Traveller's Guide: Gourmet California
The Golden State's mouth-watering cuisine covers everything from food trucks to fine dining – and the wine isn't bad either, says Andy Lynes.
Friday 24 February 2012
For sheer scale and diversity no other single state in the country beats California as a destination for the hungry traveller. The rich ethnic mix is one great strength, a hunger for innovation another – at just one Napa Valley restaurant the menu includes crispy tuna pizza, flying fish roe and liquid nitrogen lollipop ice cream.
The climate and terrain allow for the cultivation of more than 350 different crops, and livestock and poultry generating over $10bn a year. Add top-quality sustainable seafood and some of the finest wines on the planet and you're in gourmet heaven.
From inexpensive Mexican food in the south to fine dining in the wine country in the north, there is a gourmet experience to suit every pocket and mood. The growing worldwide trend of artisan food production is alive and well here, meaning you'll find world-class cheeses, craft beer and unusual baked goods as well as award-winning wines.
It would be foolhardy to try to cover the entire state in one visit (it is, after all, America's third largest after Alaska and Texas), and navigating your way through the options can be head spinning. But a road trip focusing broadly on what's available in the coastal areas between San Francisco and Los Angeles incorporating the Monterey peninsula and Santa Barbara, with excursions north to wine country and south to San Diego, would make an unforgettable foodie journey. Milestone's (0845 678 8585; milestonestours.com) nine-day San Francisco and Wine Country Delights tour costs £2,225, including BA flights from Heathrow to San Francisco and hotel accommodation plus most meals. The next departure is 18 May.
San Francisco is the state's restaurant hub, with a scene that's dynamic and innovative enough to give New York a run for its money. There's fine dining of course, but plenty of high-quality authentic cheap eats too, such as Bun Mee Vietnamese sandwich shop (001 415 800 7696; bunmee.co). The city is well known for its sourdough bread, and a visit to one of the numerous artisan bakeries such as Tartine (001 415 487 2600; tartinebakery. com) is a must. You could even take a weekend workshop on baking sourdough at the San Francisco Baking Institute (001 650 589 5784; sfbi.com). Across the bay, the Berkeley and Oakland dining scenes are well worth investigating too.
But don't discount Los Angeles. Although it's undeniably faddy, you can eat and drink extremely well in the city. The formerly barren downtown area is being rejuvenated by a lively gastropub and tavern scene. The influence of the city's gourmet food truck options, kick-started by Kogi Korean BBQ (001 323 315 0256; kogibbq.com), has recently spread to London and is still evolving in its native city of LA.
Some operators are migrating to permanent bricks-and-mortar locations, including Kogi which has recently opened Chego (001 310 287 0337; eatchego.com). Pop-up restaurants, some run by well-known chefs, remain a feature of the dining scene and include the peripatetic Ludobites (ludolefebvre.com) run by chef Ludo Lefebvre.
Fusion food hasn't been fashionable since the early Nineties, but is gaining traction in Los Angeles once more through restaurants such as Picca (001 310 277 0133; piccaperu.com; average price for main course $15) where chef Ricardo Zarate serves modern Peruvian cuisine with a Japanese influence. For the unadulterated, authentic experience, head a few miles east of downtown to the San Gabriel Valley for Chinese and on to West Covina for Filipino food.
You'll find plenty of excellent dining opportunities further north in wine country, in Napa Valley and on the other side of the Mayacamas mountains in the Sonoma Valley, including several two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants. Try triple-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood, St Helena, Napa Valley (001 707 967 1205; meadowood. com) and double-starred Cyrus in Healdsburg, Sonoma (001 707 433 3311; cyrusrestaurant.com).
Wine tourism is well developed. Some small, exclusive wineries such as Screaming Eagle in Oakville, Napa Valley (001 707 944 0749; screamingeagle.com), are too small or produce too little to make it viable to open the doors to the public. But the vast majority offer excellent guided tours and well-staffed tasting rooms. Charges for tours and tastings vary; they can be offered free of charge by some but typically attract a charge of between $10-$30 a head. There is always the opportunity to buy at the cellar door.
The wineries of Santa Barbara, just north of Los Angeles, were portrayed by the 2004 film Sideways. Santa Barbara County is home to some famous names, including Au Bon Climat which, although open to the public only on annual open days, recently opened the Tasting Room (001 805 845 8435; aubonclimat.com) in the centre of Santa Barbara city. While there, try the freshly made authentic Mexican tortillas at the well-established La Super-Rica Taqueria (001 805 963 4940; average price for main course $10). You won't find the most cutting-edge dining opportunities here, but the scene is refreshing itself with the soon-to-open Arlington Tavern (001 805 770 2626; arlington-tavern.com) serving casual farm-to-table fare.
The annual Pebble Beach Food and Wine festival, 12-15 April, (pebblebeachfoodandwine.com) is the perfect introduction to Californian gastronomy. The programme of cookery demonstrations, wine tastings, gala dinners and after-parties features chefs, sommeliers and over 200 wineries from the state and around the world – and the location on the rugged Pacific coast between Monterey and Carmel is stunning.
New Californian cuisine
As California is the garden of America, it's no surprise that local and organic are cornerstones of the state's cuisine. The tenets of new Californian cuisine were laid down in the early 1970s by the likes of Alice Waters, who last year celebrated 40 years of her influential Chez Panisse restaurant (001 510 548 5525; chezpanisse. com; four-course tasting menu $60-$95) in Berkeley.
David Kinch of Manresa, Los Gatos (001 408 354 4330; manresarestaurant. com; four-course set menu $125, eight-course set menu $175), is currently the most high-profile chef working in the style. The multi-course "seasonal and spontaneous" menu might include sea urchin with suckling pig, sea lettuce and trumpet mushrooms which celebrate the Californian produce of Love Apple Farms (001 831 588 3801; growbetterveggies.com), which also offers a programme of one-day culinary workshops and events, costing from $75 for a full day.
Kinch's influence is spreading across the state as his chefs leave to head up their own kitchens. At the casual Haven, Oakland (001 510 663 4440; havenoakland.com; average main course $25), Kim Alter serves dishes such as day-boat scallop with beetroot, black trumpet mushrooms, endive and blood orange "family style" for sharing. Eat at the bar and watch the chefs in action in the open kitchen.
At Commis, Oakland (001 510 653 3902; commisrestaurant.com; eight-course tasting menu $68), James Syhabout has won a Michelin star for his seasonal locally grown and foraged ingredients that might include egg with alliums, smoked dates and malt, or sweet shrimp in a pea tendril bouillon with chrysanthemum and rhubarb.
At the newly opened Freddy Smalls Bar and Kitchen, Los Angeles (001 310 479 3000; freddysmalls.com; average price for main course $13), Kinch alumni Charlie Parker and Jeremy Fox serve modern comfort food such as Reuben's Gluttony made with sliced corned beef, kohlrabi sauerkraut and roasted bone marrow. Hang around for the late-night menu that includes a crispy pig's ear and fried egg open sandwich with coleslaw and bacon served on brioche toast.
Solage, Calistoga (001 866 942 7442; solagecalistoga.com), has doubles from $575 excluding breakfast. Drink in the wine country mountain views from the terrace of your cool, contemporary bungalow, set in 25 secluded acres. There's Michelin-starred food at Solbar restaurant and a signature "Mudslide" mineral-enriched clay and volcanic ash body mask treatments in the spa.
Shore Hotel, Santa Monica (001 310 458 1515; shorehotel.com), has doubles from $291 excluding breakfast. The newly built, eco-friendly beachside hotel is the ideal base to explore the restaurants and bars of Abbot Kinney Boulevard and the greater Los Angeles area.
Ivy Hotel, Napa (001 707 253 9300; ivyhotelnapa.com), has doubles from $147 including breakfast. This recently refurbished, stylish boutique hotel is close to Yountville's restaurants and the wineries of Rutherford. Wine tastings are held every evening for guests.
Sir Francis Drake, San Francisco (001 415 392 7755; sirfrancisdrake. com), has doubles from $183 excluding breakfast. Originally opened in 1928, this grand hotel has been restored to its full, opulent Italianate glory. The new Bar Drake offers a speakeasy ambience, and there's modern Italian food at Scala's Bistro.
California Travel: essentials
In terms of air links from the UK, California is easily the most competitive American state after New York. But if you want a non-stop flight, start at Heathrow.
Seven wide-bodied jets fly from Heathrow to Los Angeles every day, together with four to San Francisco and one to San Diego. The leading airline is British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which serves all three cities daily.
Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) has two daily non-stops to Los Angeles and San Francisco, while United (0845 8444 777; unitedairlines.co.uk) serves both cities non-stop every day. Air New Zealand (0800 635 0260; airnewzealand.co.uk) and American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) both fly once a day to Los Angeles; note that AA "codeshares" with BA, so you might book on one carrier and find yourself flying on the other.
For south-eastern California, Las Vegas – across the state border in Nevada – is another possible gateway. BA flies there from Heathrow, while Virgin Atlantic flies from Gatwick. For the Lake Tahoe area, Reno is well located, though the Nevada state capital has no direct flights from Britain.
If you are happy to change planes en route in another North American city, fares tend to be lower and options wider. You can fly to other Californian airports such as Sacramento, San Jose and Long Beach. Consider Air Canada via Toronto, Delta via New York JFK, Detroit or Atlanta, or United via Newark or Chicago.
Since BA abandoned its Manchester-Los Angeles route, there are no flights from other UK airports to California. The main option is on United/Continental via Newark, served from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham. Delta from Gatwick and Manchester via Atlanta, and US Airways from Gatwick via Charlotte and Manchester via Philadelphia are other options.
Fares for the summer look high, close to £1,000 return on some peak dates. Other European airlines, notably Air France/ KLM and Lufthansa via Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, may be significantly cheaper.
Getting around: By air
* Given the size of the state – about six times the size of Britain – flying is the easy option. Generally you are best off booking Californian "domestic" flights as part of your transatlantic ticket: a London-San Francisco-Los Angeles-London trip on a combination of BA and American Airlines will cost little more than a London-LA return. But if you want to book additional flights, Southwest and Alaska Airlines generally offer the best fares.
* Travelling by train in coastal California is a real pleasure, with excellent services, great views and bargain fares.
* Caltrain runs commuter trains, intended to lure motorists away from the freeways. Fares are low, eg $8.75 (£5.75) for the one-hour ride between San Jose and San Francisco.
* For longer-distance trips – notably the Pacific Surfliner from San Diego via LA to San Luis Obispo, and the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles via Oakland (for San Francisco), Sacramento, Redding and onward to Oregon and Washington, book in advance at amtrak.com.
* Greyhound buses are regular and reliable for inter-city journeys – and ideal for travellers who like to make up and amend plans as they go along, because you almost never need to book in advance. Turn up, buy your ticket and go – and if one bus fills up, Greyhound will lay on another.
* In the south of California, the Greyhound subsidiary Crucero takes over; book in advance at crucero-usa.com and you can travel from Los Angeles to the Mexican border for as little as $1 (65p).
* Self-drive is the ideal way to explore California beyond the main cities.
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