Driving up Highway 101 between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, you'll pass Oxnard, where new housing growth edges out to beautiful beaches and broad farmlands.
But what may surprise you is that this central coast city, just 43 miles north of Los Angeles and 11 miles inland from Channel Islands National Park, is also the home of the Baron Herzog Winery and its Tierra Sur Restaurant — both kosher.
The large winery represents eight generations of winemaking going back to Baron Herzog, who made wine in Slovakia before the Holocaust for Emperor Franz Joseph.
Indeed, because Franz Joseph liked Herzog's wines so much, he bestowed upon him the esteemed title of "Baron."
My wife and I toured the winery with Herzog's Monica Agyekum and then enjoyed lunch at Tierra Sur, Herzog's open-kitchen restaurant where Chef Todd Aarons prepares memorable lunches and dinners in a rustic, Mediterranean-Tuscan style.
Herzog gets its grapes from California's central and northern wine regions, but it "sources" grapes from private vineyards, Agyekum explained, which is a "bonus because we can source the best area for each varietal."
The winery markets two lines: the Baron Herzog value line, and the Special Reserve wines, including European and Israeli products.
Herzog's modern tasting area offers two reasonably-priced options: the Baron Herzog tasting, which includes Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Blanc and Black Muscat; and Special Reserve tasting, which includes California Chardonnay, Cabernet/Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon/ Zinfandel/Syrah.
Herzog also features four kosher wine clubs.
Following our tour, we ambled over to Tierra Sur Restaurant, which seats up to 40 people. There is also patio seating when the weather warms up.
Aarons, a 1993 graduate of the California Culinary Academy, gained inspiration for his rustic style of cooking while working at the renowned Zuni Café in San Francisco and Savoy in New York City's SoHo.
But it was most likely his year-long experience at Restaurante Da Delfina in Tuscany, Italy, that instilled in him a fascination with Tuscan culture and cuisine — reflected today in superb creations at Tierra Sur.
Mixing It All Up
Aarons' style of cooking might be called Mediterranean, Tuscan, or a mix of both, plus influences of Mexican flavors and styles.
But whatever label you choose, his cuisine reflects simplicity built upon fresh ingredients from local farms, plus the use of a wood-burning fireplace.
In Italy, he noted, the connection between land and food is very strong. Locally, the chef makes it a practice to visit local farms and claims with some pride that "our best friends are all the farmers in the area."
So now comes the kosher equation: Just how did Aarons get to this point in his professional life?
In the late 1990s, as he became more religiously observant, he traveled to Israel, where he also developed Italian/ Mediterranean menus for new cafes.
Following his return to the United States, he opened an upscale glatt kosher French-Mediterranean restaurant/bistro called Mosaica, in New Jersey, which was very successful.
Aarons likes to say that the food he prepares "just happens to be kosher, but it doesn't change the style of the food," he emphasized.
Thus, for example, thanks to Mediterranean influences, olive oil "reigns supreme" at Tierra Sur, rather than butter, since kosher laws don't allow the mixing of dairy and meat.
The proof, of course, is all in the pudding — and what a tasteful proof it was!
Soon after we sat down, our waiter brought us a generous serving of French bread with a dish of rich olive oil for dipping. We had to pace ourselves, lest we leave no room for what was to follow — platillos of Spanish-style tapas.
First, there were salt cod beignets, presented in a light cream puff dough. Next were miniature chile rellenos served in "toy box" chilies, which Aarons had filled with a heavenly mix of whipped potatoes, eggs and fish roe.
And finally, there was a serving of black Greek olives, along with large green olives and red ones, reflecting different brining.
My main course was a bow-tie pasta-and-duck ragout with a light tomato sauce, which displayed hints of rosemary and garlic. Bits of crouton also added a nice crunch to the pasta and duck.
My wife chose the herb-marinated chicken breast sandwich with garlic aioli, homemade hickory-and-maple smoked lamb bacon, and sweet potato fries. It was all so substantial that we had to have part of it boxed to take along with us.
The wine list, of course, offered many Herzog choices to go with the meal.
For more information, visit: www. herzogwinecellars.com.