Sunday, June 16, 2019     Volume: 20, Issue: 15

Santa Maria Sun / Eats

The Rebeccamendies: The Best Food and Drinks of 2018


I’m a sucker for awards shows (I wear an actual fancy dress to watch the Academy Awards from my house, and I treat the Emmys like a religious holiday). With the Golden Globes wrapping up and the Oscars right around the corner, what better time to announce the first ever Rebeccamendies, my picks for the very best of the best of the Central Coast food scene.

Alma Rosa Winery’s 2016 El Jabali Chardonnay is delicate and well balanced between fruitiness and acidity. Grown and produced in Buellton, it stands out as one of the best local wines sampled this year.

The template for the document I open to write these columns starts with the phrase, “I ate amazing food.” Nothing was truer in 2018, a year when I learned more about food and our local food economy than I thought imaginable. Also, apparently I ate a lot of food. So much food. My personal trainer thanks you for supporting this column and keeping him in a job. With that vast array of knowledge behind me, here are my picks for 2018’s Rebeccamendies:

Best Main Course: Cultura Mole with Pork Cheeks and Safflower Tortilla

Bear and Star Restaurant, Los Olivos
In September, I was invited by chef John Cox to participate in an unusual Chef’s Table Dinner that paired him with chef Michelle Estigoy and co-owner Sarah Kabat-Marcy of Cultura in Carmel. Estigoy worked with Cox to design an unforgettable six-course tasting dinner, and Kabat-Marcy treated guests to an intricate mezcal tasting. The best thing I ate that night was Estigoy’s famous mole, served with pork cheeks on a safflower tortilla. The mole is one of the most complex and vibrant sauces I’ve ever tasted, paired with succulent pork cheeks that practically melted on my fork.

Best Appetizer: Truffle Roasted Cauliflower
First and Oak, Solvang
It is practically impossible to choose a favorite dish at First and Oak in Solvang, which saw the arrival of new Executive Chef JJ Guerrero in 2018, but if you had to press me, I’d point to this elegant dish, which combines nearly every possible texture into one perfectly composed bite. (Technically First and Oak doesn’t do “appetizers,” they do meal progressions, but I’m calling this one for the category.) Cauliflower had a bit of a moment last year, with chefs and amateur home cooks re-inventing the reliable vegetable for some intriguing main dishes. But the combined crunch of toasted quinoa with the creaminess of whipped cauliflower was a really remarkable effort by one of the area’s best restaurants.

Pork cheeks and mole presented by Cultura Executive Chef Michelle Estigoy was a stunning dish served at the Bear and Star in Los Olivos. The dinner was part of a mezcal pairing co-hosted by Cultura co-owner Sarah Kabat-Marcy.

Best Wine: 2016 El Jabali Chardonnay
Alma Rosa Winery, Buellton
Imagine how stunned I was to snag an invite to a vineyard tour and private luncheon with Alma Rosa Winery’s Richard Sanford. Sanford shared his knowledge about organic vineyards and sustainability along with a bottle of the vineyard’s 2016 El Jabali Chardonnay. With less than 250 cases produced, the 2016 chardonnay is a rare treat for a vineyard that leans towards pinot noir. The wine is aged in 50 percent wood and 50 percent stainless steel with notes of Anjou pear, lemongrass, and kiwi and balanced with an acidity that made it the perfect sip of wine this year.

Best Vegetarian Dish: Gnocchi
Bell’s, Los Alamos
When Bell’s French bistro replaced longtime favorite Bell Street Farms, there was a moment of trepidation among locals and faraway fans of the eatery. But one bite of their food proved they fit right in. The Central Coast is great when it comes to thinking about vegetarian options; many places offer meat replacements or full vegan dishes. This dish stood out for its immaculate and hearty flavor, a silky soft bite of expertly prepared gnocchi and a sauce that was lucious, creamy, and packed with cheese. It never felt pretentious or audacious, just a simple bowl of gnocchi to eat at your leisure. Perfection.

Best Mixed Drink: Harvest Margarita
Mad and Vin at The Landsby, Solvang
Honestly, this was like picking a favorite child. I thought I would fall apart emotionally and then set myself adrift at sea rather than name my favorite glass of booze this year. But with head bartender Mason Frakes no longer stirring up trouble in a glass at the former Rooney’s in Orcutt, suddenly my choices got a little narrower. As usual, I was wild about everything coming out of Alberto Battaglini’s imagination at SY Kitchen, as well as Bottlest’s (RIP) kitschy retro drink menu. But my pick has to be the Harvest Margarita at Mad and Vin. This was a weird and wonderful drink made with a cinnamon apple shrub (a concoction of macerated fruit and vinegar) with tequila, lime, and agave.

Best Dessert: Baklava
The Mediterranean Cafe, Santa Maria
This wasn’t even a contest. The baklava at Reda Kchik’s Mediterranean Cafe is not just one of the best desserts served in town, it’s one of the best bites of food I’ve had in my life. It’s a crispy bed of phyllo dough carefully arranged in a tower of sweet syrup, buttressed by a subtle hint of toasted nuts. It truly deserves all the awards, but this one is obviously the most important.

Well, that’s it for the inaugural Rebeccamendies. I’m packing up my ball gown and getting out my stretchy pants to enjoy another year of devouring the best offerings from local chefs and eateries. If they’re lucky, they might make the list this time in 2020.

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose wins all the awards. Contact her at

Weekly Poll
Should the proposed aquifer exemption in Cat Canyon be approved?

Yes—the water from the proposed area can't serve as drinking water.
No—oil containments could still pollute usable groundwater.
Additional oil and gas projects can create more jobs.
We need to move away from oil and gas and look at renewable energy projects.

| Poll Results