Thursday, November 15, 2007

basquing in bakersfield: lunch at wool growers.

i have always had a bit of affection for bakersfield, ever since a long ago trip down the 99 in the wee hours of the morning, with my only company being the radio. i turned to the left of the dial, hoping to at least find a little merle haggard in the mix, only to find the local college radio station dj, doing some sort of animated recitation over heaven help us all, starship's "nothing's gonna stop us now." wtf? he was as bored as i was, and reading out the entire script of "mannequin" as a monologue. it was the sort of absurdity that made perfect sense at 1am in the central valley, in the dark of night. that, combined with "bakersfield, p.d." and buck owens makes me think there's something subversive going on...and i like it.

however, i hadn't actually been in the town since i was a wee one, so when dave and bekki suggested lunch there, i was a little surprised, but totally game. unfortunately, we wanted to go to on a sunday, and it seems that the restaurant they had in mind was closed, so we had to wait for another day. turns out, we had to wait for another year before the opportunity arose. luckily, in that time, i managed to catch huell howser's trip to bakersfield on tv, and reconnect with an old friend (more on him in later posts) who had moved up there. so finally, bekki and i managed to take that 2 hour-trip northward one saturday.

so, why lunch in bakersfield? there is a small but significant basque population in the area; many came to california in search of gold, but it was sheep herding that brought even more immigrants after WW2. the basque region lies in the mountainous territory between france and spain, and is reknowned not just for the fuzzy livestock but for its cuisine, which relies on fresh ingredients and simple cooking techniques to accentuate the natural flavours of the food. the basque restaurants in bakersfield don't really specialize in regional dishes, but do apply the basic principles of their cooking to american ingredients, served in generous portions. i'm sold!


it was my fault that we missed out of eating at noriega's--huell's choice--but there is a single seating for lunch where everyone is served family-style at communal tables, and we were never going to make it. however, bekki already had a back up in mind: wool growers restaurant. despite the fact that we arrived somewhat late, the parking lot was full; both the dining area and bar were packed (not for nothing is the word 'cocktails' so prominent on the sign). we were seated in the homey, floral wallpaper bedecked dining room with tables and booths filled with families. although the menu features standard a la carte items, family style meals are available, with a different entrée every day. we opted for the latter, which came with what's known locally as "the set-up": vegetable soup, slow-cooked pink beans, a simple but fresh tomato salsa, crusty bread with cold pats of butter, a crisp iceberg lettuce salad with tomatoes, red onions and green peppers dressed in a light vinaigrette.

wool growers set up

there is a little procedure involved: the beans are spooned into the bottom of a soup bowl, followed by a ladle of the soup, then topped with the salsa. the salad follows, and then an array of dishes--a beautifully slow braised oxtail stew with root vegetables, a haystack of french fries unabashedly deep-fried in beef fat, and perfectly roasted lamb, adorned with a deep, rich gravy.

wool growers meat and potatoes

all the food was simple but fresh and prepared well. the portions were more than generous, but if somehow you weren't sated, they will bring second helpings of any of the items. also included in the family meal was coffee, tea, or a bottomless bottle of the house wine, which is a young, fruity, medium-bodied red, served ice cold, and is somehow the perfect foil for the large meal. you could, however, indulge in basque cocktail known as picon punch, a potent combination of a bitter aperitif and brandy. it reminds me of one of my favourite (if completely manly mannish) cocktails, a manhattan, but with a nice citrusy edge. be warned: it is a large and powerful cocktail--it's called a punch for a reason.

and what price does one pay for such abundance? the family style lunch is priced at $10.50 per person. satisfaction comes cheap around here.


i really like the atmosphere of this place, but i'm not sure if it's just down to the restaurant itself. the day we drove up was one of an all-too-rare rainstorm, through the somewhat daunting tejon pass. however, i was with great company all throughout, and the grey sky that threatened to be ominous cleared just enough for the sun to peek out when we arrived into town. driving through the quiet streets to the restaurant was at first surprising (where was everyone?) but it was cheering once we got to wool growers--ha! it looked like everyone was here, taking the time to enjoy a good meal with family and friends.

the further away from the city i get, the more i feel the tethers come free. i enjoy discovering places new to me, no matter how mundane they seem from your car window as you speed along the highway to somewhere else. there are always hidden gems to be found, no matter how rough.

wool growers
620 east nineteenth street
bakersfield, ca 93305.

google mapped!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

drive by: dolce isola.

just a mini-report from my cousin, ed, regarding dolce isola, the ivy-offshoot that is in a very, very unlikely location--about half a block away from hamilton high school on robertson. but, fabulously, across the street from the v. cool midnight records (and barbershop):

"The Ivy Bakery" is good, we got a baguette and chocolate croissant, very yummy. Really good looking menu; white chocolate lemon cake, fresh pumpkin cheesecake, marjolaine cake (4 layers of hazelnut and almond meringue filled with vanilla, chocolate and praline butter cream with ground roasted hazelnuts and almonds on the side). Weird ass location though, full of Hamilton students literally asking "What can I get for a buck?" Reply: "I guess I can make you some cinnamon toast"

i love it already.

dolce isola
2869 s robertson blvd (x-streets cattaraugus + hargis)
la 90034.