The Uninvited Dinner Guest

We’re at a steakhouse. Our table is elegantly cliched; draped in crisp white linen, a baseball-sized scarlet candle at its center. The flickering cylinder’s hue matches the napkin concealing the top of a wicker basket of baked goods. We’re appropriately dressed for the culinary genre. My wife looks stunning in a bright yellow dress and pulled back hair – an observation I made long before I downed my first sidecar. I’m just about to pick up my fork and stab at my walnut and cranberry-laden spinach salad when I feel a sharp pain right above my right ankle.  It’s the kind of pain that can only be doled out by a spouse’s high heel.  My eyes dart to her in time to see that she’s mumbling something incoherent – something that in retrospect would have been incoherent even before she made her Manhattan disappear.  I lean in as I ask her to repeat.


I look at her puzzled.  She picks up my confusion and repeats herself, this time making a casual flick of her knife toward her end of the table.  I follow her motion and my eye catches a small black arachnid, furiously making a beeline toward the rolls.  My mind starts to race.  I want the little guy gone, but not in a way that leaves a tiny black smudge on the linen as I try to enjoy my rib-eye. I also don’t want to do anything to attract attention to the table. People will look at me if I do, and they may keep looking at me throughout the meal. Every glance directed at me will convey the same message – “Get a load of this spaz.” They may wonder why a woman as lovely as my wife is stuck with a loser like me. I want to avoid this at all costs. If I’m to remove the critter, I must be subtle. I have no choice but to act, either – apparently, this spider likes the aroma of piping hot baked goods as much as me.

Then again, maybe not.  As I contemplate my move, the spider ambles right past the basket in a mild upset. He’s locked on a larger feast of fancy: my salad.  The small white flecks on his body become clearer as he advances toward my plate. It looks cool, as most spiders tend to look. It’s almost a shame he has to leave. The tiny beast circles my empty cocktail glass and I coolly make my play, scooping the spider up with my napkin as I move it from the table to my lap. It drops to the floor as I unfurl the napkin and spread it out on my right thigh.  At least, I assume that’s what happened.  I’m guessing the eight-legged dude landed quick yet semi-gracefully to the floor and scurried away.  Whether he managed to latch onto the white linen tablecloth of another patron is uncertain, although judging by the ensuing evening’s lack of shrieks, I’m supposing he didn’t.

I’m sure I enjoyed the rib-eye. I don’t remember, though.

The Napa Fires: How You Can Help Now and Later

Watching California Wine Country go up in flames has been an enormous gut-punch. Thousands of homes have been lost. Hundreds of people have been displaced. As of this writing, the flames aren’t done yet.

There is hope amidst the chaos. GoFundMe has a list of accounts for families and organizations affected by the disaster. You can also send direct donations to The Red Cross and the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund.  It’s needed and appreciated.

The flames eventually will stop. The history of wild fires informs us as such. However, they threaten to leave Napa Valley in a bad way long after they’re done raging. if you enjoy wine – and if you’ve been visiting this fledgling dog and pony show, you probably do – it’s important to realize that Napa is still going to be hurting in the fire’s aftermath. What are we to do then?

This question initially didn’t cross my mind. I was too busy watching Atlas Peak and Mount Veeder burn and wondering if my friends and colleagues in the industry were in trouble. Then I received an e-mail from one of my favorite wineries, letting their fans know they were fine. The message shook loose the dormant question from my brain by providing its appropriate answer.

“Come to visit us, our neighbors, our valley.”

This is what needs to be done in the next several months. Napa thrives on tourism, and they’re going to need it more than ever once the fires are gone. Charred hillsides and other horrific remnants of this week will still be present, but so will the community’s bevy of passionate winemakers, standing at the intersection of art and science like they do every year, making bottle after phenomenal bottle. The wines they make are glimpse into their spirit.

It’s a spirit that remains resilient despite the flame’s encircling chaos and choking air quality. The fires hit in the middle of harvest season; winemakers and their crews are still working as normally as possible, gathering pluck-worthy fruit from whatever vines they can access. Their resolve to keep their livelihood going is a silver lining, albeit one obscured with smoke and ash. These are the people you support when you visit Napa, so please don’t let the eventual aftereffects of this week’s fires discourage you from another trip. Go up there, buy some bottles, and help them recover. If you can swing it, splurge and nab a bottle from 2012’s epic vintage. You better believe they’ll be grateful you came.

If you can’t book a trip, do the next best thing and support the wineries from afar. Join a wine club or two.  Go to your local neighborhood wine shop and mix ‘n’ match a half-case. Every dollar spent helps, regardless of where the transaction takes place.

Napa needs your help right now, and they’re going to need your help in the future.  Don’t let them down.

McDonald’s Shows Off Some McMoxie

McDonald’s started testing a new menu item last week. This is normally not news – fast food joints test potential products all the time. This item was different. This one was a vegan burger.

It’s called the McVegan, and you probably already figured that out. The sandwich consists of a soy-based patty accompanied by usual suspects lettuce, tomato, and pickles, topped with what they’re calling McFeast sauce. The menu item is in the middle of an eight-week run in Tampere, Finland; a modestly-sized city about two hours north of Helsinki. It’s an oddity; one that’s easy for carnivores to make jokes about. But point-and-laugh humor at the McVegan’s expense isn’t the reason this story is noteworthy. A fast food empire’s apparent attempt at wooing the vegan crowd is what makes the test product worth discussing.

On paper, McDonald’s pursuing the vegan dollar is the fast food equivalent to marketing death metal to a Belieber. It obviously doesn’t need the vegan market. The company hit a rough patch a couple of years ago, but it’s bounced back rather nicely in 2017. Even if it was still stuck in a bit of economic malaise, it’s still one of the world’s most iconic brands. Kids still love the place. Adults that grew up on Happy Meals will stop by. People on the go or low on cash will still hit the joint. It’s been this way for decades, and will be this way for decades to come.

Vegans are also a small demographic for a behemoth like McDonald’s to pursue. It is admittedly tough to get honest concrete data about how many people in the United States are vegans; a quick Google search on “percentage of vegans in United States” mostly reveals polls conducted by animal rights or pro-vegetarian websites aggressively pushing anti-meat agendas. Still, the percentage determined by these sites tend to fall anywhere between .5% and 6%. That’s a relatively small slice of the public, especially when the most vocal segment of the slice ranges from obnoxiousness to militant intolerance when it comes to meat eating. Besides, even though McDonald’s has rolled out salad options, their bulk of their menu still reads like an anti-vegan manifesto. It doesn’t make sense.

Or does it? Since news dropped, vegans have been going bonkers over the news. Dietary converts that have boycotted McDonald’s for years are dropping by to check it out, possibly scratching the itch of nostalgia in the process. Vegans in other European countries are asking for wider distribution. To riff on a certain catchphrase, they’re loving it. It’s remarkable – what initially looked like a fast food joint gunning for an “I’m Keith Hernandez”-level of hubris may end up being as a stroke of genius. The lesson here: never question McDonald’s ability to strategize, no matter how hackneyed their idea may look.

There’s only one teensy problem with McVegan’s grand experiment. There are no current plans to roll out the vegan burger to the United States. However, given the success the sandwich has enjoyed during its test run thus far, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine they’d change their mind. If they do, I’ll make a deal with you – I’ll eat one. I’m not a vegan by any means, but I’m a curious fellow. There’s a McDonald’s a block from my house. I can walk there. If it’s terrible, I can walk it right off, possibly while going to the killer torta joint across the street.

Super Sonic

“Is our GPS drunk?”

We’re trying to get to A Sound Garden, Seattle’s sonic-driven, semi-obscure public art work. Our electronic map is directing us to turn left onto the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration campus. “These are the federal weather guys,” I think to myself. “What do they know about art?” A malfunctioning GPS seems like the only logical explanation.

I nonetheless follow its instructions. I’m greeted by a slightly curvy road leading to a guard shack. There are nondescript white buildings in the background. Yep – drunk GPS. I drive up to the shack, prepared to find out just how lost we are.

“Excuse me,” I say to the guard. “I think we’re lost. We’re trying to get to the Sound Garden.”

“You’ve come to the right place!” the guard says.

“Really?” I blurt out, slightly exasperated.

“Really.” The guard says. His tone implies this is not the first time he’s had this exchange.

A Sound Garden is a sculpture consisting of large steel structures crowned with organ pipes affixed to weather vanes. These pipes produce various sounds when the wind blows – a concept whose scientific properties are not too dissimilar to The Wave Organ in San Francisco. A Sound Garden is its official name, by the way – not “The Sound Garden” or “Soundgarden.” Nobody ever calls it by its official name. It’s a weird spot; the fact that it’s on NOAA grounds adds to its weirdness. It’s way in the back of the campus, tucked next to a park and Lake Washington, hidden from the lot we’re instructed to go. There’s a lone, tiny sign marking the trail to access the sculpture, making it feel almost as if the NOAA is reluctant to share its existence.

Perhaps they are. The place used to be a popular hangout for Seattle natives back in the day – popular enough to inspire the name of a certain Seattle-area grunge band. Unfortunately, the NOAA severely truncated access to A Sound Garden after 9/11, and they haven’t reversed course yet. They may never. Over the years, locals have almost forgotten it exists. Transplants have no idea it’s here. (I only know of its existence because I stumbled upon an article about places still guarded with post-9/11 restrictions.) When we arrive at the sculpture after a half-mile trek, there’s just one other couple on its compact grounds. The desolation gives the instillation a layer of cool, eerie surrealism.

The sculptures look like mini transmission towers. Their drab gray skeletons stand amid unkempt yellow grass, creating a dramatic juxtaposition with the radiant blue bouncing off the adjacent lake. It doesn’t look like much, but we’re not here for looks. What’s discouraging, though, is the silence. I don’t hear anything as I walk along a path bisecting the structures. I take seat on a bench in the middle of the instillation – still nothing. I spend the next two minutes staring into the lake, preparing to answer my kids’ inevitable inquiry of why exactly we came here.

And then – a low, rumbling hum, coming from the tower directly from my left. Another sound jumps in from the right few seconds later, this one high-pitched, almost like a tea kettle. They harmonize for a second before the low note cuts off. Another mid-range note starts up from the sculpture’s far corner and engages in an impromptu minute-long call-response performance with the high pitch. It’s almost as if a Phillip Glass concert spontaneously erupted around me. In normal circumstances this would be problematic, as I’ve never cared for Phillip Glass. In this context, sitting in view of Lake Washington and the wind gently swirling about, it works. I’m at peace.

The concert lasts for nearly ten minutes. I don’t want to leave. However, my kids approach and ask me the question I prepared for but didn’t think I’d have to answer once sounds started filling the air. I reluctantly acquiesce. As we walk back to the van, I see a rectangular frame propped up just off the pathway. Inside the frame is a photo of the late Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell. A couple of rock-pinned handwritten notes and some flowers form a semi-circle around the image, which looks straight from the band’s Badmotorfinger heyday. He’s smiling brightly like we prefer to remember him doing. It’s a fitting memorial for obvious reasons, and its presence makes it easy to re-imagine the sculpture’s still-occasionally blowing notes as a collective dirge; a sorrowful song mourning the loss of a beloved Seattle musical icon.

A sudden burst of contemporary pop music coinciding with the van’s ignition turn ruptures A Sound Garden’s sense of tranquility. I don’t mind, though. The secluded sculpture provided enough serenity for me to deal with the din of over-produced Top 40 slickness. It certainly harnesses enough serenity to make the place an essential decompression spot for anyone overwhelmed by the crowded smash of Pike’s Place Market or the Space Needle. It’s worth a visit, even if its location makes one question the sobriety of their GPS.

The Ultimate Underground Wine

“The country, not the state.”

I apply this phrase every time I tell anyone I’m going to Los Angeles to sample wines from Georgia. The addendum may have been for my own edification. I could hardly believe it myself. A month ago, I would have assumed any wine emblazoned with the word Georgia on its label would have come from The Peach State, probably 50 miles or so outside of Savannah. That was before I receive an invitation to drive up to Republique in L.A’s. Mid-Wilshire district to attend a seminar and try a few bona fide Georgian selections. Disbelief soon gives way to intrigue. I must check them out.

It takes me two trips around the block to find Republique’s valet. Los Angeles parking is weird. As I get out of my car, excited to explore a new-to-me wine scene, a memory shakes from my brain, one that’s either been forgotten or repressed. I’m not quite sure.

A few years ago, my wife and I are at an independent grocery store, picking up provisions for an evening with friends. It takes us one aisle stroll to realize we’re in a store specializing in Eastern European food and beverage, interspersed between typical American fare. We play it safe with the snacks and head to the alcohol aisle. Below the expected wall of vodka stands a row of wines we’d never seen before. A closer look reveals why: they’re all from Lithuania. We’re not playing it safe a second time.

Well, sort of. We revert to newbie wine buying status and pick up the bottle with the prettiest label. It’s a $5 bottle of red. We’re not expecting Bordeaux brilliance, naturally, but we’re hoping for mere drinkability. We bring it over to our friends and crack it open. It’s awful. We proceed to get the kitchen sink drunk.

Granted, we’re talking about a cheapo bottle of wine. Still, its ghost decides to haunt me at the most inopportune time. It makes me nervous. These wines of Georgia will be infinitely better than that woebegone dud, right?

They are better, and in a massive way. In fact, their whites are some of the most unique wines I’ve ever tasted.

The first thing you need to know about Georgian wines is they come from one of the oldest wine regions in the world; one that’s been producing juice for some 8,000 years. It’s intertwined with the fabric of their nationality. It’s also probably the most beleaguered region in the world. Every time the Muslims conquered the land – and there were several instances of conquering – they’d rip out vineyards. When they became part of the U.S.S.R, the region was charged to make glorious wine in glorious large industrial buildings that showed the glorious power of the Soviet Union. Only problem was, the wines weren’t glorious – they were mass-produced bottles of insipidness.

Georgian wine should have died because of these constant intrusions, and with it, an important part of their cultural heritage. Yet it survived because people took the country’s winemaking traditions underground – literally. Every time the country’s vines were under siege, families would secretly make wines in the basements of their homes using classic methods handed down from generation to generations. Without their brave pioneering efforts, the slate of Georgian wines being poured at the tasting probably wouldn’t exist.

That leads to the second thing you need to know. The Georgians are coming. At least, they’re trickling into the American market at a deliberate pace. It’s a movement born from a relatively organic shift in the country’s winemaking trade. There were only two types of Georgian winemakers in the first few years of the post-Soviet era; the big industrial bulwarks pumping out millions of bottles every year, and little projects only capable of pumping out a few hundred bottles per vintage. Neither type made it outside the country. For the longest time, there was nothing in-between. In the past several years, however, a middle ground populated by wineries capable of producing a few thousand bottles has emerged as a natural by-product of a maturing industry. These are the bottles matriculating stateside. You may get used to seeing them in your liquor store of choice in the next decade.

A few of the Georgian wines sampled.

But how are they? Before that question is answered, a few things to consider. Geographically speaking, Georgia is roughly on the same plane as the California/Oregon border, so they’re positioned for winemaking rather well. Also, while Georgia was dubbed “Russia’s Napa” by some, this doesn’t mean they’re beholden to the same techniques and tactics other big-league regions utilize. For instance, the grapes’ skins and stalks are used more prevalently in the fermentation process, which is often executed in underground clay pots. Finally, if you have no knowledge of Georgian wines, you won’t know anything about their grapes. They don’t grow Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel here – red fruit like Saperavi and Tavkveri or white fruit such as Rkatsiteli or Goruli Mtsvane is more their speed.

I take my seat with about two-dozen people in one of Republique’s second-floor semi-private rooms and settle in for a quartet of flights. Whites dominate each round, which is consistent with the culture – Georgia is a nation of white wine drinkers. But these aren’t ordinary whites. Some rock vibrant orange hues that make a tawny port look pale by comparison – a by-product of the unique winemaking process, we’re told. As I start making my way through the first flight’s trio of whites, I consistently detect a prevalence of crisp, dry fruit notes, particularly apple and pear. I’ve picked out these notes in other whites before, but they’ve rarely if ever been this strong. At the same time, they spark a familiarity on my palate that I can’t place.

We lead the second flight with a glass of 2015 Archil Guniava white; a blend of indigenous Georgian tsolikouri, tsitska, and krakhuna varietals. A dominant note of ground mustard runs roughshod over my palate. The surprising, if not shocking, flavor makes my mind click. I’ve had this note before, and its presence immediately reminds me why the dried fruit notes in the first round seemed so familiar. They weren’t from wine – they were from cider.

It’s a revelation – a thrilling, exciting, holy-crap-that-just-happened revelation. One I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years – certainly not in the 8,000 or so years Georgia has been producing wine. In that instant, Georgian wines go from curious to cool. It’s wine I can’t wait to share with the fellow cider fans in my life one day. I’ve never experienced this cross-libation thru-line with Napa or Bordeaux labels. I doubt I could.

The reds offer a more classical flavor profile. My favorite, the 2014 Orgo Saperavi, boasts serious black fruit, dark chocolate, and a touch of cedar. Even as I enjoy these, I can’t shake the thought of the whites’ cider-centric vibe. I can’t wait to talk about it, either. As the event shifts to Republique’s first-floor dining room for some self-guided tastings, I walk up to one of the event’s main speakers and share my eureka with the enthusiasm of a 1980s teenager that just heard Duran Duran for the first time. He calmly informs me those characteristics come from the skins and stems being present in fermentation. It’s a bit odd compared to the rest of the world, but at the same time, it’s just the way Georgia’s done it for centuries – above and below ground. I’m thankful that, judging by the wines poured, they have no intention of selling out this tradition.

Before I scurry off for a few more tastes, he says, “By the way, if you haven’t been, you’ve got to go to Georgia.”

I assume he is talking about the country, not the state.

In the Palm (Springs) of His Hand

Acclaimed Chef Stephen Wambach Finds an Oasis in the Coachella Valley

The first thing I notice about Stephen Wambach when I interview him is that he smiles. He smiles a lot. It’s not just a polite smile that chefs give during interviews to appear engaged, either. It’s the type of wide grin that, every time it’s flashed, conveys a feeling of “I can’t believe this is real.”

It’s real, all right, and it’s earned. Some of the wattage comes from his new stint as Executive Chef at 4 Saints and Juniper Table, the two main eateries at the Kimpton Rowan Hotel Palm Springs, the Kimpton Group’s Palm Springs property slated to open November 2017.  The rest of its power comes from the journey he’s taken to get here.

“I didn’t take the normal path,” he confesses. “I grew up in New York and was interested in getting into the industry, but I didn’t know anyone and didn’t have any formal training. When I tried to break into the business, the Internet wasn’t what it is now, so I went all over town dropping off my resume at all kinds of places. Eventually, I got a call from the Royalton Hotel in Manhattan, and that’s where I started. I’ll never forget how lucky I am that it worked out.”

Executive Chef Stephen Wambach

Landing the gig at the Royalton did more than work out. It sent Wambach on a career arc so stacked with connections and adventure, it almost seems like a pastiche from other chefs’ journeys. He’s worked with Michelin-starred chefs like Jean-Michel Lorain and Marc Meneau. His resume boasts stints at Michelin-starred restaurants L’Eperance in Burgundy and Restaurant Marc Forgione in Tribeca. He’s opened restaurants in Miami, Hong Kong, and Chicago; the latter city’s restaurant, Epic, landed on Esquire’s “10 Best New Restaurants” list in 2009. These merely represent a sample size of his achievements.

It’s also a career that’s seen its fair share of stories. “I had a chance to do a little work in Panama City,” he says. “When I’m down there, I get a call from a colleague, asking me if I want to help him open up a restaurant in Beirut. I thought ‘why not?’ Worst plane trip ever, by the way – it took me 40 hours to get there.”

Wambach’s phenomenal, globally-charged career demands that one question be asked: What leads a chef of his caliber to Palm Springs, a resort town of about 44,000 residents known more for its Sinatra-smooched past than its present? “It’s a quality of life thing,” he says. “I’ve been in big cities all of my life, and I love the quietness of the desert. I also like that I don’t have to deal with catching a subway or the hassle of a city commute. I can ride my bike to work if I want to – that’s refreshing to me at this stage in my career.”

While Wambach digs Palm Springs’ slower pace, he has no intention of blending into the scenery from a culinary perspective. This becomes evident halfway through the interview, when a waitress breaks in on Wambach mid-anecdote. “Sorry to interrupt,” she says. “We just pulled your cockscombs out of the freezer.”

“Thanks!” Wambach replies with a smile, natch. “I’m trying to create cockscomb chips for an appetizer,” he says to me nonchalantly.

He wouldn’t be able to hide from Palm Springs with or without the cockscombs. When the Rowan opens, it will automatically be crowned as the tallest building in Palm Springs.  At its top will be 4 Saints, a rooftop chef-driven restaurant offering dramatic views of the Coachella Valley landscape. The visuals alone promise to keep the place packed, but Wambach is refusing the venue to just be a pretty face. This is where the cockscomb chips will land if he pulls them off, and they’ll be joined by a host of other items ready to nudge the desert community’s palate forward, like foie gras bread & butter and sea urchin tofu with green apple-coriander salad, squid ink, and black sesame crisp. “I could take the easy way out and make it a place that serves burgers, sandwiches, and tacos,” he says. “But I can’t do that. The freedom I’m allowed to have at 4 Saints makes it too good of an opportunity to just play it safe.”

Rendering of the Kimpton Rowan Hotel Palm Springs

Wambach plans to balance his adventurousness at 4 Saints with Juniper Table’s more casual culinary approach. Situated on the ground floor, the eatery will be a more casual all-day option. Guests coming here can expect more traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner options with a touch of Mediterranean influence. “We want to make sure our guests have options,” he says. “Juniper Table allows us to provide something more laid-back.”

Regardless of venue, Wambach plans to govern both concepts with a distinct culinary philosophy that’s cognizant of his surroundings. “We’re in the desert, so I want to keep things clean and light,” he states. “We’ll have a big steak on the menu, of course, but there will also be plenty of fish options, and lots of dishes high in acidity. They’ll satisfy you, but you won’t feel uncomfortable like you may feel after having a big meal.”

As Wambach settles into his Palm Springs digs and preps for The Rowan’s November opening, he’s found constant inspiration from his cavalcade of previous experiences – it turns out working with people like Lorain and Meneau sparks creativity. It’s also been the impetus of great personal responsibility. “It’s my goal to teach my team of cooks to be the next generation of Coachella Valley chefs,” he says. “If you don’t teach, all of that knowledge you have dies with you. I don’t want that to happen. I was given a golden opportunity two decades ago by some incredible chefs, and I want to pay that opportunity forward to others. That’s how I think you measure personal success. It’s not what you achieve, it’s what those that work with you achieve.”

That’s something worth smiling about.

Thoughtful Sushi

A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon an anecdote from a Las Vegas chef, regarding the Pixar movie “Ratatouille.” He organized a weeknight field trip to a local cinema with 40 to 50 fellow chefs to catch the last showing of the flick on a Tuesday night, after all the serious dining patrons had returned to the land of loud ticket-spitting machines and free cocktails. The collective nestled into their seats and quickly realized they had commandeered the theater, giving them the freedom to act and react any way they damn well please without judgment. According to the anecdote, when they got to the moment where the film’s eponymous dish whisks the mind of briquette-souled food critic Anton Ego back to his mom’s perfect iteration of the dish as a child, a chef shot out of his chair like a Mentos-addled soda stream and proclaimed, “You see? THIS is why we do what we do!” Nobody shouted him down. They were too busy nodding in agreement.

It’s a great story, veracity be damned. It’s great because the sentiment plays just as well on the other side of the kitchen. I live for these Anton Ego moments, where a simple bite of food alters the fourth dimension just enough to make you a temporary time traveler within your own psyche. They’re my favorite bites without question. I have no idea how my taste buds and my inner photo book occasionally connect. I don’t care, really. I’m just glad that it does.

The best thing about taking a memory-triggering bite of food is that you have no idea when or where it’s going to happen. It’s not unlike the old relationship axiom that everyone tells you when you’re a dorky teenager. You can’t seek it out, you just got to let it happen. When it does occur, it’s fun to bask in its afterglow and deconstruct how and why it took place. Sometimes this is easy for me to do – it’s fairly obvious why a bite into a juicy burger from a mom and pop joint may evoke memories of childhood family barbecues. Then there are times when the sensation stems from a place so esoteric, it nearly feels like cognitive dissonance. Having my childhood memories triggered by sushi in deeply suburban Orange County, California qualifies as the latter.

Yorba Linda is a pretty slice of affluent suburbia tucked in the far northeast quadrant of Orange County. It’s stocked with gently undulating foothills, and select streets are lined with wide white post and rail fences to prevent neighborhood horses and their riders from accidentally veering into the road. Its limited freeway access also makes it a trek for most OC residents to visit. The restaurant scene here tends to reflect this logistic challenge; the city is loaded with chains and neighborhood family joints that, while buoyed by the devotion of locals, aren’t very alluring to outsiders needing to contend with rush hour traffic and overstuffed weekend schedules.

There is one exception: Sushi Noguchi. It’s in a strip mall along Yorba Linda’s main drag, a few doors down from a grocery store and a couple of doors up from a liquor store. Its unassuming location boosts its trustworthiness – Southern California’s best sushi joints tend to be in strip malls. When you walk through its nondescript storefront, you’re treated to bright woods, black and white family photos and flourishes of color, some of which are provided by the beautiful hunks of fish lining the bar where sushi chef and co-owner Hiro Noguchi crafts his magic. You’re also in the presence of OC’s finest sushi.

I say this now because I’ve been there several times. When I initially heard about it, I had trouble getting past the specter of driving 20 miles for sushi. There were places near my neighborhood that satisfied. All I could think of when I heard colleagues talk it up was, “is it worth the drive?” This question weighed heavily at first, but the inquiry’s poundage inquiry kept dropping each time another colleague raved and showed me photos of their sculpture-quality omakase – and there were many colleagues. Eventually, I felt like a weirdo for not embarking on the journey. When I finally went, my enthusiasm equaled my curiosity.

That I was willing to drive for sushi is nearly a story on its own. I used to be an ugly American when it came to raw fish for reasons that can only be chalked up to flimsy rationale. I was a teenager when sushi made its first hard, widespread splash in the Los Angeles area in the mid-80s. When it did make the scene, local lifestyle shows like “Eye on L.A.” presented the Japanese delicacy as some wackadoo fad du jour followed by trend-obsessed Angelinos. My brain latched onto this treatment like canon. I don’t think that I was ever turned off by the concept of eating raw fish, but I was definitely put off by the notion that eating sushi equated to chic Hollywood silliness. I came from a blue-collar family. We ate relatable food like chili and meatloaf. Sushi was too gauche.

I carried this stubborn position with me until a summer night in 1998. I was ironically in Hollywood, helping a friend that needed a house manager for a play his fledgling theater company was producing. About a half-hour before the space’s doors open to the public, one of the actors speed-walked up to me, a quartet of sushi piece semi-sandwiched between black Styrofoam and sloppily pulled back cellophane in his left hand.

“Hey man,” he said. “You want this?”

“Uh…sure?” I replied nervously.

“Cool,” he answered, slapping the container on an adjacent table. I didn’t think about things; I just reached down, grabbed a roll, and popped it in my mouth.

“Crap. I like it.”

I now realize my abnormality. The proper response would have been to be wowed by the discovery of a new and exciting food that had unexpectedly entered my life. Instead, I reacted with a twinge of disappointment. I’m not entirely sure where the emotion came from, either. It’s still debatable whether I was saddened because I willfully avoided an awesome food for over a decade or because I felt like a sell-out. All I know now is that the sushi probably wasn’t all that great. Sushi packed in Stryofoam and cellophane seldom excites. I also know that every time I indulge in quality sushi, there’s a part of me that feels like I am making up for lost time.

My wife and I take a seat at Sushi Noguchi’s sushi bar. We have ordered Hiro’s omakase, per the recommendation of every colleague that had dined here before. The leadoff dish comes out shortly after we pour sake for each other. It’s a visual stunner. Radiantly hued sashimi festoons each corner of the triangular plate – tuna, salmon, and yellowtail, simple yet sensual. They’re arranged diagonally, and each piece naturally directs the eye to the center, where two gorgeous, burly rolls of uni wrapped in seaweed boldly stand. Their golden shade is too alluring to let stand for long.

I take a slow bite of the uni. The oceanic essence of flavor bursts in my mouth. My eyes close without shutting. I’m no longer looking at the plate where the uni once stood. Instead, I’m 12 years old, hanging out amongst the rocky outcroppings of Point Fermin Park in San Pedro, California, a few slippery steps from the Pacific Ocean, in the shadow of a massive cliff. I’m precariously standing on a too-smooth rock, surrounded by tide pools of varying sizes. The brine fills my nostrils. The summer sun mildly taps my fair complexion. The surf and cliffs create a polyrhythmic beat as if it were a jazz fusion percussionist. I look down to spot a hermit crab in his latest makeshift shell darting from one crag to another. I look up and see my father on a broad, flat rock that’s dripping wet with the occasional intrusion of surf. His hair is not shock white. His knees have yet to betray him. He is the dad of my youth, the dad that still exists in my heart, the one that I still cling on to when I see him slowly amble to my house with hunched back and cane-addled gait. The visual lingers too fleetingly. It would have been too short if it lasted minutes. I return to reality with a slightly quivering lip.

“Everything okay?” my wife asks.

I breathe deeply. “Oh, yes,” I reply, leaning back in my chair. “I just had a moment. A very good moment.”

I finish off the uni, knowing full well that the next bite will not contain flashback material. That’s the way these things work. You cannot re-experience the unexpected once the veil has been lifted, no matter how transcendent the morsel. This seems especially true if the experience comes from highly odd origins. But I don’t care. A delicious piece of sushi sent me back and time so I could chill with my dad amidst rocky outcroppings. There’s no reason for me to get greedy.

About a month after my sushi-fueled fever dream, I’m in the midst of a father-daughters day with my two pre-teens. Our Friday morning excursion to the Long Beach Aquarium wrapped up quicker than anticipated, despite sitting down and watching a sea lion show and a documentary analyzing the Port of Long Beach’s insane daily bustle. Heading home isn’t an option given the summertime gorgeousness. I get an idea. We’re going to Point Fermin.

This decision is purely a product of logistics. Point Fermin is 25 miles from my house and tucked away from freeways. This normally makes it a pain to visit, yet the trip to the Aquarium cuts the slog in half. This make it perfect for me to pass my childhood happiness to the next generation.

We pull into Point Fermin’s parking lot, and the oldest excitedly points out the park’s centrally located lighthouse in a manner that I may have some thirty years ago. They scamper quickly toward the black and white-striped tower while I mosey behind under thick shade. The park is empty, save for the couple strolling hand-in-hand along the seawall. The chunky crunch of waves slapping cliffs grows with each step. It’s positively Kincaidian.

And all I can think about is Hiro’s uni.

My senses became engorged on the memory of this bite. The scent of the sea makes me miss the aromatics of the dish. I shut my eyes long enough to visualize the texture of the morsel. I breathe through my mouth to see if any tastes are triggered. It only succeeds in making me wonder when I’m going to get back there to enjoy the uni again, which I naturally hope is sooner than later – you know, making up for lost time and all that.

It’s a good thing Hiro’s uni keeps my mind occupied. Point Fermin is a fraction of what existed in my head. Its grass is unkempt and blotchy, its benches and pergolas distressed. The natural rock formation that leads to the tidepools I frolicked in is now forbidden territory, cordoned off by a hideous chain link fence. The barrier’s presence knocks me from my mental sushi loop long enough to recall the story of Mario Danelo, the USC placekicker who fell to his death around here. Even if the tragedy does not officially equate to the closure, it becomes self-correlation as I stare through its holes. I spy a pair of young guys slowly squeezing through a makeshift gash in the fence, carefully maneuvering past the sliced metal sticks that threaten to snag their T-shirts. Any personal temptation to do the same thing ends with my daughters’ voices. I sigh.

I gather the girls and head back to the car. Hiro’s sushi fades from memory by the time we hit the parking lot. “Did you have a good time?” I ask.

“Yes!” the eldest squeaks. “Can we come back and tour the lighthouse?”

“Sure we can!” I reply.

“Coolio,” she answers demurely.

We get back on the road, a big smile on my face. Sure, dropping by Point Fermin turned out to be a dud for me – apparently you can’t go to parks of your youth again, either. But I at least have the satisfaction of knowing that one day, there may be a day my daughters inadvertently flash back to the time spent at the park with their old man. Possibly because of a perfect bite of sushi.

The Race for Wine

It’s about fifteen minutes to midnight on a hot August night. I’m in front of my computer screen and fading fast, despite my best efforts to stay engaged. This isn’t easy, especially since I slept like garbage the night before. Nobody’s updating their social media feed, probably because they’re all in bed like I should. No new headlines are popping up on my favorite news aggregate site. The electronic Euro-style board game I have on my hard drive has ceased to be entertaining for the night. Even the heavy guitar riffs of Queens of the Stone Age’s “Rated R” album seems to lose its perk-up powers with each passing song. My eyes are heavy, my muscles tense, my butt sore. I want to stagger to my bed in the adjacent room and crash.

But I can’t. There are a handful of deeply discounted bottles of Zinfandel that’s one e-mail away from going on sale. I received the announcement of its impending delivery earlier in the afternoon. It’s the second such announcement I’ve received in as many weeks. I botched the previous sale because I failed to pounce when the it officially launched at 11:09 PM. I look at my computer’s clock. It’s 11:39 PM. They’re 30 minutes late.  “That’s cool,” I think while stifling yet another yawn. “That e-mail is going to hit my inbox any minute now. Yep. Any. Minute. Now.”


The Zinfandel causing my self-inflicted suffering is a 2014 reserve from VGS Chateau Potelle, a tiny Napa winery whose French-sounding name may conjure thoughts of pinkies-out sophistication. I must confess to expecting as much when my wife and I stopped by there last May, on the strength of a colleague’s recommendation.  I must also confess that when we signed up for a wine tasting, we primarily did so because each sample was paired with bites from the Michelin-starred restaurant La Toque, with each duo enjoyed amongst the flowers and babbling water features ensconced in the tiny property’s garden. I suppose this also means I’ve just confessed to being occasionally frou-frou by proxy, but whatever.

The bites were terrific, but it becomes obvious to us after the second glass that the wines were even better. We gush this revelation to our server around pairing number four.  After he responds with gratitude and a brief rundown of the next glass, the question arises.

“So, what does VGS stand for?” My wife asks.

“It’s not what you think, he responds, grinning slightly. “Then again, maybe it is.”

She leans forward, brow furrowed. “Does it mean ‘very good stuff’?

“Close. Very Good Shit.”

So much for the extended pinkies. Our server says according to legend, when the winery’s founder had friends over to sample the wines he made, they’d ask him to break out the small batches of wine he’d reserve for select occasions. In early 1970s Napa vernacular, this equated to asking for not just the good shit, but the very good shit. The story alone compels us to give them our e-mail and our business in the form of a Zin and a red blend. We crack open the Zin with friends a couple months later, some 430 miles away from the property’s seductive setting. It’s delicious.

Hence the reason I’m struggling to stay awake. The bottles they’re offering is their modern-day very good shit, marked down to make room in their cellar for the upcoming harvest. I’m not missing out like I did the prior week, when naivete and stupidity overwhelmed my brain. I knew it was coming thanks to the advanced announcement, but I didn’t know what time it would arrive. When it did hit my inbox just after 11:00 PM, I froze. Specifically, the part of my brain in charge of telling my right hand to reach for my wallet went on strike. The rest of my noggin over-compensated with questions: “Are we sure we want the Zin?” “Did we really discuss getting a bottle?” Did we really discuss getting two bottles?” “Should I talk to my wife about this in the morning?” I went to bed conflicted and wine-less. I woke up to a big mistake.


It’s now midnight. I’m done with hopping on Facebook and counting how many of my friends’ kids had their first day of school that morning. The Queens of the Stone Age have put away their instruments. I start to contemplate visiting Reddit, despite my better judgement. The email has yet to arrive.

The bed is calling out for me at this point, although that could just be the sound of our dog struggling to find comfort amid our home’s second-floor balminess. I want to give up, but I can’t – I know that Zin is going to live up to VGS in its non-acronym state. It’s going to be fantastic. I must persist. I must stay awake. I start having a weird sort of empathy for the main character in the Jack London short story “To Build a Fire.” Very Good Shit will apparently do this to you.

The night ends about as well as the story does for London’s unnamed protagonist. I give up at 12:15 on the dot, a couple of minutes after one final ping in my inbox reveals nothing more than a spam for a tactical flashlight. I shut off my PC and crawl into bed, far too tired to feel defeated by an email that never came.

The email arrived at 12:18.

I try in vain to buy a bottle the next morning. Alas, my purchasing power proves to be futile against those that stayed up three extra minutes longer than me. The loss I couldn’t feel when I drifted to slumber hits me with the force of Negan’s barbed-wire bat. It’s a little tough to focus the rest of the morning. Yet as the day progresses, I find resolve. I’ll be better prepared to hunker down for a late night the next time Chateau Potelle drops a deal like this in my inbox, whenever that may be. I just need to figure out how to appropriately ready myself. Perhaps I’ll throw on the latest Queens of the Stone Age album while I wait.

California Foie Flap: Hold the Panic

Last Friday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said California was once again free to enforce a ban on foie gras. PETA rejoiced. Chefs bristled in anger. The news came so abruptly, it felt like an end-of-the-week data dump. Its swiftness caught Michelin-star chef Josiah Citrin of Santa Monica’s Melisse off-guard, and it also caused mass confusion amongst diners. I saw more a few people on my social media feed fearful that they had just a couple of days to sneak in a sliver of fatty goose or duck liver before it disappeared from the menu.

Fear not – now is not the time to rush out and stuff your face with foie. It’s not going anywhere, at least for the near future.  The ruling leaves a two-week window for groups to appeal the decision. When this happens, it will initiate a process of deliberation that will effectively put the kibosh on implementing the ban for months. This is most assuredly a “when” and not an “if” scenario. The most famous name in the foie gras game, New York’s Hudson Valley Foie Gras, has already gone on record saying they’ll appeal the ruling, much like they did when the first ban dropped in 2012. By the time you read this, they may have already filed their appeal.

You shouldn’t panic about never being able to eat foie gras in California again, either. The ban restricts the selling of foie in restaurants, but not necessarily the serving of the delicacy. This creates a massive legal loophole that renegade chefs were happy to exploit through complimentary foie and unusual marked-up offerings five years ago. Thanks to this loophole, a $32 serving of crostini bread with raspberry compote wasn’t an oddity. It was code. That completely legal dodge is still part of the ruling, and I suspect that if the ban does go into effect, a greater number of chefs will take advantage of its presence. It probably won’t take too much leg work to find these rebels, either.

If you’re against the ban, don’t treat this ruling as an impetus to engage with the ruling’s ardent, sign-toting supporters. If you enjoy foie, the ruling undoubtedly upset you. Even if you’re ambivalent toward the delicacy, you may view the decision as an intrusion of personal freedom, something that you may find as digestible as a fast food burrito consumed at 1:00 AM. In either case, chances are great you’re socially ensconced in a social hive of like-minded individuals, ready to commiserate over the potential loss of a culinary indulgence. It’s in your best interest to keep it confined to such strata.

The most vocal advocates of the ban tend to be extremists in the animal rights movement. This is certainly the sector of the anti-foie movement that gets the most attention. Giving death threats to chefs will grab a fair share of headlines. These unsavory people are nothing more than a rich vein of frustration for foie aficionados. They are not interested in having genuine discussions with you about the issue, but they have no problem prodding and provoking to get a rise out of you. If I may be so bold as to inject a little hockey parlance, they are the equivalent of an on-ice agitator; a player that will engage in dirty, if not occasionally dangerous, play, but will turtle and hide when confronted by their actions. These players and their actions tend to remove dignity from the game (more so than the “goons,” but that’s a topic I’ll dive into if I ever start a hockey blog). Conversely, the loudest of the anti-foie advocates tend to strip relevance from the general cause of animal rights due to their behavior. This sector also seems to lack regard or awareness of the damage their actions do to their general ideology, which makes them look unhinged. That’s reason alone to not engage with them, no matter the promise of catharsis you may think it may offer.

However, if you side with the foie ban yet reject such pot-stirring tactics, this is the time to let your voice be heard. The crux of the foie flap is almost wholly focused on a lack of humane treatment of geese or ducks. When this nugget is not forcibly encamped in “good vs. evil” slots, it can become a touchstone to explore overarching concepts of growing and raising food. If you’re a rational ban supporter, you’ll find those on the other side of the fence more than willing to engage in this level of conversation. There’s a reason for this. When food is elevated to a certain degree, it can double as a key component of an ongoing educational process driven by the discussion of concepts and ideals. A talk about the ethics of foie gras and how it correlates to humane methods of food production fits this process rather well. It’s a discussion worth having. Unfortunately, because of the extremists that lay claim to your point of view, you will have to be the one to initiate the dialogue. But don’t be afraid to start this conversation. Instead, take comfort in knowing the late Charlie Trotter was on your side.

There will be plenty of time to have this type of talk. Foie gras is still on the menu in California, and will be for quite a while. Based on what happened the last time around, I don’t think the ban will survive the inevitable appeal process, although as someone that enjoys foie gras, this could be admitted wishful thinking. We shall see.

The Obligatory First Post

There’s a problem with first posts to any content-driven website, be it a blog, online magazine, or whatever its readers call it on their end. The first paragraph, like the one you’re reading now, doesn’t tell you jack about what follows, what to expect, or anything useful that a reader may be able to glean about the site’s content. This is no exception. In fact, it was pretty much written to get that whole first paragraph jazz out of the way.

But now that we’re all here, let’s just get formalities over with and allow me to welcome you to The Lazy Hunter. I hope you dig it, and I hope this isn’t the last time you drop by. The site may be sparse now, but that will change as time moves forward.

At this point, I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Rich Manning, and I’ve been doing the professional freelance writing thing since 2004, although it wasn’t my full-time gig until 2010. Past and present publications I’ve written for include Gayot, Tasting Panel, Somm Journal, and a bunch of local Orange County magazines and websites. That’s the glamorous stuff. The ad copy and web content development that I also do is considerably less glamorous, unless an “About Us” page for Minneapolis plumbers somehow quickens your pulse.

More to the point, I’m a guy that’s grown tired of what has become of food, drink, and travel writing since it has migrated online.  A lot of what passes muster on these topics these days is either hyperbole-driven sensationalism or shiny, happy quasi-advertorial slog; bad trends made worse by the presence of ghoulish typos and mixed metaphors. It drives me a bit bonkers. Not because I want to say I’m better – I’m a writer, therefore I’m in constant fear that someone will discover I’m nothing more than a hack – but because I want something more as a reader.  It’s my sincere hope that I can provide you with something extra.

The concept of The Lazy Hunter is to share essays, stories, and news about food, drink, travel, and the ethereal spirit that somehow joins them at the cosmic hip. At their best, these stories will not break the cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell.” At their worst, they will hopefully be compelling enough for you to revisit here to see what may be next. For better or worse, the articles will not be clickbait. I’m not a fan of the style, and I will admit to having daydreams of it resembling a shadow in the shade one day. However, I resided myself long ago that those kinds of sites are here to stay, and their content will remain embedded in our social media feed because we have loved ones in our lives that enjoy sharing that kind of slop. I’m merely seeking out a way to co-exist as an alternative for those that want a little more substance out of what they read digitally.

It’s an alternative that doesn’t seek to tell you about food, drink, and travel.  Its aim is to show you why food, drink, and travel matter so much.  You’re not going to get beat over the head here with Instagrams taken from a media dinner so I can tell you how everything was amazeballs. What you’ll see instead is a dive into the observational and personal side of things, because those are the elements where passion and life experiences originate. These tales could be built around a conversation with a local chef at a farmer’s market.  They could touch on an annoying drink trend that is inexplicably ripping through the bar community.  They could convey the feeling of joy that can only come from accidentally stumbling into a nondescript hole-in-the-wall joint in some unfamiliar city in the midst of uncomfortable circumstances.  These are the things that stay lodged in our minds for decades, long after the edible elements of a quasi-unforgettable five course meal start to disappear.  These are the things The Lazy Hunter intends to share.

Some of the posts you’ll read here will be short and sweet.  Others may fall into the “print it off and go to the bathroom” length.  Regardless of length, I promise to be as genuine as possible at every turn. All positives and negatives will be organically cultivated and presented as such. Praise will be given to something or someone when appropriate and earned; criticisms will occur when necessary, but they’ll be bereft of needless bashing and self-righteous snark. Okay, maybe just a little snark. It depends on how warm my air-conditioner-free office gets.

The Lazy Hunter isn’t going to be the “next big thing” or some such poppycock. It’s simply a place where stories can be told and news can be shared. Please enjoy.

Rich Manning

Founder and Chief Dork

The Lazy Hunter