Thursday, October 29, 2015

Road Trip: Pasadena and back

Croissant and cappuccino, The French Press, Santa Barbara
Arroyo Grande, California, October 22, 2015—
WHAT A GREAT PLEASURE to find a perfect restaurant in an unlikely place. A friend had told us about it, a few months ago; then, a month or two afterward, there was a write-up about it in the San Francisco Chronicle. We'd wanted to stop in the last time we were this way, but it was a Monday, and it was closed. This week we made a point of stopping by. Sleep cheap, I always say, and eat well; and this is what we're doing. (Maybe I should start another blog: Sleeping Every Night. No: I won't. Hard enough keeping up with this one.)

Stepping into the place I thought of the Café Chez Panisse: beer-wine bar on one side; open kitchen with hearth and pizza oven on the other; dining room with two seating areas. And the chef-owner, presiding over that kitchen, greeted me by name as I walked in, unannounced and without a reservation (they don't take reservations), because he worked the line in the Café for six years.

The menu is interesting, divided into appetizers, tapas-like share courses, and a few main courses; and the wine list is both interesting and thoughtful though almost entirely restricted to local wines: Central Coast; Santa Ynez Valley; Paso Robles. (What I've come to think of as "Sideways" wines, many of which are very good indeed, and getting better by the year.)

Brian sources his menu from local farmers, ranchers, and winemakers. There was a lot to choose from, and much of it quite enterprising: but it had been a long day, and I was in the mood for comfort food. I began with a cup of soup: chicken broth, cannellini beans, and mirepoix, with some red pepper very discreetly added; and thickened with farro. I thought of pasta e fagioli: this was a California version, but something about the textures and flavors, and the depth of the stock, took me right to Italy.

I was hungry and went on to a beautifully grilled rib-eye, served with Italian-style broccoli and scalloped potatoes — a difficult dish but irresistible when prepared this well. Everything about the dinner was exciting and deeply satisfying. We will certainly return: this is an important place. It is one of my Hundred Restaurants.

Pinot noir
•Ember, 1200 East Grand Avenue, Arroyo Grande, California; (805) 474-7700

Embersoup.jpg Embersteak.jpg
Farro and bean soup……and rib-eye at Ember
Next morning we went first thing to the bakery right next door to Ember. Here we had our usual road breakfast: croissant and caffelatte. The croissant was lightly buttery, nicely flaky, and substantial: I’d prefer a bit more salt and a bit darker bake, but that’s my taste. The coffee was excellent.

•Sweet Pea Bakery, 1200 East Grand Avenue, Arroyo Grande, California; (805)440-3456

Pasadena, California, Oct. 23—
FornaioSpumoni.jpgWE WERE IN TOWN to see plays with a couple of old friends whose mobility is now sadly somewhat compromised. Where to have a quick pre-show supper? We settled on a place easily accessible and reliable on previous trips (Dec. 18, 2011; April 12, 2014). The menu offered pasta e fagioli, so — in a mischievous mood — I thought I’d order it, to compare it to Ember’s version. Night and day! This was simply a thin-broth vegetable soup, heavy on the overcooked white beans. Saltimbocca came in a gloppy sauce with traditional broccoli on the side.

Dessert, though, was rather nice: Spumoni ice cream, sliced, revealing chestnuts, pistachios, mild chocolate, and garnished with a pleasant amount of sweetened whipped cream and an irrelevant raspberry.

Pinot grigio
•Il Fornaio, 24 W Union Street, Pasadena, (626) 6683-9797
Pasadena, California, Oct. 24—
Hash and eggs.jpgCHIEFLY BECAUSE it was on Green Street, where there used to be a favorite restaurant of ours, now long closed, and because its name suggested our friend could get his customary gin, we wandered into the Green Street Tavern for lunch. It turned out to have only beer and wine, but we made do: for me, wild boar meatloaf hash with peppers, onion, potato, fried eggs on top, and chimichurri sauce drizzled over. It was a nice dish, I thought; I’d return here.
Bloody Mary (hmmm…)
•Green Street Tavern, 69 West Green Street, Pasadena; (626) 229-9981
Pasadena, California, Oct. 25—
ON THE FINAL DAY of our trip we stopped in at another convenient place, near our friends’ hotel, quiet enough for conversation, with a pleasant French-bistro feel enhanced by a stately waiter native to Marseille, of all places. Here I could not resist a bowl of mussels, in a white wine-and-saffron sauce, with a green salad before and a very nice crème brûlée afterward.
Pinot grigio
•Cafe Bizou, 91 North Raymond Avenue, Pasadena; (626) 792-9923 I’d be remiss to fail noting our Pasadena breakfasts. We take them at Intelligentsia, where the Black Cat espresso is very good indeed, the cappuccinos and lattes are made with Straus organic milk, the croissants reasonably good, and the wi-fi quick and simple.

•Intelligentsia Coffee, 55 East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena; (626) 578-1270 and after the play we drove north.

Santa Barbara, California, Oct. 25—
SUCH A CURIOUS place, Santa Barbara, especially the Montecito end, where — as in the neighborhood of this restaurant — everyone seems white, wealthy, complacent. I know it’s just me: but I always feel uncomfortable here, just as I do in Palo Alto. It didn’t help that the two men at the next table, clearly businessmen, were conversing in Russian.

Still it was pleasant enough after the drive from Pasadena. I settled for a spinach salad with lamb sausage, olives, tomatoes, feta, and red peppers; it seemed vaguely Greek, and was just what I wanted.

Pinot grigio
•Montecito Cafe, 1295 Coast Village Road, Santa Barbara; (805) 969-3392
On the road, October 26, 2015—
NEXT MORNING we did a little research to find our best chance of a good breakfast. The answer lay only half a mile down the street from our motel; the croissant was quite good; the latte (and, before it, a cappuccino) also very good indeed — from their own roastery, Castle Coffee.

•The French Press, 1101 State Street, Santa Barbara; (805) 963-2721

We then set out north on Highway 101, headed for Gavilan College in (or near) Gilroy, there to check out an arboretum we’d heard about. The campus is very pretty, nicely gardened, but the arboretum seemed more a project than an achievement. Hungry, we stepped into the Student Union where I found a nice burrito loaded with beef, black beans, cilantro, tomato, onion, and lettuce, in a decent wheat-flour tortilla. Once home, all we wanted was a bowl of soup, buttered toasted walnut levain from Acme Bakery, and a salad and a glass or two of rosé…PepperSoup.jpg

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