Friday, January 23, 2009

Epiphany in Santa Barbara

Epiphany Restaurant and Bar

Where: 21 W. Victoria Street, 805-564-7100

What: New American cuisine that, like America, takes its inspiration from the best the world has to offer to create exciting combinations

How much? Appetizers from $7-$19; Entrees from $21-$32; Desserts from $8-$12

The dish: Epiphany is not the place to take your loud-talking, hard-of-hearing grandparents, but perfect for a date night intended to win big points with a significant other--and with your credit card’s rewards program.

Since the Independent doesn’t pay for dinners, just the reviews of them, I went to Epiphany with a few financial backers (aka. very supportive family members) since it is one of the more expensive restaurants in town. I haven’t been very impressed with Santa Barbara’s pricey places—the only restaurant in the County that did impress me is Ballard Inn, and that’s, well, in Ballard. However, Epiphany is one of the few high priced Santa Barbara experiences that is worth the money.

My aunt and uncle arrived first, and reported that the instant they walked through the door, before the momentum of walking up the short steps even slowed, the hostess apologized for keeping them waiting (waiting?) and showed them to their choice of tables. At 6pm on a Saturday night, the place was almost empty. When I arrived with my Mother a few minutes later, I saw only one other couple in the front room, canoodling in a dimly lit corner.

As I walked up the front step to the house-sized door, I instinctively looked for a doorbell and felt a hesitancy like I was outside a private home, which is exactly what the building was in the 1800s when Santa Barbara’s first female doctor lived there. The interior also has that house-feel, with dark oak floors that look like they’d creak but don’t, and brick walls that are unadorned with artwork or draperies. The minimalist décor makes the most of the red brick archways and square windows painted white, lit by candlelight and simple sconces. From my vantage point by the white fireplace, I could see the light from the kitchen fires flickering orange on the far wall and across the white tablecloths.

The restaurant is deceptively large. From the entrance and front room where we sat, the two rooms appeared to be the whole dining space. However, Epiphany also has a bar area, secluded dining nooks, and a patio where they serve cigars along with port, brandy, and late night snacks (like parmesan truffle fries…yum).

The Service
When I go to a fancy restaurant, I almost expect the wait staff to do their jobs like poltergeists, barely visible. The kind of service that, through sleight of hand, disappears your plates, replaces them with others, and refills your wine glass without you noticing they were there. But our waitress, Devon, was fun from beginning to end. Her over-careful pronunciation of the Japanese, French and Italian names on the dinner and wine menus was so studied--I’m sure I couldn’t have done better. She did however, manage to refill our wine glasses so often and so subtly, that we all drank a bit more than intended—which was in no way detrimental to the evening. The wine list includes a number of local wines, like Lafond and Foley, as well as imported bottles with various French-sounding names. Most bottles are surprisingly affordable; our Foley Chardonnay was $40 (it costs around $30 at BevMo).

Devon’s pronunciations struck me as funny, not because they were wrong, but because they were very correct. One of the hallmarks of native Santa Barbarans is how we routinely force our own pronunciations onto foreign words; so much so that if you pronounce any of the street names in correct Spanish, no one will understand you. Similarly, Pierre Lafond has a pronounced “D” on the end, instead of the nasal, le francais “Lafon’,” which our waitress anxiously attempted. Lafond has been a Santa Barbara fixture for years through his restaurants and more recent wine-making, so I’m sure by now he even pronounces his name the Santa Barbara way. No need to Francophile it up for us locals. As the evening went on, Devon got less stiffly formal and was a completely charming and very attentive hostess. Though she did get a bit worried when she realized I was writing everything down for my Indy review. No, I never tell the restaurants I’m reviewing them, but observant people tend to catch on when they see a notebook and pen at the ready.

The Food
The attention lavished on each carefully prepared morsel makes the meal worth the cost.
Every evening, the chef creates a small amuse bouche for the first course which is served with herbed bread baked fresh each morning. Our amuse bouche were wafer-thin slices of Granny Smith apples topped with creamy brie, truffle honey and candied walnuts, and the toasted table bread smelled like rosemary and lavender. For an appetizer, we split the filet mignon carpaccio four ways which was a lovely light way to begin our evening of eating. I’m not a carpaccio expert, but I was told by my Uncle, who is, that this was an excellent one.

Our entrees brought together continents. We ordered five for four people because we all wanted to try the Kobocha squash in pasta purses (agnolotti) dressed with a light citrus sauce. We ordered the lamb spiced with North African ras al hanout, served over parsnip mash with a sweet pomegranate reduction; the slightly crispy and thick duck breast with foie risotto and dark rich cherry sauce; and the smaller portioned gnocchi, for my mother, who is constantly on a diet. The truth is, I can’t remember the gnocchi, because my attention was focused entirely on the Kobocha, duck steaks (they shouldn’t be called breasts, more like duck mignon) and the lamb.

We split a couple desserts: the Baily’s cheese cake with orange zest, topped with blueberries, and on the recommendation of our waitress, tried the vanilla and lavender crème brulee. Devon’s preamble to the crème brulee is what sold us on trying it. She said “the gentlemen generally don’t want to order the crème brulee because they’re afraid of losing their masculinity; but if they’re brave enough to try it, they’ll love it.” Even for my Mother, who doesn’t like crème brulee and shuns fatty cream in general, the crème brulee was a surprising hit. This is crème brulee like you’ve never had it before; it’s what crème brulee should be—I might even call it, an Epiphany.

You should eat:
Filet Mignon Carpaccio: seasonal greens, parmesan, sherry vinaigrette, truffle oil. $14
Kobocha Squash Agnolotti with yuzu thyme brown butter sauce and pecans $21
Duck Duo, pan seared breast, confit, foie risotto, sour cherry gastrique $28
Grilled Lamb Rack dusted with ras al hanout, served with roasted garlic parsnip mash, pomegranate reduction and candied pistashios $30
Vanilla and Lavendar Crème Brulee

You should drink:
Foley 2005 Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills, Rancho Santa Rosa $40

Monday, January 19, 2009

The other half of my Fulfilled blogpost

As promised, here is what LA2Day's Wayward Foodie, Sarika Chawla, had to say on our foray into the far East on the West side: Is the Wayward Foodie Turning Japanese? We Really Think So.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Kauai is Calling

The weather is so dry now that I can feel microscopic pieces of my skin lifting up and leaving my body on the wind, like one of those Mummy movies where the dried up creature disintegrates before the eyes of shocked adventurers. That’s me right now.

And I am obsessed with the idea of humid tropical climes that smell of plumeria and salt. Of sand that radiates undulating heat as it gently dips down under clear water. Of snorkeling with colorful fish- did you know they like cheese-wiz?- and darting through the water with the help of powerful plastic fins that force you to clumsily walk backwards in and out of the waves. I want to spend a couple hours on a beach towel under palm trees, listening to the waves and writing down original descriptions of tropical paradise – no more “lush,” “tropical,” “jungle,” “azure,” and “crystalline waters” for me. I could ditch those overdone words and think up clever phrases to capture the glorious feeling of sun, salt and sand on skin.

I want to go to Kauai. Badly.

So I’ve done some research, and it turns out that the perfect time to go is during the first two weeks of April, or the last two weeks of May through the first week of June. This avoids the summer rush of Americans, and the mid-April to mid-May rush of Japanese tourists on holiday. In other words, it’s the off-season. And while rates don’t really ever plunge in Hawaii, they subtly bob their heads for these few weeks in Spring. Memorial Day serendipitously lands on the last Monday of May, which means I’d have to spend one less precious vacation day, and fixes my target dates from Saturday, May 23rd through Saturday, June 6th. So why haven’t I bought my tickets yet?

The boyfriend…

Wants to go to Yosimite in May and hike up Half-Dome with his friend. He wants to camp in early spring weather that is so cold that some campers leave after a few days, even though they made their reservations 6 months in advance, and try and book at a hotel. Spring, when bears are hungry from their long winter hibernations, when some passes are still closed to cars due to snow. And he wants to camp. To add injury to irritation, he wants to hike Half-Dome, a 8,842ft tall granite rock, even though he is in no better shape than I am. All of this I would support…from my hotel room anyways…if it weren’t SMACK in the middle of my Hawaiian vacation. And that Half-dome hike takes a full day, from 5am to 6pm, which does not sound fun to me. Wandering around by myself waiting for the boyfriend to come back for that full day (if he comes back) does not sound fun either. That’s one day, at ~$100 per night, of my precious little vacation time. Or I could sit home.

Maybe there's a third option - there is an inexplicably placed holiday on March 30th that might make it possible for me to go to Kauai through the first two weeks of April. This avoids the last two weeks of April when the Japanese tourists make their annual holiday migration, and it's the start of Hawaii's dry season (when it rains *less*).

Monday, January 12, 2009

I Made a Top Ten List

The very intelligent staff at Peter Greenberg Worldwide put together a list of their Top Ten most popular articles, feature stories, videos and slideshows, and one of mine is Number 6! Did I mention they have *great* taste?

Yeah, I'm gloating. Gotta find a good way to write this on my resume...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Un-Fulfilled: Epic Fail in my Kitchen

For those of you who know me, you know I am a darn good cook and fairly fearless in the kitchen. I don't fail often. In fact, I've failed precisely three times in my life-- once trying to make meringue cookies (my boyfriend's mother makes the best); my first waffle; and now with Imagawa-yaki.

I found the pan in Little Tokyo on Friday at Anzen Hardware & Supply Co. It's an unusual shop; long, narrow, musty, with strange bits of metal and wood scattered in dusty boxes, large chef's knives in a glass case, and walls stacked with shelves overflowing with interesting bits of clutter. Imagine you shrank to about 2 inches tall and got lost in your kitchen drawer- the one with all the obscure instruments that people would puzzle over if they found them at a garage sale- and that is what this shop is. After asking the owner, and being pointed in the right direction five times ("that there? This one? Where?") I found the elusive cast-iron Imagawa-yaki pan. I felt very proud of myself.
I seasoned it just like Martha Stewart told me to, and this morning made my first and second attempts at this traditional Japanese...ahem..."comfort food."

It started out well...

I decided to go with a sweet one, and used meyer lemon and blueberry waffle mix. The filling was cream cheese mixed with sugar and vanilla, and fresh blueberries.
It started out well. I filled the little cups with batter, gently laid little balls of filling in the middle...

And then they started overflowing, and since flipping them was out of the question, I decided to make scrambled pancakes. Scrambled pancakes are not good.

My second attempt at least did not end up in the frying pan. I filled the cups about half-way this time, and when I saw the bubbles-of-done-ness coming up, spent many laborious minutes carefully prying them from the sides with my pick, and slowly, gently, laid one half on top of the other with a fork. Still, not pretty.

I think I'll leave this to the pros for now--and I'm going out to breakfast today.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Fulfilled in Beverly Hills

Last night I got to tag along with LA2Day’s “Wayward Foodie”, Sarika Chawla, to Fulfilled in Beverly Hills. Since she was doing research for her next article, I decided out of professional courtesy to restrain myself from asking questions, taking notes, and flirting with the young, good-looking owner, Susumu Tsuchihashi. My journalistic sensibilities said those privileges were her turf for the evening. She’s married and I have a boyfriend, but flirting with interviewees is all part of the job (a fun part of the job) in my opinion. But, I had to settle for making love to the Japanese pastries, called Imagawa-yaki, which I did with gluttonous abandon.
Going out on an interview with a more experienced food writer, I was curious to check out her technique. I was dismayed to find that while I carry a crumpled list of questions dampened by perspiring palms to my interviews, Sarika needed no such crutch. She took few notes and interjected insightful questions seemingly off the top of her head, absorbing the details without having to write them down word-for-word. Ok, enough of my journalistic jealousy.

Imagawa-yaki, which Fulfilled’s owner shortens to “Ima” for the linguistically challenged, is like a biscuit-shaped pancake filled with any sweet or savory things you can think of. They make them right in front of you on hinged pans with round indentations for the batter. The batter is poured into both sides and the filling is added in a ball on top before the whole contraption is quickly slammed shut like book and left to cook for 4 minutes. The real bummer is that these special pans came straight from Japan (after a lengthy process of being tested for use by the U.S. government) and aren’t easy to find here-- though I'm checking out Anzen Hardware in Little Tokyo today, because I can't resist the challenge.

We started with the savory menu and opted for the “Green Ninja” with spinach, feta cheese and sundried tomato, and the “Sumo Italiano” with prosciutto, ham, parmesan and basil. They came out hot, placed in little individual baggies with the ingredients and reheating instructions, and smelled delicious. Now, one of the nice things about being a journalist is that you can stuff every bit of printed paper into your pocket without feeling like a kleptomaniac, so as I sit here writing this, I have both bags in front of me—and let me tell you, they still smell amazing. Like cotton candy and waffles. Yes, I’m sitting here sniffing yesterday’s paper bags. I love my job.
After blissfully noshing on the savories, Sarika and I sagely decided to split a few sweet Imagawa-yakis so our New Years resolutions wouldn’t be completely obliterated only 8 days into 2009.

Even though the “Karaoke Kitty,” with strawberry, cream cheese, and Ghirardelli white chocolate looked like the easy-winner, we had to sample the traditional “Sweet Geisha,” filled with Japanese Azuki bean…and the “Honey Yakuza” with goat cheese, mission fig, honey, walnut and cracked black pepper, and the custard-filled Ima. Yeah, we got all four. The Karaoke Kitty is Paris Hilton’s favorite, and the owner and manager told us that the paparazzi line up outside their store when she comes in. She likes Karaoke Kitty because it’s pink, like the majority of her wardrobe. The paparazzi have taken quite a few pictures of her carrying the signature Fulfilled take-home boxes, and even have some pics of her eating – I didn’t know she was into that. Eating, I mean.

As for Sarika and I, we were surprised to find that our favorite was the traditional Adzuki bean filled Ima. Just as I was halfway into my pastry--my eyes dizzily unfocused as all sense awareness was redirected to my tongue--it occurred to me that this particular Ima was satisfying. Not filling, but like mulled wine on a cold English day, or macaroni and cheese at a summer BBQ—just right. The owner interrupted my beany reverie by explaining that Imagawa-yaki is Japanese comfort food that has been around since the early 1800’s. That’s it. This is comfort food. However, you won’t find chicken-apple-sausage, pepper jack cheese and cilantro filled Imagawa-yaki in Tokyo. Fulfilled has taken the traditional pastry and played with combining European, western, and eastern flavors—and it is play. The owner and manager, old friends, have fun coming up with new ideas for the menu and add something new each month. Fearless experimentation with food is a Japanese tradition that far pre-dates these 200 year old goodies.

I’m sure Sarika’s Wayward Foodie article will cover the owner’s story, and it’s a good one. I will post it here when it’s up on the LA2Day website.

Fulfilled Store hours are 10:30 AM - 8:00 PM Daily.
9405 S. Santa Monica Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210