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‘Tis the Season

Ahhh, the holidays, that wonderful time of the year when extreme overindulgence is socially acceptable and highly encouraged. Our first memorable gastronomic experience during the month of December came to us courtesy of Vina Robles. While on a mid-summer visit to Paso to see my brother Mike and his fam, we’d joined their wine club. Since then, we’ve enjoyed several visits to their tasting room, but our most recent, to attend one of Vina Robles’ pick-up parties, has been the best so far.

Surprisingly, this was our first time attending a pick-up party, ever. A typical wine club benefit, it’s always sounded good to us in theory: sample the wines and save on shipping costs in the process, usually with some good food and music thrown in to boot. But despite the many clubs we’ve belonged to offering this perk, for some reason or another—too busy, too tired, conflicting plans—we’ve yet to attend any of them.

So it was with much anticipation that we looked forward to our experience at Vina Robles: not only were we getting the chance to sample the three hearty reds in our holiday shipment—hopefully preventing us from popping those suckers open soon after they hit our doorstep—but we’d also been promised an intriguing pairing of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches created by their on-site chef.

Upon entering the winery’s spacious tasting room, we were surprised to see it relatively empty—definitely unexpected given the packed parking lot outside. But after checking in and moving toward their banquet hall, we found that room packed solid with other club members. Granted, due to our long drive up, we did arrive about an hour into the party. But that actually turned out to be a good thing: no waiting, as we stepped right up to the first table in the room to receive our initial gift of the evening.

Our first pairing was their 2008 Suendero, a Meritage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, accompanied by a grilled gruyere and leek sandwich that was topped with a wine-infused fondue of some sort. The mild, yet flavorful red went beautifully with the creamy, slightly sweet filling of the crispy sandwich. And things only got better from there.

Our second duo was the 2008 Signature, a blend of Petit Verdot (83%), Petite Sirah (15%) and Cabernet (2%), served with another knockout sando—although I’m ashamed to admit, other than the caramelized onions—which were amazing—I can’t quite recall what was in it. Meat, most definitely, although there was some debate on the drive home as to whether it was shaved prime rib (as I thought) or pork (as others at the table said). Regardless, it was absolutely delicious, served with a small side of vinaigrette glazed spinach (which Mike devoured—surprising, because he loathes spinach).

But the best was definitely yet to come: our final tasting, the 2008 Fore Petite Sirah, paired with an open-faced grilled gorgonzola with pancetta, sundried tomato and arugula. Petite Sirah is fast becoming one of my favorite varietals; as of late, a lot of Paso winemakers seem to be discovering and doing great things with it. If big, bold, jammy, fruit-forward wines appeal to you, then Vina Robles’ Fore is definitely one to add to your collection (be warned, however, that the price is a bit on the steep side).

Definitely one of the most enjoyable aspects of the evening was the group at our table, many of whom, it turns out, work for the winery in a part-time capacity. In fact, one couple, originally from Arizona, had discovered Vina Robles while on vacation; after relocating here a year or so ago, both husband and wife now work in the tasting room. Clearly, after attending this event, it only confirmed that in addition to the great wines it’s producing, Vina Robles is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to event planning. In addition to the fantastic food and wine, there was a photo booth, spectacular shots of the Swiss Alps projected on a big screen at the front of the banquet hall (the owner is from Switzerland), and a champagne toast toward the end of the evening. Our new friends from the tasting room also let us in on a little secret: that the winery plans to break ground soon for an onsite amphitheater.

Needless to say, it was a wonderful way to launch the holiday season, and well worth the hour’s drive up and back at the end of a long work week. Already looking forward to their next pick-up party—though I must say the bar’s been set pretty high, indeed.

A Memorable Feast

Today’s post isn’t something new to me, but I write about it anyway in the hope that I can introduce something new to my readers—should there still be any left out there, that is—especially those who reside here on the Central Coast.

Last night Mike and I splurged on an OUTSTANDING dinner at Central City Market. While I’ve eaten at CCM quite frequently for lunch, it’s only the second time we’ve stopped in for dinner. My own laziness is usually to blame—after all, on the rare occasion that we go out for dinner these days, it’s generally easier, and faster, to pop down the street to Old Town Orcutt and hit Rooney’s or Trattoria Uliveto—both of which are very solid choices as well.

Anyhow, last night we decided to hit CCM for the second time in a few months—the deciding factor, admittedly, being that I had a discount certificate from Central Coast’s Finest. Our meal there a few months ago was quite good, but last night’s really blew me away. Mike decided on the short ribs—the smoky meat literally falling off the bone—which was served over the creamiest bed of mashed potatoes ever, with a side of sautéed mushrooms. I decided on the fried chicken, which had been strongly recommended on our previous visit. It’s the very rare occasion when I order chicken at a restaurant—but I must say this was probably the BEST fried chicken I’ve ever had, next to the one at Art Smith’s Table Fifty-Two in Chicago—and alas, as Mike had ordered that dish and hates to share, I only got to enjoy a few bites of that.

At CCM, the chef serves two perfectly crispy chicken breast halves atop a bed of mashed sweet potatoes and green beans; for the finishing touch, the plate is drizzled with some sort of honey glaze. I don’t know what was in the batter—but the seasoning was amazing and somehow it maintained its crunch throughout the entire meal. The dish overall was rather sweet—but I love sweet, so for me it worked; plus the savoriness of the chicken helped to balance everything out. To round it all out, we also had a mixed basket of bread with salted butter (I especially love their flatbreads) and a side of truffled mac-n-cheese. The amuse bouche of warm artichoke atop a sundried tomato flatbread, which started us off, was also a nice touch.

Since we couldn’t possibly manage dessert afterward, we took some home: a slice of their seasonal pumpkin cheesecake. And it was heavenly: super spicy, creamy deliciousness. Luckily there’s still a bit of it leftover for tonight😛

Central Coast peeps—if you aren’t already eating at Central City Market, you need to get down to Santa Maria and give it a try ASAP. Granted, the location is a little off-putting (it’s in the mall), but once cozily inside its charming, dimly lit, umbrella filled atrium, you’ll be transported. Service is super-friendly and efficient, and for the caliber of food you’re getting, prices are quite reasonable.

Oh, they also have a very nice selection of Central Coast wines, with several (Tolosa Cabernet, Curtis Red Cuvee) going for under $20. Seriously, when’s the last time you saw a bottle of wine at that price in a restaurant?!

Remembering 9/11

Ten years ago today, when I arrived at Heathrow Airport in the wee hours of the morning, I was fulfilling a lifelong dream. Little did I know that in just a few short hours, my homeland would be under attack and thousands of innocent people would be senselessly murdered by terrorists.

Ten years ago today, I was in the back of a double-decker tour bus circling the busy streets of London. I should have been enjoying the sights, but overwhelmed with exhaustion, I began to nod off. Overhearing two other tourists talking about a plane crash in the U.S. roused me somewhat, but it wasn’t until a woman revealed that one of the World Trade Center’s towers had collapsed that I snapped instantly awake. Suddenly, it seemed, chaos ensued. Emergency vehicles screamed through the previously crowded, but relatively quiet streets. Our bus driver announced that all vehicles were being called back to the main station; our tour was cancelled. We circled back to our first stop to disembark.

Ten years ago today, I walked the city streets of London, lost and confused. Despite being armed with a decent map, I kept wandering in circles. Chalk it up to the unfamiliarity of a new place and continued disorientation from my long day of traveling; shock likely played a part as well. But eventually I made it back to my hotel, initially stopping at the pub next door to seek out the evening news. I found comfort in a roomful of people, even though I didn’t know anyone, speak to anyone, just stared up at the television screen in the corner and watched in horror and disbelief, as the rest of the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

Ten years ago today, I returned to my hotel room, continued watching the news, cried. I fell asleep, only to be awakened by an emergency phone call from my dad, checking in to make sure I was alright. Asking, did I want to come home? But all of the airports were closed, both in London and the States. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.

Ten years ago today, I’d never felt so alone and so scared. But in the days that followed, life went on, things got easier. People speculated that as ally to the U.S. and home to Parliament, London could be next. Security was heightened, but ultimately, nothing happened. And as I continued my travels, one day at a time, despite my fear and loneliness, I met others from home–and other countries as well–who shared their stories, listened to mine, and extended their sympathies. It was a sad time, but it was also a time during which people and communities came together. It was a time of putting things in perspective and recognizing what’s really important in life.

Ten years later, I know that my experience pales in comparison to those who lost friends and loved ones on September 11, 2001. But many of the lessons I learned from that day—and the days that followed—are just as important today as they were a decade ago. In honor of those who were lost, take a moment to pause, reflect and remember. God bless America.

Unrivaled Hospitality

A few weeks ago, my sweetie and I popped down for an overnight in West Hollywood. It was an amazing–albeit too short–weekend, and one of its many highlights was our hotel, Andaz on Sunset Boulevard, which I think has forever changed my view of what a stellar hotel experience should be.

In booking our stay—which I agonized over, so many great choices, but oh, so expensive—I consulted one of my go-to guides, Trip Advisor, where the hotel received a #1 rating and countless glowing reviews. It sounded a bit too good to be true, but given its prime location and the fact that we could book a free night using one of Mike’s reward cards, we decided to give it a try. Having stayed at my share of nice hotels over the years, I was still a bit skeptical though. Could all those amazing reviews be true? Would staying at Andaz really be such a remarkable experience?

I’m happy to say, it was! From the moment we arrived, we were immediately impressed with the outstanding level of customer service. Everyone we interacted with–from the valet to the check-in staff and concierge, restaurant staff to our poolside bartender–was friendly, accommodating and genuine.

Some other unexpected, but wonderful perks we enjoyed while staying there:
• Free non-alcoholic beverages (bottled water, soda, teas & juice)
• Free snacks in the room (pop chips, trail mix & snack bars)
• Coffee bar and light breakfast fare in the morning (pastries & fruit)
• Online check-in and check-out. In fact we were able to ‘check-in’ while still on the road! Upon arrival, there’s no front desk, you relax in their spacious, modern lobby and the check-in staff comes to you with a handheld ‘puter.
• Evening wine reception
• A lovely—albeit tiny—rooftop pool area with amazing views of Los Angeles and the Hollywood hills
• RH, the onsite restaurant: expensive but worth it!

View from the Rooftop

Oh, and the rooms were gorgeous too: spacious and very comfortable, with the hillside and several quirky, gargantuan homes as our backdrop.

View from our Room

Andaz is part of the Hyatt hotel chain; we discovered during our stay that there are only a few other locations (San Diego, New York and London), but more are on the way (hello, Costa Rica!). Here’s hoping that other hotel chains will take note of, and follow, their lead. In the meantime, I’m looking for any excuse to return to the LA area, so that we might enjoy another stay there soon.

Waiting No Longer

I finally got around to watching Waiting for Superman.

I’m not sure what took me so long. Last fall when it first hit the big screen, it was both highly anticipated and well-reviewed. I counted down the days until its release date but then, for some reason or another, never had the time to go and see it. It was nominated for—although didn’t win—an Academy Award. When it became available on DVD, there was a long wait for it on Netflix, but by that point my interest had faded somewhat so I didn’t mind the wait. Eventually it arrived earlier this summer, then I let it sit on my coffee table for the next month and a half.

I don’t know why I waited so long to watch it, but I’m so glad I finally did.

The topic, the sorry state of America’s K-12 education system, is nothing new; I’ve been hearing about it since I was a kid. The statistics presented in the film are grim yet, at least for me, quickly forgotten—well, other than the fact that we’re close to dead last in nearly every subject. What really stands out are the stories of the children featured in this film. All except one are from inner cities and low income families, so the deck is definitely stacked against them. And yet, they’re young, hopeful, and still highly engaged in their education. Experiencing their pursuit to enter nearby charter schools by lottery—even though they and their parents know that the odds are slim—is nothing short of heartbreaking.

I’ve seen a few docs on K-12 education, but they featured a pretty strong political agenda: public schools and teachers unions bad, school choice—usually in the form of charter schools—is the answer. What I liked about this film was that it took more of a bipartisan approach: this is a problem that affects all of us, regardless of political affiliation. As for who’s to blame, the filmmaker doesn’t spend a lot of time finger-pointing—although to be sure, he’s not a big fan of the teachers union.

Essentially, his approach is to present the problem (the education system is failing our kids), then propose a solution. And that solution isn’t school choice–because as the film poignantly demonstrates, only a few lucky ones will get in. Furthermore, he admits that while some charter schools are excellent, there are many underperforming ones as well. Obviously, money isn’t the answer either.

But rather than spoil the ending and reveal it, I will simply urge you to watch the film for yourself. Then consider doing what you can to help; the film’s website includes a list of several possibilities.

And, if you’ve already seen it, let me know what you thought!

Spotlight on Spotify

I can’t believe it’s been a whole month since my last post. Yikes.

And it’s not like I haven’t had anything new to share or haven’t thought about blogging; I simply haven’t posted because I’ve been enjoying summertime and just too damn lazy to write about it.

So in an effort to get back in the swing of things, I thought I’d help spread the word about a music service I recently discovered called Spotify. Seems it’s been around for awhile in Europe, but was just recently launched here in the U.S. I figured it was a big deal when it appeared as Entertainment Weekly‘s Number 1 entry on its Must List a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t until I read this article via MoneyTalksNews that I really sat up and took notice. (Btw, this online newsletter is another awesome recent discovery, thanks to my sweetie!).

I’ve long been a fan of Pandora for free tunes, but Spotify offers something better: the ability to create your own playlists featuring only the songs you want, ensuring you don’t have to listen to that occasional, random, How the *$#%! did this song get on here?? selection that tends to pop up on Pandora. Sure, there’s still the occasional commercial, but so far they’ve been short and unobtrusive. I’ve only created two playlists so far, but each took only a few minutes, featured all of the tunes I was looking for, and best of all, it was totally FREE!! Of course it’s probably only a matter of time before I subscribe to their premium service as I listen to my tunes mostly through my iPhone. But at $10/month, this seems pretty reasonable considering that most new songs from iTunes run $1.29 per download. If you’re a frequent downloader of MP3s, definitely check this one out.

The MoneyTalks writer mentioned that it took a week to get his free Spotify invite; however mine only took a day to arrive, and Mike’s arrived almost instantly. Really, considering the cost involved just to try it, what do you have to lose?

I’ve come to count on Showtime for its excellent original series programming (Weeds, Californication, The Big C), but my current fave—which unfortunately aired its season finale last week—is Nurse Jackie. Each season just keeps getting better; the entire cast is outstanding and episodes will have you alternately laughing out loud, then reaching for the nearest box of tissue (but mostly the former).

Edie Falco, not surprisingly, is incredible: last year she won the outstanding lead actress Emmy (Comedy) for her role in the series. But her protégé Zoey (Merritt Wever) has also evolved into a force to be reckoned with and frequently steals the show. Here’s one of my favorite scenes from Season 3, featuring Jackie, Zoey, and Jackie’s BFF Dr. O’Hara (Eve Best):

If you aren’t already watching, you need to go and rent Season One…stat! As for me, I’ll be counting the days until next season’s premiere (sniff) in spring 2012.

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