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24 hours - and an arduous quest for uni - in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara had been on my "California bucket list" since I arrived in LA over 1.5 years ago.  With the clock ticking towards my February move back to NYC, I knew that I had to get there before I jumped ship!  So, with my buddy in town for the New Year's holiday weekend, we decided to make a quick, 24-hour jaunt.

After snagging a delicious breakfast on-the-go at Champagne Bakery ("Le Metro" Breakfast Sandwich: Whole wheat soft roll, Egg, herbed cream cheese, tomato and avocado), Jean and I made the seamless 1.5 hour trek to Santa B.

Photo snapped by Jean Hsu"All I want to do," Jean had been saying for months, "is eat uni (sea urchin) fresh from its shell.  Like, literally off of a boat!"  She wasn't alone in that desire.  Unfortunately, I was having the damnedest time so much as locating a restaurant that had uni on its menu - forget about successfully finding an uni diving boat that we could hijack!  So, with that, Jean and I decided it would be best to just ask the locals once we arrived in town. 

The first item on the agenda upon our 10:45AM arrival was to drop our bags at the hotel.  While it was located on the ocean, the Hyatt Santa Barbara felt a bit more motel than hotel.  The air in our room was circulated via a window unit, which felt a bit too "rustic" for me.  To make matters worse, when we asked the front desk agent to direct us to the concierge, she told us that, during this particular season, there wasn't one on staff.  "Alrighty then," Jean said.  "Perhaps you can help: Are you able to tell us where we could find the freshest uni/sea urchin in town?"  The agent looked at Jean as if she had five heads before shaking her head "no."  Clearly, she had no clue what the hell Jean was talking about.  "Wait, but isn't 'uni' what Santa Barbara is famous for?" 

After we left our motor lodge hotel, I suggested that we stop by the Four Seasons and pick the brain of their concierge.  I mean, if anyone would be fully staffed, it'd be them!  While we were given a slew of winieries to visit in Santa Ynez and Los Olivos - which proved helpful later - we were once again disappointed by the employee's lack of "uni knowledge." 

Where can a pair of hungry gals find some freshly-procured sea urchin up in this motha'?  Apparently nowhere...

Four Seasons Hotel, Santa BarbaraPost our pit-stop at the Four Seasons, Jean and I took to the road and drove 45-minutes east towards the Santa Ynez wine country.  In an effort not to get obliterated, we chose to split tastings at each of the three wineries we visited: Sunstone, Rusack, and Demetria.  Of those, we preferred Sunstone's buttery chardonnays and rich, fruity zinfandel to the lack of varietal variety at the other vineyards.   

Memories from Sunstone WIneryFor lunch, we went to Los Olivos Wine Merchant Cafe, which was featured in the wine-centric movie, Sideways!  Jean and I split three dishes - Alba Pizza (mushroom trio, ricotta, arugula, parmesan, truffle oil, and a gluten-free crust on request), the Butternut Squash & Burrata Salad, and a Crab Melt - which were all outstanding.  To boot, the service and atmosphere were also top-notch. 

Alba Pizza with a gluten-free crustButternut Squash & Burrata SaladCrab Melt & FriesUpon our return to Santa Barbara-proper, Jean and I formally checked in to the Hyatt and chilled for a bit before making our way back out for shopping and dinner on State Street.  This involved snapping photos of quirky chotchkies, eating ice cream for a pre-meal appetizer, and settling for a sushi restaurant in the hopes that they would have fresh uni on the menu.

Ummmm...really? A scoop of McConnell's Ice Cream for a pre-dinner appetizer!Finally, fresh uni!  Although the rolls and other dishes we ordered at Arigato were over-priced and mediocre at best, the sea urchin was beyond spot-on.

Uni <3.

After having learned that the Santa Barbara Fish Market - located steps from the water - opened at 9AM on Sunday's, Jean and I decided to wake up early and get there as soon as we could - after all, this would likely be our best chance of eating freshly-cracked uni out of its shell. 

And, sure enough, we were in luck!  Not only did the Fish Market offer just-caught uni still in its shell, the employees were kind enough to allow Jean and I behind the counter to watch the entire experience - from the breaking of the shell and cleaning of the flesh to savoring every morsel in our mouths - take place before our very eyes!


While Jean chose tuna poke to accompany her uni, I indulged in Dungeness crab from Monterey Bay (located north of Santa B).  It was incredibly fresh and delicious!

Monterey Bay Dungeness crabWith our mission accomplished and bellies full, Jean and I took a quick stroll along the water before heading back to State Street to shop and eat lunch prior to returning to LA.

Jean enjoying the scenic beautyMy other wish came true...I scored a solid Mexican lunch - and one of the best tacos I've had, to date - at The Mex Authentic


I am pleased to say that I can officially take "visiting Santa Barbara" off of my bucket list.  Jean and I had a fantastic time and I look forward to returning sometime in the future!


Until we eat again,

The Lunch Belle


Reviewed: I tried Sakara Life, the Victoria's Secret Angels' meal program of choice. And here's what I thought...

Almost a year ago, I went to the doctor for my annual physical and learned that I have both fibroids and stage-3 endometriosis.  I was told that the only way to get rid of these painful annoyances would be via surgery and medicine.  And, while I did end up having surgery back in August, I have since learned so much more about each issue - most notably how your diet can effect symptoms and future growth.  While I was hoping to hear that dairy, red meat, pork, fried stuff, refined carbohydrates, and processed treats would alleviate me of my suffering, I wasn't too surprised to read which foods actually did make the list: Organic everything, seasonal produce, little to no caffeine and alcohol, dairy alternatives (no soy), complex carbohydrates (in the form of beans, superfood grains, etc.), raw honey, tea...I could continue listing items, but it would just put you to sleep.  Plus, you probably already know them all, anyways. 

Basically, the healthiest way to exist is by eating organically, seasonally, and as close to vegan as possible.  But is that a sustainable lifestyle for someone, like me, who relishes in trying new restaurants of a multitude of cuisines, drinking margaritas, and becoming a "regular" at my favorite local watering holes?  No, not at all.  However, I think that if I aim to be 70% "on the vegan wagon with some pescatarian tweaks" and 30% "off the wagon (with martinis wine)," I should be ok-ish.  Baby steps...

I started seeing ads on Facebook and at Physique 57 for Sakara Life, a "100% Plant-Based + Gluten Free + Organic" food delivery program that recently began servicing Los Angeles.  Curious, I began scouring the web for more information/reviews; while the Sakara Life website is "pretty" to look at, it's not chock-full of as much information and "nitty gritty" as I would have liked.  I wondered if the food would taste like cardboard or if there'd even be enough of it.  I mean, with the program being touted by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and the Victoria's Secret Angels, those aren't very far-fetched concerns!  Plus, how much would each meal cost/day? 

Photo credit: Sakara Life // No, the chicks in the photo are not super models (though they could be); they're the founders of Sakara Life. Do y'all remember Dr. Atkins or Richard Simmons looking *this* good? Me neither. It didn't take me long to sign up for the "4-Day Sakara Holiday Special - Lunch + Dinner!"  While I love to cook, when it comes to new regimens, I prefer to "learn from the experts."  By that, I mean sampling my initial meals at the hands of a professional/restaurant prior to attempting a brand new cuisine/lifestyle on my own.

After ticking that I had no food allergies, I submitted my payment information.  While the price was hard to swallow (meals are about $29 each!), I justified the expense as research.  I vowed that I would learn as much as I could about each ingredient and how/why it was paired (with other components) to create the respective meal.  After four days, I told myself, I would have enough knowledge to be able to source and prepare my own meals at home. 

On Monday morning, I eagerly opened my front door to find my Sakara Life "cold bag" hanging on my door knob.  I unpacked the ready-to-eat lunches and dinners, Morning and Night Waters, and Detox Teas for two days' worth.  Plus a hand-written "welcome" note! 

Day 1

Morning Water 

Tranquil, slightly heavy, and floral, this alkaline water claimed to be full of "trace minerals and the purest essential oils on the planet."  It wasn't until I kept having to pee that I believed there was something other than perfume and tap water in this fancy clear beverage (#detox).   

Breakfast (I ate my own)

A.M. Detox Tea

Lunch: Sakara-Style Autumn Dumplings w/ Cranberry Dressing

Served atop a bed of spinach were two roasted vegetable dumplings that were enveloped by overly sticky and gelatinous rice paper.  Instead of dipping them in the cranberry dressing, I cut each dumpling in to bite sized pieces (this took quite a lot of effort and force because of the tough dumpling skin) and tossed them together with the spinach leaves and tart dressing.  Because I was starving, I forced myself to eat this meal in its entirety, knowing that each bite cost me about $3.  I was terrified that if this entree was on par with what I would be eating for the next few days, this week would prove to be excruciatingly arduous.

P.M. Detox Tea

Dinner: Buckwheat + Brussels Warming Winter Salad

After my extremely disappointing lunch, I was very trepidatious about dinner.  However, to my pleasant surprise, this "Warming Winter Salad" was much more flavorful and varied.  Cucumbers, fresh dill, beets, chickpeas, mixed greens, and buckwheat married beautifully.

Night Water

Oddly refreshing with a "soil" aftertaste, this chlorella-laced water quenched my post-dinner thirst (...and caused me to wake up approximately 5x that night to pee!  #detox).


Day 2

Morning Water

Breakfast (I ate my own)

A.M. Detox Tea

Lunch: Thai Burger w/ Rainbow Slaw + Root Fries

Please don't let this lunch suck as hard as yesterday's, I mumbled to myself as I assembled the components.  Instead of eating the "Thai Burger" with my hands, I crumbled the patty atop the greens, tossed in the "Rainbow Slaw," and cut the "Root Fries" in to bite-sized pieces, thus creating a bountiful makeshift salad.  To my surprise, yet again, this entree was quite delicious and incredibly filling.  And how about those colors? 

P.M. Detox Tea

Dinner: Forbidden Rice + Tatsoi Bowl

Forbidden rice (black rice), snap peas, green onion, whole cashews, and thinly-sliced roasted zucchini were served atop a bed of tatsoi and spinach.  Both textures and flavors were on-point here, leaving me satiated and satisfied. 

Night Water


Day 3

My next two days' worth of meals and teas were delivered in the "cold bag" and hung on my door knob, ready to be fetched and unpacked upon waking on Wednesday morning.

Morning Water

Breakfast (I ate my own)

A.M. Detox Tea

Lunch: Prosperity Pad Thai w/ Kelp Noodles

Eeeeek!  You know it's not a good sign when I cannot even recall what this meal looked or tasted like.  :/  I even had to snag the photo, below, from Sakara Life's Twitter feed because I didn't take one of my own.  Sorry guys.

Photo source: Sakara Life via TwitterP.M. Detox Tea

Dinner: Red Beet Borscht + Olive Foccacia

As a Russian Jew who loathes the food of her forefathers, I was petrified of this meal.  While I enjoy beets in salads, I absolutely detest borscht.  However, since each Sakara entree cost me well over $20, I wasn't not going to eat this in its entirety.  Even if it sucked.

Yet again, Sakara left me shell-shocked: The borscht was absolutely delicious!  Cold, creamy, slightly sweet and gloriously savory, the soup paired swimmingly with the accompanying gluten-free olive foccacia and dill cashew creme. 

Night Water


Day 4

So, today was Christmas Eve and I wasn't able to snap any photos of my meals.  I ate the lunch salad during my drive to San Diego (literally, with my fcuking hands - I cannot even imagine what my fellow passersby saw) and shared the dinner with my sister for a pre-lunch appetizer on Christmas Day.  Oh, and I didn't drink any of my waters or teas because of how choppy and sporadic my day was. 

Breakfast (I ate my own)

Lunch: Sakara Cobb Salad

Sans the traditional chicken, blue cheese, egg, and pork bacon (Sakara made "bacon" from strips of dried coconut), this was actually one of the more delightful Cobb salads I've ever had - and I didn't miss the dairy/meat components whatsoever!

Dinner: The Sakara Burrito Bowl

Like I mentioned above, I didn't actually eat this for dinner on Christmas Eve; my sister and I split it for a pre-lunch appetizer on Christmas Day.  Of all of the entrees that I enjoyed over the four days, this was, by far, my favorite: Sweet potato, avocado, Mexican-style brown rice, and other goodies came together over a bed of greens to create a "Burrito Bowl" full of texture, flavor, and variety.   A+


To conclude:

Would I recommend trying Sakara Life?  Hell yes.  If you have the funds and are currently residing in NYC, Miami, or LA, then I would highly recommend giving Sakara Life a shot - even if it's just for three days (which, by the way, they offer). 

Did I feel better after my four days on the program?  Yes, but in order to notice a remarkable shift, I need to follow this lifestyle for more than four days.  For me, it was a great introduction in to what lunches and dinners - at home or the office - should look like.  I enjoyed trying new items, such as dairy-free "cashew cheese" and "coconut bacon," two things I would have sworn I'd never eat years ago.  It has never been more clear or obvious to me that, in the words of Sakara's founders, "our bodies are woven from the foods we eat."  In my case, I believe that my health issues are a direct result of my poor diet.  And I am hell-bent on changing my destiny by what I put in my mouth; frankly, I'm just sick of being sick.

Was anything confusing or annoying about the program?  Beyond the price tag?  Yes.  I am a numbers person, so I would have appreciated knowing the nutritional information/values for each and every item that I ate and drank - something the company does not believe in disclosing.  Meh.

"A calorie is a unit used to measure energy, not nutrition. Calories are NOT created equal and are not a metric used for how fresh or healthy your food is. Rather than focusing on calories, we want to help you focus on how your clothes fit and how you feel! Isn’t that exciting? It’s an opportunity to listen to your body." - Sakara Life



Until we eat again,

The Lunch Belle

A calorie is a unit used to measure energy, not nutrition. Calories are NOT created equal and are not a metric used for how fresh or healthy your food is. Rather than focusing on calories, we want to help you focus on how your clothes fit and how you feel! Isn’t that exciting? It’s an opportunity to listen to your body. - See more at: http://www.sakaralife.com/pages/nutrition#sthash.q2AwBtXm.dpuf
A calorie is a unit used to measure energy, not nutrition. Calories are NOT created equal and are not a metric used for how fresh or healthy your food is. Rather than focusing on calories, we want to help you focus on how your clothes fit and how you feel! Isn’t that exciting? It’s an opportunity to listen to your body. - See more at: http://www.sakaralife.com/pages/nutrition#sthash.q2AwBtXm.dpuf
A calorie is a unit used to measure energy, not nutrition. Calories are NOT created equal and are not a metric used for how fresh or healthy your food is. Rather than focusing on calories, we want to help you focus on how your clothes fit and how you feel! Isn’t that exciting? It’s an opportunity to listen to your body. - See more at: http://www.sakaralife.com/pages/nutrition#sthash.q2AwBtXm.dpuf

I quit my job...and I'm going to culinary school!

Dear readers,

Happy holidays!  Can you believe it's already "that time of year" again? 

About a month prior to my move to LA, I decided to "start fresh" and create a brand new, California-centric blog called Beverly Hills Bites (as opposed to writing about my new West Coast adventures on my East Coast-born/raised website, The Lunch Belle).  In hindsight, this wasn't the best idea (leaving The Lunch Belle in limbo), as I had spent 7+ years building the site from scratch.  Literally!  Not to mention the email addresses, business cards, contacts, etc. associated with the name.  It wasn't until a friend of mine asked why I would "just throw all of that hard work away and start something new" that I decided to revert back to solely writing on The Lunch Belle.  Plus, with the exception of a handful of LA event/restaurant pitches, I continued to be contacted by NYC public relations agencies and restaurateurs on a daily basis. 

For the past 1.5 years (time that I've been in LA), I have struggled with content - especially Los Angeles-related content.  Blame it on my homesickness for NYC, or being underwhelmed/unstimulated/uninspired in LA - or a mix of both.  Honestly, it wasn't until very recently that I began working with and showcasing NYC contributors to fill the void and keep my site and content somewhat fresh.  As I've mentioned in previous posts, I have to be in a very specific mood/mindset to write - even something as simple as a recipe!  And, while I consider myself to be a generally happy person, I have felt completely lost.  So, you can understand why my writing has slowly dwindled; hell, I'm lucky if I can publish even one post/week (that would be a very good week, by the way)! 

In terms of being surrounded by great friends and family, I am blessed with an amazing - and quite large - group of people in my life.  I have a roof over my head and all of the "things" that anyone could ever want/need.  I am fully aware of how lucky I am!  The big issue that I've been struggling with is my career.  While the financial services industry has been very good to me, there just really isn't much any room for growth in my role (Executive Assistant) in terms of moving to a different/higher position within the bank/institution.  I have felt completely trapped and pigeon-holed for such a long time (for the better half of 10-years, to be exact), and I kind of feel like I've overstayed my welcome.  I have slowly become that angry, bitter employee with a fuse about as tiny as a fruit fly. 

Things came to a head last month with an amalgamation of crap.  After having a conversation with my family who, quite literally, talked me off of a ledge, my sister chimed in with, "Dude, why don't you go to culinary school?"  She was right.  Learning how to cook in a professional kitchen was the missing link in my culinary education.  After all, I graduated from college with a BS in Restaurant/Hotel/Institutional Management and spent a year in the NYU Food Studies Program (until I dropped out to move to LA), so I had the "classroom portion" down. 

And so...Beginning on February 10th, I will be a full-time culinary student in the heart of my beloved Manhattan (I am so excited that I can hardly breathe)!  While I don't have an immediate response to "What do you want to do when you graduate?", I do know that this is the best decision I've made in a very long time.  The unknown is both scary and exciting but, this time, it just feels right. 

In the last few weeks, I have enthusiastically shared my news with friends and family - gave notice to my apartment's leasing company - quit my job - secured a sublet from one of my best friends - lined up a few internships - and booked a one way ticket to New York City for me and my pup.  Oh, and that thing I said about having to be in a specific mindset to write?  I have a feeling that you'll be seeing (read: reading) much more of me! 

In closing, I'd like to wish you and yours an incredibly healthy and happy holiday season and New Year!  I, for one, cannot wait to see all that 2016 has in store!


Until we eat again,

The Lunch Belle


I was invited to pre-screen "Noma: My Perfect Storm." Check out the trailer - and my review - here!

The perks of being a food blogger go beyond just stuffing delicious morsels in my mouth: Recently, I was contacted by the Director of Publicity at Magnolia Pictures to pre-screen the highly-anticipated, feature-length documentary film, Noma: My Perfect Storm (debuting to the public on Friday, December 18th). 

"Noma" not sound familiar?  Geez, do you live under a rock?  Just kidding.  Here, this may help:

"Noma is a two Michelin star restaurant run by chef René Redzepi in Copenhagen, Denmark.  The name is a portmanteau of the two Danish words "nordisk" (Nordic) and "mad" (food).  Opened in 2003, the restaurant is known for its reinvention and interpretation of the Nordic Cuisine.  In 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014, it has been ranked as the "Best Restaurant in the World" by Restaurant magazine.(Excerpt from Wikipedia)

Click on picture, below, to watch the trailer!

Click on the image above to view the trailer!Film director, Pierre Deschamps, spent more than three years at Noma following chef/co-owner Rene Redzepi on a creative culinary journey that traversed the Danish landscape in his quest for inspiration and the pursuit of perfection in concocting bold, exciting dishes for travelers from around the world.  Noma: My Perfect Storm is set against the backdrop of Chef Redzepi's Copenhagen-based restaurant, which is famous for its reinvention of Danish cuisine.  Chef notably pioneered the approach to “foraging" (sourcing nearly all ingredients from the various environments of Scandinavia), and Noma is at the forefront of experimenting with new techniques in food.

As someone who both enthusiastically and trepidatiously decided to quit her job in finance and apply to culinary school, this film really solidified my life-altering decision.  I'm not, by any stretch, calling myself a prodigy like Chef Redzepi, but the way that he thinks and speaks about food and pairs specific ingredients together is something that makes clear and concise sense.  Perhaps all of us who are kitchen-bent have some sort of creative mental alignment, if you will, when it comes to the art of cooking and culinary?  

Another aspect of the film that I appreciated was outside of Noma's kitchen, when Chef's parents were interviewed and his background/childhood was brought to light.  Hailing from Macedonia, Chef Redzepi was born to working-class parents who fled to Denmark at the start of the Yugoslav wars.  His father, a practicing Muslim, experienced racism in blonde hair/blue eye-dominant Scandinavia.  Now before you question why I'm bringing these points to light and/or glorifying the struggle, let me just say that it just made me appreciate Chef's incredibly hard work and accolades that much more.  After all, it's so easy to put someone of his clout on a pedestal of perfection when, at the end of the day, we are all human.  And what's more beautiful than celebrating the success of someone who's earned every ounce of it, despite silver spoons, roadblocks, and set-backs?

I hope - and expect - that you will enjoy this documentary and appreciate the insane amount of detail, creativity, blood/sweat/tears, stress, and passion that go in to each and every day at Noma, the "Best Restaurant in the World." 

**Make sure to mark December 18th in your calendar, when Noma: My Perfect Storm opens in theaters, on Demand, Amazon Video, and on iTunes!**


Until we eat again,

The Lunch Belle

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