By Darren Delmore
As my travels representing Tablas Creek across the country in 2015 came to a close, I wanted to round up some of my favorite discoveries in the food and wine scene. I didn't hit every pocket of the country, but I did work with our wholesalers in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, Florida, New York, and even sprinkled in Huntsville and Reno for good measure. Here's a shortlist of ten trendsetters who are working their delicious and clever magic at the moment, and inspiring myself and others to rethink the concept of "going out to eat":
Industrial Eats, Buellton, California
This industrial park-based, counter service gem features local wines on tap (including our Patelin de Tablas Blanc), is open from 11 am to 9 pm straight, and is stocked with some of the purest, most flavorful ingredients and preparations in Santa Barbara County. Owner Jeff Olsson is really into farms and backstory. One bit of evidence: while I was midway into a wood-fired pizza, I saw a local diver do a delivery of softball-sized, bright purple sea urchins for their famed Uni Avocado Toast. Salivate over their menu at www.industrialeats.com
Shaya, New Orleans, Louisiana
Hyped as America's best new restaurant by Esquire magazine, Shaya calls its cuisine "modern Israeli food in chic". Our Vineyard Brands rep Todd booked us for a lunch tasting appointment at this uptown eatery in October, which is a total gamble in my line of work. We were an hour late after our previous tasting stops ran into overtime, and we had to cram both lunch and a tasting of all of our new releases with Shaya's wine buyer into a 25-minute window. Todd ordered one of everything and we crushed our way through lamb ragu with crispy chickpeas on heavenly hummus, baba ganoush, and shakshouka.
Shaya's menu is less about massive mains and more about smaller plates, the vibe is nice but casual, and the wine list is short and concise, with 40 well chosen wines on offer. www.shayarestaurant.com
Coya, Miami, Florida
Miami is a humbling place for me to work every year. No other place in America makes me feel like I am more in need of teeth whitening, Armani suits, and some light cosmetic surgery. With significant population blocs originating from Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and beyond, it's no surprise that the city is chock full of models and globally inspired cuisine (with ironically large portions to boot). Coya seems like you're in an entirely different country, with its impressive glass vases full of random fermentations (black corn essence?) stacked floor to ceiling, dark wooden interiors, massive chandeliers, and a mind blowing menu of delicious, high-brow Peruvian fare.
The ceviche mixto with prawns, squid, mussels, yuzu and tobiko made our mouths rain, as did octopus and olives. I'd brought along a 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc which excelled in such company and came to a crescendo with a truffle oil-splashed Tiradito de Cobia. www.coyarestaurant.com/miami
Cured, San Antonio, Texas
Although dry aging meats has been a part of the steakhouse business for decades, more and more restaurants are making the effort (and time) to cure their own meats for world class charcuterie. Cured, located in San Antonio in the heart of the Pearl district, serves up house-cured arrangements that look every bit as floral as they are edible, which pair well with their two page wine list full of savory red and rosé offerings. www.curedatpearl.com
Arroyo Vino, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Owner Brian Bargsten is a few years into this hotspot just outside of Santa Fe proper, where tumbleweeds, cacti and old world wines co-exist. I've seen this concept in a few cities - an excellent wine shop with a chef and full scale kitchen. Pull a bottle of something interesting off the shelf and pay a modest corkage, versus getting hit with a quadruple mark up price tag. New Mexico lamb is every bit as good as its more famous Colorado brethren, and Arroyo Vino serves it as well as anyplace in this culinary utopia. (Brian is seen below in the white t-shirt, hand-sorting Tablas Creek estate fruit in September). www.arroyovino.com
Okra, Phoenix, Arizona
Cullen and Maureen Campbell from Crudo opened up Okra this year, with biodynamic wines, cool drinks, and Southern fare. "Put a little south in your mouth" is their tagline. Turns out, Tablas Creek Vermentino pairs extremely well with fried chicken, which no doubt inspired me to do a bone luge after the marrow plate. www.okraaz.com
The Waterboy, Sacramento, California
Chef/Owner Rick Mahan of The Waterboy and OneSpeed in Sac is obsessed with quality lamb. My first time tasting with him three years ago the subject came up when I was describing our biodynamic practices at the vineyard. "Do you ever sell any?" he asked me. There are two farms in the Sacramento Delta that he works with regularly, but Tablas Creek lamb has been on his brain ever since. In November of this year, we finally realized his dream of doing a dinner event at this midtown gem where our meat took center stage, with four of our wines selected to pair with it.
I fear the day Rick asks me about our Alpacas! www.waterboyrestaurant.com
Ember, Arroyo Grande, California | The Spoon Trade, Grover Beach, California
I grew up near Grand Avenue in Arroyo Grande, and a fancy dinner out usually occurred at Sizzler. I never thought I'd see the day that two hip, chef-owned eateries would open up on opposite ends of the workingman's strip and be immediately successful. Ember is owned by Brian Collins who cooked at Chez Panisse and ran Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos prior to opening up his wood-fired temple in the former Leisure Mart building. (I bought acrylic paints and goldfish here as a grommet!) Serving a seasonally changing menu featuring flatbreads, local fish, a ribeye with chimichurri, and inventive small plates like the pork belly and Cayucos abalone plate, I'm consistently floored by what Brian and his team have managed to do in a location that many feared wouldn't work. www.emberwoodfire.com
Two miles west near the vehicle beach ramp where Modesto monster trucks often roam, Jacob and Brooke Town opened The Spoon Trade after devoting a chunk of time to road trip and eat through America. They are a powerhouse restaurant couple that worked in some of the main Bay Area hubs (like Nopa) before deciding to move back home and open up their dream spot. The tri-tip tartare with house-baked sourdough is as local as a central coast meat dish can get, the burger is simple and legitimate, and there's an already-famous Fried Chicken and Waffle plate on hand if that's your thing. There's something for everybody here, with four local wines on tap, Oregon wines in cans, and a short geeky bottle list that wouldn't look out of place in Oakland or Portland. www.thespoontrade.com
Hatchet Hall, Culver City, CA.
And lastly, mainly for your consideration, here's the wildest wine list of the year. In fact, its mere existence made headlines on sites like LA Weekly for infuriating customers and critics alike. Have a look...
You've gotta admit, it makes you think twice and realize that the times they are a'changing. (I think I ordered the Vielles Vignes '13 and was served a glass of South African Sylvaner or something.) www.hatchethallla.com
I'd love to hear what you think about this list, and any of these other cool spots I've mentioned here. And if there are restaurants and wine bars in your neighborhoods that you love, please share so we can keep them on our radar for 2016. Happy New Year and thanks for reading!