California dreaming: a gastronomic guide

Words by
Fiona Sims

15th March 2013

Breathtaking sunsets on the beach and muscle-clad surfers aside, California has gained a reputation as America’s premiere gourmet destination. Fiona Sims gets a taste of the good life

A spontaneous round of applause ripples across the wide, sandy beach bathed in a sultry orange glow. It’s a nightly occurrence in San Diego when the skies are this clear (which is often), as the sun slips down over the horizon, picking out silhouettes of surfers as they wait patiently for a crest worth riding. Maybe it’s a California thing? We’ll have to wait and see what sunset rituals other West Coast beach communities practice, but my travelling companion and I are looking forward to finding out over the next few days.


Santa Barbara grapevines

There’s nothing quite as all-American as a road trip—especially in the west. But we don’t have weeks to navigate its blue highways and rural byways; we have just 10 days. And we don’t want to spend all of our time in the car, either, as we’re also here to enjoy the region’s food and wine. So we’ve homed in on southern California, with its bountiful farmers’ markets, innovative chefs, pioneering winemakers, quirky beer producers—and wall-to-wall sunshine


Diners toasting the good life at Wine Cask, Santa Barbara, where chef Brandon Hughes plunders the weekly farmers’ market

And it doesn’t get much quirkier than Indra Kunindra: this dark, aromatic stout from the Ballast Point brewery in San Diego is made with toasted coconut, kaffir lime leaves, cumin and cayenne pepper. “It’s magic with Vietnamese spring rolls,” offers head brewer Yusef Cherney, as we down a glass. But with a nine per cent abv (most craft brews here start at six per cent), we’ve left the hire car behind and opted for one of the cities popular brewery tours. 

Brew Hop Tours was co-founded by Summer Nixon six years ago, when the craft brewing industry here began to take off. She whisks us around some of the best in her black Lincoln Navigator, a mine of information on the now thriving business that has ignited a passion in San Diegans that is unrivalled elsewhere. High-flying executives have ditched the suits for the craft brewer uniform of cargo shorts and beards and live out their hop-fuelled dreams in a rapidly expanding market, scooping up a mantelpiece-full of awards along the way—two of the last three World Beer Cups have been won by San Diego breweries. Stone leads the way, a shiny beacon of a brewery that trail-blazes with its never-ending roster of innovative brews and sophisticated beer and perfectly matched food in its on-site beer garden, which is worth the trip alone. And you can’t visit a San Diego craft brewery without sampling a gourmet food truck, which park up in rotation alongside the kegs, offering everything from sushi to sliders.

Inspired by the farmers’ market movement and the traditional taco truck, and spurred on by the recession, this new generation of street vendor is aggressively gourmet, politically correct and tech- savvy, alerting customers to locations using Twitter and Facebook. They see the food truck as an attractive business opportunity, with its relatively low start-up costs and creative potential. San Diego lays claim to starting this revolution and boasts many of the best, among them MIHO Gastrotruck and Epic Eatz. 


California’s gourmet street food

MIHO Gastrotruck in San Diego

From the kerbside to a hillside, namely Beverly Hills. There’s nothing quite like a bit of rough (albeit gourmet rough) to heighten one’s senses. And it doesn’t get more luxurious than the poshest suburb in Los Angeles. Top-of-the-range limos cruise along quiet streets lined with gated mansions, discharging their tottering- heeled passengers into swanky eateries, such as Spago and Patina. For the full Hollywood experience, splash out on one of its glittering hotels (with Bel-Air being the glitziest), and bag a table at a top dining spot, trying not to rubberneck as Hollywood’s great and good seal their deals at the tables around you. The ghosts of—insert any number of Hollywood movie legends—live on as you climb northwest out of the traffic-choked sprawl on Route 101, skirting grassy hillsides where golden eagles nest, passing underneath craggy peaks where bobcats roam, until the pounding Pacific comes into view, the surf mist lending an other-worldly air to the bucolic valley of Santa Barbara. Long a playground for the Hollywood elite, Santa Barbara embodies the Californian dream, with its pristine ranchos and manicured lawns. And while the handsome Spanish mission building at the top of the town sets the tone, the newly restored El Encanto overlooking its swaying palms and pink-domed bell towers, has raised the ante. 


The bustling bistro at Stone Brewery

A stonking $134m was spent on refurbishing this circa 1918 listed property. Owned by Orient-Express, it’s the first hotel for the company on the west coast of America. And with its sumptuous interiors comes a top class chef, Daniel Boulud-trained Patrice Martineau, with his polished, elegant Californian coastal cuisine. In fact, Santa Barbara has been attracting other big name chefs of late, among them Los Angeles’ Suzanne Goin, who with partner David Lentz (they’re the new restaurateur power-couple) has recently opened here an outpost of her Hungry Cat eatery. 

The city has also been focusing its attentions on the bountiful produce growing in the surrounding hills and showcased at the daily (yes, daily) farmers’ market with a new, permanent, covered public market set to open later this year. Not to mention the proliferation of innovative restaurants and wine-tasting rooms that have sprung up in the so-called Funk Zone down near the waterfront—there are so many now that you can do a lengthy wine trail. And you can’t come to Santa Barbara without visiting a winery. Just a 40-minute drive over the San Marcos Pass in the Santa Ynez mountains, through evergreen oaks, sycamores dressed in ghostly moss and translucent lakes lapped by deer, will take you into wine country


Slow- roasted lamb loin at Nine-Ten, a San Diego gem

Known collectively as California’s Central Coast, it is home to many premium winemakers. Though less well known than their Napa and Sonoma neighbours further north, Central Coast is consistently turning out great niche wines that have a growing following—though thanks, in part, goes to the comedy-drama Sideways. The surprise hit movie from 2004 made wine-lovers and novices alike flock to the area in their thousands to snaffle up its star grape, Pinot Noir. If the rumoured film sequel goes ahead, expect a new surge of interest, but this time other grape varieties should get a look-in, from Roussanne to Sangiovese. 

You can retrace the hapless Sideways duo’s steps at landmark Pinot winery Sanford, or focus on the Cabernet blends of Santa Barbara’s Happy Canyon at Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards. Or just hole up in Los Olivos, taking your pick of more than 20 tasting rooms, with Stolpman, Qupé and Andrew Murray among the highlights. Many of the wineries have a tasting room in Santa Barbara itself—it’s the place to go for an aperitif—but for those who want to walk among the vines, an overnight stay in wine country is a must. And if you want to swallow more than you spit, then head to Los Olivos, where pretty much every house on the main street is now a tasting room, and where staggering from one to the other is de rigueur, resting your head at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa, which offers elegant rooms right in the action. So it’s with a heavy heart (and a banging head) that we head back to Los Angeles for the flight home, a perfect sun setting behind the surf once again, though no clapping this time. That must just be a San Diego thing.

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