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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Oxnard, California: 2015 California Strawberry Festival


A new day of adventure starts with another hot breakfast at Indulge inside The Oaks Hotel in Paso Robles, CA. On the weekends, an omelet bar is set up in the corner with a great selection of toppings from meats, cheese, and vegetables. Once we had our fill, it was time to get on the road and make our journey to Oxnard, CA. Heading south on Highway 101, it will take 2.5 hours.

Every year, the California Strawberry Festival welcomes visitors to Oxnard, CA from all over to savor the sweet flavor of the California Strawberry. Local community groups and companies set up their concession tents with the most creative strawberry food items: Früli Strawberry Wheat Beer, Frozen Strawberry Margaritas, Strawberry Smoothies, Strawberry Lemonade, Strawberry Popcorn, Chocolate Dipped Strawberries, Funnel Cakes topped with strawberries, Strawberry Nachos, Strawberry Chimichangas, Build-Your-Own Strawberry Shortcakes, Strawberry Salsa, and of course, trays of fresh strawberries to take home.

Tri-County GLAD (serving the deaf and hard of hearing community) served up Strawberry Lemonade. The lemonade was refreshing and had a good balance of lemon and strawberry flavor, not too sour and not too sweet. Rating: 5/5

Lots of companies gave away free products like Bimbo – spin the wheel and win one of their snacks. Marinela Gansito is a chocolate covered sponge cake with strawberry preserves and topped with chocolate sprinkles. It was pretty good and went well with the strawberry theme. Rating: 4/5

The main event that brought us here was the Berry Blast-Off Recipe Contest Finals. I was a judge (3rd year) along with Oxnard PD Chief Jeri Williams (4th year), Michael Sullivan from the Ventura County Star, Chef Bernie Guzman, and Rob Peters. The contest was emceed by Anthony Fernandez, comedian and restauranteur.

Jodie Taffel aka “Bacon Babe” prepared Strawberry Vinaigrette Marinated Bacon Steak over warm spinach strawberry & hazelnut salad with strawberry vinaigrette reduction, ginger scallion sauce, and strawberry caviar. The strawberry flavor got lost as the balsamic vinegar overpowered the dish. The use of micro-gastronomy to make strawberry caviar was brilliant for presentation.

Alethia Shih aka “Wallflour Girl” prepared Steamed Strawberry Coconut Poke Cake. Alethia drew upon her Asian roots with the steamed cake. It was reminiscent of a coconut cake that Polynesians used to make by encasing them in tea leaves then steaming. The coconut flavor brought a tropical and creamy note to the dish. The strawberry flavor could have been more flavor-forward by splitting the cake into two layers with strawberry gelée as a layer or reduce the puree to intensify the strawberry essence. Otherwise, this was a deliciously light dessert.

The judges’ scores were totaled and it was, remarkably, a tie. As co-winners, they both won a three-day, two night Welk Resorts getaway vacation to either Palm Springs, San Diego, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, or Branson, MO (airfare not included), a Cutco studio knife set (approximate valued at $500), and a Golden Ticket to the World Food Championships in Kissimme, FL.

The next order of business was to get a Strawberry Shortcake. The hubby used the pound cake on the bottom to create a base to absorb the strawberry puree. He piled the huge ripe and juicy strawberries on top and covered it with a generous rosé of whipped cream. Rating: 5/5

On our way out, we were going to pick up a couple of trays of strawberries, but each stand ran out just before our arrival. But, never fear, the California Strawberry Festival is surrounded by acres of strawberry fields and Pleasant Valley Road has numerous stands along the way back to Highway 101.

As we drove home, the aroma of fresh strawberries filled the car. I started thinking of ways to incorporate strawberries into meals this week – eating them right out of the basket, smoothies, and freezing them to enjoy the rest of the year. 

To view more photos, please visit OC Food Diva's Facebook page.

For more information:
3000 Riverside Ave
Paso Robles, CA 93446
+1.888.298.4141 (Hotel)
+1.805.237.8700 (Restaurant)
Restaurant hours: Wednesday through Monday from 5pm to 9pm (closed on Tuesday)

California Strawberry Festival
3250 S Rose Ave
Oxnard, CA
+1.888.288.9242

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Paso Robles, California: Cheese, winery tour, and wine reserve tasting - Day 2

As the morning sunshine starts to peak through the windows, the aroma of bacon and eggs slowly start to rise through the hotel as the kitchen starts to prepare the breakfast spread in the Indulge Restaurant downstairs. The breakfast buffet opens at 7am. The breakfast buffet includes bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, waffles, pancakes, danishes, muffins, English muffins, toast, fresh fruit, cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, coffee, juice, soda, and more.


  • Savings Tip: Hot breakfast buffet is complimentary to hotel guests.


After breakfast, a great way to plan for a day in the wine country is to procure some food items that will complement your wine tasting. Only a few wineries have an on-site restaurant so being prepared with a picnic lunch of sandwiches, cheeses, bread, and/or charcuterie is a great way to enjoy your time and savor the flavors of the wine. Vivant Fine Cheese is located in Downtown Paso Robles and opens at 10am daily. The staff can assist you with picking out the best cheeses to pair with your wine tastings and prepare a picnic lunch to take with you. Here are some cheeses you might want to pick up:

Central Coast Creamery’s Ewenique is a hand-crafted sheep’s milk cheese. Each wheel is aged a minimum of four months. It has an ivory-white color with earthy and sweet flavors. It tastes like a combination of aged parmesan reggiano and Swiss. It pairs well with buttery white and light red wines. Goat Cheddar is made from 100% whole goat milk. It is a semi-hard white cheddar cheese with a smooth, velvety texture. This would pair well with a Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay.

Alcea Rosea Farm’s Templeton Gap is a soft-ripened cheese that is aged three to six weeks. The texture varies from velvety creaminess to a spreadable nougat. The flavor is rich and buttery on the palate. It would pair well with a wine with berry notes like a Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. Marinated Chevre is fresh chevre marinated in Olea Farm EVOO, spices, and organic herbs grown at Alcea Rosea Farm. The fruity notes of the olive oil complement the tanginess of the cheese. It is beautifully packaged. This would pair well with a Sauvignon Blanc.

Once you have your food items situated, you’re ready to take a drive in Paso Robles wine country. Once you leave the downtown area, the road opens up to rolling hills, oak trees arching above the road, and vineyards as far as the eye can see.

JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery is a beautiful place to stop for wine tasting, lunch, and a winery tour. The tasting room and restaurant stands out like a contemporary ranch house amongst the surrounding vineyards. Row upon row of vines stretch across the land and hills like fine stitch work. If you decide to stay for lunch, here are a few suggestions from the menu:

A great way to try the wines while enjoying a meal is with a flight. The White Wine Flight includes 2014 JUSTIN Sauvignon Blanc, 2014 JUSTIN Rosé, and 2013 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay. The Sauvignon Blanc has a pear nose. Green apple and peach flavors are experienced on the palate with a light, clean finish. Rating: 3.5/5. The Rosé has a blackberry and cherry aroma. Strawberry and grapefruit flavors are experienced on the palate with a nice, clean finish. Rating: 4.5/5. The Chardonnay has a white grape and pear aroma. White grape, pear, floral, and mineral flavors experienced on the palate. Rating: 2.5/5

Windrose Farm Lamb Tartare is topped with garden greens, preserved lemon aioli, and crostini. This was a fantastic take on tartare. The lamb was sweet and minced perfectly. The use of shaved egg yolk added a richness to the dish without the mess of a runny egg yolk. The fresh greens from the garden paired nicely. Rating: 4.5/5

JUSTIN Fries are tossed with truffle salt, parmesan, and JUSTIN fine herb blend. The fries were light and crispy. The truffle flavor was just right so the parmesan and herbs could shine as well. Rating: 4.5/5

Bucatini Pasta tossed with Alle-Pia sausage, wild mushrooms, bitter greens, smoked butter, and parmesan. This was an excellence lunch dish, light yet satisfying. The sauce had a rich creamy texture. The flavors of the succulent mushrooms and lean, meaty sausage balanced perfectly with the sauce and pasta. Rating: 4.5/5

JUSTIN Brownies topped with caramel, cocoa nibs, and served with lemon balm ice cream. The brownie was served warm with rich, decadent chocolate flavor. Caramel sauce made the dish more luxurious. The lemon balm ice cream was refreshing with unexpected herbal notes. It was different and made a nice contrast to the brownie. Rating: 3.8/5

After lunch, a walking tour is a great way to burn some calories. JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery offers tours of their facility. Be sure to call ahead for a reservation as the tours are limited to 10 people per tour. Our tour guide, Larry, took us around the winery, showing us the machinery used to mill and press the grapes during harvest and the large stainless steel tanks used for the fermentation process. He then walked us through the caves where the different wines are aged in French Oak barrels. You will also be tasting wine along the way – Rosé, Merlot, Petit Syrah, and Reserve. You’ll also notice that scattered around the vineyard are poles with metal boxes on top. They sort of look like large bird houses. They are homes for the owls who rid the vineyards of rodents and snakes. They let nature take on the job of pest control so chemical pesticides are not used.

After the tour, head back to the tasting room to sample and purchase your favorite wines. Take a walk around the on-site vegetable garden where they grow the produce that is ultimately going to end up on your plate in the restaurant – kale, different varieties of lettuce, edible flowers, Swiss chard, and more. Lady bugs and praying mantis are also natural pest controllers and are on patrol here as well.

A great way to make a road trip more fun is to schedule a vacation during a festival. Paso Robles has many throughout the year. One of the largest is the Paso Robles Wine Festival and takes place at City Park in Downtown Paso Robles. At the Reserve event, wineries share a single wine with the public from one of these categories: library wines, reserve, white/rosé, or futures. There is also a great mix of local restaurants serving up bites that pair well with the different wines served.

Villa Creek Restaurant served up scallop in a mignonette on the half shell. The scallop was sweet. The mignonette had the perfect balance of acidity for a balanced bite. Rating: 5/5

Thomas Hill Organics served up Brioche Toast Points topped with cold smoked king salmon, crème fraiche, chive batons, and white sturgeon caviar. Since having the Cold Smoke Salmon Sandwich the day before, we knew that this was going to be great. The salmon was buttery and so soft. The crème fraiche added a little creaminess. The caviar added the right amount of salty flavor for a balanced bite. Rating: 5/5

The Kitchen at Niner Wine Estates served up Three Cheese Bisque with poblanos, chorizo, and pimento. The soup was thick and creamy. It could have been a little spicier to cut through the cheese flavors. Rating: 4/5. They also served up their Future Cabernet Sauvignon straight from the barrel. It was very young with a very light flavor and still a bit sweet like grape juice. Can’t wait to try it once it is ready!

Vivant Fine Cheese served up Goat Cheese drizzled with TheraBee Infused Culinary Honey with Thai Chile   and Central Coast Creamery’s Ewenique sheep milk cheese. The goat cheese was soft and velvety. The thai chile honey gave it more depth with a sweet and spicy kick. Rating: 5/5.

Seaventure Restaurant served up Prosciutto and Artichoke Flatbread. The flatbread had more flavor than expected and overpowered the ingredients inside. Maybe a tortilla with a more muted flavor would allow the prosciutto and artichoke to shine through. Rating: 3/5

The Farm Winery served up 2010 Cardinal. This wine comes from very old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a beautiful dark ruby hue. The aroma of dark cherry comes through. Blackberry, black currant, vanilla, dark chocolate and licorice flavor are experienced on the palate. Rating: 5/5

Robert’s Restaurant served up Beef Stroganoff. This would have been better if the meat was mixed into the sauce. The sauce on its own was very bland. Rating: 3/5

Paso Catering Co. served up Croque Monsieur (gruyere cheese and black forest ham “sammies”). Served like an open-face sandwich with gooey gruyere on the top and in the middle, it had the perfect flavor notes for pairing with wine – buttery cheese and smoky, salty ham. Rating: 5/5

Panolivo served up Mini Desserts (Lemon Tarts, Vanilla Puff, Chocolate Éclair, and Chocolate Cake). The lemon tart was slightly tart and had an amazing crust. The chocolate éclair was filled with chocolate mousse and the chocolate ganache was to die for! The chocolate cake was layered with light chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, and chocolate ganache. These desserts were just amazing! A cup of cappuccino would have really hit the spot. Rating: 5/5

Jeffry’s Catering served up Southwestern Style Meatballs (made with locally raised grass fed beef & ground pork, black beans, corn, tomatoes, garlic, and onions simmered in a red pepper-tomato sauce) with Cilantro-Brown Rice Salad (made with organic brown rice salad with cilantro-lime vinaigrette). The meatball was pretty good but needed more seasoning inside the meat mixture. The red pepper tomato sauce was excellent. It would be perfect on pasta. The brown rice salad was good, but did not really pair with the meatball. The rice salad would be better paired with poultry or seafood. Rating: 3.5/5

Apple Farm served up Burrata cheese with tomato confit, EVOO and 18 year aged balsamic vinegar. It was almost dessert-like with the sweetness from the tomato confit and aged balsamic vinegar. The burrata added a cloud-like creaminess. Rating: 5/5

A day of merriment with fine foods and drinks, made for a relaxed nap back at the hotel. After a light snooze, we slowly making our way downstairs. We opted for a late dinner at Indulge as we knew there were a few more items that we wanted to try on the dinner menu.

Beautiful brioche rolls with honey lime butter were served. The bread was eggy and tore with ease. The butter tasted more herbal than honey lime. A tad more honey would bring the lime flavor forward. Rating: 4.5/5

Carrot Ginger Soup was reminiscent of butternut squash soup. It was rich, succulent, and more on the savory side with a refreshing peppery zing. Rating 4/5

Mary’s Free-Range Duck Breast is served with risotto of the day, and arugula salad. The duck was cooked perfectly with golden brown skin, and tender on the inside. You can tell when duck is cooked correctly as the fat between the skin and meat will render. Although the skin wasn’t crispy, it was delicious! The risotto, however, needed a bit more liquid in it as it was a little too dry. The arugula added a refreshing peppery kick to the mix. Rating: 4.5/5

Cheryl’s Burger is a half-pound beef patty topped with lettuce, avocado, prosciutto, goat cheese, and a sunny side egg atop a brioche bun served with French fries. The patty was a good size and flavorful but the burger needed a sauce, maybe chipotle aioli, sweet chili sauce, or balsamic aioli to balance out the all the other overpoweringly savory ingredients. Otherwise, this is a really good burger. Rating 4/5

Experiencing Paso Robles’ food and wine culture was an amazing journey! Tomorrow, we head out on a new adventure, but can’t wait to plan our next visit to Paso Robles.

To view more photos, please visit OC Food Diva's Facebook page.


For more information:
3000 Riverside Ave
Paso Robles, CA 93446
+1.888.298.4141 (Hotel)
+1.805.237.8700 (Restaurant)
Restaurant hours: Wednesday through Monday from 5pm to 9pm (closed on Tuesday)

821 Pine St Ste B
Paso Robles, CA 93446
+1.805.226.5530
Hours: Sunday through Thursday from 10am to 5pm; Friday and Saturday from 10am to 6pm

11680 Chimney Rock Rd
Paso Robles, CA 93446
+1.805.238.6932
Tasting Room Hours: Daily from 10am to 4:30pm
Restaurant Hours: Dinner served Tuesday through Saturday with seatings at 6pm, 6:30pm, and 7pm (reservation only); Lunch served Friday and Saturday from 11am to 2pm; Brunch served Sunday from 11am to 2pm

Save the Date for May 19, 2016! Tickets for next year’s event will be available in December 2015.

Trip was sponsored in part by Travel Paso.

Restaurant at Justin Vineyards & Winery on Urbanspoon