Thursday, April 30, 2009

Koehler Winery / Trattoria Grappolo (Rachel Getting Married, Part 4)

I have been to some very nice weddings in my life. I once attended a wedding on a patio suspended over the ocean in Monterey. I was at a wedding at the Bel Air Hotel with more flowers than I have ever seen in my life at one time. A friend got married on a boat in the Newport Harbor at sunset; there was a band playing and booze flowing and the whole world seemed to move in slow motion for a couple hours.

But I'm not sure if I have ever been to a wedding in a setting I liked more than this past weekend at Koehler Winery, just north of Los Olivos on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. Up on a hill, with the vineyards down below and the hills off in the distance, it provided gorgeous views for the entire afternoon.

For a couple hours after the ceremony, while pictures were being taken and the sun slipped from it's 3PM spot to a more acceptable late-afternoon location behind some oak trees, we all hung out informally, snacking on appetizers and visiting the bar. It had been important to the groom (well, to all of us really, but especially to him) that there be a keg of Guinness at the ceremony. And so there was. We didn't quite finish it but we came close, and the bartender was impressed.

The caterer was Trattoria Grappolo. A couple months ago I was browsing through their cookbook in a bookstore, and their pizzas looked fantastic. I had heard that there were going to be mini pizzas as appetizers, and I was very stoked. I probably had at least half a dozen. My favorite was the sausage and basil. My favorite appetizer, however, were the bacon-wrapped shrimp. They were cooked perfectly. I only ate one, because I was busy with other things, but I could have eaten at least twenty. The meatballs were also great, although I only had one: they were pretty messy and I knew eventually I would spill on my tux if I kept eating them.

Before I started drinking beer and wine (well, all the groomsmen had one pint of Guinness with the groom before the ceremony) I had several glasses of rosemary lemonade. I don't think I have ever had that before. I don't think I have ever heard of that before. It might well have been the best lemonade I have ever had.

The main meal started with a simple salad of greens and goat cheese. It was very good. The bread was great, as was the olive oil - one of the servers told me they had just made it the day before - but I didn't want to fill up on bread. The next course was some of the best pasta I have ever had. The tomato sauce was great and I even tried the mushrooms. I do not like mushrooms and I never have, but I figured if ever I was going to like them it would be now. I did not. But they were definitely the best I have ever tried.

I had a generous helping of spinach and mashed potatoes. The spinach included whole cloves of roasted garlic, one of the best things in the world. There were two entrees: chicken and fish. The chicken looked fantastic but I went with the fish. Serving fish in large portions is always tricky, since it is easy to overcook. This was done perfectly. If I had cooked a small portion of this fish for just myself, I could not have cooked it any better.

I rarely eat dessert, but there are certain exceptions: cotton candy at a baseball game; homemade ice cream in the summer; wedding cake at afternoon wineries in Los Olivos. This cake had a subtle lemon flavor and a great frosting. (I was briefly considering whether it would be acceptable to have a second slice. I looked over at my buddy Murph and noticed he was on his third slice. So I did.)

For the rest of the afternoon I talked, danced, and took pictures. I drank Pacificos and watched the sun set until they were both gone.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Firestone Walker Taproom (Rachel Getting Married, Part 3)

Saturday morning I found myself all alone in Buellton. The girls had all spent the night in the ranch house on the winery property where the wedding was to be held later that day. Some of the guys had slept in, and some were going to Pea Soup Andersen's for breakfast. I wanted to get out and do something, so I went for a drive.

Any list of the most enjoyable things I have ever done in my life has to include driving around the Central Coast wine country on a gorgeous Saturday morning, with the windows rolled down and Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road blasting on the stereo. It was impossible to believe that I was only two hours outside of Los Angeles. I saw more cyclists on the roads than motorists. I drove out to the coast and took a few photos of the ocean. I drove past the flower fields in Lompoc. They were quite impressive. I don't have great olfactory senses but I could smell them at least a quarter mile away.

I went by La Purisima Mission and took a photograph. In 4th grade I had to do a report on and build a replica of a mission, and this was the one I chose. My dad took a day off work and we spent it building a styrofoam model of La Purisima. It was quite good, if I say so myself, although I don't remember how much of it I actually did and how much he did.

Eventually I got hungry. The Firestone Walker Brewing Company was close to the hotel, and their taproom is open for lunch on the weekends. I have frequently passed by (it's right off 101) and wondered if it would be any good. I'm not a fan of their beers, but I figured trying their food was a better option than any of the fast food joints close by.

The taproom was impressive: a cavernous space with high ceilings and an open kitchen. In the bar area there were a couple flatscreen TVs turned to the NBA playoffs. There were only two customers in the place when I entered, so I took a seat at the bar. The girl behind the bar asked if I wanted anything to drink. "Well, I want a beer, but I should probably just stick with iced tea" I said, just as I had at lunch the day before. At least it was good iced tea.

Their menu was pretty basic, only about a dozen items (burger, Caesar salad, fries, etc.) That's not necessarily a bad thing. I have been to brewpubs with expansive menus and yet nothing edible. The girl told me their special of the day was Kobe beef sliders, topped with jack cheese, cajun mayonnaise, and avocado. That sounded good so I ordered it without avocado, something that - despite having become more adventurous with food in the last few years - I do not think I will ever eat again.

The food came out relatively quickly, although not surprisingly, since there were only three of us there. Shortly after I'd ordered I was told these weren't actually Kobe beef sliders, just some kind of high-quality ground beef. I didn't really care and wouldn't have noticed; they were still very good. The buns were perfectly soft and the spicy mayo was great. I would have rather had pickles than the cornichons served on the side, but that wasn't a big deal. I ate the burgers quickly. The fries were great, too, although there were too many to finish. I imagine if I had a couple beers before ordering this it would have been no problem cleaning my plate. But, as I said, I wasn't drinking, and I knew what was going to be in store for me to eat and drink later that afternoon....

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

River Grill at the Alisal (Rachel Getting Married, Part 2)

I have rarely had good food at a golf course, and I have rarely had good food at a wedding rehearsal dinner. Rachel and Jim's rehearsal dinner was a spectacular exception to both. The River Course at the Alisal is a gorgeous golf course in Solvang. I had never been there; I had never even heard of it. The River Grill, at the entrance to the course, has a patio that wraps around the side of the building and provides amazing views of the mountains. I have been to this region of California at least 50 times, so it is rare that I still encounter something that blows me away. This did.

From the moment I saw the Santa Maria-style grill on the patio I knew we were in for a treat. Santa Maria-style barbecue - red meat, usually but not necessarily tri tip, cooked on a grill over red oak and almost always served with salad, beans and garlic bread - is amazing when done correctly. (There are restaurants in Southern California who claim to specialize in this style, some even invoking Santa Maria's name. I do not like any of them.) I asked the man working the grill what wood he was using. He admitted that there was some red oak but "we have a lot of white oak left over that we have to use." (I didn't think this would matter, and it did not.)

After grilling a large amount of veggies (including red onion, my favorite grilled vegetable,) the cook started on the steaks: gorgeous pieces of top sirloin, each the size of a softball. My friends were scattered throughout the patio, drinking, talking and taking pictures, but I stayed pretty close to the grill, inhaling the smoke every once in a while and watching the two cooks raise and lower the grill. Perhaps if I could have observed Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel I would have watched with more reverence than I watched these men. But perhaps not.

Eventually the buffet was laid out: the beef, salad, grilled garlic bread, beans, cole slaw, grilled veggies, and potato salad. I took some of everything except the beans. At the end of the line one of the cooks was asking people what piece of meat they wanted. I requested medium-rare.

I'm not sure how else to say this: it was simply one of the greatest meals of my life. I wasn't a big fan of the bread, I thought it was plain. But every other thing was just about perfect. The meat was cooked exactly as I requested. The veggies were caramelized but not burned. The slaw was awesome. I have never been a big fan of potato salad, and I was amazed by this. I wondered to myself if perhaps this is how potato salad usually tastes and I had been missing out for years. (It turns out, no. My buddy, who had come over from England for the wedding, told me he loves potato salad and this was some of the best he has had.) After dinner I thanked the cook and told him it was, by far, the best food I have ever had at a wedding. He appreciated it and humbly said that they are given nothing but the best ingredients to work with, including U.S.D.A. Prime top sirloin. (He said most caterers do not use Prime meat. I had never thought of this, but it doesn't surprise me.)

Would I have loved this meal so much if it wasn't in such a beautiful setting, for my friends' wedding, in one of my favorite parts of America, with an open bar? I don't know. But that's a meaningless question. It was what it was and I loved it.

For dessert there was ice cream and several kinds of pie. This meal is exhibit number one in why I don't eat much dessert: when dinner is this good, I eat as much as I can and don't leave room for much else. Elizabeth had a scoop of ice cream and some peach pie. She said it was good but not great, making me even more glad that I didn't have any.

After dinner I got my groomsman gift: two bottles of wine. Elizabeth, also part of the wedding party, got two bottles as well. We thought these were very nice gifts. (We like wine. A lot.) Then we found out the extent of our gifts: we actually have two memberships to the Koehler wine club. Which is nice.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Los Olivos Cafe (Rachel Getting Married, Part 1)

I have been going to the Santa Barbara Wine Country since long before there were more than 100 wineries, since long before the movie Sideways made the area well known, and long before I could even drink. Childhood road trips often went through the area. Sometimes my parents would stop at a winery. Sometimes we would only stop for gas or at one of the fruit stands lining the highway. 15 years ago my cousins moved to the hills east of Santa Maria, and there wasn't much of anything except gas stations and fruit stands.
As I visited my cousins over the years, I watched the growth of the wineries. At the beginning of the decade my cousins went over to Europe for almost a month and I stayed at their house to feed the animals and water everything they were growing. Most days I would visit a winery. Several years ago when Sideways came out, I recognized almost all of the places the characters went.
So last year when my friends Jim and Rachel got engaged and started thinking about different locations to get married, my vote was strongly in favor of this region. Fortunately, they were leaning towards it, too. A couple years ago we all went wine tasting in the area. I have been back several times since then, but the idea of being there again with a lot of friends, for a wedding, was very nice. Friday morning, Elizabeth and I headed up early and checked into a hotel in Buellton. We had a couple hours to kill until the rehearsal, so I suggested lunch at Los Olivos Cafe. (We had gone there together over a year earlier, and we both loved it, but I didn't take photos of our meal then.)
Los Olivos is a pretty, tiny town that doesn't seem to have changed in the last 15 years in the same ways that most of the towns in the area have. There is still a flagpole in the center of town. There are more tasting rooms now but they don't look cluttered. In Sideways, the four main characters all have dinner together at Los Olivos Cafe. (I also took a picture of the exact spot outside the restaurant where Miles passionately states his hatred for Merlot.)
The place was busier than I expected it to be but we were still seated right away. It's very nice inside: plenty of light, the tables are not crammed together, there is an attractive bar in the middle of the restaurant, and an entire wall lined with bottles of wine. Not surprisingly, they have a great wine list, however we stuck with iced tea, seeing as how we had plenty to do for the rest of the day. (Although I'm not going to lie, the idea of getting hammered on central coast wines before the rehearsal was discussed.) Elizabeth loves the bread they serve. I think it's good but do not love it. I do, however, love their olive oil dipping sauce; they sell it in bottles, which I have purchased in the past.
We started with an appetizer of pulled beef sliders with arugula and horseradish sauce. The beef was outstanding, it tasted like the best pot roast I've ever tried. The buns were perfectly soft. The horseradish sauce was mild; a little more spice would have been better to accompany the tender beef, but I can't complain too much.
I had the Reuben sandwich. It was, to put it simply, the best Reuben I have ever had. The corned beef was amazing, the sauerkraut had the perfect sour flavor. Everything on the sandwich was flawless. The last time I had been here, the fries were thick wedges of potato. They weren't very good - burned on the skins and cold in the middle. I was not going to order them again, although I saw one of our fellow diners had an order and they looked much better. And indeed they were.
Elizabeth ordered the fish and chips. The fish was terrible. I took a bite and did not like it at all. It wasn't spoiled, but it was an inferior piece of fish that had been overcooked. Her fries and cole slaw were fantastic, and she ate those. We told the waiter that neither of us liked the fish. He offered her any dessert she wanted. She chose the sorbet, a strawberry and Merlot flavor. I told her I did not want any, but when the order came it was huge. I took one bite. It was delicious. I hardly ever eat dessert, and never after lunch. But if I hadn't been so full I would have eaten all of this.
Next time we go we are going to try one of their pizzas. Several of them came out of the kitchen while we were sitting close by, and they looked very good. Really everything we have had there, with the exception of the fish, has been great. (Later that night, after the obligatory last-night-as-a-single-man drinks at a sports bar with the groom, I returned to the hotel and ate the other half of my sandwich. It was just as good.)