Sunday, May 17, 2009

California eating & drinking

In my parallel life eating in fabulous restaurants is part and parcel of what I do but, on the road on my own for most of my time in California, eating in the kind of places you read about in glossy mags really hasn’t been part of my game plan.

Whilst I haven’t been screeching in on two wheels to the IHOP parking lot, lining up at the Jack in the Box drive-thru or jonesing for a Denny’s breakfast, I have eaten a lot of fabulous sandwiches (hello Sebastian’s), eaten lip smacking burritos in way too many Mexican hole in the walls, and scarfed up burgers & fries and waffles & ice cream at the counter in far more diners than I can count.

There’s just something immensely comfortingly and addictively delicious about everyday American food and I can’t get enough of it. (Neither, it would seem, can a lot of America’s generously proportioned population.)

That’s not to say I’ve completely ignored the over-hyped realm of expense account restaurants. I’ve had supper at Koi (excellent food, suburban crowd), lunch at The Ivy (chopped salad that resembled grass clippings) and excellent wine with okay food at The Polo Lounge, (if one ignored the stale bread on the table).

But the two loveliest meals I’ve eaten here in Los Angeles have been at opposite ends of the culinary realm, the first in a private home, the second at a hotel, with each pairing ingredients in wonderful ways. The first was at my friend Miss Whistle’s home high up in Laurel Canyon.

Between her & her husband they cooked up a stunning plateful of food with two particular dishes that had me wondering if anyone would notice if I surreptitiously wiped my plate with a grubby finger: a salad with frisée, pine nuts and little cubes of partly caramelised bright orange squash which looked alluring and tasted better, and a texturally brilliant creamy gratin of cauliflower and fennel, with classic gratineed crunchy cheese above, and fennel fronds lurking below.

The second was the wine & cheese pairing prelude to an excellent tasting menu eaten at the Hotel Bel-Air. Executive Chef Dan Olsen has an immaculate palate and, whilst the grande bouffe at the Chef’s table with its view of the busy kitchen was scrumptious, it was his small plates that we ate on the pretty flower bedecked terrace, before waddling wine-dazed into the private dining room that have remained firmly stuck in my mind.

The Hotel Bel-Air's charming and enthusiastic wine director Emmanuel Faure really pulled out the stops for us and, as this is a blog and not a newspaper, I'm indulging myself by reproducing the menu below:

Bermuda Triangle (Cypress Grove, CA. Ash covered goat, soft)
Morel mushroom & pickled onion salad
Peter Michael L’Apres Midi Sauvignon Blanc 2003

Brillat Savarin (Normandy. Triple crème, cow)
Black mission fig sandwich
Moraga Vineyard 2002

San Andreas (Bellwether Farms, CA. Raw sheep’s milk, hard)
Marcona almond brittle & black olive tapenade
Tyler Vineyard ‘Dierberg Vineyard’ Santa Maria Valley 2006

Crater Lake Blue (Rogue Creamery, Oregon. Cow)
Fruit & nut crisp and port gelee
Ojai Vineyard Botrytis Chardonnay 2006

The indulgent smooth creaminess of the Brillat Savarin against crispy, buttery toast, the sweet stickiness of the reduced figs and the hit of the complex but smooth red was absolutely the most inspired combination I’ve swallowed this year. It actually stopped me talking for a full minute. And, even tho I knew a gargantuan supper was coming, I cldn’t stop shooting lustful glances at everyone else’s plates. I could have eaten this for breakfast, lunch & supper.

As for the wine, both reds, (the Moraga Vineyard 2002 & the Tyler Vineyard ‘Dierberg Vineyard’ Santa Maria Valley 2006) were chock full of fruit & alcohol but didn’t punch out our taste buds as so many high alcohol Californian reds do these days.

The Tyler Vineyard is a single varietal – a pinot noir, with lots of raspberry and rich depth, but the standout was the house blend from the pocket sized Moraga estate in Bel-Air itself, making it truly local. They produce just one glorious red, a Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with a small amount of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The 02 has a long finish, and a wonderful balanced complexity with lots of lovely blackcurrant. It made properly excellent drinking.

I hadn’t realised that the Californian climate could produce botrytised wines, and the Ojai Chardonnay 06 was from a production of just two barrels. Sweet & syrupy with pineapple but with a balance of minerality, it was a revelation.

And now, after being head down in the Californian food & wine trough for forty-nine days, I am preparing to fly to England from LAX on Tuesday. I have a list of food to eat in London, from breakfast at The Wolseley and Vietnamese on Kingsland Road through to penne al'arrabiata at the Italian café on Hampstead Heath and an enormous Indian takeaway from, well, anywhere.

But I think what I really need is a large green salad.