photos by Ben Brown

California Wine Festival Celebrates 15th Year in Santa Barbara

The 15th annual California Wine Festival saw an array of wineries, breweries and food purveyors gathered amidst a classic summer day in sunny Santa Barbara. Taking place in downtown Santa Barbara, literally steps from the beach, the festival attracted a fun-loving crowd that perused from tent to tent, different tastes in tow every step of the way. 

Many familiar labels and storefronts from years past returned for repeat performances, accompanied by a few new faces. And as the festival’s name reveals, wines were the star of the show. Wineries included 3 Steves, Miner Family Winery, Ferguson Crest, One Madrone, McGrail Vineyards, Rutherford Wine Company, Wood Family Vineyards and Vinemark Cellars among many others. 

Beer lovers found themselves right at home as well, with breweries gaining a stronger presence year after year. Featured brewers included Unibroue, Santa Barbara Brewing, Karl Strauss Brewing, Island Brewing, The Brewhouse in Santa Barbara, Firestone Walker and M. Special. 

While food isn’t a namesake feature of the festival, a scattering of culinary vendors kept libations in check. Enterprise Fish Co., Hippy Pop Popcorn, Oat Bakery, Hoppy Fused Food, and Santa Barbara Woodfire Catering represented some of Santa Barbara’s local food scene, joined by larger brands such as Kerrygold and Gelson’s. 

Be on the lookout for the next California Wine Festival, with events taking place across Southern California year-round. 

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The Blind Pig Brings Bold Global Fare to RSM, Yorba Linda

Deep in the suburban Orange County community of Rancho Santa Margarita lies the Blind Pig, humbly perched in a shopping mall overlooking the manmade Lago Santa Margarita. Part small plates, part gastropub and going 5 years strong with an expected expansion to Yorba Linda in fall 2018, The Blind Pig proves that haute cuisine can live outside your traditional haute neighborhoods.

The eclectic, ever-changing menu is purposefully small, with Executive Chef Karl Pfeider laser-focused on executing 18 dishes perfectly rather than doing twice as many half as well. The Blind Pig’s offerings change with the seasons, but consistently feature familiar dishes from across the world with dazzlingly unfamiliar twists woven in. 

The Blind Pig’s bold, global flavors are easily explained in their Parisian gnocchi—exceptional pasta pockets flash-fried just enough to make things interesting, beautifully complemented with intense Portuguese sausage and a spicy arribiata sauce that makes your tastebuds dance. The Korean short ribs then take you a few thousand miles east with dense oriental flavor that makes you wonder how you’re still in Orange County. 

The mushroom saltado, a play on the classic Peruvian lamb dish, integrates puffed rice to give four types of wild mushrooms an elegant finish. For dessert, the panna cotta comes topped with sweet granola and paper-thin dark chocolate for multiple layers of sweet indulgence.

The drink menu is just as interesting, with local beers on tap, a solid wine list and a craft cocktail lineup that emphasizes novelty and complexity. The extensive Moscow mule selection is tough to turn down. 

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Tuck Room Tavern Wows with James Beard Award-Winning Talent

Tuck Room Tavern is the exact kind of posh hotspot that foodie cities need. No, not just another pretty face, with elegant chandeliers hanging over a chic lounge, hot bartenders making a show out of liquid nitrogen cocktails nearby. Sure, at Tuck Room Tavern you’ll be surrounded by hot servers, a vivacious crowd and an insane attention to luxurious detail. But for the food to match—or dare I say, exceed—the mood, from a James Beard Award-winning chef no less? Now that is a truly special foodie experience.

Chef Sherry Yard has mastered the ability to transform backyard barbecue classics into globally elevated masterpieces. Mentored by Wolfgang Puck and taking home two—count ‘em, two—James Beard Awards before taking the helm as parent company’s iPic Entertainment’s Restaurant COO, Yard runs her kitchen with the same seasoned expertise with which she works the crowd. You may recognize the 5’2” Yard from shows like Top Chef, Iron Chef America and Cutthroat Kitchen, and you’ll quickly get a sense of her approach to flavor, because she knocks it out of the park. 

The enlightenment commences with your first bite of some of the best calamari you’ve ever tasted, made heavenly with a Korean gochujang glaze for just the right spiciness and a blow-your-mind bold kick. The crab cakes are cleverly sandwiched between two of the thinnest slices of crispy brioche for astounding texture and rich seafood flavor. Hard to put the fork down before both plates are gone, if not for that Tuck Moscow mule, with house-made berry-infused vodka and ginger beer. 

Keep going with a crisp and colorful gulf shrimp and beet salad, completed with goat cheese and hazelnuts, before settling in on a round of mains that transport you to the countryside. Southern shrimp and [imported from North Carolina] grits and mango habanero baby back ribs make you feel like you’re rocking on a porch swing during a warm summer night, and then that rich cornbread with whipped goat cheese, plus a farmer’s market sangria, takes you right back into Tuck Room Tavern’s new age ambiance. 

The haute crowd is often inclined to skip dessert, but not with a red velvet pavlova—a small mountain of earl grey meringue, vanilla gelato and raspberry red velvet cake crumbles all over—staring you in the face. Or the chocolate hot and cold, with gelato, fresh-baked brownie and a pool of chocolate dipping sauce. Did I mention Chef Yard was one of the top 10 pastry chefs in America?

And at Tuck Room Tavern, you’re always dining with extra company, whether that comes in the form of an exceptionally entertaining crowd nearby or the tuxedo-clad elephant [his name is Percy], painted on a wall made entirely of books. 

As noted above, Tuck Room Tavern is part of iPic Entertainment, known for upscale movie theaters with in-cinema dining. Chef Yard has a completely separate menu for the movie-going experience just a few steps away, clearly in need of further exploration. 

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Sajj Mediterranean Expands Its presence in the OC

Build-your-own is hot in the world of Middle Eastern cuisine, and Sajj is a prime example of the trend’s rising prominence. Sajj—named after the convex frying pan used for heating flatbreads—is steadily growing its presence across California, most recently opening in Rancho Santa Margarita with an Irvine location expected to open fall 2018. The Chipotle-meets-Middle East concept has seen great success across multiple locations in the Bay Area, and is on pace to do the same in Orange County.

Sajj has tweaked classic Middle Eastern flavors just enough to make them approachable for the masses. Steak and chicken shawarma, falafel, hummus and toum [Lebanese garlic sauce] are key staples, as well as a few fun additions like pomegranate-marinated chicken and roasted cauliflower. Spicy tahini, feta and even guacamole finish off wraps, pitas and bowls for new flavors with comfortingly familiar elements. 

A plethora of locally sourced vegetables allows Sajj to become a healthier alternative as well. Fresh lettuce, arugula and kale from San Juan Bautista, tomatoes from Carlsbad, and cabbage from Santa Maria are just a few ingredients that go into Sajj’s veggie selections for wraps, pitas and bowls.  Additionally, Sajj prides itself on sourcing meats with no hormones and no antibiotics. 

And for an additional fun twist, Sajj has added Chocolate Hummus to the menu. Made with garbanzo beans, tahini, cocoa powder, chocolate hazelnut spread, pistachios and maple syrup, the dish is arguably on the healthier side of dessert and best paired with house-made cinnamon chips. 

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Oggi’s: Pizza, Beer and Sports, SoCal Born and Bred 

Oggi’s has built itself up to become a household name in SoCal over the last 25+ years. What started as a humble pizzeria in Del Mar is now a regional empire, with 16 locations that span from South San Diego to the high desert, with a far-reaching spot in Phoeniz, AZ. Brewing craft beer before craft beer was cool, serving up fun-but-approachable pizzas and perfecting a laid-back sports bar atmosphere has allowed Oggi’s to become a trusted destination for guys’ nights out and family gatherings alike.

Pizza may have been where Oggi’s got its start, but the franchise has expanded its offerings. A labyrinth of a menu covers myriads of all the usual suspects you’d hope for in a sports bar. Burgers, wings, sandwiches and SoCal favorites like fish tacos provide a strong base for those seeking indulgence, while a long salad list appeals to those coming along for the ride. Thai chili buffalo wings and a seemingly endless plate of short rib nachos are certainly house favorites.

Oggi’s has also taken strong ownership of pizza’s closest complements, pasta and breadsticks. Their vodka penne di parma comes out with richness and full flavor far beyond its modest price point, and of course it would be a sin to skip over the garlic knots, as dense and buttery as you’d hope for. Oggi’s pizzas are made fresh with hand-tossed dough and named after various sports references. The slam dunk [buffalo chicken] and the heavyweight [meat lover’s] are surefire winners. 

And what would the Oggi’s experience be without their home-brewed beer, which continues to gather awards and accolades. Several of Oggi’s beers pay homage to their San Diego roots, such as the Ladainian Tomlinson grapefruit session IPA and the Torrey Pines IPA. 

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Art Beyond the Glass Celebrates 7th Year in L.A.

Art Beyond the Glass, a cultural celebration of all things cocktails and the bar staff who make them, brought together a myriad of mixology talent at Silver Lake’s Los Globos nightclub. Raising funds for the Women’s Center for Creative Work, this charity event placed a special focus on SoCal’s top women in the industry. Bartenders such as Emily Alexander [The NoMad, DTLA], Adele Stratton [Jayne’s Gastropub, San Diego], Valerie Erickson [Bar Mercado, La Brea] and Gigi Dail [UNION, La Brea] were just a few of a long list who poured drinks that stretched the brink of liquid creativity. Joining them were colleagues that showcased additional artistic talents, such as photographer/bartender Christina Russo [Castaways, Burbank], painter Kecia Hook [Little Sister, DTLA], and burlesque dancer Evalee Gertz [Las Perlas, DTLA]. 

Creativity flowed as freely as the drinks themselves, with Aviation Gin’s ‘flight attendants,’ Bacardi’s canned cocktails and Edinburgh Gin’s ‘La Croix Boys’ as just a few of the event’s visual and experiential focal points. Additional sponsoring brands included Ilegal Mezcal, Lillet Wine, Born & Bred Vodka and Mulholland Distilling Whiskey. 

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