California Dreamin! The Challenges of Finding a Good Meal

Chef ElizabethAs a chef one of my greatest pleasures is the simple act, or accident, of finding a great spot to eat and a great meal. Legend and truth have it that I am rather difficult to please- I won’t argue with that statement. I must admit, I had very high expectations of my culinary peregrinations in the Golden State- California. It would be my first visit and I was dreaming of great wines – cheeses- produce- seafood- and all the very freshest of food. While my visit left little time to linger in one area for a long time, I found out that my California dreamin’ was just that- a dream. I am used to being disappointed – after many trips to Paris – I had to admit- the food in bistros and restaurants was just not very good-This very interesting article in the WSJ may or may not surprise you. The best food was in fact the street food and the food I bought and prepared myself from the colorful vendors at the legendary French markets.

I have always dreamed of heading to the Food Mecca that is the United States and experiencing some of the food they show on the Food

Experiencing American military might ...looking for a cold one!

Experiencing American military might …looking for a cold one!

Network- all those bustling restaurants that promise food ecstasy. These establishments dot the country in the form of restaurants, food shacks and food trucks. You know what I mean-the everything homemade from scratch – from the pies, breads, and sauces to the sausages- all the local, in-house food one craves and somehow appears too good to be true-Seems as if Guy is selling a wee white lie. With respect to food it is not just about the portion size – as the 60 ounce soda or 10 pound hamburger attests to – for me it is the quality. Portion size comes into play when it is just way too tiny- like my shrimp or my portion of wine at a Napa Valley tasting that I will describe.

We were on the road again as is our want and this time it was off to San Diego. Even before checking into a hotel, our first stop was the military base on Mission Bay where I caught my first sight of a seal and against the backdrop of military helicopters doing maneuvers and war ships, I felt as if I was in America. I love boat cruises and I was thrilled go on the San Diego Harbor Excursion. I had such a great time I stayed on for both tours and relaxed with a cuba libre on a boat packed with so many tourists I could not hear the captain’s narrative.   After the tour I told some man in a naval outfit that I had assumed was a member of the crew that I barely heard a word. He kindly brought me another drink and asked me to stay on for another tour. I said, how kind and he walked away and took possession of the captain’s chair! How is that for service?  It is very hard to find it anywhere

The Dana ... view from the balcony at sunset.

The Dana … view from the balcony at sunset.

these days.  Of course I gave the crew a nice tip, which they much appreciated. Tipping is important and I make a point of tipping for great service. I also take the time to call servers aside to tell them what a great job they have done and then I tell the manager as well … most of the time they are shocked to hear positive feedback.

While in San Diego we stayed at a wonderful hotel, The Dana overlooking Mission Bay.  I found a wonderful place to sit and eat by the pool and a large herring gull kept me company as I sipped on local Chardonnay and ate a new take on a clubhouse sandwich.

My lunch date.

My lunch date.

This is another bone of contention: I can’t find the traditional clubhouse an anywhere! Just like my beloved Cobb salad, why can’t they leave these two iconic dishes alone? They both have a colorful history much like the Caesar salad. But, now I encounter Kale Caesar salad with smoked salmon and wasabi peas as croutons. I have noticed most restaurants have stopped serving the expensive bacon using the excuse of allergies. By the way how can you eat Thai food without the peanuts?  God forbid!

Danger ...keep out!

Danger …keep out!

Next, we were off to Napa Valley where we stayed at River Terrace Inn. This is a gorgeous spot with elegant details- an inviting array of splits of wine in the mini fridge (we all know never ever touch a mini fridge- it comes at an enormous cost) but these were reasonable. I must mention how affordable good-to-great hotels are in the United States. The Best Western chain was always clean and after a recent stay at the Hilton in Toronto –  where at $400 dollars a night the room came with no bathtub, I would choose Best Western first.

One of our great finds in Napa was the food store called Trader Joes– I truly hope it comes to Canada.  It is a chain that has a similar concept as Whole Foods  but less intimidating and much cheaper. They don’t have the huge inventory nor do they try and make money from all that pre prepared food. In my opinion, they are far too ambitious and offer far too many selections that they have lost the needed safety and quality control. I was very impressed that in certain supermarkets the staff is reminded over the loud speaker to check the holding temperature of the ready-made food. More stores should implement this safety

Iconic California vineyard

Iconic California vineyard

procedure. Trader Joes is a fun store with a great vibe and much to my pleasant surprise I found local wine – chardonnay, vigonier and champagne for one dollar- true! We picked up cheese, bread, and charcuterie, grapes, berries and yes vino and had a picnic in the hotel room. On a long trip it makes sense to take breaks from all the over handled food- it proves easier on the stomach and the wallet.

I must admit, I was underwhelmed by the wineries. A good thing to keep in mind is to visit at the right time of year. It was like France in August- most of the wineries were not open and had limited tasting. I had always envisioned the Napa Valley as some green glorious expansive testament to grapes. The scenery and landscape were not nearly as impressive, albeit we were there in winter. Arriving at Mumms it was already closed but the kind fellow recommended a few spots and time was running out as they all closed around 5 – 6 p.m. We decided on Peju the setting and the building

Chef Elizabeth pre-wine tasting

Chef Elizabeth pre-wine tasting

reminded me of the television show Falcon Crest. I am not sure why I was so shocked to discover we had to pay to taste a few drops of wine but we were charged 20 dollars for roughly the equivalent of one shot. As well, we were not impressed by our host, a geriatric hippy with shoulder length grey hair and a psychedelic vest on, as were the other guests. Hence he poured much more generously for them. It became a disaster when he decided to break into a rap song where he managed to mispronounce the name of every wine varietal. My companion and I winced. He actually thought the French would be proud- I helped him out with that, informing him the French would have been scandalized. That is when the wine that I paid for stopped flowing.   Moreover, the wine was ridiculously expensive and tasted much like some of the over–priced VQA from Ontario. I decided to talk to the manager of Peju, I mentioned that our host knew nothing of wine and should seriously consider abandoning his musical aspirations. No, I did not want to buy his Cali–wine–rap CD that he flagrantly flaunted instead of focusing on the wine.  We left Peju and that wine tasting left a bitter taste in my mouth and a hole in my pocket … one of the few times on the trip where we felt ripped off.

Monterey coast

Monterey coast

I had high hopes for the food along the California coast and they were dashed like waves upon the rugged, rocky shore. However, the good news is that three of the best food experiences I had were in this Golden state. On our drive through Santa Cruz along the coast, fog descended and felt as if we were being devoured by clouds. Out of the fog we spotted a sign saying “Berry Farm”. Berries are one of my favourite things. The place appeared a bit scary and run down at first but my companion assured me he would be there to protect me … I leapt out of the car to take

Bucky and the hawk

Bucky and the hawk

pictures of a red tailed hawk sitting on a prickly pear bush. I was so pleasantly surprised to walk in the door and find this homey, warm, hippie-commune farm house and an honour-payment system with the staff behind doors busy preparing food … they were too pre occupied to notice our arrival. I could sense the pride they had and as I checked out the berry jams I was thrilled to find flavours I had never encountered before …Olallieberries! Prices vary depending on the berry-I chose the Ollalieberry Jam which was roughly 10 dollars for a 10 ounce jar – the best 10 dollars I have ever spent. That jam was a welcome companion at our little picnics along the way to

Eureka ...Berry heaven on the California coast.

Eureka …Berry heaven on the California coast.

Monterey …I was sad when I scraped the last bit out of the jar, but I knew I could order more on-line.

We decided to pick up their shortcake in a tub. This was divine …pure cream, perfectly sugared and the tartest berries and melting shortcake. This dessert we had to fight over … out of gratefulness to the driver I let him have the last bite.

We arrived in Monterrey and took an evening stroll along the docks … the seals barked as if serenading us.  I felt sorry for all the people in the moored boats trying to sleep. We decided to case the place out to find the best

Seafood displayed at Fisherman's Wharf Monterey

Seafood displayed at Fisherman’s Wharf Monterey

restaurant. The dock is lined with stalls, purveyors of roasted garlic and sour dough – just- caught shrimps, lobster, crab, clams and calamaris were for sale. I knew I was going to buy some shrimp and I did the next day to eat on my whale watching expedition. The restaurants which obviously were fighting for business had clam chowder samplers and waitresses and waiters trying to lure you in … I wasn’t comfortable with being approached so aggressively. We decided on the spot that had Happy Hour at the Old Fisherman’s Grotto.  Not the best way to choose somewhere to eat. While buying alcohol in the stores is cheap, in American restaurants the prices for alcoholic drinks are almost the same as in Canada. The price of eating out in California, as a whole is expensive- no bargains here. The Old Fisherman’s grotto was busy and the service was horribly slow. As usual it was the tables of sports teams that get all the service. Sometimes a busy and bustling spot can create a fun buzz …Not this time! As an experienced Chef and diner, I knew trouble was ahead as I heard the Food and Beverage manager shouting at the server- right in front of me. As I later learned for probable cause!

Not all shrimp are created equal.

Not all shrimp are created equal.

I ordered shrimp cocktail naively expecting shrimp that came close to The Palm in Chicago which to date is the very best shrimp cocktail I have ever tasted. Colossal Shrimp perfectly cooked with a spicy sauce and lots of lemon wedges. This is a tall order to fill as I have been eating shrimp cocktail for decades-This cocktail was pricy-around $22 dollars but well worth it for shrimp worshippers.

Shrimp Cocktail holds many fond memories for me- I remember the days of shrimp cocktail and Shirley temples- my mom would take me out to eat at the Colonnade as a reward after the dentist and she would bring me the shrimp from Paul’s French food in Forest Hill when I was a student at the Toronto French School. My father and I would go to the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet at The Granite Club in Toronto where he was famous for consuming 36 oysters as an appetizer, 12 lobsters and 3 pounds of shrimp …  he then ended with his favourite- Ile Flotante. I miss those days- those days of French cuisine when a recipe’s name was sacrosanct! He was asked to leave a few lobsters and shrimp for other diners- he did not comply.

The cocktail that arrived was a tiny martini glass full of shrimp the size of plankton. I had studied marine biology and I was a seafood

Whale-watching off Monterey coast

Whale-watching off Monterey coast

sales woman at one stage in my eclectic career and I knew that shrimp are sold in counts with reference to their size. In the Wholesale industry it is a numbered count and for Retail industry it is an adjective- this link helps explain this. I would have classified these as miniscule-  The day before, we had spent the day at sea (this was a fabulous trip and one which I highly recommend) and the whale watching  guide told us that whales eat an average of 5 tons of plankton in the form of amphipods  each  day and it came as no surprise when I saw the size of the shrimp offering in front  of me that I would need a proportionate number for my human daily food requirements to be met. I sent them back and the waiter returned with a few undercooked, sad shrimp and a plate of lemons cut up into the size of dimes and impossible to squeeze any juice out of them. I was not pleased – in the back of my mind I wanted to run out and buy some fresh and beautifully arranged seafood off the seafood carts. It was the first place that I had visited that reminded me of the Piscine markets in the south of France where all of the fruits de mer were so artistically presented and where you can sense the pride of the poissonier or fish monger.

Wildlife abounds  in Monterey

Wildlife abounds in Monterey

My partner ordered a fish taco- very popular all over the states and about as difficult to execute as the new mini fish filets at McDonalds! It was a soggy mess- impossible to pick up and full of sea scraps that were unidentifiable! When studying Marine Biology on the island of Carricou in the Caribbean, one of the daily tests was to determine strange specimens that the instructor would place in front of the class. I became quite adept at identifying the odd denizens of the ocean- but here even that skill gave me no edge with the creatures in that taco- In retrospect my companion declared it the worst meal in a two – month trip- I was wise and refused to taste it. When the server literally ran up to the table (he had been frantic all night) and asked if I enjoyed dinner- I said no-He looked at me and without even a moment’s hesitation he said Good- Good bye. We laughed and left- stopping on our way to the hotel to buy some real seafood!

The next day I was determined to make the most of my stay and what I really wanted to do was to go deep sea fishing- a passion of mine- but the

We saw whales ....but regulations prevent close encounters.

We saw whales ….but regulations prevent close encounters.

seas were too rough and the boats were grounded. So I bought a hat with a Sailfish on it instead! The last day in Monterrey I went whale watching and despite the rocky seas and many of the passengers committing the contents of their stomachs to the water, I had the thrill of a lifetime when we came across a pod of over 500 common dolphins- they moved like acrobatic bullets through the ocean –One caveat- don’t believe the brochures where you are feet from a whale- laws to protect them as they migrate to their calving grounds in Baja forbids any vessel from being closer than a hundred yards. It is a photographer’s nightmare to walk the bobbing deck and to try time the shot to capture the whales as they emerge and blow- One of my more frustrating photo journal trips I must admit.

Eltorito ...beautiful setting on the rugged coast.

Eltorito …beautiful setting on the rugged coast.

For the last dinner it was hard to decide where to go – driving through the famous Cannery Row district it was teeming with tourists. Experience had taught me that the most reliable food – the fastest service (and yes the reliable heartburn) and free appetizers was ”Mexican” food. I spotted a place on the water and as I love to dine overlooking water this was where

my last supper would be. It was called Eltorito … It was very busy as all Mexican spots are- because of the family atmosphere and the value. Margaritas were our litmus test and these were served in those martini glasses with the

Margaritas at Eltorito

Margaritas at Eltorito

huge open rims so everything spills and they had far too much ice which melted and diluted the drink. They used a mix instead of fresh lime juice and the synthetic flavor came through. As a former bartender, I am very familiar with “swamp water”, it is substituted for real juice- Happy hour is huge in California as in many states and it is best to try and order the mixed drinks when they are discounted- Margs are not cheap – around 7 dollars – Yes and that tequila can catch up with you – just like that country song–  in the old days it was gin that was called the panty remover.

Spicy salsa and chips arrived at the table in short order and they were good. The fajita- a tex mex dish that I ordered every time I ate in a Mexican place-is a good litmus test (also not deep fried)– Just how well can they cut it and cook it and do I get guacamole or pico de gallo or not?  Is the cheese and sour cream extra? – What about lettuce? It was different every time. I am dedicating a blog to that issue- with my recipe for salsa and guacamole and yes blue margaritas as well. Suffice it to say here  – I don’t think Mexican cooks use a sharp knife- the strips of chicken at every single restaurant were irregular and often attached as if they were a hand and not a finger- same with the peppers. (My trick is to tell the kitchen to hold the onions – that way I get extra peppers- onions are a cheap filler trick)-

Monterey Sea Lions

Monterey Sea Lions

Dusk was falling as we were sipping and dining and the view was breathtaking- all the pelagic birds were filling the air and mammals (yes I saw a sea otter cracking abalone including seals were swimming as the sun fell. This is a place well worth dining at- it was a wonderful way to end the time spent in Monterrey.

Next morning we were headed back to Canada and this is where I had the single most delicious moment of my trip.

Pezzini Farm Artichoke

Pezzini Farm Artichoke

We decided to stop at an artichoke farm- and we were so lucky to find Pezzini Farms. The plants were amazing to see growing in the fields full of shades of green and hues of purple- miles and miles of them stretching out like the Californian farm I had always imagined- a sea of waving green. The store is full of fabulous produce –the famous garlic and Vidalia onions – golden kiwis- it is a Chef’s dream come true. Needless to say there were all sorts of products linked to artichokes and to this day I kick myself for not buying at least one bag of artichokes to bring home. The price was amazing- a bag of about 20 or so for less

Monterey Pezzini Farm Artichoke

Monterey Pezzini Farm Artichoke

than ten dollars- It is not just the price point but the freshness- it has always been tough to get farm fresh artichokes even in Toronto.

The best was yet to come. We stepped outside to get in the car and there lo and behold a vision of beauty- An artichoke food truck! I could hardly believe my eyes- we quickly decided on both fried and steamed artichokes – each of which cost around 6 dollars. The fried artichokes were breaded sweet heaven and the homemade lemon dill dipping sauce brought me right back to France. The fresh lemon zest sang in my mouth. The steamed artichokes were equally sweet and tender- I had found culinary heaven at the side of the road in an Artichoke truck. You see- I am not impossible to please.

Choke Coach

Choke Coach

MontereyWhalewatchingAsian VasionBucky in the RedwoodsPelicans Resting after a long day at sea

Food Ecstasy- finallyAmerican AirlinesDrive from San Diegoto

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