Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Granada Hotel Goes SLO

San Luis Obispo (known as SLO for short) is one of the coolest towns along the California Central Coast. South in Santa Barbara you have wine and waves and north in Monterey you have rugged rocks and the Bay. But SLO is set inland, 8 miles from the beach flanked by the low rolling hills and dormant volcanoes. Historically filled with a mix of B&Bs, chain hotels and a few family-owned spots, it has always lacked the kind of lodging with a mix of hip and trendy with historical cool…until now.

The Granada Hotel & Bistro has opened its doors. Originally built in 1922 and operating as a hotel, it was located next to a theatre and was thought to be part of the red light district. Regardless of that tidbit, there is a speakeasy feel to place, a nod to the roaring 20s. Today the Granada has the only rooftop lounge in San Luis Obispo. In the mornings from the trees that front the building you can hear flocks of black birds carrying on, a happy, natural wake-up call. During my stay I stood out on the second floor balcony not only watching the birds, but the slow steady rhythm as day began and the ever-increasing people began to move about this compact city.
The Granada Hotel is all about the moody details

The Granada succeeds because it is cool and hip without trying to be cool and hip. The attention to detail with rich hardwoods, exposed brick walls and small noticeable elements like door handles, and light fixtures are all perfectly suited for this space. It creates a blend of vintage with an almost European sensibility. Upstairs the rooftop lounge has an outdoor fireplace, a perfect spot for the morning coffee ritual. Nearby a small blue phone on the telephone table allow guests to order something directly from the bistro downstairs, like it’s your personal Bat Phone. The rooms here are small; “intimate” would be the word used by the hotel, and they are that, but they also feel just about right with an intelligent design for the space to maximize the room. The accompanying bistro located on the first floor has original tin pressed ceilings, a small bar, a large communal table and a terrific outdoor patio for day or night dining. This is quite honestly the nicest property in all of San Luis Obispo to stay.

There is also the Art Bar located next door. Wine, beer and charcuterie ($40) are provided in a two-hour class where you can tap your inner artist. Local artists guide you through a version of their own painting and though you may imbibe the wine, no one will judge you on the outcome of your painting, even if it looks nothing like the original. There is also a small spa on site and given the roped off access and dark curtains to keep non-guests at bay, you feel as if this is your own private club.

Bubblegum Alley is a must see.
And of course, you’re right downtown a few steps off Higuera Street so you can walk to most everything. A few additional things to do: check out Bubblegum Alley (700 block of Higuera Street) a sticky, if unusual, landmark. It doesn’t resemble anything but what it is; tens of thousands of wads of multicolored gum rejects squished one on top of another in a masticated mosaic some 70 feet long and 15 feet high. It is urban pop art, a unique expression of individuality in the form of chewing gum. Some people seek to make a statement, spelling out their love, their hopes, or merely pressing tasteless gum onto a wall. Some find this disgusting, but it is modern art in gum form, yes, used art, as it were. There are gum dispensers on either side of the alley and for a mere 25 cents, you can add your chewed up message to the ages. Don’t pass by and pass judgment, walk the alley and observe.
The author at the summit of Madonna Mountain

And take a hike up Madonna Mountain for awesome 360 views which will take you an hour to reach the top, and in spite of the hike being all uphill, it’s worth the effort to have so much of the Central Coast splayed out before you. So consider SLO as your next destination, but book the Granada for your lodging. 

Check out my post on the San Luis Obispo Mission, close to the Granada here: MISSION SAN LUIS OBISPO

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Of Missions, Meat & Movies: Mission San Luis Obispo

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was named after Saint Louis (no, not the city) who was the Bishop of Toulouse in France and was founded in 1769. Let’s stop there. “Founded” merely meant a prayer was said, a cross stuck into the ground and that was pretty much it. The Spanish who controlled California used the chain of missions to not only bring religion to the New World, but the missions acted as trading posts in the once rugged and desolate California landscape.

But hang on. Why here exactly? On September 7 and 8, 1769 Gaspar de Portola and his expedition traveled through San Luis Obispo on their way to the Monterey Bay. The expedition’s diarist, Padre Juan Crespi, recorded the name given to this area by the soldiers as “llano de los Osos” or the “bear plain,” as there used to be a whole hell of a lotta bears here. In fact, Los Osos, just west of San Luis Obispo, still holds that name.
Father Serra and the SLO Mission
Skip forward to 1770 and Father Serra founded Mission San Carlos Borremeo in Monterey (it was moved to Carmel the following year.) As the Monterey mission’s supplies dwindled in 1772 soldiers, padres and Native Indians faced starvation. Remembering the bear plain where they had stuck a cross into the dry earth years before, a hunting expedition was sent to San Luis Obispo to bring back food in the summer of 1772. Over 25 mule loads of bear meat was sent up coast to the Carmel Mission. It was after this that Father Serra decided that San Luis Obispo would be the ideal place for a fifth mission. The region had abundant supplies of food and water, the climate was mild, and the local Chumash were very friendly, until, you know, they were enslaved. Given these conditions, Father Serra set out on a journey to reach the bear plain and on September 1, 1772, he celebrated the first mass near San Luis Creek.

After Father Serra left, the task of building the mission remained which was accomplished primarily by the hard work of the local Chumash Indians – as in cheap labor. The church and priest's residence were built by 1794, and other structures made up the primitive mission in the early days, namely storerooms, residences for single women called a “monjerio,” barracks and a few
A photo of a photo, but historically cool
mills. The mission also used the land for farming and raising livestock since all missions depended upon whatever they produced for their survival. Expansion proceeded for a few years due to the prosperity of the mission, but those days were numbered and Mission San Luis, like all the other missions, gradually fell into disrepair in part because Spain stopped sending money to fund the California missions. When Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 the missions were “secularized,” decommissioned as it were, and often mission lands were sold off. Governor Pio Pico sold the San Luis Obispo Mission to Captain John Wilson for a mere $510 in 1845, about $15,500 in today’s dollars, still a seal (though the actual church was not included in the deal). The building served multiple functions, even as a jail and the first county courthouse. It was returned to the Catholic Church in 1859.
Still an active church the mission is open daily

Today the mission fronts Mission Square (where parts of the Sandra Bullock film, Murder by Numbers was shot – no pun intended) facing the creek, and Higuera St. The courtyard is a popular place for small gatherings and festivals. The interior of the mission is minimally decorated, mainly hand painted. The whitewashed interior walls of the church are enlivened by a brilliantly hued “vine of life,” a reproduction of the original decor. The original floors were packed earth back in the day, colored red with cinnabar. Now of course it’s colored concrete. Still an active church, mass is held each day at 7 a.m.

A visit to the mission museum will set you back $3, and it’s worth the cost. The original mission doors are located, ironically, inside the museum on display and were used up until 1948. The museum is surprisingly large but it’s not all mission era stuff on display here. There is a good number of Indian artifacts; bowls and baskets, jewelry, pottery arrowheads and abalone shell pottery. There are mission-era vestments the padres wore, church artifacts and early 19th century clothes and personal belongings once the Westerners moved in to this region There are quite a few adobe cut-outs so you can see the exposed brick. The outside gardens are intimate with a water-well located center overlooked by Madonna Mountain. Clearly modernized landscaping with little green lawns does not reflect what it actually would have looked like and the mission itself is surrounded by Australian Eucalyptus trees.
A lonely portion of one of the original walls

For you true history buffs, walk across the street to the historical society building and there, barely seen or known about is part of the original mission wall – just a small chunk of authentic history waiting for someone to notice it. (MISSION SAN LUIS OBISPO, 751 Palm St., San Luis Obispo, 805/781-8220)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Santa Barbara’s Best New Restaurants for 2013

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

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

At the Paso Robles Winemaker's Cookoff judging competition

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

5764 Calle Real, Goleta, 805/681-0766

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

The real deal- Greek salad in Crete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me and the Mrs chowing down in Innsbruck,  Austria

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

Nightly 5-10 p.m. TOMA

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

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Going Green: Carpinteria’s Avocado Festival

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

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

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

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


Sunday, September 22, 2013

This Just In: Justin Winery’s New Digs

In the 1840s Mennonite farmers planted barley and hay in a remote area of Paso Robles, near a town called Adelaida. They were probably quite happy in their little slice of heaven, but as things go the hay, the barley and even the Mennonites eventually disappeared. These days it is wine that has emerged as the new currency crop.

So when Justin Baldwin started a nothing-much-of-a-winery on this old farm, called Justin Winery back in 1981, it seemed just left of ludicrous (not the rapper). Sure there were a few wineries in the hinterlands of Paso Robles, but no one really cared and the whole thing seemed like a novelty. The Justin brand powered ahead eventually making one of the signature Bordeaux blends that Paso Robles is now known for: Isosceles, and Justin Baldwin grew his winery into a respected operation. Eventually Justin was ready to stop working so damn hard. Enter a new buyer, Lynda and Stewart Resnick, big time Bordeaux fans from L.A. They set about a total remodel of the winery and tasting room which took 2.5 years and added nearly 2,500 square feet to the tasting room.

 So now for the big reveal....

I attended a media dinner prior to the opening and got to snoop around, scope out the tasting room, grounds, and three rooms at the Inn, and have just a cool dinner: a showcase of what foods and wines will be presented to the public. The exterior is all clean pure lines of a board and baton finish. There will be seated tastings with cheese and charcuterie and their sit-down lunch, brunch and dinner menu will rotate seasonally. My meal, a preview of what was to be introduced, included things like chilled asparagus soup, steamed halibut (in the photo), braised short ribs and ricotta tart with poached rhubarb. Of course this won’t be the same menu you can sample but no doubt just as good. It’s worth noting that the Resnick’s own Cuties (the small, seedless Clementine oranges), and almond and pistachio orchards in the California Central Valley, and Fiji water, and you will see these items making appearances in, on, and around the foods and tasting room.
There are a lot of open views to the vineyards, something lacking from the original facility. There is a subtle hipness to the feel of the interior, elegant but not stuffy and cluttered, perhaps a bit more formal, but with an empowering vibe. The zinc tasting bar looks out to a small hill populated with a band of oak trees and the openness of the tasting room with its natural light makes it feel more expansive that it is. There are three suites which can be rented out ranging from 600 to 1,200 square feet – all clean and sleek, leaning towards the minimalistic. Prices are $375 to $400 (not sure why there’s a mere $25 leeway for an additional 600 square feet) and you don’t get many extras. Sure you’re secluded up in Paso Robles wine country, but that might be exactly what you want, an expression of solitude, but be aware you’re not near anything.

Of course people come here for the wines including their Chardonnay ($18.75) which has a partial ML (malo-lactic fermentation) with a citrus, acidity and oak and is truly a dynamite value. But then so is their Sauvignon Blanc at $15. But they are known for their red wines, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, of which they make several versions including.....


......Right Angle ($30), a deep and rich expression of Cab for a great price as well as
their Savant $45, and the higher end Isosceles and Justification wines. All in all it’s a great experience and worth the long drive out there, so be prepared to stay a while and soak up the Central Coast.