7. I grew up on rustic Southern California Mexican food, prepared by little old ladies in stifling kitchens inside little old East-of-East-LA holes-in-the-wall, so I’m always a little amused these days at how gentrified the whole Mexican cuisine scene has become. A happy case in point, though … tucked away near the Back Bay of Newport Beach -- in a strip mall, no less -- is a brightly-decorated and cozy joint called Taco Rosa
. It’s really quite unpretentious; even if it claims to purvey “Spanish, French and Southwestern” food, it is mostly imaginative pan-Mexican cuisine, bursting at the seams with fresh ingredients and interesting taste combinations, from Oaxacan Pollo en Mole to Yucatanean Baked Carnitas Pibil to coastal Escabeche (pickled vegetable salad). Although the owners of Taco Rosa go to great lengths to remind people that Mexican cuisine is more than just tacos, burritos and enchiladas, their handling of the standard fare is pretty irresistible. One great favorite that Kerstin enjoyed is the Burrito Arizona, comprised of lobster, sautéed with spinach, mushrooms, red onions and tomatoes, wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla and topped with chipotle guajillo, tomatillo and tequila lime cream sauces.
8. We’re always a little skeptical of restaurants with great views – as a rule, they don’t have to try as hard in the kitchen if they know the view will keep ‘em coming. Along California
’s Highway 1, however, there is a beautiful vista around every bend -- and yet, when we must eat, we must eat. Fortunately, Nepenthe
is a wonderful exception to the rule. Situated high atop an 800-foot Big Sur ocean overlook, Nepenthe is built on the site of an impromptu World War II-era picnic that turned into a real estate deal for two Hollywood
newlyweds, Orson Welles
and Rita Hayworth
. They grew tired of it, and each other, before much could come of it; so they sold it to the enterprising Fassett family, who hired Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice Rowan Maiden to build them a beautiful romantic retreat, from which they opened their restaurant in 1949. The fare is fresh and unfussy; specialties include the fat Ambrosiaburger and a pair of great salads, the Heirloom Tomato and Mozzarella Salad (with mache, frisee and arugula, dressed with sweet corn and basil vinaigrette) and the Three-Way Salad (a combination of garbanzo-bean salad, cole slaw and tossed greens; though they won’t say it, I suspect that the concept must have been inspired by the predilections of Nepenthe’s famous neighbor, writer Henry Miller). Kerstin enjoyed a house-cured salmon plate, and we both found Nepenthe’s Basket of Fries to be the perfect snack before hitting the rest of that great winding road.
9. Who goes to Napa Valley
for the food? It’s a fair point; but nevertheless, amid the beautiful vineyards, there’s some pretty darn good meals to be had. I had an Ahi Tuna Salad at the Rutherford Grill
(a cousin of Gulfstream, one of our Newport Beach
favorites) that I’d be happy to nominate for salad of the year. However, the main attraction around these parts is the venerable La Toque
, the intimate Country Cal-French restaurant that is attached to the Rancho Caymus Inn in Rutherford
. For people who love good wine and love good food, the innovative wine-and-food pairing experience is heavenly: a five course prix-fixe menu (six, if you count the optional cheese course, which we did), with each course accompanied by a wine specially-chosen by in-house sommelier Scott Tracey. Although we love Napa
wines, we were also pleasantly surprised to see Tracey going off the reservation, occasionally pairing our courses with a French sauterne or an Austrian Brundlmayer when the spirit moved him. Kerstin had the Tomato Soup, Marinated Black Cod, Ravioli topped with White Truffle (shaved tableside with much ceremony), Kobe Beef and Chocolate Gateau; while I had the Foie gras, the Cod, Twice-Cooked Pork, Salmon with Polenta Fries and the Apple Galette Tort with Buttermilk Ice Cream. And we both had a really good night’s sleep afterwards.
10. Just after Thanksgiving we gathered the whole clan (22 of us, if I’m counting correctly) for a celebration of Kerstin’s grandfather’s 90th
birthday at Steve and Cookie’s
, in Margate, New Jersey
, on the bay side of the island. The food is no-nonsense – crab cakes, steak, meatloaf – and we opted for set menu (a choice between filet mignon and salmon), a boatload of wine, and numerous fulsome toasts to the health of the fellow who will no doubt outlive us all. When Kerstin looks around the place, inevitably she thinks of christenings, showers, friends’ weddings … sometimes a restaurant can be a favorite simply because it has become an extension of your household. In a similar vein, the family has come to rely on Dino’s Sub & Pizza
, a few blocks away, as an extra set of kitchen hands. No idea what to have for lunch? Let’s order subs. Lizanne’s coming in from Boston
? Let’s order subs. Hangover this morning? Let’s order subs. Kerstin likes the grilled veggie with provolone, while I usually opt for the cheesesteak with grilled onions, both with lots of hot peppers on the side.
11. We couldn’t find a mediocre meal in Asheville, North Carolina
earlier this month. Limone’s
, a Mexican-Californian joint on Eagle Street, offered a giant selection of Tequilas, and a tasty entremesa of Goat Cheese Poblano Pepper Empanadas, while the Sunny Point Café
seems to be Asheville’s definitive breakfast place, featuring locally-grown goods, a mellow bohemian clientele, a killer Pecan-Encrusted Fried Green Tomato Sandwich and life-affirming plates of Huevos Rancheros. (We were tempted by the Sunny Point Oatmeal Brulle and the Cocoanut Pancakes, but it was just the wrong time of day for a smorgasbord.) One of the other bright spots was a breezy little bistro in Biltmore Village
, which co-owner Treavis Taylor told us stands for “Food is Good.” And it is: a contemporary blend of French, American and Italian tastes, we had Mussels in a Curry Broth, Lemon Risotto with Rock Shrimp, Free-Range Chicken Breast over Lemon-Lime Cous Cous, and Fried Veal Sweetbreads, all accompanied by an excellent wine list and a friendly, informative staff.
12. For my birthday this year, we had dinner with good friends at one of my favorite Pittsburgh
area restaurants -- Vivo
, a small, romantic BYOB Italian restaurant situated in the unlikeliest of locales, the bland and unassuming North Pittsburgh neighborhood of Bellevue
. Once inside, you can easily forget that you’re on a street otherwise populated by an inordinate number of funeral homes and chiropractors; comfy chairs, muted lighting and terracotta-washed walls covered with black-and-white family photos give us the feeling of having a meal in someone’s old Italian rowhouse. The menu is a waitress’ unprinted monologue of seven starters and seven entrees that changes daily, and the overall experience features the appetizer course (we had Fresh Oysters and a splendid Three-Mushroom and Chorizo concoction), then a small plate of pasta, followed by the entrée (among our crew, there was veal, lobster, lamb and beef, each prepared with personality and panache) and the salad course. Side dishes are served with the entrée at room temperature, antipasto style, and on the night we were there, chef/owner Sam DiBattista had outdone himself with the Wheat Berries and the Green Beans. We capped our meal with a dessert of berries and cannoli filling pressed between two vanilla pixelles – which is about as great a birthday present as I can think of.
Labels: Cuisine, Frank Lloyd Wright, Kerstin, Pittsburghiana, Southern California