Wednesday, August 29, 2012

No. 222: Passporting My Way Through Santa Barbara's Urban Wine Trail . . .

I'm no stranger to Santa Barbara, but in past years, it's really a pitstop city where I go to grab a quick bite, admire the coastal views, and then move on for my final destination (whether visiting friends in UCSB, actually a little further north on the 101 in Goleta, touring & tasting my way through the Santa Maria & Santa Ynez wine countries or steadily making my way towards Monterey, Santa Cruz and the Bay Area.)

But last month, my friend had a summer wedding in nearby Carpinteria, so I took the occasion to spend a weekend in Santa Barbara and really check it out.

Little did I know that it was also Passport Weekend in the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail, where for $50 I can taste my way around the city's 15-20 wineries and tasting rooms from Friday to Sunday (and getting my passport stamped along the way,) along with a glass to keep & 10% discount off bottle purchases. Considering a flight at each of these venues run $10-20, it sounded like a great deal, so I snapped up a ticket  and took myself on an urban hike & sip.

And while I only wound up checking out a dozen wineries over the three-day period, I did discover some new favorite spots, including:

Kunin Wines

Kunin Tasting Room 
I loved the clean, sleek look of its tasting room and that it's one of few to offer an all-white/rosé tasting flight (much welcomed after walking around in 90-degree heat.) The pourer was also remarkably friendly, offering me locals' pointers about other places to try (and avoid!)

Kunin Wines 
My favorite of the five was its 2010 Alisos Vineyard Gewurztraminer, which has a sweet, floral, peachy aroma but is rather dry on the palate and just a hint of richness from a few months in oak (but far from being the crazy-buttered-toasty mess associated with California Chardonnays.) It was also one of two bottles I actually snapped up.

Municipal Winemakers
Municipal Wine Tasting Room 
In short -- the hipster paradise of wineries in Santa Barbara. And I don't mean that in a bad way, it's simply impossible to not walk into this space without the H-word screaming in your face. (In my best Stefan voice) the hottest place in town is MUNICIPAL - walk on in and you'll see tank-topped, tattooed pourers dishing about Instagram photos, wines-on-tap dispensed from a trophy, tasting glasses stored in filing cabinets, and look over there, is that a yeti? No, it's a guy coming in for his bottle order with his unshusky. What is an unshusky, you ask? Unshaven husky, and boy is it panting hard after coming in from the heatwave. *Ahem*

That being said, the space is wickedly fun change of pace from the typically stoic tasting rooms. And if you got a group of friends (hipster or not,) it's a great place to mellow out and drink away--they let you bring food in and their tasty wines-on-tap are reasonably priced by the glass or liter-sized carafes. Their red-on-tap of the moment, MSG (a blend of Mouvedre-Syrah-Grenache) is my fave, easily drinkable on its own but also great with a burger or nicely-charred grilled foods.

Deep Sea Wines
Deep Sea Wines 
I've checked out their wines before @ their events down in L.A. and do like some of their offerings, so I already planned on visiting them. But what really made me ecstatic is that their tasting room is right out on Stearn's Wharf. Coupled with their late-ish closing time, it gave me the pleasure of wine-tasting to a coastal sunset.

Of the flight, my favorite were the Flower Rosé and Central Coast Viognier, both delicate, crisp wines that exhibit lovely sweet fruit aromas, but with a remarkably dry and almost-minerally palate--perfect for summer sipping!

Whitcraft Winery
Whitcraft Winery 
Ok, while I wasn't WOW'd by any of their wines, the flight here does offer a fun & educational experience. Specializing in Pinot Noirs from various regions, I love the flight highlights the terroir's influence on the grape -- since we tasted the same varietal from Mendocino, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Alas, my favorite of the set turned out to be the Grenache, which has soft tannins and an acidity that's bright without being puckery.

Cottonwood Canyon Winery
Cottonwood Canyon 
This is likely my favorite find since it's so hole-in-the-wall compared to the other wineries & tasting rooms. And they also offer a myriad of bites to go with their wine flights (which changes regularly, depending on what estate bottle(s) the pourer feels like opening that day.) It could be a bite of cracker and cheese to go with an older-vintage Chardonnay, some of their spicy housemade pickles alongside their peppery Pinot Noir, or a chocolate truffle with their Syrah & dessert wine.

But despite all the specialty, estate offerings being poured, my favorite (and the other bottle that I actually bought) is their standard line Bistro Classic Chardonnay, which upon immediate tasting I've deemed an 'oyster wine' because of its slight effervescence and a fantastic combo of lemon-citrus and stoney-mineral notes, plus a medium body that I'd imagine to be perfect  with the oyster's creamy-rich flesh.

And while tasting the wines was a big part of the fun, I also loved that it gave me the chance to hike through Santa Barbara and really explore its city, from the main drag of State Street . . .

SB Farmers Market 
. . . to its vibrant farmer's market, where I snapped up some incredibly-sweet and beautifully garnet-hued pluots . . .

Walking Along Shore 
. . . and up and down its picturesque coastline . . .
Dusk @ Stearns Wharf 
. . . finishing off at Stearns Wharf, where I treated myself to a view and some great seafood from Santa Barbara Shellfish Co.

Of course, I also tasted some incredible bites throughout the city too, but that'll be for another post in the near future.
Urban Wine Trail Sign 
And I hope Passport Weekend (this was its inaugural year) makes a comeback in the future too.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

No. 221: Trattoria Neapolis (Pasadena)

Whereas some neighborhoods are known to be dining meccas or going through a culinary renaissance, Pasadena can't quite seem to shake off its reputation of being a dine-out "food desert". Sure there are a few gems here and there in the 'dena (Intelligentsia for a good cup 'o joe and some quick bites, Raymond/1886 for some fab cocktails and a lovely brunch, and Haven for my tastiest lamb burger in So Cal, as well as my occasional Tender Greens excursion when I want something quick and wholesome,) but the heavy traffic areas of Old Town, South Lake District and the Paseo (which I still remember as the all-indoors Pasadena mall from earlier times) is generally marked by "just OK" restaurants and a slew of chains.

Interior 1
So I received Trattoria Neapolis' arrival to the scene with both excitement and skepticism... on paper the menu looked great. Heck, I was enthralled enough by drinks alone, with its cocktail program by Copa d'Oro's Vincenzo Marianella, beers curated by The Beer Chicks, and wines selected by 4th level sommelier Diego Meraviglia. Pair that with a creative Cal-Italian themed menu (incl. items such as lobster aracini with Eureka lemon aioli, grilled summer vegetable lasagna and wood-grilled Wagyu flatiron with a porcini BBQ sauce) and you got got one very intrigued diner.

I had attended a media preview dinner, which went well (Gourmet Pigs captured that experience here) but I really want to capture in true action after its opening. Thanks to a pair of birthday events in July with fairly adventurous diners, I was able to make two return trips here.

Simply put, they really live up to their claims and I'm thrilled for its presence in the Pasadena dining scene.
Interior 3 Interior 2
To start off, they made a phenomenal use of the space -- with an semi-outdoor garden area out front (that's wonderfully lit by the skylight and would be great setting for a daytime meal), an interior corridor of a dining area with great views of the bar and fairly open kitchen (centerpieced by its behemoth of a wood-fired oven) and an upstairs private dining area flanked by bottles of rare wine.) The multiple-spaces in one set up kind of reminds me of the decor at Campanile and the Strand House, and is actually rather smart from an aesthetic and functional viewpoint (the designers even soundproof the ceiling tiles to avoid the overly loud acoustics associated with other high-ceiling restaurants, that I'm deeming "the Bottega Louie effect".)
Beer, Wine, Cocktails
And true to the respective beverage directors' reputations, the drinks here--beer, wine and cocktail--were superb, which personally astounds me since it's incredibly rare for the find a place that does all three well, and within a reasonable budget too (here's their standard drinks menu w prices, for those with posher pockets -- here's the full drinks list with more decadent beverages, including a $85 Arroyo Seco made with 25 year-old Highland Park Scotch and a $125 Tactical Nuclear Penguin beer double barrel-aged in Scotch casks and clocking in at a crazy 32% ABV.)
As for me, while I like their Millionaire cocktail (Appleton Extra with Marie Brizard Apry, Lime Juice and Sloe Gin) and Bootlegger's Golden Chaos Ale, may favorite is easily . . .
Port O' Call
. . . The Port O' Call, a dessert cocktail whimsically named after the San Pedro village and combining Port wine with fino sherry, Diplomatico rum and orange bitters. Despite being listed on the after-dinner drinks menu with the desserts, this cocktail is not particularly sweet-tasting at all, the texture and actual flavor is more like a smooth Manhattan (maybe with a hint of wine notes from the port and sherry,) it only smells sweeter and fruitier.

As for the food, they were all on the scale from decent to magnificent. And that's taking into the factor that I'm usually not a big secondi person (and still found the aforementioned grilled steak, along with roasted black cod with charred corn and manila clam broth, heavenly.) Having disclosed my biases, my favorites are definitely on the appetizer-pasta-pizza realm, including:
Salumi Platter
Assorted Salumi Platter ($13) - I simply loved the variety that you get for the price, with 4-5 different meats (at least one of which is made in-house) along with some tasty accompaniments, such as a sweet-tart cherry compote to balance the saltiness of the meats, and warm gnocchi friti that tastes like a savory doughnut, all brightened up with some frisee and housemade pickles.
Roasted Garlic Gnocchi w Pork Shoulder
Aragosta ($19/32) & Gnocchi ($9/16) - I love that half-orders are available for most pasta dishes here, since that lets my table companions and I to try a lot more in one sitting. And the aragosta & gnocchi are very different dishes, but equally delicious. The former features perfectly al dente bucatini with tender chunks of lobster, tossed in a bright and zesty blend of tomatoes, chilies and lobster sauce. On the other hand, the gnocchi has a lot more grounded, rustic flavors, the fluffy pasta themselves are infused with roasted garlic, and it is accompanied with smoked pork shoulder, asparagus and artichoke. The vegetables are crisp and flavorful, but it still provides a more homely, earthy character -- especially when compared to the Aragosta.
Funghi Pizza
Prosciutto Pizza
For the pizzas, while my friends are gaga over the Funghi--which I do like too--I personally love the Prosciutto ($13) one a lot more, which is topped the ribbony meat alongside smoked mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes and wild arugula (and some shaved parmesan to boot). It made for a festive flavor combination in my mouth, a little tang here, a tinge of cheesy smokiness there, an occasional peppery bite and a good dose of luxurious ham too--all enhanced by a crust that's delightfully crispy & barely charred outside, quickly giving way to a chewy-yet-tender interior.
Non-Traditional Tiramisu
Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta
Of course, given my sweet jaws, there is no holding back on ordering desserts (even if I did order the Port O'Call) -- the ones I liked best were the Not-So-Traditional Tiramisu and Greek Yogurt-Honey Panna Cotta (both $9), both being fresh creative spins of familiar Italian-y sweets. The former swapped out the coffee elements with roasted peach, caramel and pecans -- and I liken it more to a caramelly peach shortcake than anything else, and it's a great lighter, seasonal spin on a dessert that's usually more heavy. Likewise, while panna cotta is already kind of light, it was further brightened with a infusion of tangy Greek yogurt, apricot granita and a basil sauce. One almost feels healthy eating this (ok, maybe the candied hazelnuts made it just a tad sinful...)

So there you have it; at last, a spot in Pasadena for great drinks and eats (I personally can't wait till they launch lunch & *crossing fingers* a happy hour,) here's hoping this is the start of a restaurant renaissance in Pasadena!

What Do Others Say?
- Thrillist called it an "awe-inspiring, two-story ode to Italy, with a crazy-diverse interior"
- Gastronomy noted that "while the pastas were mostly good, it was the pizza that really made the night for me."
- Pasadena Now predicted that "residents can expect Trattoria Neapolis to be a welcome - and unique - addition to the local dining scene."
- Oolong milk tea was surprised, noting she "definitely did not think I would like it as much as I did . . . Props to Neapolis for getting it right during the 1st week of their opening!"

336 S Lake Ave
Pasadena, CA 91101
(626) 792-3000


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