Friday 29 June 2012

Inspiring Tastes of California

On our trip, I fell in love with Californian food.

Not just the produce (o Berkley Bowl, I will miss you so) but the restaurants and bakeries.

I wanted to write something about the places we ate, but making a 'best' or 'top' list seemed ridiculous - we could only eat a certain number of dishes at a relatively small number of places.

Instead I decided to tell you about the five most inspiring tastes - the five dishes that travelled back to England with me on Wednesday, firmly anchored in my memory. They all contain something new to me, something I hadn't thought of. I know they will influence me for years to come and find their way into my kitchen.

In the end, we ate at all of these places more than once. Most were from recommendations by friends (particularly Erin and Stephanie) and readers.

I don't like taking pictures in restaurants or bakeries, so I'm afraid there aren't any photos of the foods I'm describing. You'll just have to conjure them up in your imagination - or book a flight, hop on a boat or get in your car.

1. Gjelina, LA = Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp with Almond Gelato

We found Gjelina at the end of a treasure hunt. I'd read about a bakery on The Amateur Gourmet so we went to investigate. The man sitting at the next table told me I had to go to another bakery. Two different servers at that bakery told us we had to go to Gjelina (I have no idea how to pronounce it either) - according to one, the butterscotch pot de creme with salted caramel and crème fraîche was the best thing she'd ever eaten.

The butterscotch was richly satisfying. The other pudding we tried that afternoon blew me out of the water. We were full - but it disappeared almost instantly. The juicy fruits at the bottom of the pot balanced perfectly - not too bitter, not too sweet. I had tried the all-American strawberry-rhubarb combination for the first time a few days before and not been impressed - this sold it to me. The crisp topping was crunchy, buttery, biscuit-like. The gelato balanced upon the pot was delicate, simple and melted into the crack soon formed by eager spoons. The three contrasted - soft, crisp, cold - and delighted.

Also: panna cotta with mascarpone, cherry and amaretti (another close contender); grilled king oyster mushrooms with tarragon butter; wood roasted asparagus with romesco and parmesan; Mary's chicken liver pate with grilled sourdough; thin wild mushroom and rosemary no-cheese pizza; roasted fennel with chili & blood orange.

2. O Chamé, Berkeley = Caramel Balsamic Gelato

The first time we went to O Chamé, it was to meet Erin for the first time. The power of blogs continues to amaze me - I genuinely felt like I'd known Erin my whole life. I'm sure we'll keep in touch for many years to come. We had a wonderful, chatty lunch full of laughs. The food was gorgeous - unlike anything I'd eaten before.

At the end, we all had a single scoop of caramel balsamic gelato in a small bowl. Later that day, I wrote about it in my notebook: tangy instead of salty, very complex, almost fresh but very creamy and silky. Fascinating!

I'm going to have to experiment with using balsamic and caramel myself.

Also: signature pancake (with mushrooms the first time and white corn the second); crab croquettes; simmered pork shoulder with spinach, takuan and udon in their heavenly broth (this haunted me for days afterwards - I had to have more).

3. Camino, Oakland = Sweet Condiment Plate

I went to Camino for brunch on my 23rd birthday. At the end of the large room (set with enormously long redwood plank tables), there is a big brick open fire. The chefs bustle around in the glow of the flames, cooking and grilling many of the dishes in the fire.

We started with a big basket of several types of grilled bread and the sweet condiment plate, which had fresh sheepsmilk ricotta, walnut butter, bing cherries and homemade orange marmalade. I'd never thought of combining things in this way - serving so many types together. On their own, each element was delicious. Pile them all together (biting the cherry open to remove the pit, staining my lips) onto a chunk of fire-grilled bread and you have something special.

Also: light-as-a-feather freshly made doughnuts with strawberries; wood oven baked eggs with cream; potatoes roasted in duck fat (at brunch). Aragula, duck liver & grilled apricot salad; duck breast kebab and brisket kofte kebab with peas & lentils, yogurt, crispy duck skin nuggets and flat breads fresh from the fire (at dinner). Suzanne's chocolate bread and butter pudding; almond-rosewater meringue with hibiscus granita, whipped cream and strawberries (for pudding).

4. Tartine, San Francisco = Peach and Raspberry Brioche Bread & Butter Pudding.

I knew I couldn't leave California without going to Tartine. It took me a long time to actually get there - the first two times we were on 19th, the queue was too big and we were headed elsewhere. I finally stepped through the door last week. We then returned on our way to airport and picked up food for the flight. I can confirm that eating a Tartine gougère is infinitely preferable to plastic-swathed tasteless food.

After purchasing a few things to take home, we ordered a teacup of bread and butter pudding to eat with our pots of tea. The depths were filled with thick slices of brioche, soaked in a delicate egg custard. The top was strewn with raspberries and peaches and their juices - I think they'd been lightly poached in syrup. I hadn't imagined that bread and butter could be so delicious - it demolished every other type I've tried. Luckily, I have their recipe book!

Also: utterly addictive morning bun, lemon poppyseed cake with crunchy top, lovely teas, chocolate hazelnut tart, gruyère-thyme gougères.

5. Chez Panisse Cafe, Berkeley = Wildflower Honey Ice Cream with Roasted Cherries and Almond Biscotti.

A few days after my birthday, we went to Chez Panisse to celebrate. We walked through the first door into the original restaurant. You have no choice over the menu - it's a set four course meal. The loss of control was interesting - in some ways it was relaxing (no choices, no looking over to the next plate and regretting your decision) but I can see how it might not be for everyone. The food was as good as I'd imagined.

On our last night in California, we went to the cafe upstairs. We preferred it - the slightly more relaxed atmosphere, the choice, the fact we were sitting at the perfect table - and the incredible meal we had. One of the highlights was this pudding. I've tried to make honey ice cream before but failed - I couldn't get the balance right. This was delicate but still punchy - you didn't lose the flavour amongst the other parts. Roasting the cherries brought out their flavour and the biscotti were simple vehicles for the almonds. The three elements came together - each, on their own, the best of themselves - to make a truly beautiful dish.

As you've probably noticed in all of these tastes, my obsession with balance and nuanced flavours is going from strength to strength...

Also: strawberry-rhubarb spritzer; garden lettuce salad; squid with cannellini beans, rocket and cherry tomatoes; fish cakes with shaved fennel, green beans and lobster mayonnaise; peach and berry cobbler with pluot ice cream (cafe). Summer squash and onion tart with olives; Pacific grouper with new potatoes, green beans and sauce bourride; grilled whole quail marinated in juniper with polenta, braised little gems with pancetta and roasted porchini mushrooms; red currant granita with strawberry-raspberry sherbert (restaurant downstairs).

Finally, here are a few other great places we ate...

LA: Caffe Pinguini (amazing warm bread with olive oil and balsamic and lovely fresh Italian - we ate there for days), Proof (lemon meringue cake), Huckleberry.

Santa Barbara: Brophy Bros (chowder).

Big Sur: Big Sur Bakery (best BLT ever, amazing almond croissant and lovely selection of tea).

Sea Ranch: Two Fish Bakery (apple danish, peanut butter cookies, pretty much everything).

San Francisco: Delfina Pizza, Zuni Cafe, Cotogna (corn and chanterelle fagotelli pasta, wood oven roasted peaches with vanilla ice cream), Stanted Door (honey-hoisin ribs, crab cellophane noodles), Bi-rite Creamery (salted caramel, brown sugar with ginger caramel swirl), Foreign Cinema.

Berkeley: Trattoria la Siciliana, Ici Ice Cream (get the cones), The Cheeseboard Collective Pizza & Bakery, Semifreddi's Bakery (snickerdoodles and ciabatta).

{The pictures are of LA, Santa Barbara, Highway 1 and Sea Ranch - I didn't take many in the Bay Area and most of the ones I did were on my film camera. Mum would like to claim the sandy shot - she's very proud of it.}


  1. Ooooh! what incredible trip full of enjoyful tastes, I have clicked in all links and love them!

  2. What a wonderful trip... thanks for sharing.

  3. That final picture is so perfect!

  4. Sounds like an absolutely unforgettable trip. There are so many incredible flavours listed here, I can't wait to see what you do with all the inspirations over the coming months :-)

  5. Your trip sounds like it was a dream! We've been to California a couple times, but it never feels like the time is long enough to get everything in!

  6. you have made me homesick... thanks for posting, especially about the Bay Area!

  7. Miss Migas - I'm so glad you enjoyed the links - great dedication to click them all!

    Harriet Griffey - It was so beautiful there, I miss it a lot.

    M - Thanks! It was one of those crazy moments when I realised they were all flying in a line and ran to get my camera - thankfully just in time.

    thelittleloaf - I can't wait to use them - though part of me wishes I could just go there again and eat those dishes again!

    Madison - Seriously, we were there for a long trip but I didn't feel like we even began to go everywhere we wanted. It's such an amazing place.

    trubleu - Aw, I'm sorry! It's incredible, I can see why you miss it.

  8. Emma, I cannot believe you and your mum won't be in Berkeley when we return. I was getting attached to having you both around:)
    It was fun to read this synopsis of your favorite California bites. I'm proud of my home state and all the deliciousness to be had there.
    xxxooo to you and your mum,

  9. Wonderful article and tour of your stay in California. I'll have fun checking into these restaurants for a future coastal drive in store for us! Thank you and glad you had such a wonderful trip!


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