Friday, April 30, 2010

Main Street’s Manchego Going Strong

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on Machego on Santa Monica's Main Street.

Main Street’s Manchego Going Strong

Upon entering Manchego restaurant the first thing that strikes you is the contrast between the bright Santa Monica sky and the dark exotic mystery that is housed inside. Manchego, located on Main Street right off of Oceanpark, serves Spanish food including hot and cold tapas, sandwiches, salads, and a multitude of imported Spanish cheeses.  The atmosphere is deep reds, chocolate browns, and charcoal blacks.   Red silk curtains hang in the windows; the wooden tables, chairs, and bar are deep in color.  You would definitely feel that you had stepped into Don Quixote or Carmen, except for the fact that Radiohead’s In Rainbows is playing on the CD player.  

During the year and a half that this Spanish restaurant has been open, its small space has evolved.   The bar seating has moved from the center of the restaurant to the side, which now allows for better flow for seating and social interaction. Although the Feng Shui as changed, the philosophy of the food has stayed the same. “Keep it fresh, keep it simple, and listen to the customers,” Ash puts in plain words. All of which are driving needs of a small restaurant.  Yes Manchego is small, but those who know my opinions know how I love this in a restaurant (allowing ability to control the menu and having it feel more like an extension of someone’s home).   Luckily it turns out Ash Amir, owner of the restaurant, holds the same opinion.  “Big restaurants always look empty,” he notes, “while a small restaurant always are more homey.”

Ash is an L.A. transplant, like everyone else in this city, but his location of origin is tad more exotic than Kansas.   Ash was born and was raised in Iran, save one year in 1990 when his family moved to Santa Monica. In 1999, almost a decade later, Ash decided he wanted to return to the United States and remembered Santa Monica with its famous Pier, and homeless population.  Once in California Ash studied Finance and Business, first at Santa Monica College and later at Cal. State Northridge.  During these six and half years he worked as a lifeguard for LA County.

Ash’s old roommate Javier designed Manchego’s menu.   “He’s from Spain.  We met on an airplane and became friends.   Later we went to Cal State Northridge and became roommates.”   After school Javier moved back to Madrid and Ash decided to visit his old roommate’s country.   While there he traveled extensively visiting locales such as Madrid, Ibiza, and Malaga.   

It was during his time traveling in Espana that Ash had an epiphany; he should do the thing he always wanted to do, and that was open a restaurant.  “I don’t know why, but I always liked the restaurant thing,” he says smiling with a slight look of wonderment.  “It’s definitely not in my blood, I’m from a family of accountants.”

But regardless of the why, after that moment of enlightenment, Manchego began to fall into place, naturally with the help of some good old fashioned elbow grease.   When the restaurant was starting Ash had his old friend Javier come over to the States to help out in the vision of Manchego.  Authenticity was guaranteed by having someone of Spanish background design the menu.  A year later Javier’s still in the picture, “he still consults for me from Madrid,” notes Ash.

Ash’s food philosophies are all over Manchego’s menu.   Everything is definitely fresh, simple, and authentic.  “All you have to do is look at the size of my kitchen to realize that the food will always be fresh, there’s no space for it not to be,” he explains.  The dishes range from lighter fare like the Gazpacho Andauz, a traditional cold Spanish soup, that is chocked full of vegetables. “It’s got lots of fresh garlic, along with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers.”  The soup is charming, heavily blended giving it almost a fluffy texture. 
Another fresh dish on Manchego’s menu is the Castilla Lechuga.   A salad comprised of aged Manchego cheese, avocado, cherry tomato, romaine lettuce, Spanish green olives, extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice topped with saffron chicken breast.  A great contrast to some of the richer items on the menu.

But don’t worry there are richer classic Spanish dishes like Grilled zucchini, feta cheese and caramelized pecans.  The Feta is really creamy, not having the salty bite that some people associate with this cheese.  Ash notes that this has to do with the quality of the cheese.  “There’s cheap Feta, and then there’s really good Feta.”  The Calamares con tostado tapas is a delight.   The black calamari with artichoke hearts and garlic on bread is absolute fulfillment.  Warm and soft in my mouth, there’s definitely depth to the flavor.  I have to admit out of all of the dishes, this was the one I made sure to finish completely. The goat cheese tostado with a blackberry and sliced strawberry on top.  It’s crispy and smooth with a sweet finish; you might want to even sample it as an after dinner sampling.

Displayed on the South wall of Manchego is a massive dramatic picture of a bull, one of the greatest symbols of Spanish identity.  Nestled next to this red hued picture is a smaller doppelganger version of it.   These identical images serve as Manchego’s logo.   “My sister painted the smaller version,” explains Ash, “the larger version is a blown up version of it.”   Maybe its because he’s a Taurus, but Ash has always had a strong connection with this beast. When asked if he’s visited one of Spain’s famous bullfights, he dismisses the notion. “I couldn’t imagine going to one.  I think they’re the most beautiful animal.”

And you can definitely find some of the stubborn bull tendencies in Ash Amir. Since opening Manchego, one of the most important changes that has occurred is the change in the hours it’s open.   Manchego now is only open for dinner; its hours are from five to ten in the evening.  This is a direct result of Main Street Sunday Farmers Market.   Sunday is the most popular day to go out for lunch.  But, if you look up and down Main Street the restaurants are empty because of the market.  That’s the main reason we’re not opened for lunch right now.”  For this reason Ash is working hard along with other Main Street merchants to get their restaurants into the food vendor part of the Sunday Farmers market.  

“Yes, we should support the farmers.  But it doesn’t make any sense to support restaurants that aren’t even local to this area, that are located an hour away from Santa Monica.”  And Ash is up to the challenge.  “It’s not easy catering to the size of the market, but I could handle it.   I average about three parties a week varying from thirty to two hundred in size.  Whatever the challenges we need to allow the Main Street merchants the opportunity.”  And who would argue that Jamon wrapped dates with cheese and a red wine sauce and Prosciutto stuffed with goat cheese and dried cranberries wouldn’t be perfect bite size additions to the market. 

“Really, I don’t care how much money you spend.  I’d rather have you spend $5 and have a smile on your face, than $500 and be unhappy.   And that’s why we’ve been really successful since we’ve opened,” explains Ash. “That’s the thing I love most about owning a restaurant being able to put a smile on people’s face while they are eating.”  And that’s something to be stubborn about.  

Kat Thomas is a writer in Santa Monica who is always up for an international food adventure.  

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Consider Plastics

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on Santa Monica couple the 5 Gyres.

Consider Plastics

Santa Monica Couple Helps Discover North Atlantic Garbage Patch

Consider plastics.   Most of us don’t, but because of Santa Monica residents Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen you should a little more.   The married couple are members of the 5 Gyres, a research team that recently presented their discovery of a North Atlantic Garbage Patch, located in the North Atlantic Gyre, at the 2010 Ocean Science Meeting.  

Before this February presentation in Portland the only “known” Gyre Garbage Patch was the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  Since being discovered ten years ago the Great Pacific Garbage located between California and Hawaii has become infamous as a symbol of all that is wrong with our throwaway culture.  The Garbage Patch is vortex of floating plastic in the Pacific that is estimated to be somewhere between the size of the state of Texas and the entire country of the United States of America.   

Turns out the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t the only one. Depressing yes, but hopefully it will make us think twice about plastics.  

Scientists and environmentalists have reported finding plastic in parts of the Atlantic since the 1970s, but the full extent of the damage wasn’t know until the 5 Gyres began explicitly mapping out the pollution.  As part of the 5 Gyres, Cummins and Eriksen took their sailboat, the Sea Dragon, to the North Atlantic Gyre and collected samples of the oceans surface to quantity the mass, size, color and type of plastic pollution floating.   They sailed across the Atlantic for with a group of scientists who trawled the sea between Bermuda and the mid-Atlantic Portuguese islands the Azores. 

Okay, I have to be truthful that up until a week ago I did not even know what a gyre was, so for everyone else who is undereducated on ocean currents, the official definition of a gyre is a circular or spiral motion or form especially a giant circular ocean surface current.  Think of it as convention currents for the ocean with a whirlpool at the end, all the tides and currents in each ocean move about the seas finishing off in one of the 5 Gyres (one for each ocean).   Thus anything that a current picks up along the way, especially any plastic something that floats, like your old toothbrush, that water bottle you didn’t even finish, or that candy bar wrapper, ends up floating in one of these massive Garbage Patches in the middle of the ocean.  Then these plastic somethings just sit there, never decomposing, never going away.  

Depressing yes, but hopefully it will make us think twice about plastics.  

5 Gyres research expedition is really very straightforward.  The 5 Gyres collect their research using a manta trawl.  The trawl, is slow towed behind the Sea Dragon sailboat, there it collects surface samples of debris greater than 333 microns, one third of a millimeter, about the size of a small piece of beach sand.  These samples are later sorted by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation lab in Redondo Beach into sizes and types of plastic.  After the pieces have inspected, the AMRF will then calculate the total weight of plastic pollution compared to the area and volume of the sea we sampled. 

And with Garbage Patches it’s not just an eyesore issue.   Animals eat these plastics, mistaking them for food sources.   Tiny pieces of the plastic lid on your coffee cup will end up in the stomachs of marine birds, fish and sea turtles.   Smaller organisms like jellyfish eat these plastic particles, they are then eaten by larger fish, who are then eaten by larger fish, slowly working their way up the food chain.  Along with plastic trawling, the 5 Gyres are collecting fish to study the environmental effects of the ingestion of micro plastic particles.

“This throwaway mentality is a relatively recent phenomenon. Just a generation ago, we packaged our products in reusable or recyclable materials, glass, metals, and paper, and designed products that would last. Take a look around you, most of what we eat, drink, or use in any way comes packaged in petroleum plastic, a material designed to last forever, yet used for products that we then throw away,” notes the 5 Gyres.  “Today, our landfills and beaches are awash in plastic packaging, and expendable products that have no value at the end of their short lifecycle.”

The short-term convenience of using and throwing away plastic products carries a very inconvenient long-term truth. These plastic water bottles, cups, utensils, electronics, toys, and gadgets we dispose of daily are rarely recycled in a closed loop. “Knowing the impact of plastic pollution on the world, inaction is unacceptable,” they state.  We currently recover only 5% of the plastics we produce. What happens to the rest of it? Roughly 50% is buried in landfills, some is remade into durable goods, and much of it remains “unaccounted for”, lost in the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea.”

Depressing yes, but hopefully it will make us think twice about plastics.  

So what can we do about it?   In the opinion of the 5 Gyres, cleaning up plastic pollution from the world’s oceans is impractical. “Our communities manage waste with landfills and recovery centers, screens on storm drains and nets across rivers, but these post-consumer solutions are expensive to taxpayers.”  “Yes, it’s all very depressing and we’d rather look the other way, but if we as a planet focus more on than just today there are solutions.  What works are economic incentives: return deposits on bottles, return deposits on products (EPR), and even a “Plastic Drive” for local schools to collect all types of plastic for $/pound.  Efficient recovery of waste is essential- there is no "away" in throw-away.”
  Steel water bottles and cloth grocery bags, biodegradable plastics and green chemistry, closed loop product lifecycles, “these innovations and reinventions move us towards a more sustainable society, where the concept of ‘waste’ has no place,” notes the 5 Gyres.  

Some simple suggestions, you might consider for this Earth Day are:

  1. Commit to put your bags in the car, to not use plastic bottles, etc.
  1. Support legislative efforts to manage waste in your local community (like banning plastic bags in Santa Monica).  Your voice must be heard! 
  1. Bring your own bag, bottle, cup, To-Go Ware, and inspire others to do the same.
  1. Be a leader in your industry and community for sustainable living.

Yes it’s all easier said than done, but when you consider the fact that plastic has only been around fifty odd years, and how much damage we’ve already done, just think of how much damage is yet to come if we don’t change. Mindful living is something we all need to do both for ourselves and for each other.  Santa Monica is greener than some cities, but not as green as it likes to claim to be.   It still hasn’t gotten around to banning plastic bags, something it’s been “working on” for years and San Francisco accomplished over three years ago.    

Cummins and Erikson plan similar studies in the South Atlantic in November and the South Pacific next spring, so yes next year we’ll probably be hearing about another Garbage Patch in another ocean gyre, probably in yet another Earth Day article.  It can all be a little depressing if we don’t do anything, if we don’t make a change.  But we can, today, tomorrow, and the next day; because one of the most important things to remember is that you can always make a change.  So take a moment, as depressing as it is, and think twice about plastics. 

It’s almost a cliché to say that every day should be Earth Day.  Almost if it wasn’t true.   

Kat Thomas is a Santa Monica writer who hopes someday her town will really ban plastic bags.   You can read more of her food explorations on her food blog, the Edible Skinny.  

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Welcome to The Edible Skinny!

Here’s the deal. I know a little bit about food.

Among other things I’ve been: a childhood baker (EasyBake, toaster oven, and, when I was old enough, conventional), a dishwasher, a line cook, a sauté chef, a personal chef, a food critic, an owner of a meal delivery service for specialized diets (allergies, pregnancies, athletes), a caterer, a server (read: waitress), and an amateur gardener.

That being said, I definitely feel I can learn more. Hey we all can.
\ed-i-ble\ Fit to be eaten, especially by humans.
The Skinny
\ the ’ski-ne \ Inside information.
So what is The Edible Skinny? Actually I think it might be easier to say first what it won’t be. What

The Edible Skinny won’t be is restaurant reviews and rants; there are too many blogs out there that do that already. Yes, Yelp and all the others have their place, but not on this blog.

That being said, what is it? The Edible Skinny is going to be a little bit of everything… because, simply, that’s what I’m interested in. It will be part examination, part exploration. Call it a hodgepodge: Farmer’s Market research, cooking techniques, how to information, investigative searches, and anything else that might intrigue me.

I’m out to explore a little bit more on what we put in our mouth: where it starts, where does it travels to, how it’s prepared, where it ends up, and, most importantly, the philosophies behind it. These little things make up the big picture of people and our relationships to food.

So in the end, I think it’s best to consider this an adventure story. And like all adventure stories we will explore both the everyday and the exotic. And somewhere along the way we’ll, hopefully, learn something about food, ourselves, and the relationship between the two.


Explore. Think. Eat
The Edible Skinny