Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ladies Who Lunch: Man With a Mission

I have passed through Santa Barbara numerous times on my way to destinations up the coast of California.  I have even stopped at and explored the Mission several times. Yet, I had never found Santa Barbara intriguing enough to actually stay and really explore it, despite the urgings of numerous friends.
Then a few weeks ago, two very close friends from Vegas planned a wine tasting trip to Santa Barbara and I was coerced into being part of the party.  The one friend had recently had her first child and this weekend was to celebrate the end of her abstaining from wine.  Big wine aficionados, they are the perfect couple to go tasting with and more friends came along to make it a very nice excursion.
After an afternoon of wine tasting at different wineries, we split up with plans to meet at a restaurant/wine store for some libations before heading off to another restaurant for dinner.  When we arrived at The Wine Cask, our pre-dinner meet up, the wonderful variety of wines and charming atmosphere initiated some musing on perhaps staying there for dinner. 

The restaurant section was historic and beautiful, with carved wood ceilings and a beautiful fireplace and they also had outdoor seating in the courtyard between the restaurant and wine shop.  As we were planning on just having some wine, we sat in the front of the wine shop in a long colonnade that had couches, chairs and a big coffee table.  It was all very informal and relaxing.  But the decisive factor on us canceling our other reservation and staying at The Wine Cask for dinner was the purchase of a 2001 magnum of Gaja  Sori San Lorenzo, a Nebbiolo/Barbera Italian wine from the Piedmont region.  Decanted and left to breathe, we started with a 2005 Palmina Nebbiola, a nice medium bodied wine and treated ourselves to a bottle of Ruinart Champagne Brut Rosé.  And yes, I am always a sucker for pink champagne!

We ordered an interesting array of appetizers for the whole table to share (seven of us). First up, we tried the Flatbread with Prosciutto, Arugula, Humboldt Fog cheese & Oven Dried Tomato.  I sampled a piece without the prosciutto, finding the crust of the flatbread to have a nice crispness and the melange of toppings a nice accompaniment to the wine. Next up, Short Rib Ravioli with a spicy tomato ragout, Fresh Dungeness Crab Cakes on a remoulade and Braised Kurobuta Pork Belly with Napa Cabbage, Almond Puree and kumquat Marmalade.  All fought over who would get the last bites, so I would say they were a hit! 

And finally in the cavalcade of appetizers, a good selection of veggie dishes. The ‘Confit’ of Artichoke Heart with Roasted Garlic Purée and Meyer Lemon Aioli was a cool and refreshing surprise. as was the Goat Cheese Stuffed Tempura Squash Blossoms, both perfect for a summer evening. Finally, we finished off the appetizers with a Mizuna Salad and a Farmer’s Market Mixed Greens Salad, which cleansed our palates for the Gaja wine that was now ready to serve.  We poured the wine and sampled it before the main courses arrived.  The Gaja was a nice oaky medium bodied wine with slight currant and berry flavors.  We all agreed it was a delightful wine.

The main courses ordered were not as varied as the appetizers, with three of the party ordering the Grilled New York Strip with Potato Purée, wild Mushrooms, grilled Spring Onion Tomato Confit, Mizuna and Port Roasted Shallot Sauce. All three agreed that the combination of flavors and sides enhanced the very tender beef. The one steak dissenter ordered the Steak Frites, a grilled flat-iron steak with garlic-seared broccolini, blue cheese, french fries with both a demiglace and chimichurri sauce.  A few at the table who tasted this dish proclaimed ti the winner of the evening, commenting that the blue cheese blended with the other sauces was right on. A summery combination of Braised Pork Shoulder with a white corn polenta, shrimp and a tomato-corn-cucumber salad was enjoyed by one of our gang, while the Wine Cask Cassoulet, a deconstructed version of the classic dish with the meats on the side was enjoyed by another.

The chef said that he would make a vegetarian dish for me, but I had already chosen some menu items that I really wanted to try.  I feted on a serving of sautéed Brussels Sprouts, wonderfully al dente and seasoned nicely and a serving of the Baked Mac ‘N Cheese with Gruyere, Cheddar and crisply topped with toasted bread crumbs. Not overly creamy, this Mac ‘N Cheese was very cheesy in texture and packed an intense Gruyere/Cheddar flavor that was really incredible.  It definitely goes up there with my all time favorite macaroni & cheeses.  I also wanted to sample the fries, so ordered a side dish of them  At first I was disappointed, as the fries were not really crisp and seamed to be little pieces and not full fries.  I told the server and they were whisked away and replaced with a fresh order that was perfect.
As usual, when it came to dessert time, we were all pretty sated.  We only ordered two desserts and everyone sampled a little of each  The Bread Pudding was nicely prepared, but what really made it special was the incredibly flavorful bourbon-salted caramel sauce. We also sampled a Mango Creme Brulée and a Chocolate Crème Brulée, both very creamy and light.

The staff were incredibly attentive and to have dinner outdoors in such a relaxed setting was the perfect end to a very pleasant day.  If only to go back to the Wine Cask, I would definitely pay Santa Barbara another visit. And if this remarkable find was discovered there, I can only wonder at what other hidden jewels this town has to offer.

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