My preferred definition of savor is simple: the power to excite or interest. This past weekend's four-day event, Savor the Central Coast, presented by Sunset® and the San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau, provided a milieu for SLO County residents (as well as out-of-towners) to indulge in local radiance. The festivities kicked off Thursday with an opening night reception at Hearst Castle, followed by a day of special events around the county (that included everything from a tour of the Ocean Rose Abalone Farm in Cayucos to a balloon ride over the Paso Robles wine region) that ended with the Sunset Western Wine Awards Gala at Pismo Pier. Saturday evening brought the opportunity to feast on local cuisine while seated on the historic Mission Plaza in downtown San Luis Obispo; and in the north part of the county, Paso Robles' City Park lit up the night for diners.
But the weekend’s main event—which brought thousands of eager guests to the historic Santa Margarita Ranch—afforded the opportunity to sample local indulgences produced by Central Coast purveyors of distinctive, regional specialties found only within the Pacific Coastline’s natural paradise. Spanning the regions of Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties, over 50 Central Coast wineries (as well as the Sunset Western Wine Award winners from even farther reaching west coast regions); some 20 restaurants and local chefs; several wine associations; four breweries; and a multitude of specialty vendors, artisanal food producers and local farmers, all convened to showcase their bountiful goods.This past weekend, San Luis Obispo County shone.
On Saturday, I arrived at the Ranch in the a.m. and headed for the Central Coast Pavilion, a grandiose tent set up next to the Ranch’s train (a Disneyland coach which transports guests around the scenic acreage). The Pavilion showcased wineries from the Sunset Western Wine Awards; distinguished restaurants such as Lido at Dolphin Bay in Pismo Beach; and many of SLO County’s city organizations. Other vendors dotted the tent’s landscape, including the booth for the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival (SLOIFF). As a SLOIFF board member, I delighted in the opportunity to take part in the festivities by helping to promote our March festival’s worthy cause. Sharing a table with SLO Car Free, a unique program that is dedicated to helping traveler’s discover car free, carefree travel to San Luis Obispo County, our organizations were a perfect match. We encouraged passersby to visit SLO in March for our film festival—car free.
After my duties ended in the early p.m., I found myself with an empty stomach and an unfilled wine glass. I was in the right place at the right time for a little (or a lot of!) indulgence. My first savor of the day: a swirl and sip of the rich, divine Rubicon 2007 Cabernet blend (Rutherford, Napa). Other highlights included tangy, refreshing shrimp ceviche nestled on crispy light crackers by Solvang’s Root 46, as well as a hearty steak-topped crostini prepared by the Paso Robles Inn and Steakhouse. Feeling merry after indulging in these tantalizing gobbles, I continued to edge my way through the sizeable crowd to peruse the other festivities, catching a glimpse of Celebrity Chef Cat Cora at her book signing. Then it was time for Battle of the Bay!
This special event was a battle close to home and I eagerly entered the Ranch’s high-timbered barn, whereupon Hearst Ranch Winery splashed my glass with a bit of stainless steel Chardonnay. I then found a seat in front of the warm, inviting Chef Central Seminar Stage, where I watched my family’s long-time friend, Executive Chef Neil Smith (the genius of Windows on the Water in Morro Bay), step up to the challenge to defend his reigning title from last year’s culinary scuffle. Chef Neil and his skillful sous chef, Darrell Jane, took the stage along with their challenger, Chef Shawn Washburn of Shawn’s on Main in Morro Bay (accompanied by his wife, who also doubles as his sous chef). Katie Tamony, Sunset’s Editor-in-Chief, greeted these talented duos, boasting the dubious honor of choosing this year’s winner by tasting all delectable dishes prepared.
With a buzz in the air and a handsome display of local ingredients fit for a foodie—albacore tuna, horn melon, heirloom tomatoes, walnut oil, Morro Bay avocados and oysters—the audience couldn’t wait to see what these culinary masters would rustle up from these indigenous elements within such a short time-span. As preparations were underway, the cameras started rolling and Ms. Tamony and her co-host pressed the chefs-of-the-half-hour for the savory details of their creations, quizzing them all the while for salient details about life in the kitchen.
No strangers to pressure, the chefs remained unflappable even while answering questions and preparing their meals under constant scrutiny. They dove into the task at hand—knives flayed, ingredients took shape and a flurry of chopping, dicing, tasting, and creating set in motion. Working in an undersized kitchen that housed a refrigerator, petite work surfaces and stoves, the audience soon learned that both chefs shared a common love of a good cheeseburger; Chef Shawn is meticulous and sometimes uses tweezers in his kitchen because he doesn’t like to get his hands dirty; and Chef Neil advises against seating your children in the oyster bar at Windows on the Water on a Saturday night (stressful nights in the kitchen equal colorful language). But Chef Neil kept his cool on the miniscule stage, even when a bowl tumbled over the side, spilling his only red bell peppers on hand, a primary ingredient in the salsa he was assembling. He cooly turned to the fridge to find an alternative element and declared, “What makes a good chef is being able to improvise on the fly.”
And that he did. He and his sous chef continued with their task—eventually bringing out a Kitchenaid mixer to wow the audience with a smooth, carbonated ice-cream that can be made with dry ice in only 30 seconds. Meanwhile, Chef Shawn’s formation of pan-toasted white bread with a hole cut out of the middle (to make room for a quail egg), caught the attention of Ms. Tamony. She sentimentally relayed to the audience that recently she visited her daughter who was away at college, and for the first time ever, her daughter cooked for her. She referred to her daughter's dish as “toad-in-a-hole,” a toasted piece of bread with an egg cooked in the middle.
But time was short and the clock ticked away. The chefs needed to wrap it up and plate their final medleys. In the end, Chef Shawn and his wife produced two enticing dishes: oysters topped with tomato gazpacho, embellished with a walnut, orange vinaigrette and grated horseradish; and their quail egg “toad-in-a-hole” served over a base of avocado cream with lemon juice and mayo, crowned with albacore tartare. In my flurry to take notes, I failed to catch which of these dishes benefitted from the bacon vinaigrette that Chef Shawn’s team concocted. Chefs Neil and Darrel proffered up an impressive four-course dinner: oysters with horn melon salsa and an avocado coconut mousse; slices of heirloom tomatoes nestled in a caprese salad with basil foam and local micro greens; beautifully-seared albacore resting on a bed of beluga lentils and a variety of lovely specialty sauces; and walnut oil ice-cream. Meals fit for a SLO foodie, or anyone else for that matter. But in the end, after letting her taste buds wrangle over these local flavors, Ms. Tamony declared Chef Shawn’s quail egg dish the winner. Toad-in-a-hole will take on new meaning in SLO County.
In spite of the flurry of vino and culinary activity up to this point, my day wasn’t over yet. My wine glass pulled me in a new direction—toward the vertical rows of small white tents that housed the Central Coast wineries and merchants of exceptional food. Since I knew I would be returning on Sunday, I went easy on my palate, mostly seeking out the familiar by visiting some of SLOIFF’s loyal winery sponsors from years past. Derby Wine Estates, Salisbury Vineyards, St. Hilaire Vineyard, and Claiborne and Churchill lent my glass some lovely sips and then I branched out—searching out the friendly nuances and well-crafted creations of Still Waters Vineyards based on a recommendation. I also stumbled upon the guest wine region—Washington State Wine—and enjoyed discovering some of the Washington appellations and varietals, including an alluring pert blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
|I tasted several delicious varietals of Asian pears, a reminder of my unforgettable adventures in Japan, where I first discovered this light, crisp fruit all those years ago.|
|These vibrant, freshly picked pistachios screamed of color compared to the roasted, salted nuts consumers normally indulge in.|
|These tart, beastly quince fruits might one day morph into lovely quince paste—a gourmet specialty item.|
|Who doesn't love nourishing sprouts?|
|I wonder what a late Indian summer in SLO County would taste like without these plump beauties.|
|After exploring this plethora of SLO bounty, my culinary entourage from Pacific Harvest Events awaited. Our small group ascended upon Savor in search of dazzling flavors and splendid tastes.|
|We slurped oyster shooters in the Central Coast Pavilion, compliments of the City of Morro Bay.|
|In the Vons Music Stage and Tasting Garden (think beer!), cooked meaty oysters from the Morry Bay Oyster Company, served up with parmesan and spices, went down easy as well.|
|Other tantalizing discoveries of the day included a rich herb-topped lamb tagine by Thomas Hill Organics; wild board ragu by Artisan; and Harris Ranch beef bites in bourbon sauce. As we nipped our way through the tents, seeking out the legendary winemaker Kenneth Volk and countless other wineries, we also stopped for an exquisite pairing of Vivant Fine Cheese with Roxo Port Cellars. This plentiful match-up left a few of our members happy yet...forgetful!|
|After all the treasured tastes and extravagance of the weekend, I took advantage of the opportunity to attend a Riedel Wine Glass Seminar.|
All Text and Photos Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.