(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/17/14)
Exclusive closed-door dinners have become a foodie fad, of sorts, in Argentina. These special dining experiences are intimate by design – a couple dozen guests at most – and advertising is non-existent. You get a seat by knowing someone who knows someone who knows the host chef.
|The doors at Full of Life Flatbread open for our Puerta Cerrada Dinner|
Argentinian gourmand Diego Felix is a real star in this trend. Every week, he hosts an underground culinary feast at his Buenos Aires house, though not before leaking the secret word that unlocks the door. He cooks alongside his wife, features only available-that-week ingredients and pairs his food with local wines.
Chef Felix plays speakeasy chef at home nine months out of the year. The other three months, he brings his covert cuisine -- he calls the concept Colectivo Felix – to the United States, to cities like New York, San Francisco and L.A. And this July, he brought it to Los Alamos.
I was lucky to be on the short list of invitees; we found out the dinner’s location – Full of Life Flatbread – the day before, in a rather nondescript email.
|Chef Staub, left. passes the reigns to Chef Felix|
He spent that afternoon gathering produce at the farmers’ market in Santa Barbara, then designed the menu – including pairings with local wines – with fewer than 24 hours to go.
Pre-dinner conversation was flavored by tray-passed Bob’s Well Bread, which Chef Felix sliced thinly and toasted generously before dressing with garlic, tomato and grapefruit zest. A bright, crispy opener that sprung to life with Riverbench’s 2010 Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine, made from estate pinot noir grown just up Highway 101, in Santa Maria.
|The welcome from host Wil Fernandez|
The raw halibut crudo that followed – with baby potatoes, pickled radishes, fresh peas and the most delightful fennel flowers – was vibrant, punctuated by an apricot-and-habanero sauce. The brilliant 2013 Buttonwood Zingy was a beautiful match; I sat next to winemaker Karen Steinwachs and reminded her at least twice that, year after year, the Santa Ynez Valley-grown Zingy proves one of our area’s best interpretations of sauvignon blanc.
Peaches harvested by Chef Staub, paired with fresh burrata cheese and a handmade tortilla-like faina porteno, made for a flavorful course. The tropical notes in the 2011 Carucci White Hawk Vineyard viognier – a label from a young Southern Californian who was recently lured to part-time winemaking because “wine is a living thing,” he told us – created flavor harmony.
And the final course was a revelation – rock cod baked like a tamale, shrouded in a chocolate molé and baked inside hay leaves, then served with a spicy salsa and a black walnut chimichurri. Fish, yes. But prepared in such a unique way, that the 2010 Clos Pepe pinot noir from Sta. Rita Hills and and the 2009 Larner syrah from Ballard Canyon poured alongside it became a deliciously satisfying juxtaposition.
The night was uniquely intimate and the special touches – from each guest’s menu written out by hand to the eatery’s famous wood burning oven roaring behind our communal table – were fantastic. The inter-course discussion by each winemaker -- Steinwachs, Michael Larner, Eric Carucci and Clos Pepe's Wes Hagen -- was insightful. The range of their wines – the way they fused with special flavors brought to us from the southern tip of the world – was fascinating. And the guest chef’s palpable enthusiasm, and his humility, were a real treat.
Our Puerta Cerrada experience, and Diego Felix’s visit, was sponsored by Central Coast Wine & Food. Founder Wil Fernandez met Chef Felix two years ago, after his own serendipitous invitation, through a friend of a friend, to the chef’s Buenos Aires gastronomic speakeasy. “I knew I wanted to something like that right here in Santa Barbara County ever since,” he told me. Mission accomplished, and savored.
Much of the night was caught on film, part of Fernandez’s much buzzed-about Vintage 2014 project, which helps promote Santa Barbara wine growers through multimedia and multi-sensory storytelling. Pop-up tastings and dinners throughout the country, video, time-lapse photography and podcasts are all part of this unique enterprise, housed at www.vintage2014.com Full disclosure – I have happily volunteered to host all of the project's intimate Dirt Don’t Lie podcasts to date, with guests like Steinwachs, Larner and Hagen, as well as fellow wine growers Ryan Carr, Foxen’s Bill Wathen and Dick Doré and Byron’s Jonathan Nagy.
Someone asked me as we left – “You think they’ll do this again next year?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But you probably know someone who knows someone who does.”
|The wood-burning oven at Full of Life Flatbread|