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All Hail the Tomato: Dowtown Dining to Fete a Favorite Fruit

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Yes, I said fruit. Let's get that out of the way immediately, shall we? The tomato--versatile, plentiful, flavorful, and local--is a fruit. It's also something that is in season right now (although you can conceivably make a go of growing your own right now and celebrating a little later on). The Patina Group of restaurants is celebrating this stellar ingredient with Tomato Festival menus at nine of their eateries, and to show off the spoils of the season they brought together a crew of food bloggers and Paul and Maryann Carpenter (the couple who operate Coastal Organics, the 17-acre Santa Paula farm from which the Patina Group sources produce) for a caravan tour of three Downtown eateries, with one course per stop, each showing off the tasty tomato.

Our three stops on the tour began at Nick & Stef's Steakhouse, where before daylight waned it was clear to see that they run a lively patio on Thursday nights (Thursday on the Patio boasts a grill right on the patio from 3:30-9:30 with live music, appetizer specials and $6 drinks) and a popular Happy Hour. Inside the dining room we enjoyed an appetizer of a Tomato Stack salad, which featured slices of heirloom tomatoes, a dressing using a french vinegar, and a fine spray of sweet and tangy pineapple.

We headed down to the charming patio of Cafe Pinot next. Nestled in the shadow of the Central Library, the patio is ablaze at night with the beckoning twinkle of white lights studding the trees' trunks and limbs, and sits amidst the dazzling lights of the Downtown skyline. They, too, host evening specials for Downtown dwellers, workers, and those who enjoy affordable indulgences. (Try one of their specialty French cocktails for $7 at their "Ce Soir" Thursday night happy hour evenings.)

After being greeted with small bite-sized samples of their Tomato Festival appetizers, like the bright and refreshing Tomato Gazpacho and the King crab legs with tomato gelee, we dined on a halibut dish designed to reflect the spirit of "whole hog" eating--only in the plant world. Chef Kevin Meehan infuses olive oil with tomato vines, then slow poaches the dense, tender white fish and serves it with sauteed arugula and a tomato fondue (sort of smashed tomatoes). The fish is moist, and deceptively rich--its flakiness and smoothness masking the fact that it is a very substantial and satisfying fish dish.

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Our last stop was a few blocks away at Zucca Ristorante, who shared their tomato dessert. On a hot summer night, if you can take your tomato tasting all the way, you might want to try their tomato sorbet, served in a martini glass with a garnish of micro basil. It is indeed cooling and light--perfect for the sultry night of our tour, oof!--and another way to taste the tomato, but, hey, you're at Zucca! Pass the Tiramisu, please! (They soak the ladyfingers in Kahlua, mmmkay? Yum.) Zucca has a warm, welcoming interior, and despite its leanings towards the formal, has a very casual and comfortable vibe--which is probably why they welcome guests to weeknight Happy Hour (L'ora Felice!) where the game is on, a $19 two-course lunch special, and Sunday dinners.

The thing about the Patina Group is that if you're going to hem and haw about it being a "group" take a moment to consider a chain like, oh, Houston's or the Olive Garden. Now, those are chains! The Patina Group has a relationship with local growers, like the Carpenters of Coastal Organics, so the food they use is fresh (didn't roll off a giant truck in a massive vat or plastic mega-bag, ready to heat and serve, you dig?) and thoughtfully planned and showcased on changing menus that reflect seasonality and availability. And, hey, if Joachim Splichal's food is good enough for the folks attending the Emmy Awards, well...

The nine restaurants featuring Tomato Festival menus are highlighted via the Events page, where you can view the menus and make reservations. Cheers to the terrific tomato!