Santa Maria Sun / Eats
The Bear and Star restaurant opening in Los Olivos
On a warm Tuesday night in April, Chef John Cox nervously moved from room to room as crowds of well-dressed diners, well-wishers, and food critics flooded into the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos.
The crowd who filled the space was there to welcome The Bear and Star, Eli and Ashley Parker’s new restaurant in the hotel and spa. Cox, formerly of the Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, is joined in the kitchen by chef de cuisine Jeremy Tummel of Stillwater Bar and Grill in Pebble Beach and sous chef Trent Shank
“The concept was refined ranch cuisine,” Cox said. “I wanted to tie in my own family history growing up in Dallas and also Fess Parker’s roots from San Angelo and Fort Worth.”
Cox, who is also a partner in the venture, decided the restaurant needed a real Texas smoker, the kind you find in every legitimate barbecue venue in the South. He order a custom built one from Ennis, Texas. The pickup for the smoker turned into a full-fledged barbecue tour of Texas, complete with an entry into a barbecue competition in San Angelo (they placed third in brisket, which isn’t too shabby).
“We did a recipe and development tour,” Shank said. “We went to about 10 of the best barbecue places throughout Texas, learning all the tips and tricks.”
Along the way, they stopped at Pecan Lodge in Dallas, Perini Ranch in Buffalo Gap, The Salt Lick and Franklyn Barbecue in Austin, and several others. The chefs also stopped in Lockhart, Texas, the unofficial barbecue capital of the Lonestar State.
“Perini does a classic Texas barbecue, they do a really unique technique where they burn down all their mesquite in these open burn barrels and they put it into the smoke pit so it has a much more mild flavor.”
Cox brought a bit of Santa Maria style to Texas, serving tri-tip alongside Tom Perini’s brisket to more than a hundred people.
“We learned a lot, like how to do brisket, how to do the sides, and we used that for the competition in San Angelo.”
But we’re more than 300 miles away from the raging debate over best Texas ’cue. At The Bear and Star, it’s all about translating the Lonestar barbecue plate into a refined meal for Santa Ynez Valley diners.
“We’re not trying to do a fusion of California and Texas,” Cox said. “If I was going to cook for my grandmother, who’s a sixth generation Texan, how would I cook for her?”
The chef uses Bear and Star’s smoked ketchup as an example of their methods. Tomatoes are roasted for 12 hours in the smoker, then pureed with vinegar and salt.
“We think it’s an absolutely delicious ketchup,” he said. “But it’s not spherified ketchup. It’s not ketchup that we turn into a foam. We didn’t put it into a smoke gun and serve it under a cloche. It is ketchup. If I was cooking for my family, that’s how I’d do it.”
While Cox might shy away from the elaborate performative nature of modernist cuisine, he’s not opposed to embracing the science behind some of the more high-tech cooking techniques that have surfaced in kitchens in recent years. Take for example the rotovap, which sat prominently on display in the restaurant during the pre-opening event.
A rotovap (or more formally a rotary evaporator) is a device that helps concentrate the flavor of foods without altering their flavor by cooking them at too high a temperature. If you want to bring out the flavor of a carrot, you would cook it long enough until it reduced to a concentrated version. However, in doing so, you have to crank up the heat so high that you inevitably alter the chemicals of the food, thereby changing their flavor. (Think about what happens when you burn food and how bad it tastes afterward). What a rotovap essentially does is to allow a chef to lower the temperature at which food cooks.
“It reduces the boiling temperature down from 212 [degrees], which is most liquid, to about 140 [degrees],” Shank explained. “You reduce things that you want to keep the natural flavors of.”
Shank said they had already tested a carrot and beet syrup, using carrot juice that they were able to reduce without actually “cooking” it. The resulting syrup retains the sugar of a whole carrot, with the smell and taste of a carrot, minus the texture.
Shank said one of the things they plan to try next with the machine (which can cost up to $40,000), is a Bloody Mary with a beef consomme ice cube. By reducing beef stock down to a demi-glace, they can freeze it. As it melts, the cube releases the beef flavor into the cocktail.
Highlights of the menu include gnocchi stroganoff with mushrooms, catfish with refried black eyed peas and blackened smoked tomato sauce, and locally sourced quail with farro risotto, bay laurel, and red wine demi glace. Not to mention steaks and burgers, all made from the Wagyu beef raised at the Fess Parker ranch.
“We’ve been feeding them grains from the brewery, grape pomace from the winemaking process,” Cox said. “We’ve been babying these animals so we can get them at the right weight so we can use them in the restaurant.” Cox said a tremendous amount of love and care goes into the beef, from controlling the diet and ensuring it’s well cared for, to dry-aging the steaks inside the chef’s room. “At the end of the day, you’re going to have a simple steak with a few sides,” he said. “But the amount of love and work that went into that is going to be unparalleled.”
Cox said that after 15 years of cooking ornate multi-course meals, he’s ready to do something more accessible for diners who appreciate fine dining but can’t necessarily do it every night of the week.
“It’s taking the best culinary technique that we can and combining that with the best ingredients that we can,” Cox said. “And there are the best ingredients in the world right here.”
Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose’s favorite non-Lockhart barbecue spot is Miller’s, in Belton, Texas. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Speaking of incredible eateries in Los Olivos, The Wine Merchant Cafe is offering roasted local vegetables as an appetizer (pictured), a sort of fond adieu to the winter vegetable season. Fresh veggies such as carrots, cauliflower, smoked mozzarella, and beautiful whole roasted garlic are including in this dish. Kiss winter goodbye one last time at 2879 Grand Ave., Los Olivos.
• I know we’re probably exhausted trying to pick our favorite pinot noirs here in pinotland, but I have another one I want to throw on the table. Babcock Winery’s 2013 pinot noir comes from vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills. Black fruit, cherry, and a good dose of earthiness make this one a real standout. Get it at 5175 E. Highway 246, Lompoc.
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