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Though I’m a pretty competent cook in most circumstances, I’d highly recommend traveling with a professional chef when possible. My advice holds true even — or perhaps especially — when the situation is a little rough around the edges, such as when exploring a remote corner of the Channel Islands.
That’s where I was last weekend on a partnership-building mission of sorts for the Santa Cruz Island Reserve with Jay Reti, who was named director of that 55-year-old, UCSB-sponsored research institution in May 2019. (I wrote about him as a “Fresh Face of Environmental Action” in this year’s Earth Day issue.)
We were staying on the island’s west end at Christy Ranch, joined by two of my landscape artist friends, Chris Potter and Kevin Gleason, and the star of this particular show: Chef Peter McNee, the cofounder and owner of Convivo.
Home to a two-story, 150-year-old-ish adobe whose kitchen has been lightly modernized over the decades, the ranch is rustic but equipped enough, particularly due to the large Santa Maria–style grill that sits against a skeleton-decorated windbreak. The hardest part was getting the food out there, which required a bumpy boat ride across the channel — credit me for saving one cooler from spilling into the ocean — followed by a bumpier truck ride across the spine of the island.
Once we set up tents (no sleeping in the crumbling adobe!), jumped in the ocean, and settled in for the evening, McNee fired up the mesquite charcoal he’d brought from the mainland, then began peppering in some of the island oak that was seasoned at the field station near the center of the island. After an appetizer hour of cheese with a slew of pickled condiments crafted by McNee’s kitchen, night one was seafood, which meant octopus, prawns, seared tuna, and, of course, lobster, intermingled with shishito peppers, roasted tomatoes, and expertly charred corn. (Pro tip: much of this was parboiled, or whatever the right term would be for fish, on the mainland.) (Pro tip two: cast iron is critical on open fires.)
My job, no surprise, was bringing wines. We ran through some fun whites — the Adelaida Anna’s Vineyard Picpoul Blanc 2019 is a stunner from Paso Robles — and even an orange, as I am currently fascinated by how much candy still pops after 40 days of skin contact on the Union Sacre l’Orangerie Los Ositos Vineyard Arroyo Seco Gewurztraminer 2020. Out of many red highlights, we toasted the life of Jim Clendenen over a bottle of Au Bon Climat Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 and then went coastal Santa Maria Valley with the 2018 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir.
The next day was our one full day of exploration, though we came up empty on our hunt for red urchin. I’d gotten lucky plucking them off the rocks out there once before, but all we could find this time were purple urchins. (Seems like the folks I wrote about in this article “Purple Urchin Possibilities” were onto something.)
Undeterred, our swimming, painting, and wandering ensued, and we eventually sipped from a flinty, briny bottle of Cadre Stone Blossom Edna Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2020, embodying the wine’s motto of “where the rocks meet the sea.”
After a full day of exploring, night two kicked off with more pickles, the remaining cheese, and a fattoush of sorts — the salad served on top of the fire-raised bread, rather than the bread in the salad. By then, McNee’s fire was already pumping, first delivering roasted squash (grown by my son) with a salsa verde and then the centerpiece: cowboy-cut rib-eye steak, awash in mushrooms and pan sauce.
It was two rich nights of deliciousness in a row, which made the next morning’s leftover concoction of miso butter mushrooms on bleu cheese toast a little bit unfair. But that’s how a chef keeps giving: taking remnants of this with forgotten slices of that, adding their on-hand magic — read: plentiful pinches of flaky salt and copious dabs of butter — and turning everything into a restaurant dish.
So beyond eating like kings on a rugged, isolated corner of a beautiful, mostly uninhabited island, what was the point of our mission?
Our host, Jay Reti, is actively building relationships in the community to develop ongoing support for the reserve, for the science it supports, and for the educational, experiential opportunities it offers to many ages. He’s developing an artist-in-residence program — that’s partly why Potter and Gleason came out — and just wants to reach a broader audience about the reserve and its mission. “Art and food can do this!” said Jay.
Certainly works for me.
Fave Restaurant Response
I got some positive feedback on last week’s newsletter about my favorite restaurant being El Toro Bravo in Capitola, and why such a claim isn’t just about the food. My favorite response came from my friend Evan Skopp, who, like me, is a boardmember of Notes for Notes, the Santa Barbara–founded nonprofit that builds recording and rehearsal studios for young musicians to use for free around the country.
“For me, bouncing around California growing up, my favorite restaurants were the ones my parents could afford, which were often cheap buffets and cheap Mexican,” Skopp wrote. “But I have infinite love for Griswold’s in Redlands and Casa de Carlos in Woodland Hills, which gets two stars on Yelp. We had no idea the food wasn’t great. To us, it was gourmet.”
That’s exactly what I was talking about.
Wines to Find
- Brick Barn “Fatalistic” Santa Ynez Valley Cabernet Franc 2017: I recently wrote an article about Brick Barn’s Modovan winemaker Adrian Bolshoi, who was very proud of this high-priced wine, which spent 38 months in two barrels of Russian oak before bottling. In a region better known for lightness, this is a dense beast, full of baked and smoked fruits. But it retains that tart and peppery cabernet franc character as well. Worth a splurge if you’ve got $175 to burn.
- Gainey “Limited Selection” Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2019: Winemaker Jeff Lebard, who I wrote about way back in 2014, is quietly making fantastic wine at Gainey, both on their entry level labels but especially on these “Limited Selection” wines. This one is full of green aromas and flavors, grass to apple to lime, but it’s the lively acidity and rocky structure that sets this bottling apart. Buy it here.
From Our Table
- In this week’s paper, I profile Elizabeth Poett of Rancho San Julian. I’ve known her since I started working at this newspaper 22 years ago, as she is the daughter of our editor-in-chief Marianne Partridge, who cofounded the paper back in 1986. It’s been exciting to watch her grow up — which is funny to say, as our ages are not that far apart at all — and see her bring her family’s cattle to the forefront of Central Coast life. Due to the drought, she had to pivot before pivoting was cool, and then pivoted again during the pandemic. Now, her life is a television show, and an endearing one at that.
- If you didn’t know, we frequently publish articles online before they make it into print, sometimes more than a week or two in advance. A case in point is this week’s piece by Rebecca Horrigan on “Five Reasons Santa Barbara Is Happy for Happy Hour Again.” She writes, “If you’re anything like me, happy hour lost a little of its mojo over the past year of working from home. Trying to shake off a stressful day at the same table where you stared at a screen for the past eight hours is a challenge. Thankfully, bars and restaurants are reopening, and, slowly but surely, we’re getting back into our post-work groove.”
From My Cellar
Since the bulk of this newsletter is about the Channel Islands, here are some of my favorite stories that I’ve done about the archipelago in recent years. (Not included: the time I paddled a kayak from Santa Cruz Island to Anacapa, because we hadn’t launched the website yet.)
- That time I was able to cruise around Santa Rosa Island unfettered in order to write an article for the New York Times, in which I was almost mauled by an elephant seal colony.
- Also for the New York Times, a story about Rusack Winery’s quest to grow grapes in Catalina Island.
- Another story on the Rusacks, but a better one (!), this time for the Independent.
- A fairly recent one from 2018 about birdwatching on Santa Rosa Island, and the CSU-Channel Islands field station out there.
- That time T.C. Boyle confirmed that it was my writing about Santa Rosa Island that inspired a few of his books.
- The Santa Rosa Island article that did it (also the same trip where I proposed to my now-wife on Carrington Point, later naming our now-11-year-old son Mason Carrington).