A search for foodie meaning, from school lunch to Brendan Jones’ new Lokal restaurant in Carmel Valley.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Somewhere between Chef Cal Stamenov’s garden tasting menu and a roasted Cachagua General Store oyster, my mind made its way to rabbit.
Not the rabbit loin with onion soubis, lardon, haricots verts, chanterelles and sauce perigord on Stamenov’s Marinus menu, or Mike Jones’ “rabbit five ways” at Cachagua. The Velveteen Rabbit.
It was The Velveteen Rabbit, in the eponymous children’s book, who put a question to his friend The Skin Horse.
“What is REAL?” he asked.
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The question surfaced naturally in the run-up to the Eat Real Festival in Oakland’s Jack London Square. The third annual sounded like a heaven-sent love poem to “tasty, healthy, good food,” and a chance to ply “real” meaning.
But a visit on Friday proved frustrating. Volunteers grazed on Chipotle, a rag-tag band made painful music, an author prattled on about how he wrote a whole book about whoopie pie cousins called gobs and, with maybe one exception, every single Curry Up and Koreatown kimchi hotdog food truck had at least 25 people waiting in line.
Real… disappointing. I’d have to redirect my question south.
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At the rabbit tail end of last week, elementary students from three Seaside schools brought more than cooties home to share with mothers and brothers – they toted California-grown grapes, red pears, peaches, plums, rainbow carrots, pluots and sugar-snap peas.
The fresh development came after K-5ers were unleashed on a campus farmers market as part of a push by Monterey Peninsula Unified’s new Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to expose students to seasonality, healthy foods and even managing money: Kids were given $2 in quasi-currency to prioritize what they wanted, and the scene that resulted was as sweet as strawberries.
“They loved it,” Nutrition Services Supervisor Jenn Gerard says. “They took stuff I wouldn’t expect. Cabbage! Broccoli!” The program also distributes farm-sent snacks three times a week. Gerard says she’s seen the reception of, say, green beans grow much warmer over just a few weeks: “Now everybody’s coming up and taking them.”
In the future, she hopes to bundle info on local farmers markets and EBT options with take-home produce. Any and all farmers, parents, teachers interested in collaborating can buzz her at 645-1267 or email@example.com.
Sounds like real progress to me.
Across town, meanwhile, All Saints School got love from real-foods-in-schools champion/celeb chef Jamie Oliver, whose website profiled All Saints' new collaboration with Earthbound Farm to do 100 percent organic school lunches – whole wheat mac ‘n’ cheese! turkey meatloaf! – a first in the country as far as I can tell. (Dory Ford’s AquaTerra Culinary also deserves huge kudos for pioneering healthy school lunches locally. He serves four schools.)
Just up Carmel Valley Road another bit of wholesome history is happening at the MEarth/Hilton Bialek Habitat, where the county’s first LEED-certified public school building is essentially a baby step away from opening its Top Chef-quality kitchen classroom. Check back here for word on the opening celebration, and hit the blog for a mouth-watering recipe for spiced apple crepes the MEarth kids make for French class with apples they harvest minutes earlier.
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Last month a parade of some of my favorite real-ingredient outlets – Bernardus, Carmel Belle, Earthbound Farm, Big Sur Bakery, Sweet Elena’s, Fifi’s, Happy Girl, Wild Goose, 1833 – rallied for a regional “Eating for Education” push to support school lunches and gardens on the 40th anniversary of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse.
MEarth was the local beneficiary; the one-day total has already eclipsed $1,600. Some $250 came from Bernardus, where a recent visit exalted simple freshness, from pastry Jedi master Ben Spungin’s opening melt-in-the-mouth Parmesan gougére puff to the compressed watermelon, meaty morels and luxurious cheeses. The graceful pairings from new wine director and longtime local star somm Mark Buzan took it from real good to real incredible.
Even though the garden tasting menu ($75) isn’t listed, this is know-what-you’re-gonna-get stuff – namely, hyper fresh goods from farms Stamenov has partnered with for years. Even as Buzan pulls impossible-to-guess discoveries from his Grand Award-winning cellars, you know you’re getting the best from wineries he’s visited personally.
There’s something real there, in those relationships and ingredients – even if they lead to surreal places like L.A. Food & Wine’s “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll” party, where Spungin will plate what one insider calls “playful and tasty paraphernalia” (Oct. 13-16; www.lafw.com).
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There’s some real meats to be found at brand-spanking Salumeria Luca (625-0264) next to (and attached to) Siamese sibling Cantinetta Luca restaurant in Carmel.
But there are also organic Italian lentils and cannellini beans, imported honeydew honey vinegars and dozens of ricottas and provolones, 40 dried pastas at prices that beat L.A.’s best Italian shops and rustic sandwiches like the “piemonte” ($8) with rosemary ham, rucola, dolce latte gorgonzola on foccacia. The meats, though, are the main show. There are 30-plus prosciuttos, pancettas, copas and cacciatorinis.
But that won’t stop many from visiting just for the sweets and sips. At last week’s grand opening, GM Grant Dobbie recommended the salted caramel gelato. It’s hallelujah quality. But then again, so is the olive-oil flavor too. Wine guru Thomas Perez tasted folks on his many finds, including a knockout Castel Del Monte Rosé that retails for only $15.
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Jones of Cachagua General (659-1857) is anything if not real, famously smashing a plate of a customer who questioned the provenance of his halibut – with the fish’s backbone – and calling the cops on anyone who dares mistreat his waitstaff. But his bluster and adherence to superior sourcing wouldn’t matter much if his food wasn’t real good, as it proved it is in waves again Monday.
Rich oysters. Sea-bass ceviche with nectarine salsa. Roasted duck with mulberry reduction. Panzanella. Crunchy sardine bocadillos. Filet in porcini sauce. Valrhona chocolate creme. The only way to improve on that? Boche by latern light, wine shepherded by Marinus vineyard master Matt Shea and a heartfelt farewell to a community treasure, local photog Michelle Magdalena.
The most exciting news out of the CGS kitchen, though, is that the other Jones, star-in-his-own-right Brendan Jones, is opening a restaurant in Carmel Valley Village called Lokal. It’s slotted to come into the strip of stores behind Wills Fargo in the old Chatterbox. Brendan, a veteran of Michelin-starred Mugaritz in Spain, says he's hoping to open in four to six weeks and looking to draw a younger CGS-style crowd with big tapas and magnetic atmosphere. Read more of his thoughts on the blog.
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This increasingly mighty motivation to seek out foodie finds like those described – and the proliferation of places that prioritize them – offer real evidence that our edible momentum is good. But they only tell part of a schizophrenic story, as Frances Moore Lappé pointed out with a recent reflection on the 40 years that have passed since she penned Diet for a Small Planet.
“As food growers, sellers and eaters,” she writes, “we’re moving in two directions at once.”
It gets really real on the dark side. Far too few companies control way too much of our seeds, soils and food sales. Hunger haunts 1 billion. Farmworker life expectancy doesn’t crack age 50.
But in the other movement – more mindfulness of what they eat and where it comes from, farmers market obsessions and home gardening booms – Lappé sees real hope. Small farmers still control more than half of our fields. The Real Food Challenge, which defines the magic word as honoring “human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability,” has 350 schools on board. There are four times more farmers markets than 17 years back; food co-ops are spreading like hummus on whole wheat.
Certain things will perpetuate that purpose. Relationships with providers. With customers. With ingredients. With the next generation. More people saving their own seeds from their own gardens. More people paying attention to our budding school food programs.
“The food movement’s power is connection itself," Lappé writes. "Corporatism distances us from one another, from the earth – and even from our own bodies, tricking them to crave that which destroys them – while the food movement celebrates our reconnection.”
This isn’t something new. It’s just something meaningful we lost touch with. Like an old children’s book about a Rabbit who wants to be real.
>> The name may be lame, but the new “afternoon delight” happy hour 3-6pm at Dory Ford’s Point Pinos Grill (648-5774) drops a fun three-in-one on an up-and-coming spot: $3 beers 3pm – 4pm; $4 glasses of red and white wine 4 – 5pm; and $5 seasonal appetizers like samosas, Thai palm sugar wings, Yucatan tostadas, mac ‘n’ cheese bites, signature sliders and more 5-6pm.
>> High-profile Big Sur Food & Wine events like the opening gala at Highlands Inn or the Wine and Swine throwdown at Henry Miller Library on Friday, Nov. 4 (with Pig Wizard Jonathan Roberts doing a butchering, and Frank Ostini, Rob Baker, Brian Oberhouser, Michael Jones and Jamie Jarrard pimping pork possibilities), are drawing wide eyes. But don’t sleep on panels like the Grenache glimpse of a grape that’s the planet’s second most planted but still gets the Rodney Dangerfield treatment – despite passion and flavor from people like panelist John Alban – or Stephan Asseo of L’Aventure debuting a retrospective of his first 10 years of Paso Cabs. www.bigsurfoodandwine.org.
>> Week-old Taste of Vietnam (394-8855) in the old China Chili on Fremont in Seaside has some surprises up its sleeve, including a sibling restaurant in Happy Dragon, a massive shiny black bar, three big flat screens and a not-so-secret desire to be a sports bar with a lively happy hour. It also serves some aromatic lemongrass chicken rice and a nicely spiced barbecue pork-and-shrimp noodle bowl for $7.95 each at lunch. 11am-9:30pm daily.
>> My favorite moment from last year’s Monterey Tequila & Mezcal Expo at the Portola Hotel had to be when the guy came up and said to a colleague and me, “I want to party with the white guys!” That doesn’t happen enough around here, and an expanse of cactus juice like this doesn’t either. They fill a huge ballroom with high-grade goods Saturday, Oct. 22 ($60, 320-6046), preceded by a Margarita Showdown at the InterContinental Oct. 17.
>> “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse to Rabbit. “When a child REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”