August 20, 2010
Chef Todd Aarons’ splendid fare is seasonal, sustainable and — amazingly — kosher
Tierra Sur on a Sunday night is a place for a special meal. The restaurant, tucked into the Herzog Wine Cellars in a pleasant Oxnard business park between the open farmland and the ocean, is not a secret, but it is a treasure.
On Sundays, one is advised to reserve early; lunch hours are from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., but the last dinner reservation is at 8 p.m., perhaps a nod to the week ahead. Just outside the etched-glass doors to the restaurant dining room, a small sign announces to people sampling Herzog wines in the tasting room that there are no more reservations available and no walk-ins are accepted.
Chef Todd Aarons comes to Tierra Sur with an impressive culinary background. Much is made of his stints learning seasonal, market-driven cooking at Zuni Café in San Francisco and Savoy in New York City, but he is a Southern California boy, too, and Tierra Sur has a relaxed feel — it is as formal as Southern Californians are likely to get so close to the beach. Diners tend to dress nicely, but no one looks at all uncomfortable and the waiters are friendly.
The colors in the high-ceilinged main dining room are earth tones, rust and orange; the simple, dark tables are set with crisp light linens. Outside wide, glass doors, the wood-fired grill burns brightly.
A glimpse of a large family celebrating a special event in the smaller, private dining room resembles the opening scenes of a lush European film — generations are gathered at the table, a little girl in a party dress insists on reciting prayers for anyone who will listen, her mother shushes her, her grandparents laugh. The soft overhead light and the last of the golden, setting sun make everyone look interesting, and the food has made them happy.
Tierra Sur’s kitchen is made visible to the dining room through an arched opening in the north wall, enhancing our connection to the art of the foodís preparation. Working along with his staff, Aarons appears there in his white jacket and a Boston ball cap, making sure everything goes smoothly. He looks satisfied to be doing exactly what he wants to be doing. He was, after all, once an Eagle Scout who carried a Dutch oven into the Sierras so he and his fellow campers could eat well.
The menu is “Mediterranean inspired,” but, as Aarons points out, that nomenclature covers thousands of miles and many different cultures. What it meant on a recent summer evening was items like lamb chorizo, an heirloom tomato fatoush — an Arabic bread salad — and cool yellow melon gazpacho, as well as fabulous steaks and fresh grilled fish. At Zuni, Aarons learned the practice of preparing items that are hard to find. He cures his own lamb bacon; the olives are house marinated.
The food is also local, inspired by what we are blessed with here, in the fields just beyond the buildings and the valleys beyond. In a pepperonata designed to cut the richness of the rib-eye steak, there are four different kinds of local peppers roasted and mixed with balsamic and garlic. (Aarons says he came up with the idea at a friend’s barbecue.) The classic romaine salad with lemon, garlic and anchovy dressing has fat little silver anchovy filets, salt-packed and bright with flavor. There are preserved lemons pureed with celery root beneath the wood-grilled salmon, and sweet little tempura-fried green beans topped with tarragon and pickled onion. Every serving is generous, but not overwhelming. Even the wine-tasting menu is manageable, and the Herzog reserve wines we sampled were a revelation.
Because it is all, of course, also kosher. “Kosher” is often preceded by the word “strictly.” In common usage, it has come to mean by the rules, honest, on the up and up, to be trusted. It is not usually used to imply creative, surprising, playful or delicious. Jewish traditions value food and family, gathering around the Shabbat table or for the Seder meal, but those meals have not been traditionally thought of as an opportunity to experiment, to create light, astonishing combinations, based in celebration of what comes locally, sustainably, from around us. This is a new tradition, one that seems obvious as soon as someone else does it, especially someone as skilled and experienced as Aarons.
This was, however, the kind of innovation the Herzog family invited Aarons to Tierra Sur to create when they built this space for the winery. At first there was talk of putting in a deli or something casual in the space, but Herzog Wine Cellars wanted to introduce the world to its redefined kosher wine, and a chef who was doing the same for kosher dining was a perfect match.
Like the food and the atmosphere, Aarons is playful and friendly when he comes out at the end of the evening to chat with guests lingering over coffee, flourless chocolate cake and desert wines. He is eager to talk about the way the late ripening of heirloom tomatoes this year affected his menu, his new venture catering for the Four Seasons, food blog writing for jewishjournal.com, TRIBE’s sister publication, and about where to buy good kosher beef. He shrugs off serious or weighty questions at the end of the work day, but in the small print at the bottom of the menu, he states that Tierra Sur is proud to be a part of the Community Alliance With Family Farmers, whose mission is to build a movement of rural and urban people to foster family-scale agriculture that cares for the land, sustains local economies and promotes social justice.
Aarons came to the kosher world from the food world, and his passion for bringing the two together is evident in his restaurant’s attention to detail — both to the laws of kashrut and to the values they imply.
Chef Todd Aarons’Heirloom Melon Gazpacho
I particularly like using summer heirloom melons from Weiser Family Farms — such as the Sugar Queen, Butterscotch or Ogen — for this recipe. The melons are a great refreshing substitute to the traditional tomato and cucumbers usually used in a gazpacho. Slightly underripe melons will work the best, because you do not want too much sugar in a cold savory soup.
In a blender or food processor, place melons and red onion; puree. In a separate bowl, saturate the cubed bread with the vinegar and add to the food processor. Puree mixture until smooth. Make sure there are no large pieces in your mixture. Slowly add the olive oil. Add the ground bay leaves and adjust seasoning with the sea salt. If your soup is too thick, blend in ice cubes up to 1 cup; adjust seasoning with salt and vinegar. Transfer to a container and chill before serving. Garnish with croutons fried in extra virgin olive oil and some smoked paprika.