OXNARD, California – “The funny thing is we never saw ourselves as a ‘kosher’ restaurant.”
That’s no small understatement, coming as it does from Gabe Garcia, the talented chef at Tierra Sur, the superb kosher restaurant at Herzog Wine Cellars on California’s Central Coast.
As I’ve always believed, the standard for kosher restaurants first should be to prepare the very highest quality cuisine, and only second to recognize that it just “happens” to be kosher.
Taken in that order, you can’t go wrong, which is obviously the case at Tierra Sur, where an open kitchen and white table cloths adorned with flowers welcome guests with a creative kosher menu described by Garcia as “New American Cuisine” – a menu where everything is made from scratch and food is a veritable “art.”
The 33-year-old Garcia, who graduated from culinary school at the Art Institute in Santa Monica, previously worked at Tierra Sur as the sous chef under Todd Aarons, the restaurant’s former chef whom Garcia admiringly describes as his mentor.
For Garcia, who is not Jewish, the kosher world is filled with interesting discoveries, the first of which is learning to adapt to the obvious restrictions on ingredients, like not mixing dairy and meat, and the prohibitions against pork and shell fish.
“You know,” said the congenial chef sporting a baseball cap, “I think I learned how to be more savvy, like how to adapt.... Okay, I can’t use this ingredient... so what else can we use, what else is in the pantry?” The second thing Garcia learned is the Jewish seasons.
“Food changes according to the Jewish holidays,” he said. “I never knew that prior to working here. We follow the seasons. Our menu changes constantly, also influenced in a major way by the arrival of new seasonal produce.”
And that produce reflects Garcia’s ongoing relationship with local farmers, who often will send him text messages about new crops, be it berries or peppers, carrots or squash.
“The farmers grow something so beautiful and so perfect,” he said, “that we try not to jeopardize the integrity of that ingredient. So it is for us to honor their hard work and bring it to our customers.”
Tierra Sur occupies a space at one end of the Baron Herzog winery, a modern, two-story building off the Route 101 about an hour north of Los Angeles and closer yet to the newly-Jewish areas like Agoura.
The restaurant’s stylish setting can accommodate about 40, with an extension to the main space allowing for additional seating. Garcia’s kitchen staff includes a pastry chef and a bread maker.
While the Central Coast is dotted with farms, the area is also marked by housing developments and large shopping malls, while small Jewish communities and Chabad have established a foothold here.
Recently, the Chabads of Oxnard, Ventura and Camarillo sponsored an “Israel Lecture Series” at the winery with wine and “small bites.”
The program featured talks on the Iron Dome missile defense system, the case against academic boycotts of Israel and a showing of Beneath The Helmet – From High School to the Home Front, a film about the coming of age of five high school students drafted into the IDF.
ON OUR RECENT visit to Tierra Sur, my wife and I reserved a table for an early dinner. The service was impeccable, and the wait staff knew every detail about the menu.
We began with warm appetizers, my wife selecting the house-made hubbard squash ravioli filled with a puree of roasted squash, garlic and fresh thyme. My choice was the house-made semolina spaghetti with a corn-poblano puree and tongue prepared two ways.
I selected the spaghetti dish not only because I love pasta, but also because I was curious about how the chef prepared the tongue.
Truth be told, I grew up eating tongue, and when my late mother prepared it, there was no doubt that it was tongue – either in its appearance or in its taste.
By contrast, Garcia’s dish was completely transformative.
Over coffee one morning, the chef explained that he has always eaten tongue.
“You know,” he said, “I was raised that way – I ate tongue tacos all the time... I love slices of it, like corned beef-style. I eat tongue anyway you give it to me.”
But to his credit, Garcia transformed both the appearance and the taste of the tongue, resulting in a wonderfully hearty dish with a whole new character.
How did he do it? He braised small cubes of tongue whole in onion stock with fresh oregano, garlic, and a “tiny bite” of fresh jalapeño for about three hours, rendering the meat tender and tasty.
The semolina, made with flour and water, was, in Garcia’s words, intended to be “noodle-like, playing with the notion of ramen.” He garnished the dish with grilled corn, red bell peppers and, in a dramatic flourish, topped it with crispy thin strips of fried tongue, which, again, you’d never know was tongue.
My wife’s ravioli was filled with dreamy flavors of roasted, foraged mushrooms, tomato shallot paste, pickled mustard greens and toasted pine nuts.
Garcia chose golden chanterelle and lobster mushrooms from Oregon and hedgehog mushrooms all the way from Canada. These were roasted with olive oil, minced garlic, minced shallots, white wine and savory herbs, thus yielding a symphony of very pleasing flavors.
For the main dish, we selected the exceptionally-tender 280-gr. Crescent certified Angus beef steak, prepared with mesquite and oak on Tierra Sur’s outside wood-fire grill.
We shared a dessert of hazelnut-and-coffee semifreddo, which, with a meringue cookie, was the perfect conclusion to a perfect dinner.
As Garcia and I talked further, I was curious about any similarities he might see between Tierra Sur’s kosher cuisine and the foods of his own Mexican background.
In fact, he pointed to some very real similarities, recalling dishes prepared by his grandparents that were “full-flavored, full of warmth, lots of spice – coriander, cumin, cinnamon.”
“It wasn’t until I started eating Israeli food,” he said, “like shwarma... that I was just blown away... I just fell in love with those flavors, and they reminded me of my grandparents’ cooking because it was full of warmth and richness and not holding back.”
Garcia is “super excited” to visit Israel “because I know they’re not going to hold back on flavor.”
Drawing on further cultural similarities, he saw a comparison between Israel’s shakshuka and “my huevos rancheros.”
“When I first saw it,” he exclaimed, “I said, ‘Oh, this is huevos rancheros!’” For Garcia and his kitchen crew, the goal remains setting the highest standards possible.
As he put it, “We always try to strive for that beautiful product first, and then, wow, I can’t believe this is kosher.”Tierra Sur is located at 3201 Camino Del Sol in Oxnard. Visit www.tierrasuratherzog.com. The author covers travel, food and wine at www.PostcardsForYou.com.