There is Hope
Big Sur Food & Wine gets (even) better; same with local school lunches.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
The feeling hit me on one of those serpentine segments where the Pacific collides with the coast, and again as the setting autumn sun gave the South Coast horizon electric eyeliner. It hit again with a sip of the Hemingway breeze ($12) at Ventana overlooking just about everything, and again staring at the beautiful abalone dorée plate (available with the $110 chef tasting menu) at the Sierra Mar bar.
That feeling: Just how glorious it is to know that within the same amount of time it takes to roast beets, most of Monterey County can evacuate town and be in a place rivaled by few on the entire planet – floating through redwood forests, thumping to folkYEAH! shows at Fernwood or gliding down Highway 1 staring at glassy seas, craggy cliffs and swoops of the biggest (and maybe ugliest) bird in the world.
Then, when you’re thinking that’s a privilege most mortals don’t deserve, it gets better. Big Sur, already a beacon to seekers, writers, wanderers and anyone with several senses, goes and gets even better. It becomes a serious foodie to-do.
Ten years ago there were ambrosia burgers and the Post Ranch-Ventana regality in place. But there was nothing on the level where you could flip open the Big Sur page in our just-released Best of Monterey Wine & Dine and stare at all of the Deetjens and Treebones like said electric sunset. It’s a beautiful, albeit expensive, index of inspired eats.
That boom places guys like Aengus Wagner smack dab at a historic place to be. He’s teaming with Toby Rowland Jones and a squad of other Sur souls on the third Big Sur Food & Wine Nov. 3-5. I met him last week to take a little Magical Mystery Tour, a bastardized mini-facsimile of their strange, delicious trip to three breathtaking residences with wineries and chefs at each. That BSFW event sold out stat. (There’ll be more architecture-taste tours next year.)
Like Big Sur – and BSFW – my mini magical tour just got better as it went.
From a Big Sur Bakery (667-0520) menu subtitled “come to your senses + slow down,” we plucked two rustic-but-vibrant dishes: a tender roasted tri-tip sandwich with heirloom tomatoes on unbeatable nine-grain ($12) and a wild arugula salad with celery, shaved endive, pine nuts, pecorino and Parmesan accented by fresh lemon juice and olive oil ($13).
As Michelle Rizzolo dropped off ice cream sandwiches tasty enough to turn Henry Miller celibate, Wagner and I rapped with the benefactor of this year’s BSFW rotating community effort. Year one it was safety (Big Sur Fire) then health (the wellness center), now it's education: Local kitchen kid Erika Duarte will get a scholarship to culinary school. Rizzolo, meanwhile, will host the famed Hitching Post wine-and-down-home-gourmet team that helped inspire their own BSB operation with the second heartfelt collaboration in as many years. (Hit www.bigsurfoodandwine.org for this and a sea of other incredible wine dinners like Heller-Treebones).
Then it was on to Ventana, where Truman Jones flame-sizzled a grass-fed steak. He’ll host an all-star lineup of chefs and wineries for the Saturday Dinner with Friends, a gala event worth trading a pink slip for. Later it was impeccable grilled squab, abalone and foie gras three ways from Matt Millea.
The easy familiarity rippling through each interaction along the way previewed the spirit that, even among the ever-impressive elements involved at BSFW, still stands out. These winemakers (from spots like ROAR, Pride, Talbott and L' Aventure) and chefs (Matt Bolton, Ben Spungin, Phillip Burrus and Greg Lizza) aren’t just gifted, they are great folks and genuine friends.
Other events that demand consideration: The Gateway to Big Sur opener, the Wine and Swine, the, well, you name it. Get on the website immediately if you still dream of self-determination.
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This was my Rodney Dangerfield moment. Not the type where “I don’t get no respect.” In fact, the 7 – and 8-year-olds around me were providing plenty of it (and more than my fellow elbowing diners do normally). They even offered to share their rosemary fingerling potatoes and peaches – and entertained my request for goofy faces.
No, this is the Dangerfield deal where I was living the dream like his character does in the 1980s must-watch movie Back to School, only with less party, more protein. We were lunching at Bay View Academy, a still-new K-5 charter on Del Monte by the old roller rink in Monterey. (Speaking of the RIP rink, its former owner is the force behind the new Diggitty’s Hot Dogs & Ice Cream [663-6100] which opened this month in the PruneTree Shopping Center.)
On the menu: Grilled, hormone-free chicken drumsticks bathed in a dynamic sweet barbecue sauce, plus green beans and peaches from places like Happy Boy and Swank Farms, low-fat milk and those nicely seasoned baby potatoes.
Dory Ford, Esteban Jimenez and Allison Cady have pioneered Aqua Terra Culinary’s school operations to the point that they now serve four campuses, and, depending on who you ask, have inspired similar programs from bigger operations like Earthbound Farm. Their schools pointperson is Susan Costello, who enjoys a background balanced between restaurants (in which she grew up) and education (she taught high school health and science in New York).
I remember the diets of the underserved students I worked with for years in L.A., parading in sugar-bomb lunches they procured purely from vending machines (giant Cokes! Chili-cheese Cheetos!), so I’m not too objective on this issue. Fortunately, more and more parents aren’t either, says Principal Mitch Barlas.
“Parents are really good,” he says, “[saying,] ‘What I give them can make their brains and bodies work better’ – not institutional, processed and boring.”
The trend’s producing more than contented tummies and more engaged students. There are mild shocks for administrators: “The willingness in them to try new things has been a very cool surprise,” Barlas admits.
More avenues for education await, too. “Food teaches multiple things,” says Costello, “history, culture, health, nutrition.” She was readying to read farmers market book To Market, To Market to kindergarteners and work with a Robert Louis Stevenson Lower School cooking and nutrition class about prepping pumpkin – and eating locally and seasonally.
I’m workshopping my Halloween costumes to make me look like a fifth grader (acting like one comes easy), so I can slip back undetected for some freeze tag and, more importantly, “sushi day,” a favorite that comes every month, and maybe all-natural beef hot dogs on sprouted wheat buns and the rare pizza day, when whole-wheat crusts, low-fat cheese and homemade sauce star.
May the days of mystery meat sloppy joes and deep frozen tater tots be done. Now let’s go play dodgeball.
• Happy Halloween, you freaks. Because I love you (even more when you’re wearing a mask), I’ve shared some “on-set secrets” on the blog (www.mcweekly.com/edible) from a Hollywood stylist named Stacy Nelson, to get your tricky-n-treaty cocktail party special effective, including a moonless-midnight “black magic manifesto” and a “bloody Alexander” that looks like there’s dried blood rimming the martini glass.
• You gotta give Monterey County Vitners & Growers credit – they aren’t fermenting the same old grape juice. First they shipped their Winemakers Celebration to the Barnyard, helping pioneer its event space, now they’ve bottled Passport Weekend into a stomping together of food trucks and wine growers at another rare venue, Del Monte Aviation Center. Come 1-4pm Saturday, Nov. 12, look for more than 40 wineries and rolling yum yummy from Babaloo Cuban Cuisine, A Piece of Cake Bakery, The Pizza Gypsy, The Treatbot, Me and the Hound Memphis BBQ and Lugano’s Swiss Bistro. It’s all part of a big, fat toast they’re calling The Best of the Blue (it’s a long story). $60 ($95 VIP), www.montereywines.org.
• Tonight (Thursday, Oct. 27) is the last nibble of Restaurant Week. Fear not, however. On the blog I detail how you can do it deeply in one night, or, better yet, hit the sort of spot the promotion was designed for. www.montereyrestaurantweek.com.
• The Duck Club is set to quack at Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa (646-1700) in about a month, which means a few things, including a more-blockbuster-than-normal Thanksgiving/going-away spread, and promising upgrades for a bigger combo venue with the hard-to-beat Schooners Bistro on the Bay (372-2628) – or at least if my insiders know what they’re talking about.
• Bummer: Carmel Valley Fish House is closed in Carmel Valley. Fortunately Lokal from Brendan Jones of Cachagua General Store fame is still on the way – and planning lunch service too – though the ever-fun county code folks and company have them by the, er, hood at the moment.
• Rich Pepe, perhaps because he is eyeing that political career as the second coming of the weather pattern that is Sue McCloud, is announcing the new reign of Christian Pepe, his son and epicurean heir. Neat to see a family op rock on – just as neat to see $5 cocktails and half-price bar menu on the rooftop terrace 4-6pm Wednesday through Sunday at Vesuvio (626-PEPE x2).
• Speaking of happy in Carmel, one of my favorite hours upgraded at Rio Grill (625-5436). Just $3 for draft beers, house wines, well drinks, or Cy Yontz’s blistered chiles, lamb-cotija meatballs and crisp baby artichokes; $5 for things like Tito’s punch, a lil’ tri-tip sando and truffle-scented asiago fries.
• Maybe it’s me, but I love not having to chart fish populations across the seas, beg a server to check with the kitchen on where they get the prawns or how they snag their snapper. Before October/National Seafood Month evaporates, let’s salute the peeps at C Restaurant and Courtside Cafe, Cafe Fina and kissable sister Domenico’s, Old Fisherman’s Grotto and Otter Bay, Pacifica Cafe, Peter B’s and Passionfish. They are among the 24 local restaurants (get the full list on the blog) where you do not have to ask how they source their seafood in this overfished world, because they are partners with the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. www.seafoodwatch.org.
• “On Halloween,” Rodney Dangerfield once said, “the parents sent their kids out looking like me.”