Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oysters in Marshall

After a nice work retreat on the Russian River in Monte Rio, meetings about budgets and facilities, and a few dinners involving a lot of wine and excellent food (we were lucky to have the chefs present), I made the decision to take the coastal route down Hwy One back to my house in Sausalito.  This is no small drive, as Hwy 116/12 winds its way 10 miles to just east of Jenner and then joins Hwy 1, south through Bodega Bay,  past expansive beaches, seagull laden rocks, and warm September skies.  The weather was perfect early Indian Summer, practically no fog, and bathing suit worthy heat radiating off the empty mid-week sand.  I stopped for a leisurely run down Doran Beach, a long spit of land that hems in Bodega Bay to the south, and looks head-on at the northern tip of Point Reyes Peninsula.  I have always enjoyed this little known beach, as its orientation protects it from the blinding winds that can ravage these parts.

Working up a  40 minute sweat had afforded me a little lunch along the way.   All I could think about were oysters, delicious Sweetwaters, coined by the Hog Island Oyster Company, getting their name from the local streams that form rivulets through the numerous oyster beds that populate their shoreline on Tomales Bay.  I hadn't driven on this portion of the coast in some time,  and smiled at the one-block row of shops and the old Inn in Valley Ford.  I loved the rambly feel of the smallish town of Tomales, with the best coastal native plant nursery around.  As the highway made its way back out toward the coast, a feeling of peace washed over me.  These gorgeous grassy hills, dotted with dairy and horse farms and an occasional winery, are practically in my backyard.  After travelling at least 2/3 of the coast of California last week, I felt blessed to have such beauty so close at hand. 

Oysters, that's right, I had to fulfill my mission.  The default plan was to stop for barbequed oysters at the Olema Farmhouse Inn before turning inland at Sir Francis Drake Blvd.  I was actually craving fried oysters, and if they had them, I would get them instead.  I passed Nick's Cove in Marshall, the nicely restored property by Pat Kuleto and team. I was feeling a bit too sweaty and underdressed though, so decided to plow on, acutely aware that I had entered oysterland, where most small places dotting this windy shoreline would have oysters in some way, shape or form.  Next was Hog Island Oyster Company, my absolute favorite spot, with small and firm Kumamotos, their famous Sweetwaters, and briny Atlantics to satisfy any oyster afficianado.  I didn't stop there though, either, as my gut was wanting something warm.  After passing Tomales Bay Oyster Company and Tony's (which still had their chairs up), I saw the Marshall Store coming up on the right.   Several signs out front advertised oysters, and I made the last minute decision to pull in.  I had never been to the Marshall Store, but had passed it on many other drives to and from neighboring destinations. 

It's not really much of a store, but more of a small lunch place, with sandwiches, chowder, chili and oysters.  The menu had a few choices:  1/2 dozen raw on the half shell, 1/2 dozen barbequed with chipotle butter sauce, 1/2 dozen oyster Rockefeller.  Oysters Rockefeller it was.  It was still warm enough to sit on the perimeter deck and take in the fishing and sail boats, Inverness and Point Reyes Peninsula across the water.   A sizeable herd of sea lions barked away, as they vied for space on the small sailboat they had taken over (unfortunate for the absentee owner).  I read my book, enjoyed the breeze,  and gazed at the other diners who had chosen the tables along the parking area, no longer on Marshall Store's property, but a place they could enjoy a beer or glass of wine, as the store has only an "off site" liquor license.  After about 20 minutes, a plate of 7 oysters (a baker's half dozen?), flecked with chopped greens and bread crumbs, were set before me.

 I attempted to recall exactly what comprises an "Oysters Rockefeller", as this one consisted of cooked and roughly chopped chard, spinach, onions and croutons.  The scrumptous gems were plump and juicy,  and even more enhanced with a dollop of Tapatio hot sauce.  I was thankful that they weren't too buttery, and no cream or bacon studded these babies.  A subsequent Google search on Oysters Rockefeller gave a variety of answers.  The Marshall Store's version seemed a little conservative, but hit the spot nonetheless. 

Regrettably, I got in my car, reality beginning to hit, as tomorrow would signal the beginning of my work week, and the official end to vacation.  open 7 days until 5 pm.

For shuck and serve yourself, these two places offer barbeques and picnic areas so you can fill in the blanks with wine, cheese and beer:   daily, 8-5   daily 8-6

Here are a few other full service restaurants for oysters along HighwayOne between Marshall and Olema
    (it is worth noting that most offer lodging so you don't have to make the trip back so soon):

Nick's Cove, Marshall, CA Open 7 days, breakfast, lunch and dinner
       Full service restaurant restored by award winning restaurant designer Pat Kuleto.  Menu is worthy of
       destination dining.

Tony's Seafood Restaurant, Marshall, CA:  Only open on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, live music.

The Station House Cafe, Point Reyes Station, CA  closed Wednesdays
       They have a large menu with many local specialties, a full bar and many oyster dishes including         Hangtown Fry, Oyster Po'Boy, and good old fashioned Oysters on the Half Shell.

Olema Farmhouse Inn, Olema, CA  open 7 days
       A casual bar atmosphere with Oyster Stew (Fri, Sat and Sun only) and many other local specialties
       Look for them at the intersection of Sir Francis Drake Blvd and Highway One.

The Olema Inn, Olema, CA  Dinner 7 nights, Sat and Sun Brunch
     A definitive foodie destination for locally sourced ingredients including Marin Sun Farms beef, foraged
     vegetables and, of course, local seafood and oysters on the half shell.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Big Sur

Setting off this morning from Pismo Beach, I made the last minute decision to ditch the 2 hour Hearst Castle tour and slowly make my way up to Big Sur, taking in random sites along the way and visiting Esalen for a 4 pm massage. It was the last official day away from home and I needed to not be on much of a schedule. I made my way to the famous rock at Morro Bay, which was barely visible yet amazing looking through the fog. I next stopped in the picturesque town of Cambria, ordering an incredible Turkey, Avocado and Pancetta sandwich from Soto's Market downtown.
I passed Esalen at 3 pm and decided to go check in at the Glen Oaks and make my way back down to take advantage of the cliffside natural hotsprings before my massage. I had chosen the Glen Oaks Motel because they had redone it recently, having been a state of the art "modern" hotel back in 1950 when they originally built it. It had been updated with all organic linens, soaps, bamboo flooring, a working fireplace, and looked almost as nice as the Ventana and the Post Ranch Inn down the street, at 1/4 of the price.
It had been years since I had been to an alternative culture place like Esalen. I had forgotten the vibe of the at times spacey wanna-be hippy culture: peace, love and clothing optional. The setting was fantastic, perched on the edge of the cliffs, natural hot springs in a cast cement building; a place well worth letting one's guard down for. A 75 minute massage with use of the facilities was only $165. That may sound like a lot, but considering the standard rate for a 50 minute massage in these parts was $120, it was a steal. To boot, the sound of the crashing waves and the warm sunshine on my battered body leached any remnants of stress away. This place is not for the conservative minded, as nude women and men basked in the sunshine and layed together on couples massage tables. I was surprised I even noticed these things and was even a tiny bit self-conscious (for like, one second), a sign to me that I am aging and changing. Damnit, I need to get out more.

The fog had never quite lifted from the shore that day, hanging at the coastline and sinking into each crevice and valley after sunset.
After a very relaxing few hours at  Esalen, I opted for a contrasting experience and went for a drink at the posh Sierra Mar Restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn. I was dressed very casually and even had a hint of post massage sulphur spring pool wafting from my still glowing skin. If I wasn't driving a semi decent car, I probably would have been too shy, as it is tough to get a room there for under $600 a night. I summoned an few ounces of self importance as I parked my car, passed through the lobby and climbed the heavy wooden steps up to the top. The restaurant is probably the best in Big Sur and I was eager to check out the prix fixe menu and views. $105 for 4 courses, with each item available a la carte.
The room was very modern with a hint of rusticity in the rusty, hand-welded backdrop to the bar;  floor to ceiling windows overlooked a sea of clouds. The scenery, clouds hugging the coastline, and soft sunlight illuminating from beyond gave the feeling that we were in a huge  airplane looking out over the horizon, sitting in first class, of course. The cocktail menu was a good mix of innovative and classic, with fresh squeezed, organic juices making up the bulk of the specialty drinks. I opted for a drink (name I cannot recall) featuring Plymouth Gin, a splash of St. Germain (elderflower liqueur), grapefruit juice and a dollop of absinthe on top. It was delicious and refreshing. I was tempted to have the Foie Gras Trio as a snack, but somehow mustered a moment of self-control.  Surprisingly (or not), the couple seated next to me were from Pacific Heights and had never been into Terzo; of course I gave them my card... Guests there were treated like locals and it was obvious there were many repeat visitors.
As the sun sank below the horizon, I snapped up some gorgeous photos and made my way down the hill, restaurant recommendations from the very friendly bartendress, Heidi, in hand. I had originally planned on Nepenthe, but was actually very happy with the local favorite she recommended, the Big Sur Bakery, which she said was right next door. In Big Sur terms, that means a mile down the road.

The restaurant seemed a bit harried when I walked in, perhaps a little short staffed. A friendly woman with a German accent seated me outside next to a large Redwood tree. Indian summer had hit on this part of the coast and I was lucky to be in such a relaxed state, the smell of forest floor hanging in air, a warm breeze caressing my skin, the Plymouth Gin running through my veins. I'm not sure if my server thought I was expecting someone else, but it took her about 10 minutes to finally come over to my table, saying "a single lady dining alone tonight?", which I found impossibly obnoxious but smiled anyway. I had already decided what I wanted, to eat to drink etc. She assured me water and bread would be over in a minute, and that it was fine that I ordered the pizza, but it would be "at least 45 minutes, if that's alright with you?" I had already scanned my other options and I was tired of big hunks of protein; salad and pizza sounded like a refreshing change. I assured her it was fine.

The wine arrived but no water or bread. The busser hadn't bothered to notice me. I didn't care much about the bread, but the massage, hot tubs and two drinks at Sierra Mar had left me parched. I had to ask a couple of times and finally did have a glass of water placed before me. The busser never did come over though, even as he refilled the glasses at the next table. Perhaps I do reek of sulphur, I wondered to myself as I watched the German lady (who turned out to be the owner) make small talk with every table except mine. I began to feel like Ruth Reichl as an undercover food critic, dressed frumpily and being ignored by head waiters in her book, Garlic and Sapphires. I pondered how interesting it was that most people are uncomfortable with a single woman dining alone; everyone but me, that is. Oh well, not my problem how other people feel, but it would have been inexcusable if my service was faltering because of this; something I would never know for certain.
I began to perk up when a nice effeminate male waiter brought me a lightly dressed Spring Green, Pistachio, Peach, Haricot Vert and Feta Cheese Salad, a hard choice from the several very appetizing sounding combinations listed on the menu. It was tasty and filled the vegetable void that had arisen in the preceding days. He was taken aback that I didn't have any bread and whisked some out to me, 3 or 4 kinds piled on a cutting board, unsalted butter and a nice pile of salt crystals for seasoning. The seeded bread was the best, crunchy at the crust, toothsome yet soft in the center. If I hadn't already begun to feel full, I would have considered buying a loaf to bring back home.

The pizza finally did arrive, exactly 45 minutes from the time of ordering. By that point my appetite was fading, but I was still enjoying the warm night. The Niman Ranch Ham, Pineapple and Serrano Chiles pizza had sounded refreshing; defiantly not a pizza for the traditionalist. I am so accustomed to our Neopolitan Pizzas here in the Bay area however, that I found the crust a little too thick and doughy for my liking. It was as if the pizza didn't cook long enough, or possibly sat in the expediting window too long. The toppings were only lukewarm, the cheese barely melted. Picking at a few pieces, I asked for my bill, suddenly feeling the need to leave and have some quiet time with the trees back at my hotel. The next day, my vacation would come to an end, work would start again, and I would begin plotting my next adventure.

Hwy 1 out of LA

I'm not so sure at this point in my trip whether its good or bad to have Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore" blaring through my car's speakers. I'm so damn engrossed in the story by now that it is hard to concentrate on the scenery as I make my way up highway one for a first ever trip between LA and Big Sur. Sure, I've been to Santa Monica and Malibu, and yes, I've been to Big Sur coming in from the north, but I've never taken that eponymous trip all the way along this highway, north to the Bay Area.
Yesterday was uneventful, as just getting out of LA and the sprawling feel took practically all day. PCH through Santa Monica, past Pepperdine and beyond Malibu is the highway of the cinema, familiar in a "I've seen that before" kind of way. I had been there before a few times, but had not spent any meaningful time along this stretch, nor would I on this trip.
I stopped, completely famished (and a little hung over from last night's dinner at El Bazaar) at a strip mall along the road in Oxnard, low blood sugar and caffeine don't mix well. I didn't want to spend the time to seek out the downtown area and this little mall had a Subway sandwich shop, a few other stores, and a Filipino lunch place. By now you know I probably wasn't going to choose Subway, so Filipino it was. I was so bleary-eyed that is was difficult to choose from the various pans of food on the steam table behind the glass. Everyone in there was a Pacific Islander, and I had to remind myself that they all spoke english and I could ask whatever questions I wanted. My state of mind, however, was dulled and even though they had beautiful looking rice noodles, chicken adobo, several pork dishes and a few other things, I played it safe and ordered the Beef Colorado, basically Filipino Beef Stew. I was in a hurry and just needed some protein to get me through. After using the lysol laced bathroom, I took a few bites and got back on the road.

I passed Santa Barbara and made my way to the Cold Springs Tavern, an old Stage Coach stop off the San Marcos Pass, Hwy 154. Even though it was a good 2 hours later, my biliousness and the few bites of stew had suppressed my hunger (i love that word, both Julia Child and MFK Fisher use that to describe liver overtaxing). I stopped at this historic spot anyway, and had a coffee and a cup of wild meat chile (boar, venison and bison). It was rich and tasty, made with black beans and topped with the requisite chopped onions and cheese. I felt like I was channeling my parents, as hardly in my life have I washed down a savory item with coffee. Both my Father and Jeff James (yes, a distant relative of Jesse James) had separately told me to check this place out. I could see how it was a great stop for the motorcyclists off the very easy, rolling 154. In fact, there were a dozen bikers having an animated lunch around a large oval table in the next room.
A little further up was Los Olivos, and Neverland Ranch, which I dutifully stopped at to pay my respects. I felt sad at the gate to Neverland, perhaps because of MJ and his legend, but also because of the hangover and the pending end of my vacation.
I finally reached my hotel in Pismo Beach. I had chosen this area as a "partway point", as my sister lives right over the hill in Santa Maria and we planned to have dinner together that night. She toured me on the cute towns of Shell Beach and Avila Beach. We drove out on the San Luis Pier and viewed the elephant seals all piled up on a deck below. I was surprised that I could have walked right up to them.
We had dinner at Custom House in Avila Beach, a cute seafood restaurant right on the beach. The chowder was glumpy. I had ordered swordfish, (despite the mercury content), as it had been many many years since I had eaten it. It was dried out and unimpressive, not medium rare as I had expected. It will be another several years before I order it again...
Quickly falling asleep by 10 pm, I looked forward to an easy drive to Big Sur the next day, and checking out the sites with the engrossing characters in Murakami's novel carrying me along.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

El Bazaar

After a way too short a time having coffee in the adorable town of Pasadena with my old friend Robert Williams, I made my way back to Hollywood, to Ricardo's house, the starting point of my full circuit tour of the "southland". We had 8:45 pm reservations at El Bazaar , and my 8-5 friends were nice enough (and caffeined up) to indulge me with their company for one more night of good food, drinks and conversation. Earlier in the week, Marcelo (my BFF in the Bay Area) had mentioned that I should check this restaurant out. The chef is Jose Andres, apparently the former Sous Chef at El Bulli in Spain, quite possibly the best restaurant in the world. The investors and maybe even the chef himself had recently been to Quintessa (M's place of work) and talked it up. Seeing that I had never heard of it, I checked online, loved the tapas menu, and made a reservation.

Finding rock star parking right away (which some say is impossible in Beverly Hills), was a good omen, as we arrived perfectly on time, to a gracious host/mngr who asked us to wait in the bar, as the previously table had just paid. We took in the modern surroundings: low slung caramel leather couches, wide coffee tables and perfectly dimmed lighting. A 40 foot long, glass- topped bar height table ran at an angle down the room, a deliberate focal point and conversation piece, as encased in the table at every seat was a round portal of fuzzy black and white movie footage, dancing beneath the glass like holograms providing an eerie, otherworldly contrast to the modern, almost gaudy mirror encased booth just beyond.

A quick look at the cocktail list and I decided on a Pisco Sour. I recalled fondly the last time I had this drink at Adesso in Oakland, not too sour, a hint of creaminess (from egg whites) and a dash of bitters. The bartender wasn't surprised by my order, as apparently the LA Times had just crowned El Bazaar's Pisco Sour the Best Drink in LA that very morning! Had I died and suddenly become hip, my finger on the pulse of the LA dining scene? LOL The drink really did turn out to be absolutely the best of its kind. Pisco (that lovely South American liqueur made from grape spirits), fresh lemon juice and an egg white, all shaken together and then strained into a martini glass. A few dashes of peychaud's bitters garnished the top. YUM
Right when I was about to order a second, the maitre'd motioned to us to come along, our table was ready. I made a mental note to check out the rest of the bar area, as their were more tables in a completely different decor of french baroque, in the next room, next to an elaborate patisserie display and an eclectic collection of museum quality objects d'art for sale.

Our table was spacious and the lighting was bright but not glaring, which made for easy reading of the rather large menu: a fold out of 4 pages, two devoted to "traditional tapas" and two to "modern tapas". I was surprised to see the modern tapas had a distinctively japanese twist to them.

Our server was dressed in a cute vintage modern cocktail dress, no aprons or frumpy button downs in the vicinity. She expertly gave us the run down of the menu, 3-4 small plates each, and recommended we choose from both the traditional and modern sides to get the full experience of the place. There were also two chef tasting menus to choose from, one $45 and one $65.

After little discussion we each decided on 3 plates, with room to add more if we liked. Both Joe and I ordered additional items meant for singular eating: He an American Caviar Cone and me a Cotton Candy Foie Gras. Those came out first, his a crispy crepe-like cone stuffed with delicate black eggs, not as firm as I like them, but flavorful. Mine was a puff ball of cotton candy on a stick, meant to be eaten in one bite. I let Joe and Ricardo pull at the sugar before I deftly popped the whole thing in my mouth. The melting whisps gave way to a center of creamy torchon, perfectly cured with a hint of cognac. I was already in heaven, as by now you know I have a soft spot for all things liver-ey.

When the "Linguine with Miso" was placed before us, we had to quickly recap what we had ordered. As these were cellophane noodles with orange Ikura dotting the top. Not what we expected but very flavorful, just the right amount of salt, a hint of miso, and the nice crunch from the roe. It was, however, a little challenging to eat, as everything kept sliding off our forks.
Next up was the cheese course, not a bad price: 3 selections for $15 or 5 for $25. We selected the Idiazabel, a nutty and firm sheeps milk cheese, aged Manchego, and Valdeon, a Spanish Blue. Small, rustic twists of crackers were scattered about the plate as well as an ample amount of membrillo (quince) jam. Cheese plates are simple but mostly always delicious.
Cod fritters arrived next, small balls of creamy goodness, with aioli to dip them in. This turned out to be my favorite dish.

Two sea scallops then arrived on plate of rough cut romesco sauce. The scallops were plump yet lacked the caramelization that would have set them off better against the rich red pepper and almond background.

Ricardo had chosen the "Japanese Tacos": Three "tacos" were neatly arranged on a small taco building stand. Parchment paper held a thin lengthwise cut of cucumber in which was nestled a piece of barbeque eel and a slice of avocado. Popping the whole thing in my mouth at once, flavors were exactly as one would expect (from the Japanese restaurant across the street). R & J loved this dish, I found the flavors nice but common and strangely out of place.

Mid-meal, I made a quick trip to the ladies lounge to refresh, and entered a room full of mirrors with a row of marbeled sinks down the middle. A girl was talking to her boyfriend on speaker phone, and attendants wiped each door, toilet, and mirror down continuously. Very L.A. I really don't like these kind of rooms, as you can see yourself from every angle, and at this point in the trip, I should have just stopped eating right then and there! HA

That was quickly forgotton as I reentered the dining room and slid into my comfortable seat on the leather sofa. We couldn't remember what was coming next until the lamb loin arrived. A small bowl held a smooth puree of mashed potatoes, with a disc of demiglace gelee in the center, beneath which rested a fan of sliced medium rare lamb. The flavors married well and we were all happy with the richness of the demiglace accenting the mild lamb. Meat and potatoes at their best. The potatoes reminded me that we hadn't ordered the patatas bravas, usually fried potato chunks with some sort of dipping sauce. When our server stopped by to check, I threw that order in, as I was certain my companions would appreciate them. When they arrived, however, what was placed before us looked like powdered sugar coated Jordan almonds. They turned out to be small german butterball potatoes, coated with powdered salt. Yes, powdered salt. The dipping sauce, described as a Mole Verde, was pureed cilantro with a little citrus and possibly a small amount of chile. I have to say, I didn't like this dish at all. The salt was very strong, overpowering even the green sauce. Ricardo loved it though, and even dipped the salty nuggets in the leftover demiglace of the lamb dish.
Our server stopped by again, and asked if we had received the spinach yet, a traditional spanish style dish with pine nuts and golden currants. No we had not, and she scooted off to check on it. It finally was placed before us and I immediately was sad we had not had this earlier, along side the lamb course, as the flavors were nice but a strange placement in the procession of dishes. We were close to full when another forgotten dish made it out, skewers of watermelon alternating with plum tomatoes. Although a nice palate cleanser, this dish also felt misplaced.

Starting off strong and ending a little weak, we were still pretty impressed by the flavors, innovative style and freshness of the ingredients. Those last dishes put us over the edge however, and, being that it was now after 11 pm on a school night, we declined even looking at the dessert menu.
In digestive mode, we perused the gallery next to the bar, an eclectic mix of hand blown glass pieces, jewelry, japanese Anime characters, Liberacci (or Michael Jackson) styled crystal what-nots, and leather S & M wear; truly something for everyone. The patisserie bar consisted of artfully arranged glass domed delicacies, making me wish I was making one more trip to my parent's house, as Inge would have been in heaven.

Monday, September 7, 2009

An eastern San Diego thing...

My sister and I made our way 1/2 hour east of Oceanside, past Avocado stands (1#/$3!), Macadamia Nut trees, Pomegranates and Palm tree nurseries, to Fallbrook, the town my Father has lived for the last 20 years.

We had agreed to go to a post birthday lunch at Pala Casino, one of the multiple Indian casinos dotting the roads winding east toward the desert. Knowing it would be a buffet, I felt a mixture of dread and genuine curiosity as we snaked our way past more nurseries and a huge Bison ranch.

The casino culture is always one that has bored me. I found this out the hard way, on a "3" day weekend in Las Vegas in my early 20's. My parents had started going there every Christmas, making the 4 hour drive, gambling all night, trading off time in the hotel room, drinking incessant cups of coffee and counting cards at the blackjack tables. I think they felt guilty one year, me, the youngest, alone in Northern California, so they decided to invite me along. My stepmother, Ingeborg, had created a cute Christmas card with money taped all over it, $100 in total. I had already lived in Reno for a couple of years (don't ask), so I knew how to play the games and wasn't a total fish out of water in a casino. Nothing prepared me for their total immersion though, my Father playing poker in the players only rooms, my Stepmother in her own world playing 21. I opted for the Keno lounge and a few games of video poker. Within a few hours, I was bored stiff, not yet my fully adventurous self, and had blown through the $100 already. I only spent one night there, and talked them into changing my flight - this Vegas thing was boring the hell out of me and seriously cramping their style.

Flash forward to yesterday and entering the huge Pala Casino, packed with people, my Father expertly pushing past the people walking as if their eyes were closed. Moving in the casino makes moving in a restaurant seem like a sleepwalk. I felt a flashback coming on, especially since the cigarette smoke hung thickly in the air (Indian casinos are apparently exempt from California State Law). The buffet line was about 100 people long. That didn't include the hoards of people shoving past us in line, joining their friends and relatives who were holding places. We were starving, not having had breakfast in anticipation of the bounty of the buffet. The wait was 1 hour.

When we finally entered and were seated at our table, both Inge and Dad, without word or sitting down, headed over to the buffet area. The room was surprisingly well appointed, reminding me very much of the buffet in the bottom of my Tokyo hotel last year. The chairs and tables were very nice, and we had cloth napkins before us.

I got up and perused the options, as I had seen King Crab legs and oyster shells piled up on the empty tables in the dining room, like an abandoned feast in Roman times. A huge salad bar stood in the middle of the room, with a large array of about 15 sliced fruits colorfully displayed down one side. Its counterpart was a grill station, with piles of steaks, ready to be grilled to order. Around the perimeter stood a seafood station with the oysters and Crab and boiled shrimp. Next was the fried shrimp, clams strips, and calamari. Various sauces with drippy ladles waited for self service. A Chinese area held char sui (a favorite of mine), steamed shrimp dumplings, pot stickers, chow mein, kim chee, pickled ginger, and a few stir fries. A carving station had roast turkey, lamb, pork loin and pork spareribs. Next over were large swords speared with sausages (very Churascurria-esque) and a huge bone-in ham. A whole section was devoted to chicken: fried, roasted, nuggets, mashed potatoes, vegetables, gravies. There was still more: A pizza station with pastas and sauces, then a breakfast station with pancakes, eggs, bacon, french toast, blinzes, hash browns. Oh yeah, I can't forget the huge dessert station with sundaes, various cakes and pastries, and a bakery style cold case with artfully decorated bite sized desserts including cheesecake on a stick, creme brulees and even panna cotta.

I started with crab legs and a salad (as remember, this was "all you can eat!"). I followed suit with many of the "regulars" and had the crab legs heated up, which I fantasized involved plopping them on the grill, but instead were dunked briefly in not so boiling water. They turned out to be watery and still chilled - being most likely frozen before entering, especially when you take into account the throngs of people they were feeding that day. I was happy they were on a separate plate, because what resulted was a messy swamp, from which I attempted to fish out the few fried clams I had taken. Thankfully, the staff was ample and quickly whisked away any dirty plates left on the outer edge of the table.

Next I perused the meat and chinese areas, no, not steak (didn't look quite right) and settled on some char siu, shrimp dumplings, roasted lamb, a sausage, mashed potatoes and a brussels sprouts, in small piles on my large plate. I got through about half of this, the meat okay, the dumplings pastey and strange, and the brussels sprouts the worst I've ever had (but the mashed potatoes amazingly good, mashed with the skins). I was sadly already full, the main dishes pretty decent tasting; but I didn't have room for the many more selections to try. My sister and I laughed our asses off as we watched Ingeborg delight over the many desserts with a Lucille Ball style antic she has become so good at imitating (without really knowing it). We wondered why she had even bothered with the savory items. I chose the panna cotta which was presented in nice little glass jars, topped with blueberries. It was quite delicious actually that I had a second. We were at a buffet, after all.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Crossing the border & Dana Point Birthday

The road to the border crossing in Tecate snakes its way around the edge of town, away from the busy streets so that they don't get clogged up with the sometimes hour wait to clear the border patrol etc. We had some wine with us, which made me nervous, and the sun was hot, hot, hot, coming in the western window of the car, which also happened to be right in my face.

After an uneventful showing of the passports, the border agent said "have a nice day ladies". We jammed out of there only to find another roadblock 1/2 hour up the road, replete with drug sniffing dogs. After another 30 minute wait in the hot sun, we were on our way. Even if you aren't guilty of anything, the way these guys behave make you feel like you have something to hide.

We drove as fast as we could back to Orange County, as the rental car agency closed at 3 pm and there was no way I wanted to pay for a few more days. Thank god for that car though, as it would have been hair raising to be blasting through potholes down those lovely dirt roads in my own vehicle.

Barely making it to the rental place on time, I was overheated and sporting a sore throat (again). Shit, it was relentless.

It was Joan's 50th birthday, and we planned to meet for drinks with a few of her old friends. After a power nap, I was able to gather enough strength to at least drive her to Cannon's on the cliff overlooking Dana Point Harbor. Of course I stayed for a drink, a Hot Toddy, to soothe the throat and then another drink, and probably another: all Hot Toddies. The view from this restaurant is spectacular. Despite the not so good appetizers, it is always comforting to be in a place that is so familiar, with old friends you've known since you were 10. These beaches, harbors and roads were the stomping grounds that helped shape me, and had that feeling of "home".

We moved next to the Dana Point Yacht Club, on a small spit of land in the middle of the harbor. More hot drinks (Irish coffees this time) and okay appetizers rounded out the still warm evening.

Today I will journey to my Father's house in Fallbrook, 1/2 hour inland from Oceanside. The next few days should be pretty relaxing especially if I'm careful to nurse my throat. Lunch is planned at the buffet of the local Casino. This should be interesting...

Valle de Guadalupe, Part Two - Vinisterra & Tres Mujeres

We were fortunate to have the proprietor of Villa del Valle, Eileen Gregory, and her assistant, Alejandro, make appointments for us at a few more wineries the next day: Vinisterra and Tres Mujeres. Joan and I set off first, however, back up to the east end of the valley to find a store called “Dona Lupe”. It was tucked behind L.A. Cetto (the biggest and most commercial winery in the valley), down a wide dirt road (not surprised?) and backed up against the mountains. Dona Lupe is known for their organic jams, jellies, chile sauces and other hand made goods. I was excited when we entered to earthy herbal scents and wafts of who-knows-what that they were stirring in the small open kitchen behind the cash register.

The store was filled on every wall, in some areas 3 deep, with jams of all kinds: jalapeno, quince and guava, rose petal, pineapple, basil, mint. Everything they grew in their organic gardens were cooked up and canned. I had discovered earlier that all of the jams at our hotel come from this place, as they supply the entire valley with their concoctions. Not only did they have jams, they had a wall of dried herbs with explanations of what medicinal effects they had. They also make their own cheese and even their own cosmetic oils and face creams.

This kind of store affects me like a kid in a candy store, as I am always eager to return home with as much expression of a place as I can fit in my bag. Good thing I drove on this trip, as I suspect my car will be filled by the time I make it back to Sausalito.

After spending about $100 on various items and gifts (all of those 60 and 70 peso prices really added up! BTW the exchange rate is $1 = 13 pesos), we jumped back into the car and zoomed our way to the western side of the valley, to Vinisterra Winery, near a town called San Antonio de las Minas. San Antonio de las Minas looked from the map to be about the same as Francisco Zarco, really a nothing of a town. But in person it was really much more “charming” and condensed, with a colorful row of shops and farmacias lining the main road.

We followed the signs, after turning around a few times. I finally mustered up the nerve to declare outloud to my sister that she was a terrible navigator. I suppose if she wore her glasses more regularly she would have been better, maybe… We eventually pulled up to a beautiful adobe colored building, very modern with sleek lines and grape vines coming right up to edge of the path leading to the front door. A small French woman named Agnes greeted us and we proceeded to a tour of the buildings, the cellar and the grounds. As we looked out onto a vineyard next door where the grapes were not trellised, but grew in “bush” style near the ground without pruning or training, she proceeded to tell us about the history of grape growing in Mexico and how winemaking had been thriving until the President of Spain forbade it. All of the vineyards in the various growing regions had been ripped out. Tequila became the alcoholic beverage of choice and the Mexican people from then on knew very little if nothing about wine. In the last 20-30 years winemaking has helped to stir that a bit, and the bush style vines we looked out on were done in the traditional, old way. According to the serious winemakers though, training and trellising do much to improve the quality and expression of the grapes and so you won’t see anyone who is selling their wine not pruning their vines. It was interesting though, because I did see much of these bush style plantings in small plots around the valley.

The tasting room was cool as we tasted 5 – 6 wines, each paired with a little piece of cheese, or chorizo, and finally, a lavender flavored chocolate truffle. The wines here were the best I had tasted so far, Tempranillo being the main varietal in unusual mixes with Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Syrah. The enologists of this valley are trying to create a specific flavor profile that is uniquely mexico, without trying to emulate the other wine regions of the world: Rhone, Bordeaux, Rioja, etc which is why you won’t find any “traditional style” blends, but a mix of juices one would never think of putting together.

We had to rush out, as I had hoped for a quick taco and we had our last appointment of the day in a half hour. Back out on the main road we looked for that fish taco stand we had been told about. Hmmm, not there. We flipped around at the next break in the road and settled on a roadside stand that was little more than a dilapidated motor home with I am sure no running water, the kind of place you don’t want to look very closely at. My hunger wiped out any reminant of care as I ordered a carne asada taco and my sister ordered a queso taco, sin carne. The wonderful array of salsas in a clean and iced down container were reassuring even as we declined lettuce on the tacos but did say yes to the cilantro and onions (go figure). Our logic was skewed which I was well aware of and intentionally ignored. (which may or may not have contributed to a small bout of Montezuma’s revenge the following day…) The tacos were small, good and piled with chile sauce and guacamole which I ate in about 3 bites. “Hurry up sister, we gotta go”, as she wiped the sauce from her chin and I reved the motor.

Tres Mujeres couldn’t have been more opposite in style, where Yvette and a dog greeted us and we entered their wine cave. The cave was basically a very small adobe room with wine racks lining the walls, hand made ceramics scattered about. A small barrel held a few clean glasses and some open bottles. They only produce about 900 cases of wine here per year, 300 cases each. It a collective, where the women each support one another in making their individual wines, while support themselves financially with “day” jobs. One is a business administrator, the other a biologist, and Yvette is a ceramist. The wines were a bit thin but unique, as they expressed the salinity of the soil and the valley the most of any we had tasted so far. Some others were in the room with us and we enjoyed listening to their lullabic Spanish, understanding a bit here and there. I bought a few bottles of the most interesting wine we tasted, an eclectic blend of they produce by mixing their three wines together. We picked out some ceramic tiles to purchase as we waited for Yvette to label the bottles by hand writing on them in gold pen.

Needing to mix things up a bit, Joan and I decided to stop for a beer and some chips and salsa at Mustafas, a restaurant we had passed many times and was familiar from my research. Mustafa himself was there, in fact his name is Mustafa Ali, originally from Morocco. His English was perfect though, and we chatted with him for a few hours at in the shade of large Ficus trees, views of the southern mountains of the valley in the background.

Back at our hotel and after a much needed swim and recline while watching the sunset, we had a simple dinner which started with a green salad served by Eileen herself with her small granddaughter trailing her closely. This was followed by a filet of beef for me and tombo tuna for my sister, served by our handsome young chef. We shared the dining room with a couple who were celebrating their wedding anniversary that weekend. They had married here in the valley 2 years before.

Grabbing another bottle of wine from the room, Joan and I relaxed on the patio and admired the full moon and lacy clouds that dotted the sky. The weather was perfect and all we could hear was a dog barking way off in the distance. I savored this evening, the patio, the breeze and the peacefulness, as I knew it would be my last for a long while.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dinner at Laja

In the glow of the waning sun, we made our way through the rolling and twisting roads from our Inn to the main highway. Thankfully the one on this side of the valley is paved!

Laja is reputed to be one of the nicest restaurants in this area. Despite our empanadas a few hours earlier, I was pretty hungry and ready to enjoy food that some say rivals top restaurants in the Bay Area, namely, Chez Panisse.

Because of all of the road construction going on here, Laja's sign wasn't very visible from our side of the street. The man at the hotel said it was only about 4 minutes down the main highway, and after driving for 10, we decided to turn around and retrace our steps. Ahhh, there it was, tipped sideways and dusty from, well, you know. The house like structure had ample parking, but sadly no other car was in the lot as we pulled in. We entered the large beamed room with a small bar and peaked ceiling. It was 7pm and a macero (waiter) came right out and asked us to chose whatever table we liked. I instantly felt terrible that we may prove to be the only reason they opened that evening (as I had made a reservation several weeks ago).

He presented us with a prix fixe menu (written in perfect english) from which we would chose 3 courses plus dessert. I perused the local wine list, a few from each winery I had read about. Another, more experienced waiter motioned for me to come to the bar, as his wine by the glass list would have been verbal (if we spoke the same language), so instead we got to taste through the 8 or so wines he was offering that evening by the glass. I figured we could start with a glass of white and then get a bottle of red. The crisp Chenin Blanc we chose had some weightiness to it, but not as cloying as a chardonnay. It had a pleasant almond tone and was unfiltered.

After we returned to our seats, he helped me navigate the vinos tintos (red wines), and we chose a Syrah from Adobe Guadalupe, another local boutique inn that has a winery attached. I was happy to be chosing their wine, as I was sad to not have time to go there, and was very pleased with the robust richness of the dark red juice.

We both chose salads of "tender lettuces" which turned out to be baby arugula, surrounded by some beets and slices of local cheese. The leaves were very delicate, one step beyond a sprout, and slightly dressed.

For course number two, Joan had the bonito tartare and I chose the hand cut noodles with fresh vegetables. Both were amazing preparations. The raw bonito was even fresher than I had eaten in Japan, cut into cubes and mixed with preserved lemon, avocado, spicy radishes and cress.
My hand cut noodles had a hint of parmesan cheese and butter coating the soft yet toothsome noodles, with a small dice of local zucchini and asparagus.

By this time, a couple arrived (which also happened to be staying at our inn), and sat nearby. Our two tables proved to be their only ones that night. I kept wondering (being in the restaurant business myself) how a place such as this could survive and keep their food fresh and inspired with only a few customers a night. This was even more punctuated by the fact that the large room easily sat more than 50 guests. Hopefully they are busy on the weekends...

My main course was Oven Roasted Local Lamb with Peas, Rapini and Caramelized shallots. The lamb was prepared in two ways, the loin roasted, sliced and fanned out on the plate. The shoulder was braised and had a rich reduction that coated the rapini and caramelized shallots. Was their a pea on the plate? I don't think so, but the rapini was nicely bitter to balance the richness of the braise and I was quite happy with my selection. Joan had ordered the Pan Roasted White Fish over Zucchini and Swiss Chard with Pequillo Pepper and Calf's Feet Vinaigrette. I had to ask the waiter (in "spanish") if the chef could use a different vinaigrette, as although I would have loved to try the one listed on the menu, Joan would have nothing to do with it (being a "pescatarian"). Her fish tasted a lot like a striped bass, with crisped skin perched on top of the simply prepared vegetables. It was perfectly flakey and moist.

Almost sated, dessert arrived: Panna Cotta with Strawberry Sorbet for me; Viognier and Syrah Grape Sorbet for my sister. The panna cotta was perfectly done, smooth and creamy with a hint of yogurt tang to it. The three sorbets were also expertly prepared, providing a light finish to the rich meal.

It was a satisfying meal with very attentive, yet not intrusive, service. Had I more energy, I may have asked to see the kitchen and meet the chef. Was it on par with Chez Panisse? Well, yes and no. It is hard to compare when knowing the limitations of this restaurant with its almost non-existant clientele. The ingredients were very fresh and it was clear the kitchen knew what they were doing. A wonderful place that I am sure I will return to the next time I'm here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Valle de Guadalupe, Part One

As I sit in the living room of my gorgeous boutique inn, La Villa de Valle, I reflect on the this beautiful, gentle and quiet valley. There are not many sounds save for a distant rooster sounding off well into the day and the bustle of sweet Mexican girls with their small children, making coffee across the way in the kitchen. I gaze out to the terraces surrounding this lovely oasis, the olive grove and gardens beyond, and the many dogs that run around the property, taking dips in the pool, and happily wag their tails when one approaches.

It took about 3 hours to get into the valley from San Clemente; two of which were spent navigating small border highways in San Diego County. Entering through Tecate was a breeze, they didn’t even glance at us as we readied our passports etc. We were waved on through, but I wanted to talk to the border patrol to assure I could bring wine back across (for a price of course), so I pulled over and stepped out of the very air-conditioned rental car into the hot Mexican desert, California just steps away through the fence. I was very surprised to find little if no English spoken even at this proximity to the border. I was able to verify that I could bring wine back and would have to pay duty. Mission accomplished (I was about to be foolish and try to write that in Spanish…)

The road to Valle de Guadalupe was well paved, practically empty, and super easy to navigate across dry mountains with some small valleys in between. We saw two federales guarding either side of the road in a small pueblo along the way, having set up a “speed bump” (made of I don’t know what). No issues whatsoever. Shortly thereafter we found ourselves rounding a corner with vineyards flanking each side of the road – aahhh, we had arrived. Valle de Guadalupe begins with the very commercial L.A. Cetto winery and a town called Francisco Zarco to the Northeast, and ends with the town, San Antonio de Las Minas to the south, nearer to coast and Ensenada. We were eager to stop for lunch before tasting any wines.
I had noticed from my crude map that Francisco Zarco had several streets. I thought perhaps we could get out and walk around until we actually saw the town, consisting of a dirt “main street”, with periodic signs announcing Ruta del Vino, which as far as we could tell, was the only street of town. Splitting off periodically were dusty roads leading to dilapidated buildings, homes etc. but no other businesses save for a few small grocery stores, a couple of one room “museums”, 3 or 4 “restaurants” that were basically small shacks boasting items I didn’t recognize on their hand painted signs. We pulled over at a clean looking place that had a parking lot. Little boys ran about in their underwear, chickens and a large white duck were hiding out in the shade. The patio was clean with beautiful rough hewn tables as we passed through the back door to the store in front to let La Senora know that we would like to eat something. Spiced vinegars, jams and cheeses were sparingly displayed. Nothing on the menu looked familiar, so we chose brochetas de queso y tomate (brochettes of cheese and tomatoes) and a plato containing pastries that held frijoles y queso, queso, y carne (3). It also came with pure papas (mashed potatoes) and some salad.

After a little bit (too long but we were in Mexico now…) some julienned cucumbers dressed in herb flecked vinegar and olive oil were placed before us. There was a hint of chile in the mix and the cucumbers were a welcoming beginning to our time here. The brochettes appeared, containing large chunks of goat cheese, spongy and mild, alternating with chunks of tomatoes and a similar vinaigrette drizzled over the top. We thought twice about whether we should consume the tomatoes, as it is a tough thing to eat uncooked vegetables in this country known for “Montezuma’s revenge” striking unsuspecting travelers. But then again, we had already consumed the cucumbers, so…

Our main dish appeared, three ample empanada style turnovers, served with potato puree and a salad for which the dressing was on the side. We avoided the lettuce and concentrated on the fried goodness of the three varieties before us. I happily ate the one with carne, containing potatoes and olives in a mild sauce, as my sister doesn’t eat meat. The dough was chewy and flavorful, with enough flake to give it texture but not too much so that it would fall apart.

We were now primed to visit a few wineries on the way to the inn.

We started at Monte Xanic, one of the biggest in the valley, and the first and only Mexican wine I had tasted to date. 10 years ago a Mexican tapas restaurant in Albany called “Fonda” had their Cabernet/Merlot blend. That marked the beginning of my curiousity about Mexican wines and this little known (yet I predict, soon to be discovered) wine region 45 miles south of the border. I have wanted to visit ever since, so it was symbolic for us to start our tasting tour there. The coolness of the tasting room, high on the second floor overlooking the stainless fermentation tanks, was a welcome respite from the heat wave overtaking the valley this week.

We tasted several whites: a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Colombard and late harvest Chenin Blanc. The reds were a blend of Merlot and Cab, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 100% Merlot. I have the (sometimes) bad habit of buying at least one bottle from the wineries I visit (even in the states), and left Monte Xanic with a bottle of the crisp and lemony Sauvignon Blanc, and 2 bottles of the 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. She had been boasting about the 2005 cab, and when I tasted it, the finish was odd and unpleasant. I urged her to taste what she had been pouring from the large temperature controlled, high tech pouring unit behind her. She did taste it and realized it was “off”. Once I got her to open a fresh bottle, I was happy she did, as the rich, chocolate and dark fruit tones with firm tannins seemed like a perfect wine to lay down for a couple of years.

It was already 3:00, as the tasting at Monte Xanic had gone on way too long. I was anxious to get to the hotel, clearly having to adjust to the slower way of life here. We still had one more stop to make in this part of the valley: a visit to Baron Balche’e, the oldest winery in the area and one highly recommended for its boutique Spanish blends. I had crude directions to turn right at the health clinic, which we did. After what seemed miles on a very dusty and potted dirt road, we thought we had missed it and turned into Adobe Guadalupe, another winery and boutique hotel. The groundskeeper assured us we had to keep going. A few minutes more up the dusty road, we saw the sign and entered a large brick building that was under construction. We motioned to the young man that we wanted to taste, and he led us 2 flights down into the cellar/tasting room. It was cool and smelled of must which was no surprise since one wall was raw, untampered earth. It was very mine-like. There were several elderly men talking animatedly, sipping wine poured from decanters. They had a few different tiers of tasting to choose from, starting at $5 (u.s.) on up to $50. This made sense as this winery boasts some of the finest wines in the valley, the higher end blends fetching $350/bottle. We chose a mid range tasting and took several pictures, chatting with some restaurateurs from Mexicali and sipping on a very tasty Tempranillo/Cabernet Blend. I was hoping the restaurateurs would stop talking long enough for the old men to take notice of us, and share some sips of the high end bottles, as they were the owners and winemakers; We weren’t so lucky, and my Spanish is bad anyway; we did manage to muster a posed photograph of them and a few bottles of the Tempranillo/Cab blend to share with friends back in San Francisco.

We made our way back to the Ruta de Vino and decided to cross the valley back to the main, paved road to find the way to our hotel. Crossing over involved a long and very dry, dusty/sandy road that held the possibility of spinning tires if one wasn’t driving fast enough. The valley is set up like Napa, with roads going up and down the north and south sides, and a few going across, but not similar to napa as nothing is paved and we had to cross a dry river wash to get to the other side. We laughed a lot at how rustic the valley is, and how the dry and dusty cloud that grew behind our car obliterated everything in the rear view window.

I must take a break now and go for a swim. Later this afternoon, I will share more about our beautiful inn, the log, windy and dusty road leading up to it, and the incredible dinner last night at Laja.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Baja tomorrow

How strange it is that in my journey I am flanked by a terribly burning wildfire to the north, and a tropical storm/hurricaine to the south? What is up with that?

I plan to stay safely in between.

Tomorrow morning I will journey through the Tecate border crossing and 45 miles south to Valle de Guadalupe for two days and nights of good food, artisan made wines, and a nice place to rest (

There have been many concerns from my family who are worried about the dangers of Baja Mexico. I have done much research and feel that I am not taking much of a risk, especially once I arrive at my destination. I am, however, aware of the possibility of people trying to flag me down on the road, feigning emergency, of the Federales being jerks and rutted, pot-holed highways that look from google earth to be smooth sailing.

I am careful though, and will be doing more spitting than sipping (those of you winos know what I mean). Dinner is planned at Laja for tomorrow night, a restaurant that some say rival Chez Panisse (really?), and is a 15 minute drive from our Inn.

Good thoughts are welcome though, for no weirdos, no strange uncontrollable happenings, and a relaxing time to be had by all! Thanks for reading and more from the hotel tomorrow eve...

Behind the Orange Curtain, dinner at Javier's

Yes, I am safely behind the curtain. It's really not that bad in a suburban sprawl sort of way. If I hadn't grown up here (yes, I do admit it), then I may find it actually, well, no, nevermind, it is not charming at all. As a matter of fact, strip malls, indoor malls, and huge outdoor malls, like the one I went to last night to have dinner at Javier's, an upscale Mexican restaurant.

After a hotter than hot run on the exercise path along Huntington beach, I navigated the freeways and toll roads (at least my fasttrak works here!) out to Rancho Santa Margarita to pick up my oldest and dearest friend, Amy, who just so happened to be visiting from NY. I had stopped by earlier to see another dear friend, Phil, at the firehouse in HB (not code word, he is really a Fire Captain) and he suggested I take Amy to Javier's for dinner. Javier's (there are a couple of locations) is an upscale Mexican restaurant started by a former popular waiter at the old, and closed, restaurant, Tortilla Flats, in Laguna Beach. Tortilla Flats was a neighborhood institution, so I'm glad Javier had the wherewithall (and investors!) to open his own spot. (and if my memory serves me correctly, I don't think it was a very tidy break up with the "Flats".)

We made our way back out of Santa Margarita to the Irvine Spectrum Center, a Megaplex movie theater, shopping center and restaurant destination spot nestled in the elbow of where the 405 and the 5 freeways intersect. This "mall" felt a bit like a mini Disneyland, and even dressed up characters were strolling around waving (which characters? i'm not hip enough to know).

Javier's is filled with Dark wood, dark lighting, and a chain waterfall in the foyer outside the bathrooms (a chain what???). This sculptural wall installation reminded me of the rain catchers that the Japanese put along the corners of their house, to catch rain streams off the gutter in a cascade of drips instead of a steady stream. The sculpture/waterfall consisted of about a dozen heavy, rusted chains with small streams of water flowing in from the top. The chains caught the stream and diffused it to a small drip at the bottom. Why am I going into the sculpture in such detail, well, I have to talk about something cool here, and that was the coolest thing I found at Javier's.

I apologize in advance for being disappointing. Not gushing about food is not my forte'!
After laboring over the menu which included very exotic sounding items like Maine Lobster enchiladas ($40), and a build your own taco platter for two ($35), we settled on the Prawn Fajitas ($30) and Steak Fajitas ($18) to share.

Fajitas usually come on a sizzling plate. There must have been fear of a lawsuit or maybe I'm just behind the times, but the last few times I've ordered Fajitas at a Mexican restaurant, there was no sizzling plate in site!. At Javier's it was no different. My prawns were 5 large U-10 prawns, fresh from Mexico (the menu boasted), butterflied and then grilled, and laying on a bed of crunchy julienned poblano chiles, onions, button mushrooms and corn. The "white" rice (apparently served with this dish instead of spanish style rice), was just that: plain white rice. I had asked for refried beans (instead of black), as I was concerned about keeping the calorie count up! (ha, just kidding, I have a thing for refried pinto beans, what can I say?). The prawns were well cooked, a bit chewy (in the way prawns are chewy and crunchy at the same time) but they had absolutely no seasoning on them whatsoever, no salt, lime, no oil, butter or anything to enhance their succulence. Amy's steak Fajitas were a bit more flavorful, having been sauteed with the same vegetable combination and a few seasonings. Hers also came with a generous dollop of guacamole and sour cream. The requisite tortillas on the side were small, thin flour tortillas. They were good, but I was a little surprised (and Amy disappointed) that they weren't the corn variety.

A few Javier Margaritas later (Cointreau, Sauza and Grand Marnier with fresh lime juice) made it all not really matter. The thing is, the food was average, not spectacular, not bad. The company was great, as Amy and I never run out of things to talk about. It was my fault that I had expected so much more finesse with the attentive server, the chic surroundings, and the prices. I had been tempted to order the crab enchiladas, but remembered that I would be sporting a bikini the next day. Maybe next time...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mario Batali's Pizzeria La Mozza

Holy Moley - what a fantastic, fantastic meal last night. When Chef Mark suggested I go to La Mozza for dinner while in L.A., I thought "hmmm, that might be a good idea". So I checked out the website (of both the Pizzeria and the main restaurant) and decided that L.A. had finally grown up, and this place could possibly rival our humble city restaurants, or at least sidle right up next to them. It did not disappoint!

After a little delicious White Rioja at our friend Joe's house, and much jealousy that they didn't have space for our other two friends, we made our way down Melrose and found a parking space about 1/2 block from the restaurant (Melrose and N. Highland Avenue). Parking karma, gotta love that. La Mozza fronts on Melrose, but it's little sister is around the corner on N. Highland. Seems Mario's got a little monopoly on that corner, as soon another storefront will be taken by La Mozza To Go.

We were exactly on time for our 8:00 reso, and the host whisked us past the waiting crowds to a table in the far corner of the square room, a perfect vantage point to people watch, especially since Ricardo was nice enough to let me sit in the view seat.

The menu is broken into sections of antipasti, contorni (sides), salads and pizzas. We were pretty hungry and everything sounded great. R let me figure out the starters and I told him to choose a pizza.

The smattering of antipasti started with house cured Finocchiona, a nicely dry fennel and black pepper studded salumi. Sometimes salumi's can have a greasy feel to them. This one managed to not have that at all, i'm not sure how. As we snacked on the salumi, the order of meatballs arrived and shortly thereafter chicken liver on bruschetta. I seriously thought I had died and gone to heaven the moment I crunched into the ample bruschetta holding a creamy mixture of chopped chicken livers, spices, parmesan and a thin topping of cured pork belly. It was by far the best of this type of preparation I had ever had. In fact, if someone placed a plate of those before me, right now, on this smokey, food hangover-ey morning, I would happily lap them up. I was secretly thrilled that Ricardo wasn't interested in the "liver" dish, so I would have 3 beautiful crostini to myself! (I did make him eat one, and he did love it). The salad "tricolore" arrived next (hey we are running out of room on the table!). Frisee, baby arugula and radicchio were tossed together with a Reggiano and anchovy dressing, caesar like and a good counterpoint to all of the non vegetable items in front of us. I felt like the pace was a bit brisk., but if you saw the high ceilinged room, with straight rows of tables, placed cafeteria style and only 6" apart, and the bursting crowd at the front door, you would understand their desire to move people through their meals.

We had chosen a bottle of 2003 Nicodemi "Notari" Montepulciano from the list and were having a hard time with it opening up. It smelled slightly corkey, but the palate was fine. It was a nuisance really all through the meal, as when you take a sip of wine, your nose inevitably dips into the glass as well. Our server assured us upon opening the wine that is did have this funky character that would disappear as it opened up, and that she often mistakenly had sent this wine back as "corked" when the sommelier assured her it was fine. I am usually very sensitive to a wine that is corked, as the palate has a way of giving me an instant headache. This wine did not, it was rich, raisin-ey, smokey and earthy. If the server returned more often I would have had her decant it.

A new couple sat next to us, and when I overheard her order the meatballs, I chimed in, "good move", and that is when the "oops, I'm in LA" came to light. People in LA are way more standoffish than they should be. For chrissake, she was sitting inches from me, and I understood they didn't want to have an ongoing conversation with us for the duration of the meal. And believe me, the body builder type BF made sure that didn't happen with a casual "yeah, she has them every time" comment, that had a hint of don't evesdrop ever again mixed in. Oh, they are regulars! Considering it takes over a month to get a reservation (unbeknownst to me before tonight), I perhaps should have asked them for their autograph!

Speaking of wanna be celebrities, maybe it was the wine, but I was convinced Keanu Reeves was sitting in the next row of tables. Ricardo assured me it was not him, but in this trendy spot, star sightings are not a rarity.

Don't worry, I'm not about to skip over the meatballs, another incredibly tasty dish. Three plump, ample sized balls came drenched in a zesty tomato sauce with garlic toasts flanking the edges. I had to claim my 1.5 share before R absentmindedly wolfed them all down. The menu didn't list them as beef or pork, and I suspect they were mostly (if not all) pork, perfectly balanced with enough bread and spices to produce a succulent and soft meatball. These meatballs were on par with Terzo's back in SF, by far my favorite in the City.

We consolidated plates as the goat cheese pizza with caramelized onions and bacon was placed before us. Again, we were in heaven at how good the flavors were on yet another dish. The crust was chewy and blistered from the wood oven. The onions were plentiful with just enough pieces of barely cooked bacon to give a smokey, salty goodness to every bite. We finished off an "Asparagus al Forno" also done in the wood oven and topped with thin slices of Speck (a lovely northern Italian counterpart to proscuitto).

Yes, my fullness is being recreated just writing this. We actually did box up half the pizza and the remaining slices of finocchiona that somehow managed to not get devoured.

Since we were celebrating R's 44th a few days early, I insisted on dessert. We both chose gelato based desserts. He got a trio of mint, chocolate and vanilla (incredibly rich). Mine was a caramel gelato sundae topped with marshmallow sauce and spanish peanuts, a super tasty combination, with the saltiness of the spanish peanuts balancing the sweet marshmallow and caramel background. By then we were on dairy overload. It was 9:30pm, and the crowd at the door had not diminished as we made our way out onto the still 85F sidewalk.

Today the smoke from the fires have reached Hollywood, and my car is coated in ash. So much for the work-it-off run I planned to have. I will journey now to OC, affectionately known as "behind the orange curtain", to have a run on the beach, and meet up for dinner with one of my dearest old friends, Amy. Only one photo today, as totally un "PC" to take photos in restaurant in LA, as some unsuspecting starlet may make it into the frame, damnit!