Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gluten free Graduation

This past weekend was a lovely one spent with family and friends in Santa Barbara for my brother Chris’s graduation from UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. It was wonderful to spend time with so many of my loved ones celebrating such a joyous occasion in a beautiful place. Even though I have always loved taking road trips up north I never really bothered to spend much time in Santa Barbara until after Chris started attending school there. I always assumed that it was a place I would not care much for mainly because of its rep as a crazy party school and because one of the few times I had been there, passing by on the way home from a road trip up north, I got terrible food poisoning from the Coco’s we ate at. I know these are silly reasons to dislike a whole town but I was young(er) and of an age when formulating silly ideas like that seemed to come quite naturally and after a while of thinking that way the opinion just stuck. That’s why I’m so glad that my brother decided to attend school there because in addition to getting an excellent education his move there prompted me to visit several times which quickly helped me realize that Santa Barbara was not the unappealing place I thought it was but in fact is a fabulously cute and fun beachy town that I am absolutely smitten with. Santa Barbara really has everything a girl could want in a town. Beautiful architecture, historical buildings, cute houses, great shopping, an amazing farmers market, the ocean and delicious food and drink all within walking distance of each other. It’s also super close to spectacular hiking and camping areas and the central coastal wineries. Plus it’s the only town in California where I have ever found a place to go berry picking (there is nothing so scrumptious as berries eaten right off the vine!)

As if that was not enough to love, every time we go wine tasting on our way to Rusack Winery there is always a big, friendly buffalo strolling through the hills.

Typically whenever I travel I am always sure to pack gluten free nutrition bars, pretzels, nuts and dried fruit just in case I happen to end up somewhere where there is nothing safe for me to eat. I am pleased as a peach to report that for the entire duration of my mini holiday in Santa Barbara I did not need to eat one single emergency back up meal. Yay!! Our first night in town we went to dinner at a delicious place called SpiritLand Bistro recommended to my brother by a gluten free Santa Barbara friend of his.

I felt right at home at SpiritLand, their cooking philosophy is one of love, nutrition, peace and of course delicious food. They are incredibly conscientious and considerate of food allergies and diets (gluten, vegan, soy, dairy, egg, macrobiotic, raw, and vegetarian) and make note on the menu of who each particular dish is safe for using parentheses and asterisks. Normally when I go to a restaurant making a decision of what to eat is fairly easy as my choices are pretty narrow but here I was pleasantly overwhelmed with a number of gluten free selections. After much mouthwatering deliberation we came to a delicious decision. For our starter we decided on the Italian Caprese (a summer time family favorite of ours) and the Venetian Polenta Cakes with goat cheese instead of gorgonzola. The caprese with its ripe, juicy tomatoes and fresh, pillowy mozzarella drizzled with rich balsamic as always was delish. The polenta cakes were a new flavor and incredibly savory as well. The cakes of polenta were nice and bready almost like a dense corn bread and the rich goat cheese smeared on top and drizzle of sweet balsamic reduction paired fantastically with the earthy, wilted chard. We also ordered a bottle of wine for the table, a 2006 Mosby Dolcetto that not only had a beautiful label but was both rich in flavor and smooth, and paired perfectly with all of our meals.

Deciding on my main entrée was the toughest decision. There were a few Thai dishes that caught my eye like the Thai Coconut Yellow Curry that Chris got.

The Indian Vegetable Curry that Steve picked.

And then there was the Tuscan Primavera & Fusilli Rice Pasta that Ashley picked (rice pasta on the menu at a restaurant, oh be still my heart!!).

But for my main entrée I found myself torn between two dishes, the Hawaiian Nut Crusted Mahi-Mahi and the Mediterranean Stuffed Chicken. As delicious as the fish sounded I decided to stick with the goat cheese theme and ordered the stuffed chicken.

Organic chicken breast stuffed with a delightful mishmash of spinach, sweet sun dried tomatoes and goat cheese served atop sautéed shoe string summer veggies and a butternut squash and potato mash. I definitely made the right decision! I have always loved stuffed chicken and next to yams mashed butternut squash is my favorite. The chicken was cooked perfectly and the combination of the goat cheese with the spinach and tangy tomatoes all melded together to form the most delicious, savory chicken stuffing. The portions were perfect too, leaving us with plenty of room for a scrumptious gluten free dessert. I only had to look over the dessert menu once to decide on what I wanted. Hawaiian chocolate macadamia nut bananas.

Bananas coated in chocolate and coconut caramel sauces, sprinkled with macadamia nuts and served with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. Oh deliciousness! I love all of those ingredients individually, put them together and I am in dessert heaven.

At the end of the meal I was perfectly content. I left feeling like I had experienced a mélange of delectable tastes and textures and yet not feeling overly full in the slightest. From dinner we headed downtown to meet up with the family for an evening of drinks and graduation eve festivity.

On a side non food related note the hotel we stayed at the first night, the Oceana was just as lovely as can be. The room was white, crisp and airy and had a 1950’s beach house feel to it. Check out the adorable hanging closet!

It was the perfect size room for a beach holiday and made me feel relaxed and calm from the moment I stepped inside and plopped myself down on the fluffy bed. The bathroom fixtures were also done in the same crisp style and there was a delightful array of pleasant smelling Aveda soaps and shampoos set out for the bath.

In the mornings the hotel offered a free breakfast that was described by the concierge as “continental with select protein”. Come to find the “select protein” was hard boiled eggs (yuck!). I had a banana and coffee which was good but I think peanut butter would have been a nice addition to the select protein list for all of the egg hating gluten free eaters out there (I am sure there must me more than just me!). The best part about the hotel was that it was only a hop, skip and jump away from the sandy Santa Barbara shoreline. Sadly, we were only able to get a room here for one night because it was super busy for graduation weekend so we did not really get much of a chance to take advantage of our closeness to the ocean. Maybe next time, I definitely plan on coming back here to stay again.

Chris’s graduation was Friday morning at the Bren School. The ceremony itself was small and intimate (we could actually see Chris without having to use binoculars!). There were also very interesting and intelligent speeches by students, faculty and their guest speaker, Lee Stein, the man who helped invent email messaging. There was also awesome music provided by a band formed by some of the Bren students called “Brengrass”. After the ceremony there was a reception with mimosas (my favorite!) and yummy snacks and desserts. I made a plate of fruit, hummus and 5 different cheeses (my most favorite was a dark blue green one that tasted like fresh herbs…not pictured because I ate it too quickly!).

After the graduation we snapped a few family pictures and then walked along the beach to a restaurant that overlooked the water for a family lunch. Chris and I both had a yummy mahi-mahi with mango salsa (I forgot to take pictures or note the name of the restaurant but I assure you it was delish!)

Later that afternoon we went to a graduation gathering at a local dive bar. We caught the tail end of the bbq portion of it which meant we arrived just in time for the most scrumptious portion of the gathering, dessert!

Caramelized bananas with gelato and caramel syrup. Yummers! Nicolette Oliphant was the caterer for the event and while I was not there early enough to enjoy any of the lunch items she prepared her dessert was quite scrumptious. In addition to catering she also does cooking lessons so if you are in the Santa Barbara area and you want to know how to make her fantastic banana dessert or just want her to cook it for you she is the chef for you.

In addition to yummy dessert, drinks, and friends there was also a video game at the bar that my brother and I have always had a soft spot in our hearts for.

Buck Hunter! As usual it was a blast and Chris kicked my bootie. Then Mom and Hamilton played and our peaceful, animal loving mother schooled all of us! I think she even set a new high score on the game. Yay mom!!

Friday night after a full day of graduation festivity before heading to our new hotel for the evening we stopped to have a late dinner at a southwestern restaurant on State Street called Left at Albuquerque. I had the Taco Twosome with grilled veggies and corn tortillas instead of flour. It came with black beans and the yummiest herby flavored green rice on the side.

The veggies in the tacos were cooked perfectly and did not taste super oily like many veggie tacos and fajitas tend to. I really wanted to try their house made sangria or one of the 75 brands of tequila they carry but I had already had my fill of celebratory beverages for the day and needed a little break from the hard stuff if I wanted to be in good form for our upcoming wine tasting adventure Saturday afternoon. After dinner we drove south 20 minutes to our new hotel for the evening the Courtyard Marriot in Oxnard, while the room was comfy and larger than our previous room in Santa Barbara it lacked the charm and cuteness of the Oceana. What it did have though was the signature orange with red polka dot couch, which I love, and am beginning to suspect all Courtyard Marriot rooms have.

Saturday morning we met Dad and Grandpa for breakfast at a little place back in Santa Barbara called Savoy that Chris and I had unsuccessfully tried to go to once before. On my last visit we headed there on a Sunday morning, eagerly anticipating their delicious breakfast only to arrive and find that they were closed on Sundays! Happily though this time we were visiting on a Saturday morning and they were indeed open when we arrived and had just enough rice bread left to make what I had been dying to order for months since my last visit.

Citrus French Toast with organic maple syrup and strawberries (and a cup of yerba matte tea and soy of course). Truth be told I have never been a fan of French toast or anything eggy for that matter but I just could not pass up a bready gluten free breakfast item, even if it was dipped in egg so I decided to give it a try. The verdict, delicious! I loved every bite and it did not taste like egg one bit. They also had slices of fresh baked gluten free strawberry walnut bread at the register. Steve bought me a slice and I saved it to eat on the drive home the next day (it was super yummy as well).

After a delicious breakfast we walked downtown to the farmers market to get some fruit, cheese and veggies to take back to Chris’s house. Later that afternoon with fruits and cheese in tote we headed eastward, up and down a mountain, through windy roads and past grassy hills into the Santa Ynez Valley for some wine tasting. Our first stop was at Rusack. As always all of their wines were delectable, in particular the pinot noir was exceptionally delicious. So much so that we bought a bottle of it to bring home to Dad for fathers day. Rusack also has a lovely shaded picnic area with tables and chairs so you can sit and enjoy sipping your wine and nibbling on fruit and cheese while enjoying the gorgeous view of the vineyard, trees and grassy hills.

From there we headed to Rideau winery in Solvang. The tasting room is housed in an old two story adobe that dates back to the 1800’s. Their wines were pretty tasty, my favorites were the Tempranillo and the Lagniappe. The most delicious offering they had was not the wine but the sampling of dips and spreads that they had for sale. Even licked off of a napkin sans bread the sundried tomato spread was divine! Sweet and tangy with just the right amount of spice as to not over power the naturally scrumptious flavor of the tomatoes. After wine tasting we headed back to town, freshened up and set out to meet up with Mom and Hammy for a delicious Indian dinner at Taj Café. Chris and I had been there before and it was just as delicious as I remember it. We ordered 6 different dishes and I had a little of everything except for the nann and samosas which looked and smelled delicious and reminded me that I really need to have another Indian dinner party soon and attempt to make gluten free samosas.

The next morning Steve and I left bright and early and headed south so we could make it to West Hollywood before noon for Sunday brunch at one of my favorite LA eateries, Real Food Daily. I enjoyed a scrumptious plate of Flapjacks a La Almondine (pancakes made with almond meal) served with blueberries, maple syrup and vegan butter. Accompanied by my favorite yerba matte latte (with vanilla soymilk!) it was the perfect ending to a delicious trip (I was so excited to taste these that I forgot to take a picture until after I had already taken a few scrumptious bites!).

Even through Chris is moving back to San Diego in a week I am certian I will return to Santa Barbara again someday soon for another beach holiday, wine tasting and of course more delicious gluten free dining adventures.

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