Monthly Archives: July 2016

TwoBirds/OneStone: When you want an amazing meal to go with your Napa wine tour

Today, I highlight the newest breakout in Napa’s wine country restaurant scene. Two Birds/OneStone, located on the property of St. Helena’s Freemark Abbey winery, is Japanese-Californian yakitori fusion at its best.

Part of Freemark Abbey Winery’s Grand Re-opening festivities

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to experience the Grand Reopening celebration for Freemark Abbey’s renovated winery and new tasting room facilities. The gorgeous integration of old and new – the historic winery building was gutted down to its frame, and as rebuilt it features both old/reclaimed materials from the original building and new – adds new energy to my favorite winery.

But just as exciting is the Freemark’s partnership with TwoBirds/OneStone. The result of a happy friendship between Master Top Chef TV show contestants Douglas Keane (Sonoma-based Michelin starred chef) and Sang Yoon (LA based Asian specialty chef), the restaurant has ambitious aims. Upscale Asian restaurants, while plentiful in San Francisco, are few and far between in the Euro-centric Napa Valley – much less the casual small plate cuisine (such as yakitori, which traditionally are skewers of meat, primarily chicken) of Japanese Izakaya. At first glance, wine – particularly Freemark Abbey’s bold Cabernet Sauvignons – doesn’t seem the best match for Asian fusion.

Yet my group of friends and I soon learned the genius in combining regional poultry and produce with perfect execution. The nuanced flavors somehow worked well with California wine.

Surprisingly, the restaurant’s wine list featured no Napa or Sonoma Ames, instead highlighting select international wines. Baffled, we realized the restaurant’s goal was not to sell Freemark or Napa wines (why, when you can just walk next door!) but to offer patrons something unique for the area. If local wine is your fancy, however, you can take advantage of its FREE(!) corkage on any Napa or Sonoma county wine. For a restaurant of this caliber, this policy wins my support (especially after paying $65 corkage for one bottle recently in San Francisco). We took advantage of it on our visit, enjoying both a bottle of (unnamed) Sauvignon blanc made in a friend of a friend’s garage and Freemark Abbey’s Bootleg Blend – a powerful, yet smooth Bordeaux Blend concocted by Ted Williams, Freemark’s head winemaker.

Ok, so let me get to the food. The food was simply outstanding. Our group of five each ordered two of the restaurant’s small plates, which included a smattering of both cold and hot, both meat and vegetable based dishes. Dishes arrive as they’re completed, which was like a parade of culinary gifts for the palate. Each bite was a new surprise.

 

Kimchi lotus root

 
The lotus root kimchi was a great palate cleanser, its marinade lighter and less salty than traditional varieties. 

 

the black kale salad – so good, we ordered two!

 
The black kale salad married interesting textures and delicate Asian flavor. I couldn’t stop eating it. 

  
 The spinach with sesame-rice dressing also was a nice departure from the often overbearing, standard sautéed spinach that graces many a restaurant menu.

 

tender scallops and turnips with pea puree

 
As for the meat dishes, poultry, seafood, and beef each were outstanding. We sampled the night’s special – a raw scallop and radish concoction. Its subtle flavors and freshness were ideal for an appetizer, yet something about it (floral note?) reminded me of my grandmother’s house somehow.

  
 The rare salmon met my picky standards with zero fishiness that I usually pick up upon instantly.

 

duck breast, almost indescribably delicious

 
While these dishes were amazing, I much preferred the duck and chicken meatballs. I cannot do either dish justice in words. The duck was tender, its tamarind and cherry-based glaze the perfect, intensely sweet match for the meat. 

 

The humble meatball is as good as it gets at Two Birds/OneStone

 
The chicken meatballs were light, almost weightlessly melting in one’s mouth amidst a base of hoisin sauce. In fact, the chicken meatballs, deceptively humble, were the most memorable dish of the night. 

 

tender wagyu

 
Lest I neglect it, the crispy-on-the-outside, softly marbled inside Waygu beef short ribs also were about as good as wagyu gets.

   

kikori whiskey and chocolate custard, topped wirh cherry compote.


 We couldn’t skip dessert after such a great meal. We all shared the matcha (green tea) soft serve, as well as the kikori whisky and chocolate custard. The latter earned high praise from me. I could have eaten three orders of it single-handed. Like our savory dishes, it managed to be satisfyingly intense yet light. 

 

matcha green tea soft seeve with ginger crumbles

 
The matcha soft serve fit well with the restaurant’s theme, and the flavors were interesting, but it felt a little too much like eating sushi for dessert.

Unanimously, our group felt our dinner was a complete success. We managed to enjoy every bite and sip, along with great company, in a lovely, spacious winery setting. We also were happy that a meal at this level did not break our wallets – less than the equivalent of a bottle of Napa wine per person. I can’t wait to return.

Healthy Diplomat: Vegetarian Quinoto-stuffed peppers

Tired of boring old quinoa? Need new ideas for healthy entrees – vegetarian or not, or just an impressive side dish for guests? Try this Peruvian inspired delicious bell pepper stuffed with a goat cheese quinoa risotto, also known as quinoto. It is rich, yet light – typically under 300 calories per serving and a great alternative to traditional risotto.

At the end of my first trip to Peru a few years ago, I tried quinoto for the first time. The creamy quinoa dish was Peru’s answer to Italian risotto. It was velvety, nutty, and very heavy. 

  
Determined to make it at home, I transformed my typical quinoa pilaf into a lighter version with the addition of a few ounces of tangy chèvre. A small amount goes a long way and makes it taste far more decadent than it actually is. Lest you think it too light, the high protein, high fiber content in the quinoa, along with a full, sweet bell pepper gives it enough substance to really satisfy you – or your guests.

Tips: I prefer to use chicken broth if cooking for carnivores, but vegetable broth adds plenty of flavor and depth for vegetarians. 

  
Also, quinoa can be very messy. When rinsing (which removes the bitterness from the husks surrounding the seeds), F you don’t have a fine sieve, I like to line a sieve or colander with paper towel to ensure the seeds don’t escape, and then scrape the seeds off the paper towel. You’ll certainly lose a few, but fewer of them!

  
Not a fan of goat cheese? Try parmesan or cotija cheese for a similar texture – and different flavor.

The quinoto can be made in advance. Stuff the peppers, then tightly wrap and refrigerate overnight before baking.

  

Quinoto stuffed bell peppers


Servings=4
Difficulty=Easy

  • 4 large red, orange, or yellow bell peppers
  • 1 cup quinoa, rinsed
  • 2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1/4 c. dry white wine, optional
  • 1 Tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 c. Sun-dried tomatoes, julienned finely
  • 1/2 small red onion or 1/4 large red onion, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 1/2 c. Crimini or button mushrooms, washed and diced
  • 1/2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
  • 2 oz. chèvre cheese, plus additional for topping

Place the broth and quinoa in a 2 quart (medium) saucepan and bring to a boil over the stovetop. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, stirring every two minutes or so. Meanwhile, remove the caps, ribs, and seeds from each bell pepper. Set aside.

  
While the quinoa cooks, sautée the vegetables: Over medium heat, place about 1 Tbsp olive oil into a nonstick or cast iron skillet. Once the oil is hot, sautée the garlic and minced onion for about 4-5 minutes or until translucent. Add in the tomatoes and mushrooms. Sautée another 3-5 minutes or until the mushrooms have reduced in volume by about half. 

  
Remove from heat and set aside.
When the quinoa has absorbed all but a small amount of liquid, add in the wine if using and allow it to heat and evaporate. Next, stir in the vegetables until fully incorporated, over medium low heat. 

  
Fold the goat cheese into the quinoa mixture. Remove from heat. If serving immediately, preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

  
Stuff each pepper with roughly one cup of the quinoto, leveling off. Spread a few teaspoons of goat cheese atop the quinoto. Wrap each pepper in aluminum foil. If not serving immediately, refrigerate until approximately 45 minutes before serving; preheat oven to 400 degrees.

  
On a baking sheet – or placing the peppers upright in a large muffin tin – bake the peppers (covered) for 20 minutes. Remove the sheet/tin from the oven. Unwrap peppers and return to the oven for 10-15 more minutes. Remove them from the oven and cool for about 10 minutes before serving.

Serve with a garnish of roasted red pepper coulis and basil for drama! Disfrute!

The Healthy Diplomat’s Mediterranean-inspired turkey burgers

The all-American hamburger gets the CD international treatment with infusion of flavors that span the northern and eastern Mediterranean. An oh so easy classic you might just turn into a weeknight menu staple!

  
America has a love affair with the poorly named hamburger. Though the name refers to its attributed origin – immigrants to the US cooking steak in the style of Hamburg, Germany, it always threw me off as a child, thinking it was made from ham. And clearly, the rest of the world has embraced the burger concept as a signature American export – one that has moved well beyond fast food, judging by the explosion of gourmet burger joints throughout the Americas. I’ve seen fancy pants burger houses in places as far flung as Peru, Oman, Austria, Lithuania, and Hong Kong. The meat patty (or non-meat) on a bun concept resonates with an audience receptive to culinary globalization.

Ok, enough waxing philosophical. Let’s get down to business. You just want to know about THIS burger, right?? Ok, ok you all know I like to get a little too much into the “diplomat” before delving into the culinary.

So I recently joined an old friend’s seven day clean eating challenge, complete with set meal plan. When she mentioned that she was looking to me to put my own spin on the recipes, I tried to step up to the challenge.

When it came time for the turkey burger, I wasn’t the most confident. Homemade burgers have never interested me, as I’d prefer even a pseudo-beef cheeseburger from McDonalds over DIY. But I decided to incorporate a few of my go-to healthy ingredients to spruce up an otherwise bland patty.

A few key points to ensure your burger is a success. First, do NOT use the leanest ground turkey; a bit of fat is necessary to ensure a moist, juicy burger. You can substitute ground beef, bison, chicken, or lamb if you prefer. 

Incorporating fresh ingredients and spices inside the patty makes every bite addictive

Third, mixing/massaging veggies and spices directly into the meat produces a delicious patty that needs no bun or sauce; however, Greek tzatziki only enhances the burger’s Mediterranean flavor . Try making it yourself with my recipe here; omit the feta cheese if you’re trying to keep it “clean.” 

  
I serve it directly over salad, but it’s perfection with a multigrain bun. Finally, this recipe uses portions for a single serving; simply multiply to make as many as you need. Definitely make and eat them as soon as cooked. They are so easy to make, minimal prep is needed!

Mediterranean inspired turkey burgers

Difficulty: Easy

Servings: One

  • 1/2 cup (4 oz) ground turkey
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped, fresh basil
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. Red onion, minced
  • 2 Tbsp. Sun-dried tomatoes, julienned and chopped
  • 1-1/2 tsp. zata’ar spice blend
  • Pinch of sea salt and black pepper to taste

In a small bowl, massage the spice blend, salt and pepper blend throughout the meat. Next, add in the fresh vegetables and basil and massage to incorporate all evenly. Roll the mixture into a ball; press onto a firm surface (cutting board or wax paper atop counter) with hand to flatten to about 1/2 inch thick patties.

Grill or pan fry (with a slight amount of olive oil or cooking spray in a nonstick pan, or, preferably a cast iron skillet) for 3-4 minutes on each side, or until slightly brown and cooked through (poultry should have lost all pink color; beef/bison or lamb may be cooked for less time on higher heat to produce a pink center). Serve over salad, lettuce wrap, or bun, topped with 1-2 Tbsp. tzatziki sauce.

The Lark: Santa Barbara’s trendiest food destination lives up to the hype

A reservation at the hottest spot in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, The Lark, is hard to come by. If you’re willing to share a table with 20 other strangers, a walk-in is rewarded with the best new American cuisine in the region.

Choosing a restaurant for my only night in Santa Barbara was a tough decision. Santa Barbara has no shortage of great restaurants. Having voluntarily narrowed the choice to four, the UCSB graduation weekend narrowed our choice even more, as tables anywhere were hard to come by. But with a number of enthusiastic endorsements and top reviews of The Lark and the possibility of snagging a space at its communal table, we took a gamble.

A short walk to the vibrant and hip Funk Zone later, we found our oasis near railroad tracks. One has to look a bit hard for curb appeal at first glance, but a garden-like patio and open windows give way to a reclaimed wood and subway tile interior that screams farm to table. With a long wait list, the hostesses recommended we look for seats at the communal table.

Communal it is. The large wood table sits about bar height near the bar itself, and at that time, both the table and bar were packed. Like vultures, my friend and I waited for a duo to vacate seats, which we snagged instantly.

Our fellow diners were friendly and willing to share tips on best dishes, which were helpful as we wanted to try everything on the menu.

I ordered a ginger jar cocktail, an original and refreshing combination of Pisco, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, and Meyer lemon ginger jam. I highly recommend it.
  
We started with Brussels sprouts, which came highly recommended. They were roasted and tossed with a soy, lime, and sesame sauce that hit all five taste buds. Brussels sprouts are so ubiquitous now that good execution is easy to find, but outstanding and memorable are rare. The Lark’s ability to work in umami and sour in harmony was an achievement.

  
We next went for a vegetable Tartine (an open-faced sandwich) with green garlic mascarpone, topped with assorted vegetables and squash blossoms. It was simple and fresh, its presentation a colorful impressionist palate of late spring colors.

  
For a main course, we ordered beef short ribs. These were not what I expected. The meat’s texture was more tenderloin than a typically slow cooked, fall-off-the-bone, heavily sauced version. The meat was sliced into slivers of steak, cooked to a perfect medium-rare and served with summer squash, zucchini, and a tomatillo salsa.

  
We were surprised at the size of the portions and were quite full at that point; however, we couldn’t resist the dessert menu after seeing fellow diners with a tantalizing chocolate tres leches cake. Presented with the menu, we ultimately chose a delicate banana pudding that was a light and sweet end to the meal.

A word on portion size: The restaurant advertises that it serves its dishes family-style, intending them to be shared; a few unfortunate reviewers online felt the term was a misnomer and chastised the restaurant for small portions. Ultimately, we made a good decision by starting with two smaller (or so we thought) plates and a meat dish. The portions turned out to be much larger than the negative reviewers claimed. Perhaps “family-style” conjures heaping portions of pasta at chain restaurants like Bucca di Beppo, so in that respect, The Lark’s portions do not compare. Nonetheless, the portions are sizeable for a restaurant of its caliber. Given the quality and portion size, any assertion that it is overpriced is a bit off-based (have these people ever eaten a fine meal in California?).

Looking around at our fellow diners, their choices were equally sumptuous in presentation and (we heard) flavor. Debates aside, The Lark delivered a near-perfect meal. I look forward to making a return trip.

The Funk Zone: Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail, Part 2

Curious about wine – but find wineries to be pretentious? Santa Barbara, CA’s Funk Zone is for you!

In our last post, the CD showed you three refined tasting rooms along Santa Barbara, California’s Urban Wine Trail. Today, we’ll switch gears and visit a few of the irreverent, well, funky tasting rooms and a brewery in the city’s four block Funk Zone, where wine is fun and the crowds much livelier than most of the wine trail’s low-key and polished tasting rooms.

The Funk Zone feels a bit industrial, college-y, and more social. The energy runs much higher than the average winery (anywhere in the world). I think of it as Wine University. Go there and you’ll discover (or re-discover) the fun side of wine, from local, experimental varietals or blends to wines from other regions and countries, to little known traditional styles. The crowds are friendly, the hosts happy to share the joy of wine with patrons (or just as happy to leave patrons alone to enjoy the wine among their own friends if they don’t seem to care about wine education).

First stop for us was a drop into Municipal Winemakers. The name is as atypical for a winery as is the ambience. Industrial and purposefully unfinished on the inside, the tasting room feels like it could be someone’s converted residential garage. The wine list is an unpretentious board with moveable plastic letters. The top line reads, “Wine tasting costs $14 dollars, unless you’re awesome” (the “awesome” is a nod to their Club Awesome wine members). They make quite a few Grenache-based wines, including a Grenache blanc, and they also sell wines from Fox Family Winery to compliment the Municipal brand.

  
Next, we made a longer visit to Cork and Crown, a cozy tasting room and wine shop that sells only other people’s wine and beer. Featured wine and beer flights change monthly, each bearing a theme. My friend chose an Italian-themed flight to continue her streak after enjoying a Californian Super Tuscan blend. A Sicilian white and Tuscan and Sicilian reds completed the flight. Those selections were great representations of Italian wine. The Sicilian Nero D’Avola was my favorite of the three, with its bouncy, fruity character befitting of the popular tasting room’s bustling vibe.

  
I sampled the Gold flight, which highlighted three award winning wines from across California. This particular flight included a rare, tart , and crisp Californian Albariño from the cool, foggy Sonoma Coast; a medium-bodied, fruity Pinot noir from Monterrey County, and an herbal, relatively lighter, less fruity Zinfandel from the Sierra Foothills AVA. All three wines were great picks and nicely contrasted with each other.

  
After a dinner break, we made an unplanned visit to Oreana Winery, lured by live music from a guy with a guitar. Oreana, housed in a converted commercial auto body shop, was truly the quintessential first stop for new wine drinkers. Its long list of uncomplicated, light wines were varied enough to help someone discover wines without breaking the bank. It is a great place for a group social outing, to relax and unwind after a long day with its late evening hours. The unoaked Central Coast Chardonnay was my favorite.

We thought Oreana would be our last stop in the Funk Zone, but once again, live music changed our minds. The amusing phenomenon that was a funk band playing in the funk zone seemed to ridiculous to refuse, so we hopped on over to Figueroa Mountain Brewery.

  
The brewery serves a wide variety of enticing beers, some of which seemed a bit head scratching: did they brew both a blood orange wheat beer and Mandarina wit beer to settle a Brewers’ dispute? (“My American wheat is better than your German wheat?”). I was tempted to try the “Future Ex Wife” due to the name alone but was deterred by its potent 13% ABV. “Redneck Hot Tub” also sounded fun, but in the end, I chose the blood orange wheat, which was pretty much the perfect summer ale in my opinion. A pair of charming local gentlemen we met there told us that the brewery is a top draw in the funk zone. They also told us later that the Future Ex Wife was even better than expected. With the lively band, an all-ages crowd, and great beers, Figueroa is a great Saturday night hangout for locals and tourists alike.

At the end of our Urban Wine Trail adventure, my friend and I reflected and marveled at how much we experienced during our short hike – from premier boutique wineries to unpretentious, fun wine and beer tasting rooms, from the local to the international. Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail is an experience not to miss!