Monday, March 23, 2009

Road Trip: Santa Barbara Shell Fish Co. (Santa Barbara, CA)

After an exhausting couple of days barrel tastings in Santa Maria/Lompac (read below about the visits) with my buddy Frank we decided on our way back to Los Angeles to grab a bite to eat in Santa Barbara.
  • Larry Schaffer at Tercero Wines: excellent Rhone varietals, the 07's are going to be killer.. big and structured with great acidity and mouth gripping tannins.. lay em down for years.. drink now.. whatever you want. His whites are filled with piercing acidity with bright stone fruit and citrus. Only his 2nd release coming up and it's killer juice. The nose on the syrah's are KILLER. His 06 Cuvee Christies is still one of my favorite $30 wines in CA.
  • Dave Corey @ Core Wines:volumptious, sexy wines with copious amounts of fruit. Dave is making and blending stuff no one else is doing in CA. He's got a bunch of value priced wines, but all across the board from his cheapest to most expensive they are racy and exciting to drink.
  • Barry Rossum @ Tantara Wines : the variety of pinots and syrah is staggering, if you like them big and bold with pepper, ripe juicy red fruit this will be your type of place.
  • Colin Murphy @ Foley Estate wines :Colin and Kris Curran (of Seasmoke fame) make up the new winemaking team of the 07/08 Pinots/chards at Foley. The 08's are incredible, they shine right through the barrel and it's only been 4 months since barreled. You have racy reds to beautiful earthy pinots with incredibly acidity, forest floor, bright cherries.
  • Ryan @ Arcadian Winery : Ryan's the Assistant winemaker there with Joe Davis and they make "throw back" pinots. Pinots you don't find too often in CA these days with the boom of higher alcohol % and bigger more powerfully flavored wines. What you have here is amazing length and acidity with the potential to age wonderfully. Their 05 Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay is without a doubt one of my favorite white wines in CA.
After a quick stop at Jaffur's wines we went to the local favorite Santa Barbara Shell Fish Co at the end of the historic Stearns Wharf for some fresh seafood. The restaurant has been located at the end of the pier for over 25 years and offers a variety of seafood options. Located on the front of the restaurant is a chalk board sign with whatever is the fresh speciality of the day.

You can do "take out" at the restaurant at a side window and have a bottle of wine (no corkage if you sit outside!) with whatever seafood tickles your fancy. They have your standard seafood pastas, crab cake, and fish stews but absolutely LOADED with seafood. The man next to us ordered the Cioppino and it was STUFFED to the gills with clams, mussels, crab legs, and shrimp. There were crab legs poking out of the bread bowl and the broth was steaming hot.. man I was gonna attack the man and eat his stew.

The best part of the meal is pretty much everything is made in the center of the restaurant (except for the stews and crab cakes). They are making pasta at the center stove, steaming your crustaceans on the side, frying up their crack sprinkled onions rings, and scooping up some ambrosia clam chowda while watch. There are no "tables" inside the restaurant, it's all essentially one big bar area. We sat front and center (apparently no one eats at 6:30 on a sunday in Santa Barbara) at the bar and watched and people streamed non stop. When we first got there there was one family there, but the time we left... all the stools were taken (about 20), 6-7 tables of 4 were taken outside and there was a line outside the door for seats.

To start our meal off, my boy Frank and I ordered a lb of local shrimp steamed in beer.

Now I know you're looking at these shrimp and you're thinking to yourself "what's so special about these lil size disadvantaged crustaceans?" I know, they are small. But I want you to take a look at the shell, you see how it's not the standard clear/orange color we see at most restaurants? This is because THIS IS NOT YOUR AVERAGE MEDIUM SIZED SHRIMP.

This is the greatest shrimp (for the size) that I have ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever had. If you're chinese you probably know those fresh water prawns the family always gets at Chinese seafood restaurants? Imagine those but smaller, so you get a very concentrated intense meaty flavor. The body of the shrimp is thick and meaty with no rubbery characteristics that you'd find on lesser shrimp. I don't even know what that sauce was for on the side, the meat was sweet and had a hint of dark ale on the finish... it didn't need a sauce. Freaking remarkable. I am actually getting visibly worked up right now thinking about it.

The best indication of it's freshness was how easily the meat popped out of the shell. The meat was barely attached to its shell, we bit off the head, pushed the tail and POP came the meat. (If you've had frozen shrimp you know how much of a hassle it is to peel shrimp. You might as well pay someone to do it for you cause it's not worth the whole one minute it takes you to peel ONE freaking shrimp.)

The great part of this place is that they just have TANKS AND TANKS of live crabs and lobster lining the restaurant. You tell them which type of crab you want, the size and they'll bring it out and show it to you. We decided to get a 7lb Spider Crab from the Ocean of Darkness located on the Planet Neubla in a galaxy far far away.

Seriously, is that not the ugliest looking thing in the world? (not the waiter, he was a nice guy... their service is quite spectacular here, always cleaning out your shell bowls, refilling your drinks, I give the service a very hearty A.) That thing looks like it's going to jump at me, latch on my face, and impregnate me with it's alien embryo. Then as I'm driving back to LA it'll burst out of my stomach, eat Frank for food, and most likely take over the world with its spawns unless a strong willed woman, all alone with nothing but her wits, some high tech guns, and a giant moving robot, save the Earth.

They told me to touch it, but I suggested the 4 year old boy behind me gawking at the crab do it instead. Try to impregnate me with your alien embryo... I THINK NOT.

I think they knew that no normal person could each that monstrosity alone so they tossed in two bowls of soup (great clam chowder, nice chunks of clam with a lofting smell of freshly fried bacon), two Caesar salads (yuck I hate these salads), and some onion rings (which are the 2nd best onion rings I've ever had. Flash fried for about 2 minutes, cut extra extra thin, just dip these puppies in the soup and you're golden like tolden).

After your crab is sacrificed into the boiling vat of water (DIE ALIEN SCUM!) the man behind the counter works his magic. Years of intense training from the greatest knife wielding ninjas in the far east on the highest peaks of the Himalayas result in precision chopping filled with speed and finesse.

I watched them clean the crab and a single tear dropped from my eye as I saw him throw away the brain. (Can you imagine the brain on this crab? It's gotta be HUGE! Like a piece of Foie!) After a few minutes of chopping and dicing they dropped two plates in front of us.

First the monster's head. Underneath the shell was it's very very succulent middle carapace.

The meat below it's shell was delicate, tender, and sweet with a hint of ocean water. The biggest problem with this crab was how hard the shell was. We really had to work to get the meat out. Luckily, the cook didn't clean out ALL the brain and we were treated to the rich soft sweetness of crab innards. *drool*. No seriously, it's sweet, creamy, and rich.. like Foie. But everyone just throws it away. Geez.

Next up, the legs

The flavor of the legs vary as you get closer to the claw. Actually, it just gets rougher. Since the legs of the crab are thin it dries out quicker than the rest of the body. So some of the pieces are chalky and dry, nothing you really write home about. Probably the only time I actually used the sauce provided. The non-dry pieces were lines of thick meat, meatier and not as tender and sweet as the body of the crab.

The meat was nigh impossible to get to. I thought the body was hard enough, the thickness of the leg shell was a good 1-2cms.

It's absolutely ridiculous how thick the shell is on the legs. These crabs could take mortar fire and still be crawling around. In fact they'd give you a big "F U" with their claws.

Speaking of claws... the claws were.. interesting to say the least. The meat in the claw isn't chunky like the other parts, it's very small and granulated. The first thing that came to my mind was tapioca balls (small ones). The meat just kind of falls apart into little pieces when you bite into it. The flavor of the sea is strong in this one. It's salty and oddly textured.

Maybe you can ask for one of these crabs with none of it's legs/claws ... find a scraper that's on his last leg (hehe) and just eat it's delicious body.

I really enjoyed this place. This is the 2nd time I've come here and I've been impressed both times. I've always gotten the crab just cause it's the freshest thing they've had and it has never dissappointed for the price. ($8.95 a lb for the spider crab! BAM I just dropped that on you).

My one suggestion tho, is to drive onto the wharf and park near the restaurant. It looks like you have to pay but they validate. I've made that mistake twice... I parked once in a PAY parking lot and another time at the other end of the street. Both times I cursed myself.

And I'm out! Todes Magodes!

Santa Barbara Shellfish Company
230 Stearns Wharf
Santa Barbara, CA 93101

Monday, March 16, 2009

Chinese Style Pork Belly in a Slow Cooker!

About a month ago my very wonderful girlfriend got me the Valentine's day gift of my dreams. A Slow Cooker. When I opened up the box my imagination ran wild with the dishes I would make. Why stand next to the stove watching the dish cook on low heat.. occasionally stiring and fretting when you can (wait for it) SET IT AND FORGET IT! What tender pieces of meaty creations will I create inside this slow cooker? What culinary epiphanies can I treat my dear readers to that would make them drool and have their stomachs grumble while saving a buck?

I decided to go with one of the most inexpensive.. yet flavorful meats out there, Pork Belly. Now I'm sure some of you are skeptical on the usage of pork belly. I got quite a few "what the heck? people eat pork belly?" comments from my friends when I told them of my little adventure. I'm also sure quite a few of you are fine dining aficionados and have seen the proliferation of pork belly on restaurant menus all over the country. They are popping up everywhere like sweet potato fries! =P.

I perused my local Asian supermarket which had a sale on Pork Belly for $1.50 a pound. A great deal, but you had to buy a whole slab which weighed roughly 4lbs.

I laid that puppy out before I sliced it up into more consumable portions. A nice thick layer of fat ran along the top of the pork. I cut it into 5 pieces from left to right.

You can see, some pieces are fattier than others. There was a large disparity in one piece that's not pictured that was pretty much just fat with a bit of meat. I'd like to find a good source of pork belly sometime that has a nice ratio of fat to meat without the huge disparity.

For my recipe I found a great blog post by "Nou" . He/She had tweaked a braised pork belly recipe to work with the slow cooker. I then tweaked that recipe to do away with the dry sherry (which I didn't have any of) and yellow bean sauce (which I also did not have any of). I don't think removing those pieces were detrimental to the final taste of the pork belly.

First brown your pork belly, season it how you like.. salt/pepper all work well. Make sure that you season each side evenly. I used about 2 lbs of pork belly (two of the strips)

For the broth I...
  • Minced one small piece of ginger (about an inch long)
  • 2 cups of Trader Joe (use whatever you want) organic low sodium chicken broth
  • 4 tbsp of sugar
  • 2 tsp of 5 spice
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 2 tbsp of hoisin sauce
  • 2 tbsp of light soy sauce
  • 6 chopped green onions.
As you can see, the broth reaches to about the middle of the fat of the pork belly. I made another rendition of this dish with dark soy sauce and oyster sauce with more liquid to cover the whole pork belly. I thought that resulted in a far softer layer of fat. THe fat was good in this version, but it wasn't nearly as "tender". There was a bit of chewiness to the top that I'm not sure how much more cooking would have done away with. The reason I'm posting this recipe is the meat flavor is far more complex but without a very rich soy based seasoning that would turn many people away. I'd like to experiment at some point with adding a mixture of water/chicken broth to bring the liquid level higher.. or maybe just use a smaller pot.

I deter from the recipe a bit, it asks for 1.5 hours high and 5 hours low. I wanted a very tender piece of meat so I cooked it at 9 hours low. I think it could actually have cooked a bit longer to reduce the fat a bit more.

With about a hour left, I chopped up a bunch of bok choy and tossed it into the pot. I have no clue why I did that... I was hoping the bok choy would somehow soak in all the soup and make a delicious vegetable side. I think if I do it again, I'll put it in with about 20 minutes left so it doesn't wilt and become inedible.

So here we have it, the pork belly after 9 hours. A nice light brown coloring runs through the meat as well as all the parts that were exposed to the broth. The other version I made, was completely browned, very similar to the braised beef shank noodle soup but that was with star anise and other coloring agents (and chopped in pieces opposed to a large chunk).

I took a bite of the top part of the fat and it was a bit elastic for my taste, so I cut off the VERY top layer of fat, probably less than 1cm of fat. What's the point of pork belly if you don't have a good chunk of fat still right? But here's the piece of ultra moist meat. I just softly pealed it open with a fork, you can see the individual "fibers" of pork bunch up as the rich pork fat glistens all around it.

The reason I ultimately enjoyed this recipe more was you got to taste the natural flavor of the pork more with a lighter seasoning. The garlic, ginger, green onion added to the quality of the meat without imposing too much of it's own flavors as dark soy, oyster sauce, and star annise do. As you can see, the meat is still a pale white, without absorbing too heavily the broth around it.

To eat along with the dish, I had purchased some fresh noodles from the local 99 ranch. I LOVE fresh noodles. I really think if you have the opportunity to purchase them from the market you should. They cost about 1.75 per 4 bundles and each bundle is a very nice portion size. And they also cook very quickly.

I tossed in some more bok choy while boiling the noodles. Topped the noodles/bok choy with some pork belly and I was set! Drizzled a little bit of the broth (forewarning, it's VERY oily from all the fat that got reduced so it might seem very greasy.. I highly advocate not pouring too much on your noodles.. the meat itself is rich enough to stand on it's own without too much).

And Walla! Chinese style pork belly =) Hope you enjoy!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Neighborhood (San Diego)

Our final stop of my whirlwind Hamburger Tour of San Diego. We brought you Crazy Tioli's and Boomerang's and we're finally down to the last restaurant. My (quick) search for the best burger in San Diego has come to an end. Maybe there are better burgers out there, maybe there aren't... but my waistline can only take so many lbs of grilled meat with fatty cheese and oils.

The last restaurant on the list is Neighborhood located in downtown San Diego. When I first read about the place I thought... would this place be too cool for its britches? No ketchup? No tomatoes in my burger? How could this be! HOW COULD IT POSSIBLY BE SUCCESSFUL!?

I then remembered a rather popular gastropub in Los Angeles.. Father's Office. Neighborhood follows (or Father's office follows Neighborhood) their style almost to a T. Like My Uncle's Office.. AMIRITE OR AMIRITE? Fancy veggies, sweet potato fries, copius amounts of unheard of beers/ales on tap but will it meet up to the quality of Father's Office? I do love me a Gourmet Burger.. and I'm willing to try almost everything once. I didn't tell Jeff and Travis about no ketchup before we got to the place in fear they would take over the car, kick me onto the sidewalk, and go somewhere else. A KETCHUP REVOLT!

(Side note: I'm fine if a place decides not to have ketchup, but what are the grounds behind it? If you believe Ketchup isn't "suitable" in its low class form outside of the bottle.. why not do what Ritual Tavern does and make your own? You make all the other sauces... why not put your own twist on Ketchup?)

The restaurant has a very sleek, modern atmosphere. Stainless sheets of metal cover chairs, tables, bars. Where there aren't clean stainless sheets of metal there are dark wooden mahogany looking tables. They have outdoor seating which are all metal tables with metal chairs. I'm a huge fan of the restaurant looking like a robot. I'm half expecting the table and chair to form up and say "AUTO BOTS ROLL OUT". But to warn you, the place is pretty small... probably 6 tables or so with a 4 top for each table (it'd only make one or two transformers).

And if you're a cow, you can graze on the food while you wait for it to arrive. They put out nice little metal containers of grass? I don't know what it is, I'm sure if my cat was here it'd be pawing it and making cooing noises.

Obligatory Jeff and Travis Photo. The restaurant first had no seats so we had to sit on rather uncomfortable metal chairs that had absolutely no back support, but after some glaring and prodding, a table left and we were able to squat upon their oddly shaped wooden table. Btw note to Jeff and Travis, we're in San Diego not the mountains of Switzerland (coincidentally where these two lucky lads are going next week)

As we stare toward the bar area, they have a generous amount of microbrews on tap as well as bottles of wine at a very fair price.

Most importantly, they had Coca-Cola in the glass bottles made for Mexico. If you don't know the difference between Mexican Coca Cola and American Coke is the use of real sugar opposed to high fructose corn syrup. Coca Cola says there is NO difference.. but anyone with working taste buds (aka those that don't have a clear affinity to Burgundy *wink*) can tell the difference. I think Jeff was so excited his eyes popped out of their sockets.

We started our meal off with a plate of Sweet Potato Fries.

The fries are topped with "gold mine shaft cheese crumbs" which almost taste like a very creamy thick version of blue cheese. Has that acidic bite to it but is in a rather soft chunk. Wasn't a HUGE fan of the cheese. THe fries on the other hand had a delicious crisp exterior with a soft sweet interior. The balance of potato to skin was nice.

A malt mignonette sauce on the side helped balance out the saltiness of the cheese. The sauce was tangy with hints of pepper and lemon. It was a bit weird if you didn't get any cheese in your bite because the sauces citrus taste would overwhelm the fry.

Excellent excellent fries, I wish it was just a TAD crispier, but that's just being picky.

All three of us got the Neighborhood Burger

The burger is a very good look-alike on paper to the Father's Office Burger. It's served with carmalized onions, arugala, and blue grueyere cheese. I have no clue which restaurant opened first, I do not care. The biggest difference between the two burgers is that Neighborhood actually uses ground chuck. Father's Office uses ground steak. It makes a GIANT difference in the texture and flavor of the burger. I personally like ground chuck, you have a meatier and less fatty/thick consistency that you get from ground steak.

Actually I lie, the biggest difference is Neighborhood isn't full of blowhards that don't allow you to sub ingredients out of your burger. IF I AM ALLERGIC TO DAIRY PRODUCTS I AM SH*T OUT OF LUCK AT FATHER'S OFFICE. "No cheese? Go F*ck yourself, you eat whatever the hell I put on this burger and you will like it." HOW HARD IS IT not to put a piece of cheese on a burger. Did I create some sort of hardship for your people.. like wandering in the dessert for 40 days by asking for no cheese Mr. Owner of Father's office? I'm not asking for you to lightly sear my burger with extra grilled onions, sub in tomatos, only have the leafy part of the lettuce, and to lightly grill my bun on one side and not on the other... I'm asking for NO CHEESE. How bout, when I put the order in, you let me go into the kitchen and remove the piece of cheese. Will that create an undue hardship? Geez.

*end rant.

You can have your burger with a side of fries *for a few extra bucks, or it comes with a nice little bag of fresh made chips.

They are Idaho fries thinly cut and served with Garlic Herb Mayo. I love these fries, they strike a fine balance between the thickness of shoe string fries and In&Out fries. I had the opportunity to sneak a few from Jeff while he wasn't (and was) looking. If I wasn't so into the Sweet Potato fries I'd get the Idaho fries in a heart beat. IN FACT I think I just might cheat on the sweet potato fry for the Idaho fry like a mistress on the side. (Btw I do not condone cheating in any fashion on your significant other, fries yes, but people no!).
Ah now on to the burger. A nicely dusted Ciabatta bun sandwiches the perfectly formed patty. The blue Gruyere cheese melts itself perfectly around the patty like plastic wrap on my living room chair. A thin layer forms itself on every crevice of the patty so you are NEVER lacking in the nutty sharp blue gruyere flavor. Do you see the layer around the burger? This is what I provide copious amounts of pictures for yes? You don't have to imagine anything from my un-clevely crafted words, just use your eyes.

A generous handful of peppery Arugala balances out the sharpness of the cheese. Whomever thought of putting Arugala on a burger deserve a medal. Scratch that, TWO medals. Then you add in the sweet carmelized onions? just the perfect amount of onions where the strong reduced flavors of the carmelized onions don't overpower the light pepper of the Arugala.

Now the Patty itself was mind-numbling good. The juices are tightly seared into the patty so the moment you bite it, it explodes into your mouth with beefy goodness.

Put it all together? you get yourself an A+ Burger. Absolutely top notch. Best thing about it? $2 less than Father's Office... and 15 minutes from my apartment.

I HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend this place. I bet you'd have a smashing good time with a few beers and a burger.

So ends my meat fest of burgers.. unfortunately I'll be going vegetarian for a few weeks (for fun! maybe I'll even lose a lb or two) but I have a great backlog of restaurants and home cooked meals (PORK BELLY ANYONE?) that will satisfy your appetite till I start eating like a normal person again.

777 G St
(between 7th Ave & 8th Ave)
San Diego, CA 92101