For about 15 years now, Don and I have been matriculating “students” in Santa Clarita Valley’s own Dining with the Chefs program. In the early days, it was offered as a community education class through the Golden Oak Adult School, and then College of the Canyons took it over for a while. Now, Barbara Okronick, the amiable and fluent-in-food instructor for the last 13 years, is offering the program under her own auspices. The beauty of the monthly “classes” is that they require no lab work, no exams, and there is no stressing about final grades. Participants need only show up and partake of a customized tasting menu prepared by one of the many accomplished chefs of the Santa Clarita Valley. The prepaid fee of $80 covers the cost, including tax and tip, of 3 prearranged multi-course restaurant meals.
Dining with the Chefs and Barbara Okronick, as the class is now called, enrolls 20-35 adults per section (2 or 3 sections run concurrently) and usually meets on a Tuesday evening at a different local restaurant. Our restaurant for the month of January was Inca Bistro, a newish Peruvian restaurant on Copper Hill Drive. As the participants arrived at 6:15 p.m., we were seated at smartly-appointed tables and handed menus describing in delicious detail the evening’s culinary line-up, consisting of 4 appetizers, a soup, 4 main dishes, and 2 desserts. Instructor Barbara Okronick greeted the class members and introduced the owner of Inca Bistro, Mel Nunez. This is the time when the owner or chef tells us a little about the history of the restaurant, discusses the cuisine, and describes the evening’s menu. As the the courses were served in succession, I found the dishes to be unique, interesting, exotically-flavored, and prepared with authentic Peruvian ingredients, spices, and condiments. I was particularly fond of the Tiradito (sashimi-grade white fish covered with sauce made from Peruvian peppers) and the Emperor Portobello (baked portobello mushroom with olive oil, cilantro, and parsley, topped with a tomato sauce, and served on a bed of quinoa).
The atmosphere of the Inca Bistro was pleasant and comfortable; the service was attentive; and the portion size was generous. Having traveled to Peru and eaten at a range of restaurants there, I will hazard to make the following comparison: The bad news about the Inca Bistro is that because it is not licensed to serve hard liquor, one can not order a requisite Pisco Sour. Although Mel did explain that there are no restrictions on cooking with spirits, hence the decadent dessert of whipped cream mixed with Pisco (Peruvian grape liquor) and Peruvian passion fruit ended the meal on a high note. Now for the good news…..unlike native Peruvian restaurants, the Inca Bistro does not have guinea pig on its menu!
OK…..I’m finally getting to the subject of wine. Many of the class participants like to order wine as an aperitif and/or to pair wine with the tasting menu. Inca Bistro only offers 5 wines by the glass or bottle, however, they are GRAS (generally recognized as sippable) wines. I had a glass of Bridlewood Chardonnay and a glass of Louis M. Martini Cab. Additionally, the Inca Bistro does permit diners to bring their own wine for a $10 corkage fee.
As the evening comes to a close, the owner or chef may return for a brief Q & A, and the participants always complete a written evaluation in which they rate the restaurant on the food, service, and chef/owner presentation. After the diners drift out, often laden with to-go boxes, Barbara remains to review the feedback with the owner.
In February and March, we will dine at Zapp Asian and Tandoori Grill, respectively. (You’ll have my report shortly thereafter.) Dining with the Chefs and Barbara Okronick is a terrific way to learn about new restaurants in town and to stay current with old favorites. For more information or to sign up for a dinner series, contact Barbara Okronick by e-mail at DiningWithBarb@gmail.com. Buon appetito!