By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 22, 2012)
Happy Thanksgiving, and good luck. I’m speaking to you, Thanksgiving feast host, who probably rose before this very paper was delivered this morning to—anxiously and excitedly – prep what may be the most important meal of the year. May this thought help comfort you, however: once all your blessings are counted, the merits of any meal will pale by comparison.
And I’m speaking to you, too, guest-in-waiting. I know your anxiety well, so good luck. The wine you bring to dinner tonight, after all, will enjoy the attention, if not the scrutiny, worthy of a meal anticipated for months by an entire nation.
But here’s a thought that might soothe you: the Thanksgiving meal is eclectic enough, and diverse enough, that whatever you bring is bound to match at least something on the table or, perhaps more importantly, impress at least someone seated around it. For what it’s worth, my easiest suggestion is sparkling wine; its celebratory fizz is fitting, for sure, and its merits for matching a wide range of foods are well-tested.
To offer you more noteworthy suggestions, though, I turned to three local chefs who, themselves, have plenty of reason to be thankful. Each of these three men has recently opened a restaurant in an admittedly competitive arena, and their business is flourishing. What’s more, their knack for pairing food with wine is renowned.
I ran into Chef Ron True at the recent Bouillabaisse Festival, held at Brander Vineyard to benefit Hospice of Santa Barbara. I was happy to be among a small group of very lucky food judges. True was happy, too; he won first place in the Classic Bouillabaisse category.
This talented gastronome opened his Arlington Tavern along W. Victoria Street in downtown Santa Barbara just seven months ago. But already he’s making a splash with his comfort food-done-right, with starters like crispy pork belly and heirloom tomato salad and mains that range from filet mignon to lamb shank to fried chicken. And yes, he’s got bouillabaisse on the menu, too.
Aside from regular menu items, the restaurant will feature a four-course feast with wonderfully traditional foods, like turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry relish. There’s a homemade pumpkin cheesecake with spiced apples for dessert. “As someone who’s now not only a chef but also an owner, it’s always a joy having a lot of people at the restaurant,” True tells me.
His turkey technique takes some doing. “I cook the dark meat and white meat separately, because they cook at different times, and put brine on the turkey to give it flavor throughout and to reduce the possibility of bacteria,” True says. He also roasts the bones to make a hearty stock base for gravy.
And his wine pick came quickly: Zaca Mesa Winery’s Z Cuvee, a grenache-mourvedre-syrah blend by winemaker Eric Mohseni. “It’s great for Thanksgiving,” True says, “because it has a broad spectrum and is easy to drink. There’s a fair amount of tannin structure, plus balance of fruit, so it has a good chance of pairing well with several items on the table.”
In wine distributor circles, word has it that Arlington Tavern moves more Z Cuvee than any other restaurant in the country – up to five cases a month. After tonight, that number may be that much easier to hit.
Chef David Cecchini’s storied culinary past includes the Wine Cask, the popular Restaurant Nu in Santa Barbara and Nuuva in Ballard; the last two, he also owned. He taps his Italian roots at his newest kitchen, Cecco Ristorante along First Street in Solvang, which opened its doors some 18 months ago. But it’s been such a success – the chef credits Solvang’s burgeoning appeal as a wine destination and the city’s steady contingency of crowd-drawing weekend events – that Cecchini is already looking for a second location, probably in Santa Barbara.
Tonight, though, Cecco is closed, as the chef heads to his parents’ home in Solvang for a gathering of about 15 people. His turkey secret echoes that of Matt Nichols: “Stuff it and roast it like a chicken,” he tells me. And his wine insight is refreshing: “It’s not pairing wine with the food that’s all that difficult, it’s pairing it with the people that are going to be there,” he says. To that end, there may be strength in numbers. Cecchini adds, “You should have a few different wines on the table and that way people can pick what they want.”
I push him to pick one he’s sure to bring to Mom and Dad’s tonight, and Cecchini chooses something familiar: a sangiovese he, himself, makes under an eponymous label. He’s made sangiovese on three vintages with the help of friend, and celebrated Palmina and Brewer-Clifton winemaker, Steve Clifton. With the 2008 vintage still aging in bottle, he picks the 2007 wine – an 85-15 sangiovese-merlot blend made with grapes from Honea and Eleven Oaks Vineyards. “It’s got good fruit – not a ton of fruit, but good fruit – and it’s balanced really well and has good body on it,” he says. “It works across the board.” And that might be all you can hope for when it comes to the very varied Thanksgiving meal.
By the way, Cecco, which is usually open seven days a week, will reopen tomorrow.
After a legendary 10-year stint hosting hungry crowds at the landmark Mattei’s Tavern, the Nichols brothers – Jeff and Matt – opened their new eatery this past April. The quirky name is a nod to the entrepreneurs who housed the same Los Olivos building at the turn of the 20th century. These days, the brothers’ restaurant is a destination all its own in the heart of wine country.
At Mattei’s, Thanksgiving night was traditionally one of the Nichols’ busiest of the year. “We’d have about 400 people come in,” recalls Matt. But this year, because of more limited space at Sides, the restaurant is closed and the siblings will be enjoying tonight’s meal separately. “I won’t be responsible for the Thanksgiving meal for the first time in years,” rejoices Matt, who’ll be at his in-laws’ place in Santa Maria. But his tip for novice cooks is simple: “Think of it as just cooking a big chicken.”
And, as the restaurant’s wine list keeper, his advice for Thanksgiving bottle seekers is simple, too. “I love the pinots by Rick Longoria, like the one from his Fe Ciega Vineyard,” he says. He quickly recommends Longoria’s “Lovely Rita” pinot, too – with fruit sourced from the celebrated Fe Ciega and Bien Nacido Vineyards – as an equally delicious yet simpler wine. And his white of choice is winemaker Nick de Luca’s brand new personal project, Ground Effect; Sides features the 2011 “Gravity Check” – a chenin blanc, albarino, pinot gris blend – by the bottle. De Luca’s philosophy “is what Thanksgiving is all about,” says Matt. “Taking something produced in the ground -- a pumpkin, a grape, whatever – and turning it into something special for a special day.”
And if all else fails, Matt’s parting thought made the most sense to me: “To help alleviate some of the stress of the day, just start drinking some of these wines a little bit earlier than everyone else.”