California. Home of giant iced coffees, endless beaches, beautiful people and that amazing light at sunset. Last month I returned from a truly fabulous trip and on this rather grey London day am having definite post-holiday-amazing-light-at-sunset blues.
My Californian adventure came about rather unexpectedly. It started when some friends who were off to Coachella found themselves with spare tickets… and ended as an epic 10 day adventure that included a music festival in the desert, a road trip up the coast of California in a white Mustang convertible and many, many food highlights.
Because it was just such a wonderful experience (and to cope with said post-holiday-blues) I wanted to share some of my fabulous foodie memories.
My Chez Panisse moment
Chez Panisse is a restaurant I’ve wanted to go since Day 1 of Ballymaloe. Chez Panisse defines Californian Cuisine. As one of the original founders of the whole foods (waaaay before Whole Foods) and Farm to Fork movements in America, Darina Allen always spoke of this restaurant and of its founder Alice Waters with a particular reverence.
In my time at Violet Bakery last year working for Claire Ptak, I also forged another connection to Chez Panisse. Claire, as well as being Violet’s inspirational founder also happens to be the ex Head Pastry Chef of Chez Panisse. Claire is a good friend of Darina’s too. We cooked a number of her recipes and again learnt so much about this ethos of seasonal food, respected and cooked with such knowledge and skill it is nudged into greatness without the need of any fancy techniques or excessive ingredients.
So when the final destination of our road trip became clear (San Francisco) it seemed inevitable that a Chez Panisse visit would have to happen. Luckily my wonderful friend Reemah was only too happy to be dragged along and on a bright San Francisco day, after a morning’s sightseeing at Alcatraz, we headed off to Berkley.
We Uber pooled (BTW user pooling = such a fun way to get around while on holiday. The resulting stories could be a blog post in itself… did that guy ever message you Reemah? …do all San Franciscans do seat based yoga whilst driving? Anyway, I digress) over the bridge and found ourselves in the sleepier but no less intriguing Downtown Berkley. People wore a lot of linen and comfortable, flat shoes. Apparently the most liberal city in all of the US, it felt reassuringly full of warm, intelligent hippies and good coffee.
Inside Chez Panisse we had a table upstairs in the cafe. (Making a reservation with less than two weeks to go makes getting into the main downstairs restaurant pretty impossible) Upstairs there is a lot of dark wood panelling, black and white stills and movie posters from Marcel Pagnol films, orange tinted dimmed lights and the best looking, smiling and happiest staff (both Chefs & Front of House) I have ever seen working in a restaurant. The kitchen is open plan so we got to sit back and enjoy looking at the chefs calming working away and the trays of seasonal food artfully laid out across the pass. We soaked up the vibe from the other diners as we sat munching our way through their house sourdough and salty butter. “Yes we’d love some more of all of that thank you very much”
The menu was just a delight. I’ll try and refrain from going through every detail, but needless to say we totally over ordered (“yes that’s right we’ll have 2 starters each”) but when in Rome huh?
There were so many beautiful lettuces on the menu, each leaf tasted like it had been so carefully prepared (massaged even), the buttery leaves coated in a sharp, peppery dressing. We ate asparagus, young cheeses, drank Californian pinot noir, ate delicate slices of rainbow colour beetroots and the most beautiful piece of halibut, which tasted like it must have been fished up from the ocean that morning with a smile on its face.
And then to finish it all off we shared the most divine dessert of rhubarb galette with an orange clove ice-cream. It inspired me totally to get back into Claire’s Violet book and get closer to mastering the art of that crispy, flakey yet creamy pastry. I was full but not full enough that I couldn’t do a wee dance on the steps outside as we left the restaurant and headed out into the late Californian afternoon.
Discovering urban wineries
The same day we visited Chez Panisse we also did a bit of an Urban wineries crawl. We didn’t have time to get out and explore wine country properly, so instead of trying and going to the closest vineyard that every man and his SUV goes go, we decided to follow the mantra of less is more. Or in this case, closer is more.
We visited Donkey & Goat, Broc Cellars, Eno Wines and Urbano all within about 2 – 3 blocks of each other (walking seems to be acceptable for these distances). They all continued in the same Berkley trait of smiling happy people, producing amazing wine from a local supply chain and going for the slightly less well known but still delicious and distinctly Californian local varietal.
It struck me that while lovely to get into wine country and see the vineyards etc, you can have just as much of an “experience” at an urban winery. We tasted some amazing wines poured to us by some expert wine makers. We sat in gardens in the sunshine. We got to taste wine which was often made up from many small grape growers and wine produced in smaller batches. It’s like wine tasting, boutique style. Among my favourites were a chilled red (made from a Mourvèdre grape) and a gently sparkling Chardonnay, made using the pétillant naturel technique. (Basically a simpler fermentation method than Champagne which produces much lighter but still delicious bubbles)
Plus it’s even easier to do a wine trail at an Urban winery… no need to have a driver to take you the long distances between each one. You can drop in, enjoy a tasting, a glass of wine without having to commit to a whole day out in wine country – perfect for us.
Amazing Italian food at Gjelina’s and Flour + water
I gave the shout out to many foodie friends to ask for their recommendations of places to each whilst in the sunshine State. There were lots of recommendations. For some, I had no hope of getting in given I was booking only a few days in advance. Some, with a little bit of wheedling and some well crafted “light coloured” lies (yes I might have said I was a “Chef in London”) I managed to get us into a few places.
Gjelinas was once such highlight. Situated in Venice Beach on Abbot Kinney, Gjelinas is an amazing, modern Italian restaurant. Reems and I managed to get our hotel in nearby Santa Monica to call up and about 10pm we headed down to dark, funky lit Gjelinas.
We sat next to a very California couple who didn’t eat a single thing (literally) during their entire meal. We, on the other hand, had no such problem. Lots of small plates, the most amazing sourdough bread, butter, delicious wine by the glass. It was delicious. But I have no photos of what we ate because it was a) too dark and b) I’d had too much wine to concentrate properly.
The next morning while on a sunny morning bike ride we headed back to Abbot Kinney and had our morning coffee (and bien sur a little snack) in the sunshine to make sure we hadn’t dreamt how good it was.
Modern, Italian food was once again on the menu further up the coast. On our first night in San Francisco we headed out to a late-night dinner in Mission at a restaurant called Flour + Water.
This restaurant seemed to me to be what Padella Pasta is to London. Amazingly fresh pasta which they kindly gave us by the half portion so we could basically eat our way through the whole menu. The freshest pasta which is rolled off site at the intriguingly named ‘official pasta shaping studio’. If the food at flour + water couldn’t get any better they officially had the best bathroom I went to in the whole of the US of A. Dark, lots of plants, smelling of Dipytheque candles.
Oh and the loveliest servers ever.
Tartine Bakery was another “mentioned frequently at Ballymaloe” restaurant. This artisan bakery has been making its world famous wares (especially famous for its sourdough) since 2002. Chefs Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson bread and won multiple awards, and their food pops up regularly on my Instagram feed #tartine #sourdough.
Reemah and I went on our final day of holiday. It was hot, sunny and we were 100% hungover. (Sorry mum) We queued up outside the shop with bad coffees and dark sunglasses. After about an hour we’d inched our way forward and were at the counter. Toasted sourdough sandwiches were literally our life savers. It was everything I dreamed it would be and more. Oh except it possibly tasted even better as we ate it whilst fairly hungover, lying in the sun in Dolores Park in mission on our last day of Californication.
Other highlights worth noting:
Giant iced almond milk cold brew coffees from Starbucks. I know right? Never would such a drink ever occur to me in London and yet in California while in a white mustang it happened.
The Juice flight (and the seriously beautiful people spotted while people watching) at The Butchers Daughter also on Abbot Kinney in Venice Beach.
Pancakes like this could only happen in America. (Also ordered but not pictured here was a GIANT omelette which came out with orange cheese and ground beef mince, which they’d chosen not to mention on the menu. You know, bit of mince with your brekky. No biggie right?)
The El Salvadorian tamales stand outside Gilman Brewery in Berkley. We were sampling a beer flight and just felt we couldn’t pass this up. (Despite the massive meal at Chez Panisse we just eaten earlier) It was the right decision.
And one couldn’t mention highlights without mentioning Shutters. Our beautiful on just every single level in Santa Monica.
And then just these people and this place. #thebest
In summary. California. You were awesome. My stomach and I will be back!