Wednesday, August 9, 2017

California Dreamin': Food and Sights from a Week in Central Cali

Summer in Austin can be wretched, so I was glad to escape for a week to California, where we could sleep with the windows open every night! My trip started with a long weekend in the Santa Barbara/Goleta area for a family reunion -- lots of talking and eating!
Sailing in the Pacific with Santa Barbara Sailing Center netted seals
 and a pod of dolphins who swam with the boat.

Crab cake dinner one night in Santa Barbara at the Boathouse.
Then a friend met me and we proceeded north through San Luis Obispo to Paso Robles, where we had a charming VRBO home in the middle of wine country.
Luna Red in San Luis Obispo; Press Gang Cellars rose. Loved the patio and relaxed vibe of this place!
San Luis Obispo Luna Red Tapas
Tapas at Luna Red -- garlic infused olive oil, goat cheese with pesto, and bacon-wrapped dates. We saved the leftover oil for part of our charcuterie dinner at our rental that night.
San Luis Obispo Mission
The mission in San Luis Obispo, founded in 1772
We got a few provisions in Paso Robles (we found a cheese/charcuterie store and a bottle of wine), and then to our VRBO rental, which was technically in Templeton, about a 10 minute drive from downtown Paso. Quiet, charming, clean, and out of the way, it was perfect!
If you want the link to the VRBO just holler. 
Some of the area vineyards
We drove west on Highway 46 through a very dense bank of fog towards Cambria and then to Highway 1 north to San Simeon. Along the way, we found a roadside stand that had oranges, avocados, and firewood (we got two of the three!). Best oranges ever!

San Simeon is home to Hearst Castle, the unfinished dream of newsman/publisher William Randolph Hearst. I had visited as a teenager in 1989 and vividly remember the beautiful Neptune Pool with it's mosaic tiled floor but sadly it was under construction when we there. (Check out Lady Gaga's G.U.Y. video if you really want to see it!) But the opulence, details, and views of the entire castle and grounds never fail to impress.
The main building and some of the statues on the grounds.
The main dining room, complete with requisite bottles of ketchup and mustard, which Mr. Hearst always insisted upon.
The indoor Roman pool, modeled after the Baths of Caracalla; not visible, the eight statues
of Roman gods, goddessses, and heroes.
The ocean view from the property isn't too shabby!
We drove the few miles back to Cambria and had a wonderful late lunch at Indigo Moon. This charming house had fun artwork, and a covered back porch where we ate. They also own a cheese shop next door!
Focaccia with grilled chicken, brie, granny smith apple, and caramelized onions.
What's disappointing about Paso Robles is that all the vineyards and tasting rooms appear to close at 5 pm. We attempted to make it to Pasolivo olive oil, and arrived just before 5 pm to be told they had already closed up the registers. (I have since contacted Pasolivo and received a sincere apology, as it is their normal policy to stay open through 5 pm.) It would be great to see a couple places that stayed open until 6 pm. Fortunately, we found a great spot in downtown Paso called Artisan, where we could sit outside and enjoy the setting. Had a terrific glass of a 2015 Rhone-style red blend from Tablas Creek called Patelin. We snagged a wood-fired pizza to go, and headed back to our cozy rental.
Patelin: a blend of four red Rhône varietals: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Counoise
The next morning, we headed north towards Monterrey. Unfortunately, we had to take the inland route on Highway 101, as parts of the coastal Highway 1 are closed due to landslides. Just north of Salinas, we found a highly-rated hole in the wall from Yelp that had amazing sandwiches and great customer service. Welcome to Prunedale Market, and their tri-tip sandwich, which was so huge, we should have split one! 
From there, we made it over to over-priced but cute Carmel and dipped our toes in the ocean. The sand was so nice and soft!

And then we took the famed 17-mile drive from Carmel up to Monterrey with several stops at look-out stations along the way, while ogling the multi-million dollar houses.

We stayed at a hotel in Pacific Grove, just a hair west of Monterey. The town's annual lantern festival was the weekend just after we left, but the trees as well as many homes and businesses were decorated for it. 

Pacific Grove was charming, and appears to have a lot of good restaurants. Our first night, we found Passionfish, which is all about fresh and local food and sustainable seafood. 

Rockfish with a miso-carrot sauce and jicama slaw; my friend had the keto salmon special with pesto and roasted corn. 
The next day we spent at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I had been once before as a teenager, and it was great to experience it again. We also did a behind the scenes tour of their sea otter program, and while you don't get to be up close with them it was fun and informative, thanks to our knowledgeable tour guide. She explained that many of the otters come to the Aquarium as rescues; they try to rehab them so they can be released back into the wild. They don't want the otters to get too used to human contact, which makes sense. We were glad we went close to opening, as it did get crowded by mid-day; it's not an inexpensive ticket, but if you can spend a good part of your day there, it's totally worth it. And the cafe on site had a great mac and cheese!
Mesmerizing jellyfish

Giant kelp forest and a leopard shark

Sea otter trying to extract a shrimp from the toy

Can you find the seahorses?
Dinner that night was in Pacific Grove at La Mia Cucina, a smaller Italian spot with great posters. Rustic Italian was just what we needed! Not pictured are their yummy focaccia and salad with a perfect creamy Italian vinaigrette.
Arancini balls

Gnocchi with gorgonzola and marinara sauces
On our last day, we found the Pezzini Farms roadside market stand in Castroville, home of an annual artichoke festival. They had a huge selection of fresh produce, locally made goods, and even a food trailer serving fried artichoke hearts.

But our mission was to get to Gilroy, and the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival. Overall, they have the event logistics down pact, as you park and take a shuttle bus to the festival venue. There's tons of garlicky-filled food for sale, and also a ton of vendors with stuff, if you know what I mean -- everything from garlic bulb shaped hats to wind chimes to non-perishable garlic condiments. It did get warm (for California), and there's not enough shade.  Apparently over the course of three days, 102,000 people attended! The garlic bread and the sauce with the shrimp scampi were to die for!

We each got a combo plate and shared them.On the left, pepper steak sandwich, pasta with pesto, calamari with garlic marinara, garlic bread. On the right, shrimp scampi, garlic bread, marinated mushrooms, sausage sandwich
Like the sign says, free garlic ice cream. Not bad, but not sure I would pay for it! ;)
By mid afternoon, we were done, and it was time to head towards San Jose for our return flight. Having to return to Austin when it was 106 degrees out was LESS than desirable, but I was happy to get home to my own bed, cats, and air conditioning. I want the 55 degree nights back! A girl can dream!
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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Why I Am On the Fence with Mattie's at Green Pastures

I've been curious about the recently renovated Green Pastures for the past couple of months. I live in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood where the historic property's fanciful peacocks roam freely and are often seen in lawns near the Live Oak Street homestead. The Austin American-Statesman published an extensive history of the property earlier this year, which used to be known for it's hospitality. The restaurant Mattie's has just begun a happy hour program, and it turns out we were there on the first day of it though we didn't know it at the time.

When we first arrived, we skirted the patio area and went inside; there is a room with a bar inside to the left, but were informed by the hostess that happy hour was only outdoors. We told her we'd go check it out but would most likely return in a bit for dinner. Given that it was late June, it was a hot day, though thankfully one with cloud-cover and a warm breeze. At our visit, there was no tent, sun shade or fans to keep patrons cool; I hope this changes.
Mattie's Green Pastures
We started with cocktails and a couple of appetizers. The Oak Garden Ginger Buck  was very tasty and easily drinkable on a hot day; your choice of vodka, gin or tequila, and I went with vodka. Loved the thick cut potato chips, and it was a very generous portion. {Since we decided to go inside to eat, I had the remaining chips boxed up to take with me. After putting them in a zip-top bag and into my pantry at home, I promptly forgot about them. I found them two weeks later, and am happy to report they were still perfectly good!}
Mattie's Green Pastures happy hour potato chips pimento cheese
The pimento cheese sandwich was tasty, but the bread was rather on the greasy side. Now knowing this was "opening night" of happy hour, I'll chalk it up to opening jitters, because there's really no excuse for the greasiness on something so simple. But's listed a starter on the regular dinner menu..... I was a bit surprised by the plastic silverware and water cup; I do somewhat get it as it is an outdoors setting, but for a place with the pedigree that Green Pastures has, the plastic seemed like a dumbing down. And I hope that plastic ware is being recycled by the staff, not just tossed in the trash can.  Speaking of staff, one tried to take my friend's wine glass before she was completely finished.

It was a pleasure to see the peacocks, as they clearly own the place. And there are two albinos!
Mattie's Green Pastures peacocks
Mattie's Green Pastures peacocks
Having enough of the heat, we retreated indoors. For a spacious lobby area, the entry is cramped, as the exterior door opens inward, practically hitting people who are waiting by the hostess stand. I saw this happen a few times while we were there. The same hostess did not seem to remember us from less than an hour previously, and she seemed slightly chilly when we said we didn't have a reservation, but she was able to seat us.

We were seated in the rear of the first floor dining room; we were the first patrons in the room that evening, but it quickly filled up.  Green Pastures was always known for its milk punch, and my friend who is a lover of such declared theirs to be quite fine.
Mattie's Green Pastures milk punch
As neither of us were starving, we opted for a couple more items from the starters list, the pate and french fries, followed by the spinach salad with goat cheese.
Mattie's Green Pastures pate
The pate was wonderful, definitely up there with Winebelly, my local favorite.  The fries were nice and crisp and the aioli was as it should be, creamy and garlicky; to my tastes the ketchup was too sweet and clovey.  The salad was nicely plated, but I quickly discovered that the pieces of goat cheese were frozen. Was this done to shave them into thin bits? When I mentioned it to the waiter, he said that he had heard that before, but swore that's how the kitchen intended for it to be.  I find this extremely odd as it's really not pleasing on the palate. Also, I can't even remember what the dressing was because I couldn't taste it. If the goat cheese is intended to be frozen, I would not order this again.
Being full, we passed on dessert and opted to pay out. Our waiter was taking quite a while to get back to us while another staffer cleared the water glasses off the table, and then a third brought fresh napkins and spoons which seemed odd. I kind of thought it was a cardinal rule of restaurants NOT to clear the water glasses until the patrons were gone. When I finally flagged our waiter down, he said that we were being sent a dessert by an acquaintance of mine I had run into who works there. The Chocolate Avocado Cremeaux was incredible. {Thank you!!}  Loved the puffed buckwheat for that little crunch, and passion fruit is always a favorite flavor of mine. The creaminess from the chocolate concoction combined with the buckwheat, cocoa dust, and sea salt flakes was perfection in taste and texture. Hats off to the pastry chef!
Overall, I have mixed feelings about Mattie's. For the most part the wait staff is very young (college-aged) and not what I would call professional waiters, more like a summer job. An outdoor happy hour does not appeal to me in the Texas summer. For the high points in the food (potato chips, pate, aioli, chocolate cremeaux) there were the lower points of greasy pimento and frozen goat cheese. Love that they are sourcing locally and using hormone, antibiotic free meats. But different aspects need polishing, especially with the plans for a boutique hotel on the property coming in the next year. For a place of Mattie's stature, I expect more.

While not listed on the website at this posting, Mattie's happy hour is 4 - 9 pm nightly.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Kemuri Tatsu-ya

I now know what all the fuss is about. In less than six months, Kemuri Tatsu-ya has landed on the Best of Austin lists for both the Austin American Statesman and the Austin Chronicle. And now I totally see why. I was there for dinner about two weeks ago, and it was by far the best meal I have had in a very long time.
Kemuri Tatsuya logo
Texas meets Japan is the theme of Kemuri, which opened on East 2nd and Pleasant Valley Streets back in January. It's pedigree? From the owners of Ramen Tatsu-ya, probably my favorite ramen spot in town. The place is an izakaya, or Japanese style gastropub; lots of sake, sochu, and funky cocktails to help wash down your small plates of food (good for sharing).
Kemuri Austin
Kemuri decor
Kemuri Chinmi funky menu
I've eaten natto in Japan, and it certainly has that funk factor to it! We didn't order anything from this menu on this visit.

Kemuri Tatsuya Hot Pocketz
Crispy Hot Pocketz with smoky brisket and gouda; each one is small, like a deck of cards and you feel like you could eat a bunch of these.
Kemuri dank tofu
Called Dank Tofu, this was the most wonderful thing! Blue cheese is infused in the tofu, and it's served in a soy glaze with shiitake mushrooms and pecans. So much amazing flavor and bursting with umami mouthfuls! I am SO in love.

Kemuri chicken karaage
Chicken Karaage with kewpie mayo

Kemuri yakitori
Pork belly and scallop yakitori... these both could have been cooked just a touch more.
Kemuri soft shell crab bao
Soft shell crab bao, from the evening's specials menu, with cilantro chimichurri. Great contrast of textures from the lightly crispy crab to the softness of the bao. Totally delicious.

Kemuri onigiri
Onigiri, or rice balls, are a dime a dozen in Japan. Every convenience store sells them. This was the most interesting and flavorful onigiri I have ever had. Filled with salmon, the rice ball (triangle, really) is lightly fried (?) with what I think is a soy glaze. Super crisp on the exterior, and nice an soft on the interior. 
Kemuri Tokyo Street Corn
Tokyo Street Corn... a bit messy to eat!
Kemuri Heirloom Tomato Salad
Also one of the evening specials, an heirloom tomato salad with watermelon, cucumbers, queso fresco and yuzu honey dressing.
Kemuri unagi
The barbecue unagi (eel), also amazing!

Apart from the yakitori skewers which were a touch underdone, my only other issue was that the small water glasses went unfilled for longer periods of time, and the reason I noticed it is because I wasn't drinking anything else. But the food was amazing, the atmosphere was fun, and I can't wait to go back to Kemuri! If you only eat chicken teriyaki when you go to a Japanese restaurant this may not be your cup of matcha tea, but if you're open to exploring some new dishes and even some familiar ones just prepared differently, head over to Kemuri.