of present.

Check out his recipe for chicken-fried trout with green tartar sauce and Asian slaw below–and make plans to marinate more hope at Cooking for Solutions in May. Get more sustainable recipes here.

Chicken Fried Trout (Serves 4)
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup minced red onion
  • 1/4 cup chopped scallions
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1/2 teaspoon chile paste (sambal oelek)
  • 4 trout fillets (7 ounces each)
  • Coarse salt
  • Freshly ground white pepper
  • All-purpose flour for dredging
  • Corn or peanut oil for frying
  • Green tartar sauce
  • Asian slaw

Combine the buttermilk, onion, scallions, dill, garlic, zest, and chile paste in a baking dish. Whisk or stir well.

Lay the fillets in the marinade, making sure you've got them completely coated. Cover with plastic and marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour and up to eight hours.

When you're ready for dinner, remove the fish from the marinade and season it with salt and pepper. Coat the fillets well with flour.

Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a heavy skillet (this is a good time to pull out your cast-iron pan) until very hot but not smoking. Fry the fish in batches for about 1½ minutes on the first side, then turn and fry for another 45 seconds. The crust should be golden.

Drain on paper towels, and serve with the tartar sauce and Asian slaw.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Big Sur Food & Wine: The Glory Is Almost Here

I had to travel to the bottom of the world to realize how powerful Big Sur's beautiful bounty really is.

It was there in Tierra Del Fuego, surrounded by the soaring rock towers, the giant-chandelier glaciers, the swooping Southern Lights and the four-hour sunsets—which collectively had me thinking blinking is just a bad idea—that I didn't know how I'd be able to return home. I mean, how could I leave that?

Then it hit me. I always had Big Sur. If I ever felt like I needed world-class wonder, Highway 1 could shuttle me there in minutes.

Then the seemingly unthinkable happened. Big Sur, though already perched atop the list of Bestest Places in the World, got even better.

For those locals who just emerged from the marine canyon, the South Coast hosted an utterly absurd sequence of bands this summer and early fall: Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, Colin Oberst (playing with the Felice Brothers), Al Jardine and Cat Power among them. The best music we had going in Patagonia was some whiskey-fueled freestyling.

And now here comes something that ups the natural Big Sur appeal even further: Big Sur Food & Wine, act deux. (The food in Tierra Del Fuego: surprisingly tantalizing instant mash potatoes and garlic chopped on a Frisbee.)

The festival represents the most sumptuous symptom of the foodification of Big Sur. Few restaurants can hang with Big Sur Bakery's oven-fired steaks, or Deetjen's eggs Benedict or Ventana's view (and scallops). This weekend those unparalleled hubs for the hungry and their Big Sur brethren come together with, oh, nearly 60 hand-picked wineries like ROAR, Roederer and Alma Rosa. They gather in greatest quantities for Thursday's "gateway" opening at Hyatt Carmel Highlands ($100) and Saturday's grand tasting at Henry Miller Library ($60/general; $40/resident). A complete list of participating wineries appears below:

Au Bon Climat L'Aventure Talbott
Ridge Continuum Paul Lato
Pisoni Clos Pepe ROAR
Siduri HdV Testarossa
Patz n Hall Drew Chappellet
Breggo Alma Rosa Kunin
Bernardus Roederer Margerum
Wind Gap Hitching Post Lioco
Adelaida Ramey Tobin James
Arcadian Miura Heller
Justin Galante Bonny Doon
Qupe Demuth Cold Heaven
Kristi-Lynn Tablas Creek Windy Oaks
Perception MacPhail Wrath
B Kosuge Morgan Brewer Clifton
Saxum Thomas Fogarty Morgan
Alban McIntyre Poppy
Madeleine Torbreck J.Lohr
Hahn Estates

Along with waves of wine dinners, super-savvy panels arranged by wine director Matt Peterson and a big closer at Ventana on Saturday—learn more at the Big Sur Food & Wine website—that's a nice backbone.

But maybe my favorite thing about the nascent festival might be the unfakeable friendships it's founded upon. The main organizers are more than double identity talents—Vice Pres Aengus Wagner, for instance, is a world champion Ultimate Frisbee hustler, volunteer coordinator Alicia Hahn and VIP liason Rosalia Moon Byrne are gifted fire dancers and exec expediter Peggy Giles is a skilled synchronized swimmer—they are pals.

The Dinner With Friends is no false title: The bonds they enjoy with one another, their fellow hospitality pros in Big Sur and the visiting winemakers is for real.

So is the potential for this to go long and strong into the future. As Justin Baldwin of Justin Winery—who has seen his fair share of food-and-wine soirees—wrote event president Toby Rowland Jones after year one in '09:


Congratulations on the most successful first time event in which I have ever participated.

You hit a home run and deserve the appreciation and gratitude of all.

Thank you for allowing JUSTIN to be a charter participant.

Get some well earned rest.


The assembled will include other wine stars like Paul Draper (above right), John Alban, pioneer of Rhone varietals in the Golden State, Pax Mahle of Windgap, Tim Mondavi, Justin Smith, of sought-after small production Saxum Vineyards, Gary Pisoni, Au Bon Climat's Jim Clendenen; and Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm.

The standout chefs will also be numerous. Chefs Craig von Foerster (Sierra Mar), Cal Stamenov (Marinus), Matt Bolton (Pacific’s Edge), Kent Torrey (The Cheese Shop), Domingo Santamaria (Deetjens), Michael Woods (Treebones), Cy Yontz (Rio Grill) and Michael Jones (Cachagua General Store) anchor the opening event.

Amid the mirth, though, there will be some very heavy hearts, particularly within the close and cohesive Big Sur community. On Sunday night, local star photographer, Apple Pie Ridge resident and all-around sweetheart Rachel Short, fresh off a beautiful photography opening in Carmel next to Mundaka, was critically injured in a car crash and is in serious condition. Sadly, it looks like paralysis is the likely outcome.

Hundreds of hearts are with her, certainly, as is a wider plead for mindful Highway 1 driving during events like this. And if I might be so bold as to remind folks that maybe the most awe-inspiring elements of Rachel Short's spirit has always been her eyes—what they show, what they know and what they capture in ways the rest of us only wish we could. May they remain fiery forever.