A group of us are sitting in a dining room brightly lit by the midday winter sun bouncing off a pristinely blue Pacific just outside the window. They call this resort The Cliffs for a reason-you feel like you could pat the otters’ heads as they paddle by. It’s a preview of the Central Coast Americana Festival, and nothing could seem to be more American than this indulgence of a five-course lunch with a little battalion of wine glasses at the ready at each plate. We are celebrating bounty, local goodness, and an event people should consider heading north to check out. The festival runs during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, and in addition to the 16 bands and the artisan market, the focus will be on food and wine. Because, after all, this is California, and that’s what we do best.
“We want to create a great travel holiday, and provide something for the community,” said Mike Casola, CEO of the Central Coast Boutique Hotel Collections where the fest will come to rest. To achieve this, his team turned to Sonnie Brown, longtime deejay at KCBX, for musical programming (highlights will include the surf stylings of the Dentures, singer/songwriter Jill Knight, and the delightfully unclassifiable Whiskey Chimp) and to their own team of chefs for a series of workshops to create special prix fixe menus. The trio of different three-course menus, available for a thrifty $35 (or $49 with wine pairings), will rotate throughout the five properties, so each chef will get to make another’s specialty. You might be enjoying, then, a roasted butternut squash bisque created by Chef Anthony Reeves from the Inn at Morro Bay while dining at Sycamore Hot Springs Resort, and you will still notice this is a super-rich soup on its way to a pudding, almost, napped with sherry and sparked with star anise and fennel.
The special menus are actually active not just for the Americana Festival but for all of January, dubbed Restaurant Month in S.L.O. It’s important to point out that a portion of the proceeds from each prix fixe will go to support the Hospice of S.L.O. County’s Supportive Music Program.
In general, the festival is working at being accessible to all. There will be two cooking demonstrations during the weekend-one called Seven Ingredients or Less and another titled A Fish Story-that not only offer recipes a cook might pull off at home, but they cost only $10, and participants, after watching chefs at work, will even get a light sample.
The wine pairings, meanwhile, will feature not only the usual suspects but up-and-comers like Chronic Cellars, the second project of Josh Beckett (no relation to the BoSox hurler), who also is the winemaker at the much higher-yielding Peachy Canyon Winery. Chronic’s name is a hint as to what Beckett’s up to, for, as he said, “We get people into the tasting room, and after realizing tasting doesn’t have to be something imposing, they say things like, ‘Hey, I actually like wine and I’m not scared of it!’” Making wine fun doesn’t mean Chronic doesn’t make fine wine, it’s just Beckett is willing to play with blends-a tempranillo/petit verdot/malbec is one strikingly offbeat winner-and to nail somewhat different grapes like petite sirah, about which Beckett said, “A petite’s not a real petite unless it’s funky; you want them to be kind of abstract and out there. But they need to be in balance, too.”
Beckett’s wines are funky yet balanced, as are the wine-and-food pairings at the press lunch. The Chronic petite, for instance, matches up with the hearty pan-roasted flatiron steak from Chef Treaver Lynch of the SeaVenture Resort. Like many of the dishes featured on the menu, what might first appear to be grace notes sing, and in this case, it’s the bourbon mushroom sauce that teaches you how close the words bourbon and bonbon are, thank you veal demi glace. It’s similar to the house-made ketchup that Chef David McWilliam of Sycamore Mineral Hot Springs came up with for us to dunk his delicious onion ring into-laced with a bit of fire no doubt from some Mexican hot sauce, and rich with tomato flavor, it also gets a more substantial texture and a bit of sweetness from the addition of apple. And what could be more Americana than sneaking apples into everything? McWilliam joked upon presenting his dish-grilled lamb ribs in a Mongolian barbecue sauce-that “it’s basically an Asian-style sauce, but Mongolian sauce sounds cooler,” stressing California’s magical ability to imagine good things into even better. It’s just that kind of delicious creativity the entire festival exudes.
The Central Coast Americana Festival, a weekend of music, food, and artisan market, takes place January 14-17 at the Central Coast Boutique Hotel Collection (The Cliffs Resort, Sycamore Mineral Hot Springs, SeaVenture Resort, Inn at Morro Bay, and Apple Farm Inn). Tickets are on sale now; call 556-3306 or visit sloamericanafestival.com.