Venus to open new kitchen in Aptos, PNW chefs visit Big Basin and Pie for the People returns

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… Some big news came in over the weekend: The team behind Westside distillery Venus Spirits announced that it will open a second Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen location at the current Café Rio restaurant, across from Rio Del Mar beach and down the block from the site of the old SeaBreeze Tavern. The menu at Venus’ new sister restaurant, dubbed Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside, will have a similar vibe to its popular upscale American bistro on the Westside in Santa Cruz, but with an emphasis on foods from the sea, including a seafood raw bar. “When people see the ocean, they want to eat the ocean,” owner Sean Venus told me. Of course, it will have a full bar featuring hand-crafted cocktails made with the distillery’s award-winning gins, whiskeys, agave spirits and aquavit.

And Aptos residents won’t have to wait long — Café Rio’s last day of service is to be May 29, and Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside aims to open mid-June. How is such a quick turnaround possible? “Persistence,” says Venus. He and his team want to capture the vital summer season, and have been working behind the scenes to make it happen. Restaurant opening timelines can be slippery, but Venus is confident. After all, he broke ground on the Westside restaurant in July 2019 and opened just over a year later in August 2020. That said, the menu might be smaller to start out while the new place finds its footing. Venus says he does have a chef pinned to helm the restaurant — but wasn’t quite ready to say whom.

Venus and his family have spent many special occasions dining at Café Rio, which has crowned the esplanade at Rio Del Mar State Beach for more than 30 years. When he learned that owner Jeanne Harrison was looking for a buyer, he jumped at the opportunity to open a second location in such an idyllic spot. He’s excited to be a part of the changing dining landscape of Aptos, following the opening of David Kinch’s Mentone in the village, the resurrection of the Hideout following a devastating fire and the addition of new fine dining spot Restaurant Malik Williams: “There’s a new dining scene in the area and we are happy to be a part of it.”

A flyer for the Wilderness Hunters' event at Big Basin Vineyards' Santa Cruz tasting room

(Via Big Basin Vineyards)

… Big Basin Vineyards is hosting a fun-looking two-day pop-up Friday and Saturday at its new tasting room in downtown Santa Cruz. Guest chefs Eric Bartle and Sara Kundelius, known as the Wilderness Hunters, are flying in from the Pacific Northwest with a suitcase (one imagines) of seasonal ingredients that they foraged, fished and gathered in the PNW. They’ll supplement their stash with seasonal ingredients from local farmers markets to create a special menu of a la carte dishes paired with BBV wines. Tasting room manager Emily Choinski tells me the duo are friends with tasting room lead David Johnson, and while they have traveled to wineries throughout Oregon’s Willamette Valley, this is their first event in Santa Cruz.

Choinski shared a glimpse of the mouth-watering menu, which includes an Oregon albacore crudo with California stone fruit, dulse seaweed, Willamette Valley verjus and olive oil from BBV; a plate of Oregon charcuterie and cheeses with Santa Cruz strawberries; and a vegetarian dish of charred spring carrots and chickpeas with a hazelnut romesco and black garlic.

The $15 entry fee (waived for wine club members) includes a tasting flight of three wines. Each dish is $15 to $20. Reserve your spot on tock.com and see more of the Wilderness Hunters’ work on Instagram at @wildernesshunter.

Santa Cruz-based cookbook author Andrea Nguyen

… Local cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, whom I spoke to in March about her new podcast, is doing a free virtual speaking event Friday at 1 p.m. for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The event is hosted by the Los Angeles Library, but anyone can watch and hear Nguyen discuss Vietnamese cooking and learn how to make the tangy-sweet sauce nuoc cham. Go to lapl.org to learn how to tune in.

… After a two-and-a-half year pandemic-related “pie-atus” — er, hiatus — fundraising group Pie for the People returns Sunday, May 22. This time around, it is fundraising for NAMI Santa Cruz County, which provides resources and support to anyone concerned about mental illness. In the seven years before the pandemic, Pie for the People gained popularity for its simple concept — bring a sweet or savory pie and a $5 donation, plus your own eating utensils, and enjoy a community pie potluck while fundraising for a good cause. Organizer Jenny Kurzweil says the group, made up of local families, has raised more $15,000 for charities since it started. Non-bakers need not worry — there should be plenty of pie to go around. Find more info and RSVP on Facebook

… It’s hard to believe this newsletter is already three months old! If you’ve enjoyed reading the latest food news in your inbox every week, consider becoming a member. Only members get full access to all of Lookout’s content, including Eaters Digest, released every Friday with dining news, reviews and the best food and drink events in town each week. My work and the work of my colleagues isn’t possible without your support. Become a member today.

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You’ve heard about supply chain issues, but local businesses have also been grappling with a glass shortage since mid-2020. Any food business that packages its product in glass has been affected, and local winemakers, in particular, are frustrated by increased costs, decreased availability — and sometimes, wine bottles that never show up at all. This year, some say they will have to pass the cost on to consumers by raising their prices. Read more later this week about how the national glass shortage is affecting our local wine industry.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

There are five Ferrell’s donut shops in Santa Cruz County, but have you ever wondered which one is the “original” Ferrell’s? I did, and the pursuit of the answer to this question led me on a wild quest. It turns out that Ferrell’s donuts have sweetened the lives of Santa Cruzans for more than 70 years, and the history of this little donut shop is more fascinating than I could have imagined. Check it out in the newest story in our Ask Lookout series.

FUN

“Growing grapes is a little bit like being a father. Partnering with nature and growing things gives you intrinsic joy.” — John Bargetto, on his new venture at Regan Vineyard, a 53-acre vineyard outside of Corralitos with more than 30 acres of grapes, including seven varietals. This year, for the first time in 30 years, Bargetto is opening Regan Vineyard for public tasting and has released two wines under his label, Regan Vineyard Winery. Read about the new tasting experience, and what makes this vineyard so special.

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LIFE WITH THE BELLIS

It’s still hard for me to believe this, but last week Marco, my little baby, turned 1 year old. Last weekend, we celebrated with friends and family, and to mark the occasion I ordered custom cookies from Laurel Bakes Cookies & Cakes. I wrote about baker Laurel Tisserand’s gorgeous designs in Eaters Digest last month, and I was so excited to see what she would create for Marco. We asked for dog-themed cookies (his favorite animal), especially black labs like our dog, Tony, and she did not disappoint. There were six different hand-painted cookies, all dog- and birthday-themed, and they stunned us and our guests. Best of all, they didn’t sacrifice form for function and were delicious, too. They felt so special, and, best of all, I didn’t have to clean any birthday cake off of Marco.

THIS WEEK, I SMELL LIKE GARLIC …

… because I keep returning to the NahNa Eritrean food kiosk in downtown Santa Cruz for guest chef Fadi Dabs’ flavorful, healthy vegan lunch. The culprit behind my new perfume is the intensely garlicky aioli on the roasted potatoes tossed with shatta — a Syrian fermented red pepper paste — one of several flavor-packed components of Dabs’ lunch plate. It is divine, and I have no regrets. Learn more about Dabs and how he draws flavors from his Syrian heritage in Friday’s Eaters Digest.

FOOD NEWS WORTH READING

Mario Batali goes on trial in sexual misconduct case (The New York Times)
Sushi as we know it will not survive. Can the restaurant industry reinvent it? (Bon Appétit)
This popular Japanese brothless ramen chain is opening its first U.S. location in the Bay Area (San Francisco Chronicle)

Thanks for reading! Eat well, my friends.