Wine & Fire: Annual Fete Celebrates Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Montecito Journal on August 8, 2019

A rose by any other name may still be a rose. But when it comes to wine grapes, nomenclature matters. Just ask anyone who makes wine in the Sta. Rita Hills.
 
The 10 square-mile ag region nestled in the westernmost reaches of the Santa Ynez Valley – where Buellton gives way to Lompoc and where mountains that run east-to-west straddle State Route 246 – is hallowed ground to many wine aficionados. It gained AVA status in 2001 – that’s American Viticultural Area, which denotes a wine grape growing region of distinction by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The recognition allows winemakers to leverage this region’s clout by using that Sta. Rita Hills name on their labels, rather than more general terminology, like Santa Ynez Valley or Santa Barbara County. In fact, the words “Sta. Rita Hills” on a label essentially validates, and elevates, a wine’s pedigree. There are currently six AVAs within Santa Barbara County.
 
The La Purisima Mission hosts the closing night festivities at Wine & Fire
The special, distinguishing characteristics of Sta. Rita Hills are the handiwork of Mother Nature, of course – that aforementioned east-west stretch of the Santa Ynez Mountains, mainly, which is found nowhere else in the western coasts of North or South America, and which creates a funnel for marine air to seep many miles inland.
 
“We get to keep cool while the rest of the world keeps warming up,” says James Sparks, the winemaker mastermind behind the celebrated Liquid Farm brand and his own wow-worthy label, Kings Carey.
 
“The winds in evenings cools everything down and dries everything up,” he continues, “so the grapes get to just chill for eight to 12 hours, until the fog dissipates the next day. Sta. Rita Hills are very unique in that aspect compared to the rest of California and the rest of the world.”
 
It turns out that these unique weather conditions, along with diatomaceous soils replete with calcium-rich chalk and limestone, are idyllic for pinot noir and chardonnay. Winemakers have figured that out, and consumers are paying attention, too. Bottom line: the pinot and chard grown in the Sta. Rita Hills are superlative wines that are elevating Santa Barbara viticulture’s standing on the world stage.
 

Foley Estates host the opening night Barn Party
This year's Wine & Fire, an annual wine-and-BBQ-inspired annual affair that celebrates all things Sta. Rita Hills, takes place August 16-18. It's a unique chance to sip through an impressive lineup of delicious wines. Most importantly, it’s a rare opportunity for consumers to get one-on-one time with the personalities raising the bar here and making some of our area’s most buzzy wine – labels like Babcock, Flying Goat, Fiddlehead, Hitching Post and Brewer-Clifton.
 
The opening event, a Barn Party at Foley Estates ($85), is a casual mingle-fest that’ll feature 30-plus winemakers pouring large-format and library wines. The T-Bone Ramblers perform live and Chef Anthony Endy from the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort fires up the grill.
 
Saturday morning’s Speed Tasting & Lunch With a Winemaker ($110) at Peake Ranch & Vineyard will feature eight winemakers in a speed dating-style interchange with guests, taking turns sitting at tables in 10-minute intervals and pouring and discussing specially-selected wines. Sparks will be pouring and comparing/contrasting two of his Liquid Farm chardonnays – White Hill, which is crisp and clean, and Golden Slope, which is more rich and lush. Both are native to the Sta. Rita Hills, but the grapes are grown in different plots and harvested at different times . “It’s fun to see how those two vineyards and the ways I get to pick differently can affect the outcome,” says Sparks.
 
The grill masters from Buellton's Hitching Post II will fire things up at Wine & Fire
Saturday night’s Grand Tasting ($120) has become legendary because of its setting, the beautiful La Purisima Mission, which is decked out for a spectacular evening culinary feast. Sunday features open houses and breakout events at member wineries throughout the AVA, including a wine-and-food truck affair ($40) at the Santa Rita Wine Center in Lompoc.
 
Wine & Fire  is presented by the Sta. Rita Hills Alliance. Tickets to all events, especially the Saturday morning speed tasting, are limited. Check out staritahills.com for more information.
 
See you there!

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Every Sip of the STORM CELLAR Helps: New August Cocktail at Santa Barbara's Finch & Fork Restaurant Raises Funds for Vintners Charity

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Montecito Journal on 8/1/19

Thirsty? May I suggest the “Storm Cellar” at Finch & Fork? After all, every sip helps!
 
The Storm Cellar
The mixology team at the popular restaurant-and-bar at Santa Barbara’s Kimpton Canary Hotel launched a unique charity drive this summer – Cocktails for a Cause. A new mixed drink is introduced each month and proceeds from the sale of each order – shaken or stirred – are earmarked for a different non-profit. When they asked to team up with me for the month of August, I jumped at the chance, and I let my taste buds lead the way.
 
A cocktail novice myself, my contribution was to suggest that a local wine be a main ingredient in the cocktail. Wine as a mixed drink ingredient can be challenging – the powerful flavors of big red wines, especially, can clash against popular spirits like vodka and bourbon. So Finch & Fork’s lead mixologist, George Piperis, went white, with the 2018 Storm Sauvignon Blanc, right off the Finch & Fork wine list.
 
The wine has plenty of merit on its own. Santa Barbara County’s 2018 vintage was cool, so the sauvignon blanc grapes, which were sourced from three vineyards in different corners of the Santa Ynez Valley, “saw a long hang time and a lot of acid retention, so it’s made in a style that fresh,” says winemaker Ernest Storm of Storm Wines.
 
Piperis agrees. “It has a dry, crisp character,” he tells me last week from behind the bar as he concocts what he’s calling the Storm Cellar, a tip of the barman’s hat to the winemaker. Combined with equal parts gin, along with ginger, lemon juice and soda water, and served on ice, the sauvignon blanc helps create a spritzy, bright, refreshing cocktail. A raspberry liquor floater adds a spark of color and a touch of sweetness that elevates the drink’s zesty pop. The Storm Cellar is super easy to sip, downright delicious and perfect on any August night. It’ll sell for the month of August, and for August only, for $14.
 
Watch George serve up the Storm Cellar:
 
 
Also among my duties: to select August’s charity, which gave me a chance to spotlight the wonderful work of the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation. The philanthropic arm of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association has represented the vast majority of our area’s vintners in donating to myriad local causes. The Foundation was classified as a nonprofit organization in 2000 and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars through high school and college scholarships and to altruistic groups like the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, People Helping People and the Santa Barbara Foundation. Its biggest gifts go to Direct Relief, with a focus on the well-known international aid group’s local projects; thanks to their spectacular biennial Santa Barbara Wine Auction, it’s raised more than $5 million for the Goleta-based group, including the more than $900,000 it reeled in last year. Find out more about the Foundation’s work at sbvf.org.
 
“It doesn’t matter how much wine we make or sell, it’s more about whatever we can do for others,” says Jessica Gasca, Foundation president and winemaker behind the Story of Soil label. “People in the wine business are generous and they want to give back.”
 
Me & the Finch & Fork team: George Piperis, left, restaurant manager Josh Blumenthal & food & beverage director Bryan LaFontaine
One dollar from the sale of every Storm Cellar will go to the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation. Any thirst concerns during the month of August, then, should be taken directly to the Finch & Fork in downtown Santa Barbara, at 31 W. Carrillo St. The bar is open all day from 7am for breakfast, lunch and dinner and hosts Happy Hour every weekday from 4-7pm. Check out the predominantly local wine list and the whimsical lineup of cocktails at finchandforkrestaurant.com.
 
Just be sure to order the Storm Cellar by name.
 
Cheers!
 
 
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Celebrating 30: A Milestone for Santa Barbara's Fess Parker Winery

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Montecito Journal on July 25, 2019

The folks at Fess Parker Winery are already in the holiday spirit!
 
The winemaking team at the sprawling winery in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley sent out a notice last week highlighting “Wines for the Holiday Table.” They hand-picked three wines that they feel “could help create a fun-filled holiday,” according to a news release, including their 2016 Fesstivity Brut Cuveé, a bright and bouncy sparkling wine made from a blend of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, and their crisp and lively 2017 Ashley’s Chardonnay. The Fess Parker 2017 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir rounds out the trio, a wine I enjoyed with dinner a few nights ago and loved: it’s bouncy but elegant, with wonderful flavors of red berries and dark cherries. Its fruit source – various vineyards in the celebrated Sta. Rita Hills growing region between Buellton and Lompoc, including the famous Sanford & Benedict Vineyard  -- speaks to its pedigree. At $30, this is an awesome pinot noir value.
 
A lot of us may not be ready to put together a Christmas wine shopping list just yet. But if you are, you won’t go wrong by stuffing your stocking with any of these wines. If nothing else, kudos to the Parker marketing team for getting us to think about Christmas in the middle of July!
 
This was a fresh reminder, of course, that Fess Parker Winery is in the throes of a major milestone this year: its 30th anniversary. In a young wine region like Santa Barbara – a viticultural area that began to show promise on a world scale only in the mid- to late 1970s – three successful decades is a big deal. It makes you a pioneer, of sorts. And there’s no denying the Parkers’ special story, one defined by myriad business successes and one fueled by a multigenerational vision.
 
Fess Parker at Rodney's Vineyard (photo by Claude Ising, 2007)
“The original motivation for buying the ranch was the fact it was a gorgeous piece of property, and its proximity to Santa Barbara,” Ashley Parker-Snider told me recently. She was speaking about late 1987, when her dad, Disney TV Icon Fess Parker, bought a 714-acre estate along Foxen Canyon Road. The Texas native had already become a household name, thanks to his uber-successful portrayals in 1950s and 1960s Hollywood of American heroes Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Various projects for Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros. had made Mr. Parker one of Hollywood’s original celebrities by the time he moved his family to Hope Ranch in the late 70s. He’d purchase a 23-acre resort along Cabrillo Blvd. in 1986 – it’s the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort today, owned 50-50 between the Parker family and Hilton Hotels, which manages it – and the Santa Ynez Valley ranch the following year.
 
Winemaking from grapes off the estate was a fun family experiment at first, a new frontier. “It started out very organically,” Ashley recalls, “and then it definitely picked up steam.” The first decade would be defined by plenty of experimentation, several hits and several misses. The wine program would come into focus and be far more refined by the year 2000, when E&J Gallo alum Tim Snider, now company president and Ashley’s husband, and winemaker Blair Fox had joined the team. Ashley and brother Eli took on relevant roles from the get-go – they’ve always been hands-on with winemaking, vineyard sourcing and marketing. And their own children’s involvement makes the wide range of Fess Parker project – known collectively at FESPAR -- a solid three-generation enterprise. Today, that’s a powerhouse project that includes hotels in Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley, the celebrated Bear & Star Restaurant in Los Olivos and a thriving ranch and cattle business.
 
The Parkers
The winery produces close to 70,000 cases a year through a portfolio of several labels, including the eponymous Fess Parker, the Epiphany line of Rhone wines, the Addendum series of Napa-based cabernet sauvignons and the Fesstivity bubblies. The accolades that the Parker wines earn – 90+ point reviews from all the top wine publications and rave reviews from consumers near and far – make their impact on the world’s growing appreciation of Santa Barbara County wines undeniable. And that’s 30 years well spent, and spent well.
 
August presents three ways to join the Fess Parker Winery pearl anniversary celebration: the weekend of August 16th and 17th includes a Celebration of Rodney’s Vineyard ($100), a 30th Anniversary Retrospective Tasting ($80) and a Movie Night ($20) screening of Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, starring Fess Parker, with proceeds benefitting the Old Yeller Ranch Rescue for dogs. All events take place at the Santa Ynez Valley ranch. For tickets, visit fessparker.com/events.
 
Cheers!
 
 
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Come for the Giraffe, Stay for the Wine: Malibu Wine Hikes

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Montecito Journal on July 18, 2019

The shattering effects of last year’s Woolsey Fire are not immediately obvious when you stroll through Saddlerock Ranch. The 1100-acre property along Mulholland Highway, home to the Semler family, is looking beautiful these days, especially after the bloom of spring, with its cavalcade of flowers and trees and a sweeping, undulating landscape of dramatic rock formations. The beaches of Malibu are seven miles away, and easy access off Highway 101 makes it an easy one-hour drive from Montecito.
 
Stanley the Giraffe welcomes us to Malibu Wine Hikes
But wreak havoc, the Woolsey Fire did, according to Kurt Rieback, who guided us on a leisurely hike through Saddlerock last month. “All the family and employee residences burned,” he tells us as we notice fleeting hints that fire, indeed, roared through this property last November. Numerous barns and an enviable collection of classic cars went up in smoke, too. As for the animals – more than 150 exotic specimens, from zebras to water buffalo to a giraffe with its own social media following, the evacuation of whom during the fire created quite the news frenzy – they’re all back home now, and they’re welcoming guests.
 
The vines tell a different story, though – or at least they might, once harvest happens this fall. There are 90 acres of grapevines here – eight different wine varieties – and because the fire raged through while they were still dormant, if and how they’ll blossom, and the quantity and quality of grapes they’ll produce, is yet to be seen. “We may have lost up to half of our vines,” Kurt tells us.
 
I first visited Malibu Wine Hikes last year when owner Shane Semler took me on the moderate two-mile hike. Malibu Wine Hikes is one of numerous onsite businesses run by various Semler children – Shane is one of nine. Weekend weddings are a constant here. And Malibu Wine Safaris, run by Shane’s brother, is probably the most well-known adventure, drawing a sell-out 21-and-over crowd year-round.
 
The Wine Hikes, though, are the most family-friendly way to visit this property – no age minimums. And the leisurely pace and expansive views make this a truly special way to experience the natural wonders of the Santa Monica Mountains.
 
 
“I used to play on this property when I was growing up, and I had a lot of ground to cover,” Shane, 32, told me. “Today, I’m doing the same thing I used to do as a kid – I just get to bring guests along to enjoy it with me.”

 
Hiking Saddlerock
Shane explains that his older sister’s love for riding horses is what inspired their parents to purchase this property, a former Arabian horse ranch, in the late 1970s. Exotic animals soon arrived – llamas and camels at first, and then a zebra mating pair that was a gift from Shane’s dad, Ron, to his wife, Lisa. Stanley the Giraffe joined the menagerie in 2015 and today, at age nine, remains the biggest attraction on four legs. A former Hollywood star – Jurassic Park and Hangover 3 appear on his résumé – Stanley was acquired by the Semlers when he became too big to transport between film shoots and now enjoys a new kind of fame  -- more than 53,000 Instagram followers for @a_giraffe-named-stanley. You can hand-feed vegetable snacks to most animals during the hikes.
 
Saddlerock is home to 90 acres of vineyards
For me, the best part of our family hike last month was the respite between the animal petting and the vineyard stroll when, on a rustic deck overlooking flowering gardens and a natural lake that provides much of the property’s water for irrigation, we pause for wine. This is where hikers are introduced to the Semlers’ wine business -- a two-label project that produces some 45,000 cases of wine a year. A third of that, on the eponymous Semler label, is made from grapes grown onsite, including Rhone varieties like syrah and grenache; these wines snapshot both the potential and challenges of a growing area defined by a regular tug-of-war between ocean breezes and heat spells . The bulk of the production, and perhaps the most dependably solid wines, are on the Saddlerock label, which sources grapes from all over California, from Santa Barbara to Lodi.
 
The 2017 Saddlerock Sauvignon Blanc ($45) was clean and lively, with pear and melon notes, thanks to its fermentation in stainless steel tanks. The 2018 Rosé of Grenache ($48), with its salmon hue, was as pretty as it was refreshing, with lots of watermelon and berry notes. The 2013 Saddlerock Semler Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($95) we supped was smooth, jammy and complex.
 
Our tasting stop actually replaces the usual wine portion of this experience -- a post-hike visit to the tasting room across the street. Damage from the Woolsey Fire forced refurbishments that have since been completed, but an inspections backlog is keeping it shuttered for now. That said, as hip as the tasting room is, I prefer the bucolic, unhurried aspect of our midway sip stop.
 
Our Malibu Wine Hikes experience lasted just under three hours. Offered multiple times a day every Wednesday through Sunday, I recommend the morning options, since the afternoons can get pretty hot. Pricing is $35 per person, or $65 if you want to include a visit with Stanley (and you should). Ask about Flight of Voices, a monthly reimagining of the Hikes that features live musical interludes along the way, and about the summertime Saddlerock Garden Dinners, held en plein air and featuring a rotating lineup of chefs. The Semlers’ new Malibu Wines & Beer Garden in West Hill is open daily. Go to malibuwinehikes.com for more info.
 
Cheers!
 
 
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Santa Barbara in a Glass: "The Lark" Wins 3rd Annual Cocktail Contest

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Montecito Journal on June 27, 2019
photos by Visit Santa Barbara


Sticky Fingers
For these five bartenders, this was a tall order, indeed: create a mixed drink that encapsulates the essence, the beauty and the charm of Santa Barbara. They shook and muddle and stirred, and at the end of this annual bartender contest, The Lark came out on top. Their “Sticky Fingers,” a gin- and mezcal- based cocktail made with foraged herbs and honey, is 2019’s “Official Drink of Santa Barbara.”
 
“What happens when you stick your hand in honey?” Lark mixologist Nick Priedite yelled out to the thirsty, sellout crowd of 300 that descended on El Paseo Restaurant last Thursday Their retort: “Sticky fingers!”
 
“To me,” Priedite continued, “Santa Barbara is one big bowl of honey!”
 
That enthusiasm, combined with an animated cocktail-making demo and impassioned description of how “Sticky Fingers” is a liquid snapshot of the coastal enclave affectionately known as The American Riviera, clinched The Lark the win, beating out talented bartender teams from The Angel Oak at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Convivo, Finch & Fork and Finney’s.
 
This was the 3rd annual Official Drink of Santa Barbara Cocktail Competition, an event celebrating the city’s burgeoning mixed drink scene and one that I’ve had the good fortune of emceeing each year. Presented by Visit Santa Barbara, the event is many weeks in the making, with calls put out months ago for recipe submissions, a weeks-long online voting event run by the Santa Barbara Independent and the culminating night of competition featuring the top five vote-getters.
 
Participating barkeeps were tasked with drawing inspiration from Santa Barbara’s landscape, architecture and culinary scene, and with using local ingredients. Base spirits were provided by Cutler’s Artisan Spirits, one of the contest’s founding sponsors.
 
Lark mixologist Nick Priedite concocts his "Sticky Fingers" for the judges
I got to MC this year's competition, including chatting with Ian Cutler of Cutler's Artisan Spirits in Santa Barbara, a founding sponsor of the cocktail contest and the liquid inspiration behind the evening's libation creations
“Sticky Fingers” calls for Cutler’s gin infused with bay laurel, then combined with mezcal, tequila’s smoky sister. Fresh lemon juice and avocado blossom honey blend to balance citrus and sweet. A bitter dash from Amaro Meletti is tempered by a splash of orange flower water. A single avocado leaf, afloat, garnishes the blonde beverage, which is served over ice. It’s pretty, refreshing and complex at once – indeed, a lot like Santa Barbara itself, you could say.
 
The Lark’s entry took the win by impressing a lineup of five judges, including KEYT Senior Reporter John Palminteri, local wine writers Matt Kettmann and Hana-Lee Sedgwick, and Instagrammer Sarah Chhum, who won her chance to sip and judge through a public guest judge contest. The fifth judge earned his seat last year, when his own craft cocktail won the coveted Official Drink of Santa Barbara title.
 
Finch & Fork's "Eucalyptus Lane" took this year's
People's Choice Award
“It definitely made a huge difference,” Ty Lounge mixologist Tyler Ondatje said about the effects of the publicity generated by his 2018 score: the past year has seen a steady stream of patrons ordering the “Biltmore Fuerte” by name.
 
The Biltmore’s winning cocktail – “fuerte” is Spanish for “strong” – was inspired by the Montecito community’s resilience in the wake of the January mudslides. The sipper features Cutler’s bourbon, lemon juice, strawberry purée and honey made by bees rescued from the Thomas Fire. And the response over the past year “has been overwhelming,” echoed Biltmore GM Karen Earp, who cheered competitors from the audience. She also confirmed that the Biltmore Fuerte would remain on the Ty Lounge menu.
 
“Sticky Fingers” earns a slew of prizes, biggest being heightened exposure through Visit Santa Barbara’s myriad marketing channels. You’ll find it on The Lark’s cocktail list right now.
 
And there was a second winning spirit this night: the People’s Choice honor, determined through a texting platform that recorded real-time votes from attendees, who got to sip samples of all five entries. The barkeeps at Finch & Fork inside the Canary Hotel nabbed that one. Their “Eucalyptus Lane” combined Cutler’s gin, vermouth and citrus for a bright, quenching drink playfully topped with eucalyptus-tangerine foam.
 
Cheers!
 
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Restaurant Rescue: Chef Pink Brings Solvang’s Root 246 Back to Life

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

Chef Crystal DeLongpré makes doesn’t mince words when she describes what lured her into the kitchen of Solvang’s well-known restaurant, Root 246.
 
“There’s been a quality lapse and some dissidence in the ranks,” says the foodie better known as Chef Pink. “They’d been chef-less for years, and that hurt them, and it hurt their reputation.”
 
Chef Pink in action
Indeed, the Solvang restaurant that enjoyed its heyday in 2009 when celeb chef Bradley Ogden opened its doors with an inspired wine country menu was a different spot to eat when Chef Pink took over in late 2017. Chef Ogden had left in 2012 and, in the years that followed, an apparent lack of focus and investment led the Chumash-owned eatery inside the Hotel Corque to fall from grace.
 
When new management sought to revamp Root 246’s reputation, the timing seemed right for Chef Pink, too. The 20-year restaurant industry veteran’s resumé already included kitchen stints from Hollywood to New York to Paris. In Santa Barbara, she’d cooked at Epiphany and Square One. And TV appearances on SpikeTV and the Food Network had already allowed her to sport the title, celebrity chef. When a fallout with her landlord led her to shutter Bacon & Brine – a hugely successful food spot in Solvang that she ran with wife Courtney for five years – Chef Pink was on the hunt for something new.
 
“I knew [Root 246] was a beautiful space, and the kitchen is amazing,” she says. But before she could pay any attention to the menu, “the staff was the main thing.
 
“Finding talent in this [Santa Ynez] Valley is an incredibly challenging thing – we’re not flushed with great cooks,” she says. “We don’t have a reputation yet for being great, though we will in a few years. It will take work and training.”
 
And for her entire first year at Root 246, that’s exactly what she did. She found a few people “with a hunger for great food” and put them from through rigorous training. Lots of one-on-one -- even a six-week crash course on all things culinary with visiting chefs from San Francisco. And a year later, in late 2018, when Chef Pink finally felt she had “a team that wanted to be at work every day and that was inspired and happy,” official word of her new tenure at Root 246 began to spread.
 
photo credit: Chef Pink
Cost is a clear focus at the new Root 246, mainly to expand the client base, locals in particular. “Accessibility and affordability matter here,” says Chef Pink of the restaurant that seats 171. “When I used to do fine dining, I’d look out over the dining room and could see that only a certain amount of people would come in and eat the food – it was too socially unbalanced. I’m creating a place where more people can have access to the same quality food and larger portions.”
 
Appetizers range from $4 to $14 and entrees cost between $14 and $28; the outlier is an impressive 24-oz. Dry-Aged Bone-In Rib Eye that comes with potatoes fried in beef fat and sells for $68.
 
The Root 246 menu changes seasonally and is totally ingredient-driven. All meats are sustainable and humanely raised. All the chicken is free-range. Seafood is all local except for the octopus, which comes from a small Spanish source. And the produce is 99% local. “It’s almost all from the Santa Ynez Valley,” says the chef. “I want to support local farmers and their vision.”
 
photo credit: Chef Pink
The Spring 2019 menu launched just this month with 14 new items, including the Ajo Blanco Soup, made with garlic, almond, spicy radish, grapes and chervil, and the Aguachiles, featuring local halibut, tangerines, cucumber, pickled pequin chilis, grapes and limes.
 
Among Chef Pink’s personal favorite starters on her regular menu is the Oak-Grilled Heirloom Carrots ($11). Sourced from Sunrise Organic Farm in Buellton, the carrots are grilled over an open fire  -- “It helps elevate the sweetness and floral aspects of the carrots,” she says – and served on the plate with a homemade turmeric yogurt, pistachios and fresh dill. The Organic Chicken Liver Paté ($12) comes with crispy shallots, a house-made IPA vinegar and grilled bread and the Grilled Wild Shrimp ($14) features a peanut mole and cilantro. The popular Grampa’s House Focaccia ($4.50) is presented with organic California butter and sea salt.

 
On the entrees list, Chef Pink is a fan of the Impossible Burger ($14), the vegan alternative that’s remarkably close to the real thing; it comes on a potato roll with fries. “When I was in culinary school, I could only dream of vegan fine dining – it wasn’t done back then,” she says. “This type of product now gives me the freedom to showcase food that’s plant-based and produce that’s local.”
 
For the real thing: the 8-ounce wagyu Creekstone Ranch Burger ($18) comes with sharp cheddar and a bacon aioli; the American Lamb Burger ($18) features Bellwether Farms ricotta cheese and a spicy tomato jam; and the Neiman Ranch Pork Osso Bucco ($26) is accompanied by braised bay turnips, preserved lemon and a prune gremolata. Like all meats, the 12-ounce USDA Prime NY Steak ($28) is grilled over an oak wood fire. Seafood finds include the Braised Octopus Stew ($22), presented in broth with cannellini beans and house bacon, and the Santa Barbara Halibut ($26), butter-basted and doled out with fresh herbs, roasted potatoes, olives and lemon in a smoked tomato broth. A vegetarian favorite is the Roasted Kabocha Squash ($18), served with red wheat, spicy pepitas and an almond-coconut reduction.
 
Sides, all priced at $7, include the Slab o’ Cornbread, Sautéed Kale & Garlic and Baby Japanese Turnips.
 
“Everything I put on the menu is something I’d want to eat, myself, so the focus is on incredible flavor,” says Chef Pink. But I also want to make sure everyone gets the variety they need. Not everyone comes in for the same experience, and our demographic in Solvang is different than it was just five years ago. As restaurateurs, we need to remember that. We are in the hospitality business, after all.”
 
Chef Pink recently launched a Chef’s Table inside the expansive Root 246 kitchen; seating for up to 10 by reservation for a five-course, hand-curated meal is priced at $65.
 
The Ultra Lounge, right next door to the Root 246 dining room, has quickly become a popular destination for fans of cocktails and all things casual. Chef Pink recently introduced a 19-item bar menu to accompany the top-shelf whiskeys, craft beers and signature cocktails, as well as a wine list that’s heavy on the Central Coast, including the Chumash tribe’s proprietary label, Kita. It serves food until midnight and adult drinks until 1:30am on Friday and Saturday nights.
 
Root 246, 400 Alisal Rd., Solvang. 805-686-8681. Dinner Tue.-Sun. from 5pm. Lounge opens at 4pm. Sunday brunch 10am-2pm. root-246.com.

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Shoreside Showstopper: Caruso’s at the New Rosewood Miramar Elevates Santa Barbara Dining

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

Chef Massimo Falsini has a real love affair with Mother Nature.
 
“Caruso’s menu in entirely built on Mother Nature’s will,” says the chef behind one of the year’s most anticipated restaurant openings in Santa Barbara. Caruso’s is the flagship restaurant inside the new Rosewood Miramar Beach resort, named after the man who dreamed it up, L.A. developer Rick Caruso.

Chef Massimo Falsini
Chef Falsini on his ingredients: “The perfection of Mother Nature is right under our eyes, every day. We just forget how to look at it, how to spot it. Take a Romanesco cauliflower, observe its geometry, really look at it. Then you will know.”
 
The chef’s affection for food is certainly defining the culinary experience at Caruso’s and, by extension, the Santa Barbara dining experience itself. Seasonality and regionality reign supreme here, and the menu follows their lead, even if on a daily basis. “The menu is alive and dynamic, with constant changes, tweaks and adjustment,” says the chef. “At times we have ingredients that are available for a couple of weeks, or even a one-off from a micro farm. We always take the opportunity to find room in our dishes.”
 
Chef Falsini’s gastronomic approach is also enhanced by a unique sense of place. It’s not lost on him that nostalgia is very much part of the Rosewood Miramar experience – a wistfulness about this rambling 16-acre Montecito property wrought by a history that stretches back to the 1890s. Caruso’s location right on the beach – right on the sand, almost – plays a role, too.
 
“From the moment you sit on our patio, you feel the caress of the wind and the salinity of the air,” says the chef. “You can have the most casual, laid back brunch in the late afternoon with a glass of rosé, or you can have…a six-course tasting menu and wine pairings! The best part is that you might sit at the same table, but the restaurant, the ambiance, the feelings and sensations are completely different. It is like traveling in space within the same day.”
 
Seafood is the crux of the Caruso’s offerings – “only local and sustainable seafood supporting small fishermen and divers,” says the chef. It’s a focus defined by his own passion for seafood sustainability, and his ongoing work with the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch program. And it’s driven by the bounty that thrives, quite literally, right outside the front door. From the starters list, the Striped Sea Bass ($20) comes with oranges and cucumbers; the Baja Kampachi Crudo ($20) with lemon verbena and a rosehip tea, and the Tuna Tartare ($25) with lemon, olives and an almond granita. The ultimate homage to fare from local waters, the American Riviera Seafood Platter (M.P.) features Santa Barbara spot prawns, spiny lobster, stone crab, oysters and sea urchin.
 
Seafood pastas include the Risotto di Mare ($26), with rock cod, prawns, mussels and clams; and the Tagliolini ($25) with sea urchin, breadcrumbs and basil. Entrees with a seafood slant include the Crispy Monterey Salmon ($32) and the Pan Roasted Petrale Sole ($48). The Santa Barbara Harbor Cioppino ($45) features octopus, calamari, cod, clams, mussels, spot prawns and Dungeness crab.
 
The ocean inspiration here is further buoyed by Caruso’s striking décor. Located in the resort’s Beach House, just on the other side of the train tracks that slice across the property, it’s festooned with rich hues of maritime blue and elegant jewel box touches. The rooftop bar above emulates the polished wood deck of a luxury yacht.
 
The balance of the menu is inspired by Chef Falsini’s own Italian background, plus a 30-year career at restaurants throughout Europe, the Middle East and North America, from the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai to the Waldorf Astoria Orlando to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi; it was at the legendary Harry’s Bar in Rome that Chef Falsini earned a Michelin star.
 
“Mediterranean cuisine is my forté…but spending time in the Middle East, South East Asia and Hawaii has definitely influenced my way of looking at food and finding harmony and balance in flavors,” says the chef. He adds, to put his move to Santa Barbara in context, and with a fair share of romantic flare: “So, I am just a cook – a cook that has been cooking like my ancestors used to; a cook who comes from the land of myth, a land of explorers, poets and artists, where erupted landscapes meet the sea and the sky, just like the American Riviera."
 
The Stone Baked Ancient Roman Pie, Mr. Falsini’s inspired take on flatbread, comes with multiple toppings options, like foraged mushroom, Piave DOP cheese and rosemary ($21) and prosciutto, arugula, Crescenza cheese and parmigiana reggiano ($24). The Rocky Canyon Chicken ($28) comes with crispy sweet potato, broccoli Romanesco and salsa verde; the Sonoma Lamb Rack and Meatballs ($42) is accompanied by a Neapolitan croquette and almond artichoke crema; and the Steak and Potatoes…My Way ($55) features a Snake River Gold Wagyu New York Strip alongside potato, foraged mushroom, bone marrow and a syrah jus.
 


To call any of these a signature Caruso’s dish, of course, would be a mistake. “We actually do not have a signature dish, because Mother Nature does not either,” says Chef Falsini. “We are just following the changes of the seasons, along with the expert and dedicated hands of our hardworking fishermen, farmers and ranchers.”
 
Winemakers play a role, too, he adds. “The wine is the product of the land transformed by the knowledge of man…and wine should always go with the food.” The Caruso’s list is a hand-picked mix of high-end local and European finds. An extensive selection of top shelf spirits offers plenty of pre- and post-dinner sipping options.
 
Chef Falsini helms a brigade of 80 chefs and 25 stewards, including Chef de Cuisine Paul Osborne and Pastry Chef Benjamin Kunert. He puts the spotlight, however, squarely on his guests. “There is nothing more joyful for a chef than to have happy guests and friends in the restaurant,” he says.
 
The Caruso's dining room
And when he paints a picture of the experience he’s striving to deliver for his sophisticated clientele, Nature is the only mother on his mind.
 
“I remember Mamma on Sunday bringing the bowl of fettuccine al sugo prepared all morning with the pin, made carefully and wisely with the best ingredients from the market, all selected by her choosy hands,” he reminisces. “That particular moment of the delivery of the dish – pride and joy permeated the dining room. That is the same feeling we are striving for at Caruso’s.”
 
The Rosewood Miramar’s culinary offerings also include all-day dining and afternoon tea at the indoor-outdoor Malibu Farm at Miramar, the first at any California hotel for the popular organic dining brand; the opulent Manor Bar, decked out in candlelight and curated works of art and featuring creative cocktails and live music; the Cabana Bar at the swanky, zero-edge adults-only pool; and the Scoop Shop at the family-friendly Manor Pool, which doles out burgers as well as ice cream flavors by Rori’s Artisanal Creamery crafted exclusively for the resort.
 
Find out more at rosewoomiramarbeach.com.
Caruso’s at Rosewood Miramar Beach Resort, 1759 S. Jameson Lane, Montecito. 805-900-8388. Dinner Sun.-Thu. 6-10pm, Fri.-Sat. 6-11pm.
 
 
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