California Wine Country: An Afternoon Lunch at Los Olivos Cafe

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Although I'm admittedly not a huge fan of Southern California, a place that will always be special to me is northern Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez Valley/aka Santa Barbara Wine Country.

On our recent vacation down to SoCal we stopped in our favorite part. We finally made it to the Los Olivos Cafe where we met Unkl Kenny and dined on fabulous appetizers and local wines and beers. The sun was bright with with a beautiful blue sky above us, and the air was ever so slightly chilled with a cool breeze. We sat outside on the patio under some heat lamps and took in the fresh air and beautiful old town. Then feasted on wonderful light California fare that was just what the doctor ordered. This, was now a vacation!

I write these posts not only to encourage you to go to a place I think is fantastic and well worth your money, but more so to get ideas for what I and then you can do at home. Often I go to restaurants for inspiration -- how are they doing it now, what are they using, why are they using this in that way, and finally can I do this at home myself? And if it's something I think is a fabulous idea or interesting way of presenting things or a dish I think I could tweek and make even better (yes, this has happened more times than you think) then I can't wait to rush back home and start working on it.

Our trip to Los Olivos Cafe was such an occasion. A lesson in how to present casual, good and honest food in a way that helps to set the tone and mood for a get together at home. I grew up where food was set to impress, which is fine on occasion but it does make for a stuffy experience especially when you're having friends and family over. LOC was a great way to see how food can be beautifully made and presented but still not have a lot of fuss about it and be approachable and fun, and makes you awe at its beauty while at the same time wanting to dive right in. This is food that makes you want to pick up and toast your glasses of wine, take your time with the day, share stories and laugh. This is what good food is all about. And I'm happy to share with you the pictures and some thoughts here. Enjoy it!

Like I said, we approached the meal in a family-style, appetizer focused way. If you go out to eat or even better, when entertaining at home, this is a wonderful way to make everyone feel welcomed and really set the tone for a fun time. We started off with the Crostini with Tapenade, Hummus, and Muffaletta.

Simple crostini served with olive tapenade (left), hummus (top and bottom middle), and muffaletta made a fun and colorful start to our meal. The different "dips" were served more like spreads and went with both any wines and beers we were consuming at the same time.
 The bread was simply very thinly sliced baguette brushed with olive oil and baked until very crispy. The tapenade was kalamata olives and a little garlic, salt, and pepper with olive oil pulsed until very finely chopped and with a texture just shy of a true puree. The hummus was mellow with an emphasis on the chickpeas rather than the garlic, lemon juice, and herbs that went into it as well. And the muffaletta was the traditional olive salad that goes into a muffaletta sandwich. I loved that the tapenade, hummus, and muffaletta all stood on their own, but also went together with each other as well. So you could build your crostini as you wished -- all with one, a little of both or all three, the next one heavier on the olives than the one you had before. This is what I mean about "fun food." The muffaletta added unexpected flavor -- I've never seen the olive salad presented like that before! -- and wonderful color to the table.

You could very easily serve the same exact dish at your home. You can buy olive tapenade already prepared (Trader Joe's does a great version) or simply add pitted kalamata olives, garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil to a food processor all to taste, and puree until desired consistency is achieved. You can make your own hummus or buy your favorite kind and scoop it out with an ice cream scooper, and then make the olive salad. Check out my perfect recipe for olive salad here.

After the crostini we had the Fried Green Tomatoes. I love fried green tomatoes. Love. By love I mean will kill people for them. They are so wonderful. They are slightly sour and sweet at the same time, warm and with that killer crunchy coating makes them irresistible. So when I saw them on he menu I just about lost my shit!

These were served with a salad of microgreens, blue cheese, and a fig sauce. SO good. The tomatoes were nice and tart and paired with the sweeter fig sauce made it perfect. The bleu cheese added just the right creaminess to combat the crunchy panko breading on the tomatoes and offer another tangy bite. My only change I would make would be to have added just a touch of honey to the fig sauce to bring out the sweetness just a shade more given how tart the tomatoes were. And with the bleu cheese going on as well, it would have made (in my humble opinion) a 9.5 dish a 10.

It's hard to find green tomatoes at the local markets. There are actually two kinds of tomatoes that can qualify as a "green tomato" for purposes of this dish: (1) an unripe otherwise would-be-red tomato that has not ripened to the point where the red color has come in yet OR (2) a green colored tomato such as the green zebra that remains green, ripe or unripe. The unripe tomatoes will yield a tarter tomato while using a ripened green tomato will be considerably sweeter. So, if making this dish you want to taste your tomatoes first and adjust your seasonings and accompaniments accordingly (as I would have added a little honey like I said).

Stay tuned for recipes in a few months utilizing green tomatoes, including my take on this dish. I cannot wait to start working on it! Now nature just has to give me tomatoes!

And then we got a couple of pizzas. (!!) I'm loving the "trend" to make pizzas elegant. It used to be we'd think of pizza as this shitty half-edible disc that came to our front door in a large cardboard box. Thank God we've departed from that and now with the help of store-bought pizza dough and idiot-proof ingredients, we can make killer pizzas in the comfort of our home. And maybe even involve the kids a little too. Well, in this departure we've also gone away from the tired pepperoni-and-cheese or "meat-lover's" and let me just say, as a law-abiding "meat lover" myself that pizza is fucking disgusting. My idea of meat lover's is thinly sliced steak and bacon on the pizza, not half-assed processed "pepperoni" and strange crumbly-yet-uncomfortably-chewy sausage. But I digress.

Los Olivos Cafe is an example of pizzas done right. They offer a small variety of simple pizzas, prepared in the classic way with no more than five-ish toppings. It's not layered on there, but rather gently sprinkled about, not overkilling the perfect crust. Their Soppresata Pizza is a wonderful combination of marinara sauce as the base, some spicy soppresata, parmesan, olives, and fresh arugula on top. This is my ideas of meat lover's! It's satisfying that craving while not going way overkill. It's elegant, easy to eat, incredibly flavorful and presents just beautifully.

Soppresata Pizza
But if you're looking for a more traditional pizza especially for the kiddos, they certainly have that as well. Take for example their Napoli Pizza -- prepared simply with tomato sauce and four cheeses. Crusty baked pizza crust completes the perfect slice of pizza.

Napoli Pizza with four cheeses.
With all of these dishes you just want to dive right in. And that's the point of this kind of dining. Especially with the pizzas, you can see how easy and FUN it is to entertain with something as simple as pizza. You can make a few versions yourself or even involve your guests to help make them. They come together so quickly especially if you use the store-bought dough, and can serve every single taste and food preference. One of my favorite parties to through for guests is a pizza and ice cream party -- cocktails or wine and beer, some grilled pizzas, and a built-your-own ice cream sundae for dessert. It's a throwback to childhood and so much fun and colorful and flavorful and everyone cant' help but have a good time.

Hope this posting gave you some good ideas for some menu ideas at your home. And make sure to stop in and have a glass of wine and some delicious food at Los Olivos Cafe next time you stop through.

No comments: