Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon: Aioli Bodega Espagnola

Tapas are meant to be a communal cuisine, eaten with sangria and beer, in the company of friends. However, they are no less pleasurable when dining alone. While in Sacramento for Foodista's International Food Bloggers Conference (IFBC) last month, I went off the grid one afternoon and enjoyed a memorable lunch at Aioli Bodega Espagnola on L Street.

I had noticed Aioli the day before when I visited Capital City Beads across the street, but wanted to explore all my options  before settling on the place for my solitary repast. I was anticipating the big "Farm-to-Fork" Feast at IFBC that evening, and wanted to experience a restaurant that was more off the beaten path of IFBC.

Aioli is located in an area of midtown Sacramento called the Handle District, named for its resemblance to San Francisco's Panhandle, a park that connects Golden Gate Park to some hip neighborhoods like Hayes Valley and Haight-Ashbury. Like the Panhandle, the Handle District looks like the handle of a cooking vessel, more of a deep pot than a frying pan.

Fittingly, the Handle District is home to a number of restaurants, wine bars, and coffeehouses. With its quaint yellow awnings, Aioli has graced L Street for 22 years. It seemed like just the sort of place that I prize whether at home or away: a place that locals can enjoy in peace while visitors from out-of-town marvel at its excellent food and low-key atmosphere.

Walking into the restaurant's nearly empty back patio was like being the first one to arrive at a party - indeed, the space looked like someone's backyard. Two women were seated at what appeared to be their regular table; otherwise, I had the patio to myself. I could picture it eventually filling with diners, but reveled in the quiet serenity of the moment. I chose a table partially shaded by trees and a large mosaic-embellished fireplace and sat down, breathing in the sunlit green of the trees and the blissful stillness.

Mediterranean food - especially tapas - holds an eternal quality that I can't easily explain. We've fetishized foods like pizza, olive oil, and spanakopita to the point of caricature. But Spanish bodega fare is relatively unsullied by the American tendency to oversimplify ethnic cuisines into an "It's a Small World" shadow of their true selves.

At Aioli, this is particularly true. While undisputed Spanish classics like paella Valenciana and flan are featured on the menu, the real genius lies in dishes that reflect Spain's multicultural heritage. The menu included viera en jengimbre (scallops with an orange-ginger sauce), gravlax, and pasta al Amatriciana, dishes that I wouldn't ordinarily expect at a Spanish restaurant.

Erin Ergenbright's essay, "Table for One" describes eating alone as "an uncomfortable intersection between the public and the private." I have gained the sense over the years, that food servers are a little embarrassed by and for the lone female diner, in addition to sometimes being downright inhospitable. When my server does not resort to the latter behavior, I am either treated with sexless deference by the male servers, or the obsequious pity reserved for maiden aunts and absentminded grandmothers by the female servers.

My server that day did neither of these. He was businesslike but cordial, if such a combination exists. He graciously answered my questions about soy allergens (so far, Spanish food is happily devoid of such) and even cautioned me against ordering too much food when I began to request half a page of menu items. 
When he began to bring my meal to the table, I understood why.

I started with a small dish of creamy aioli made with white beans and garlic. Despite the popular misunderstanding of aioli as a sort of mayonnais-y sandwich spread, this dreamy dip was more like a thinner and creamy hummus. The best thing about dining alone is that you can double-dip, which I did with tiny discs of a yeasty and hearty baguette. A bowl of tiny olives gleamed at me like oily, earthy jewels. The fact that they still contained their pits was a reminder to take my time and added to my enjoyment of this leisurely meal.

I was trying to keep from polishing off all the bread and aioli when my food server showed up with my entree of pincho morunos de cordero - skewers of tender grilled, marinated lamb in a red wine sauce. An unexpected blend of red peppers and mint honored both Spain's Moorish heritage and the complexity of the lamb. The languid gaminess of the meat was just right with the spices that lingered on my palate.

The dappled shade over my table was subsiding with the intensity of the afternoon sun. A few more diners had joined me on the patio - all older women. One of them was alone at a table in front of me, facing the restaurant and calmly drinking a glass of sangria. Five other ladies arrived and seated themselves at a table at the rear of the patio and I tried to guess if they were a book club, former classmates, or members of a family.

I probably think too much about this, but I am still pretty self-conscious about eating alone in public. As women, we are brought up to be more communal and lone females have culturally been considered suspect. I sat there hoping that one day I would be as self-possessed with dining alone as the lady with the sangria seemed to be, and realized that at least for that afternoon, I was.

That being said, I did end up going indoors for my dessert as the legendary Sacramento heat was beginning to assert itself even more. I ordered pera "Aioli" - a pear braised in red wine and spices for dessert with a cup of coffee. I let the food server know that I would be moving inside and seated myself at the empty bar - at least I thought it was empty.

A man in a white linen shirt was sitting at a far corner of the bar, eating a steak that covered two-thirds of the plate. He was bald, in an appealing Jean-Luc Picard sort of way and wore fashionably framed glasses. I decided that he must have been the owner, judging from the hurried way he ate his lunch while still exuding a presence that said he was still in charge.

After a few minutes of polite silence, I finally asked him if he was the owner and when he confirmed this, I told him how much I was enjoying Aioli. I told him I was in Sacramento for IFBC and began to ask him questions about Aioli's menu, much of which comes from his native region of Andalusia.

Reda Bellarbi described tapas as "not a meal," as we seem to have interpreted it here in the U.S., but food that you drink with. Each tapas bar is known for a particular specialty; these small plates were free, and customers paid for their beverages.

We chatted about how nobody "owns" any one ingredient. It is important to remember that foods that are typically identified with a particular culture - tomatoes with Italian food, raw fish with Japanese food, or corn with Mexican food, to name a few - are shared by more than one group. Bellarbi told me that without the discoveries of the New World (which is now approximately 400 years old), the Mediterranean diet would  have continued to consist of cabbage, artichokes, olives, and wheat.

My dessert arrived and I chatted for a while longer with Bellarbi when the demands of running a restaurant broke the mutual reverie of food, history, and the art of living simply but well. Bellarbi had somehow managed to eat the huge steak without spattering his white shirt and while having a conversation. He excused himself and began to tend the host station while his two food servers covered the now bustling restaurant. As I was leaving, I admired a huge bronze statue of a member of the Guardia Civil, the oldest law enforcement agency in Spain, dating back to the mid-1800s. Bellarbi proudly explained its history to me and posed next to the towering sculpture.

I left Aioli feeling rather full, but refreshed. I took my time walking back to the conference hotel, and stopped at Old Soul Co. and bought a brownie and a lemonade to save for that late afternoon sugar crash. I attended a session on writing about culinary travel writing led by bloggers Amy Sherman (Cooking with Amy), Jessica Van Dop DeJesus (The Dining Traveler), and Jennifer Sweeney, director of public relations for Visit California.

The Farm-to-Fork Feast took place after this last session of the day, in a shady walkway between the Hyatt Regency and the Community Center Theater. The dinner for about 200 was prepared by Chef Jason Poole from Dawson's, the Hyatt's AAA Four Diamond restaurant. I enjoyed a salad of the freshest arugula I have ever tasted and an alternative vegetable entree, as the free-range chicken entree contained soy. This appeared to be a fancy succotash, topped with zucchini strips and surrounded by potatoes.

I chatted with my tablemates about the vagaries of foodie destinations and enjoyed the fashion show of the sari-clad fans of Gurdas Maan, a Punjabi singer and actor, who were streaming into the theater next door with their dates, children, and even grandparents. We commented on the multigenerational reach of music and the tolerance of a culture that appeared to think nothing of partying with its elders. We talked about how Denver is a comer as a culinary destination, and how Hawaii has been totally overlooked as a foodie haven, with its wealth of diverse ethnic cuisines and exotic bounty of ingredients.

Mostly, I took in the space - the enormous expanse of white tablecloths, the rustic flower arrangements that included of all things, ears of corn; and the delicious aromas that emanated from the wine and the meal as food servers tended to our party of nearly 200 guests. While the Farm-to-Fork dinner stood in sharp contrast to the tranquil setting of my lunch at Aioli, I still moved in that calm space for days afterward.

Whenever I am in a city other than L.A., the first thing I notice is how nowhere else is as crowded. Our traffic is epic, our disregard for other human beings in the struggle to do the day-to-day things has come to tragic proportions. I think this is why I blog about food - the preparation of it takes some level of concentration and while the consumption of it on the part of the diner does not require a lot of thought, in the right environment, the enjoyment of food can be rejuvenating and transforming.

The most valuable souvenir I brought home from IFBC was a sense of well-being that comes not only from good food but from enjoying it in a setting where it feels like one has room to breathe. We all need community and companionship. But we also need to be able to hear our own thoughts in order to share them with others and to appreciate theirs.

I think this is why I write about food. The need for it is a common thread that connects us all, and the love of it - its history, preparations, artistry, and the pride that those who grow or create it have - can bring out the best in celebrating humanity. It was wonderful to explore this further at IFBC in Sacramento, where despite the creativity and opportunity that flourishes in the food community, there is still room to grow and breathe.







Thursday, August 11, 2016

Baggage Claim: Unpacking IFBC in Sacramento Creates Renewed Fervor for Food Blogging

Unpacking the experience of Foodista's International Food Bloggers Conference two weeks ago is a bit like actually unpacking my huge swag bag of goodies from the Friday Night "Taste of Sacramento" bash, a task that took me several days since I had to hit the ground running at work when I returned from the weekend.

There were some obvious treasures, like the bamboo and silicone cooking spoon, "spork," and spatula from the California Cling Peach Board. There were some things that had intrinsic value but that I didn't know yet what to do with, like the generous bags of succulent dried figs from California Figs and the candy-like glass beads that I bought at Capital City Beads. And there were things that I am reluctantly letting go of, like the uber-yummy box of "Tango" cherry tomatoes from Windset Farms that I rationed out for a week (where in the world can I get more?!)  - and the original draft of this post, which to my chagrin, I accidentally deleted.

Peachy keen: Caprese salad with cling peaches,
basil, and walnuts, served up by the California
Cling Peach Board.
But the truly lasting souvenir of my visit to the "Farm-to-Fork" capital of the Golden State has been the effect of attending IFBC. Although I learned that there are a few other such events for food bloggers, the idea of gathering with other like-minded individuals - many of whom also have day jobs that advocate in the interests of the public - has been inspiring. If one can feel more grounded in a pursuit that at times can seem indulgent and frivolous, I can honestly say that IFBC did that for me.

It was heartening to learn that not all food blogs are dedicated to dreamy photos of perfectly iced cakes or truculent declarations of what constitutes perfect barbeque. And it was enlightening to not only hear from bloggers, diners, purveyors, and chefs, but from a largely unsung part of the foodie hierarchy - the farmers, growers, and ranchers who produce the foods that not only California but the entire nation, depend upon and enjoy.

Driving up the 99 - my choice because it would be more scenic than the 5 - was one long meditation on food and the environment that creates it. I had never seen the central part of the state before, and the scenery seemed organically synced to my driving soundtrack. Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt's 17-minute version of "Bye Bye Blackbird"  played me out until I lost the signal to KJAZZ 88.1 somewhere between the San Fernando Valley and Bakersfield. Switching to the crate of CDs I had brought along, Los Lobos and Bruce Springsteen added a poignant aural backdrop to the serenity of cows and sheep grazing in arid, Manila envelope-tan fields. Orderly rows of grapevines, almond and pistachio trees, and corn appeared a bit more promising. Even the road afforded a surreal sight, with trucks pulling huge steel-mesh trailers dotted the highway, filled with hundreds of pounds of opalescent tomatoes, white onions that scattered their papery husks like confetti in the wind, and other vegetables. I would follow them distractedly as Atalanta went after the golden apples, lose them in my lead-footed haste, and meet up with them again, miles away.

A merry chase: Apples are a girl's best friend - sort
of. Persistent suitor Hippomenes thwarted
Atalanta's alpha female by tossing
shiny objects in her path.
Sacramento proved a great host city for IFBC with the unofficial and overarching theme of "America's Farm-to-Fork Capital." While there are many regions in the U.S. where farm-to-fork is also a movement, you have to admit that California produces a staggering percentage of the nation's produce, including specialty crops like wine and nuts.

A 2013 article in Western Farm Press states that thanks to California's soil and climate, the seemingly endless variety of crops grown here - including walnuts, plums, celery, and garlic -  represent percentages in the the high 90s of the nation's harvest. Indeed, the label of "California" that precedes figs, walnuts, olives, almonds, and any number of other signature crops has long designated their pedigree of sunny fields and an idyllic Mediterranean climate.

A verdant flatbread pizza with
California Figs, served up
at IFBC's "Taste of Sacramento"
bash.
Sadly, that famed climate in California is cause for concern with the ongoing drought. For miles, I saw signs for a local movement throughout the San Joaquin Valley that archly inquired if growing food was a "waste" of water. For example, almonds are a notoriously water-consuming crop. But without these signature products, the state's economy - to say nothing of its identity as the land of plenty, would be jeopardized.

M.F.K. Fisher wrote, "First we eat, then we do everything else." I would amend that to say that before we get to eat, there is everything else to do. IFBC showcased not only the great talent among writers, chefs, farmers, and other stakeholders in the state's food community, but the inherent humanity among those who spend their lives and careers in the study of how we eat.

A panel discussion featured three food bloggers whose passion for writing and food led somewhat organically but surprisingly in directions to do good. Amber Stott founded The Food Literacy Center, a nonprofit based in Sacramento that goes into low-income elementary schools to, as its mission statement declares says, "inspire kids to eat their vegetables." Catherine Enfield was able to create the Sacramento Food Film Festival, which organically has become the Food Literacy Center's signature fundraiser. And Rodney Blackwell, who writes Burger Junkies, ended up founding the Sacramento Burger Battle to highlight the city's best burger chefs and raise money for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.

Another notable session was a blind tasting of olive oils led by Dan Flynn, director of the UC Davis Olive Center and Henry "Hoby" Wedler, a sensory scientist and founder of Accessible Science, a nonprofit that provides blind and visually impaired youth with learning experiences in science, utilizing their heightened senses of taste and smell. Wedler also hosts the "Tasting in the Dark" experience for Francis Ford Coppola Winery. Their presentation addressed the many controversies over olive oil quality, use, and health benefits.

Along with discussions of the more nobler aspects of social justice, and the conscientious production, purchase, and preparing of food, delegates to IFBC had the opportunity to participate in one very critical activity: eating. Proximity to vineyards, world-renowned produce, and the creative food community of Central California, Sacramento has become a foodie mecca that rivals even a metropolis such as Los Angeles - without the traffic.

Lindsay's new Party Picks can turn that next martini
into one of your "five-a-day" with more than the
ubiquitous olive.
The "Taste of Sacramento" reception on Friday night started IFBC with a bang. For me, there was a nostalgic thread running through it, with exhibits that recall a Southern California childhood. Jimboy's Tacos were an unexpected treat that channeled my favorite Taco Bell crunchy tacos - but way, way better and without the politically incorrect signage.

I finally learned that "cling" peaches are a variety of fruit that does not easily release the stone when ripe. This allows the peaches to retain their shape when undergoing the canning process. While I am not a great fan of canned fruit, having eaten my share of it in the culinarily beige 1970s, I was pretty impressed by the "Caprese" salad of cling peaches, walnuts, basil, and mozzarella cheese served up by representatives of the California Cling Peach Board. And Lindsay, purveyors of those buttery black olives that as kids we all liked to wear like thimbles on our fingers, previewed Party Picks, tiny skewers of their cocktail olives and pickled vegetables, ready to embellish your next shaken-not-stirred.

Poached pear in wine at Aioli
Bodega Espanola.
One of my favorite parts of any trip is souvenirs, especially the edible kind. I went off the IFBC grid on Saturday afternoon and had one of the best meals of my life at Aioli Bodega Espanola, a local favorite on L Street, in an artsy neighborhood near the Capital. On the way back to L.A., I picked up treats from Nugget Market, including my favorite Guittard chocolate chips for baking or nibbling, and picked up some Santa Barbara Pistachio Company - in Santa Barbara, which felt way cooler than buying them at Whole Foods back home.

Whenever I return home from a trip, it still feels like I am in a new place, even though I have returned without fanfare to my usual routines and habits. For a while, all of those well-worn path, while familiar, seem to harbor new possibilities.

I'm looking forward to IFBC next year, which will be held again in Sacramento. Being able to see where our food comes from In the meantime, as I recall the conference in this blog, enjoy my edible mementos, and share my experiences with friends and family who have been so supportive of GMS, I will continually unpack my "suitcase" of impressions and with them the ability to see blogging about food through new eyes and think about where it will lead me in the future.


Sunday, August 7, 2016

Photo Finish: GMS Now on Instagram

A feast for the eyes: GMS is now on Instagram. Check out my latest - and some not-so-latest - candid snaps of food, art, places, and other wonders!