our california road trip

our time in san francisco was followed by four days driving, mostly down highway 1 (it was shut in one section while we were visiting), towards los angeles.

the monterey aquarium was on david’s list of places to visit which was perfect as it’s just down the road from passionfish, a restaurant which focuses on sustainable fish and seafood and where we had one of the nicest meals of our trip. we followed the same tactic that we adopted at chez panisse of ordering an extra starter so, between us, we had squid with a richly flavoured spicy coriander and mango dressing, fried asparagus with tomato aioli (not dissimilar from my parmesan-crusted asparagus) and oysters with orange and ginger granita. the oysters were my favourite– the icy zingy granita worked incredibly well with the sweet sea-soaked oysters.

more fish to follow - mahi mahi with ginger vinaigrette, wasabi relish (this was fiery!), bok choy and green onion rice for david, while i had the much lighter, and perfect for spring, alaskan halibut with vegetables and tangerine-tamarind vinaigrette. both were wonderful, with layers of flavour that worked really well together and with the local wine that had been recommended: a white blend from matthiasson in napa valley (we both really appreciated the thoughtful advice we were given when we asked for a local and unusual wine). neither of us could resist pudding – a british-inspired banana bread pudding for david which he ate with the ice cream that had been served with my strawberries with red wine syrup. both were nice but it really was the sea’s bounty that made this meal stand out for us.

despite eating in monterey we stayed in carmel (for a couple of nights) which is a short drive away. this little town has a wonderful atmosphere. if you visit make sure you spend time on the beach and explore the residential roads which run parallel to it, they are shaded by huge trees creating a calm and tranquil vibe; all the houses are different and all show something of the arty character of the town - when it was founded the local residents decided they didn’t want to number their houses as that would apply unnecessary structure and order so mail has always been collected rather than delivered. don’t be fooled though, living here requires big bucks, something that is perhaps reflected in the fact that clint eastwood is a local resident and used to be mayor.

carmel has a vibrant food scene and, after a drink at cypress inn, which used to be co-owned by doris day, we ate at cantinetta luca. this large and lively italian restaurant provided us with an abundance of nice but not particularly inspiring food – aubergine parmigiana and rocket, beet, pear and goat’s cheese salad to start (the salad was huge and would have been fine as a main course); red wine tagliatelle with lamb, broad beans, olives and pistachio breadcrumbs plus ziti rigate with homemade fennel sausage and artichokes in a marinara sauce to follow and we ended with tiramisu and mixed ice cream.

back on the road the next day, we had a lunch booked which i was really excited about – sierra mar at the post ranch inn is in big sur and on the edge of a cliff with dramatic sea views. the setting is truly stunning (have a look at the website to get a sense of the place) and it was lovely to be able to eat out on the deck, with views across the ocean.

the food was light and fresh. i started with house cured and smoked salmon which was served with tiny  crispy potato cakes (some of which were barely more substantial than a crisp!) and horseradish crème fraiche, while david had the slightly more substantial hoisin grilled quail with peanuts, plum sauce and pear relish. his turn for salmon next, this time served with couscous, shaved fennel and a dill-shallot vinaigrette. i lucked out though – the seared sesame-crusted ahi tuna with pickled ginger, crispy won ton salad (lots of shoots and shitake) with wasabi and soy dressing was a taste-sensation and easily the best dish. none of the puddings appealed so we headed off, reflecting on how low-carb the dishes were and feeling grateful that i’d asked my friend elizabeth, who has a house in cambria, our next destination, for food recommendations as our initial plan for a blow-out lunch and no supper clearly wasn’t going to work!

so, having checked into our b&b in cambria, we headed to robin’s – said to be one of the best places in town. portions were huge and the food good – a pile of crusted calamari for me, followed by a delicious, rich and creamy lobster enchilada which was served with spicy black beans (i particularly liked these). david’s choices were more international and reflect the wide-ranging menu on offer – crispy vietnamese spring rolls to start and a malaysian chicken curry to follow, both of which he enjoyed but which i thought were less good than my more local choices.

our final stop was in santa barbara where we ate a fantastic meal (we both agreed it was our favourite of the trip*) at julienne. we wanted to eat earlier than our booking so popped in on the off-chance – they were full but had space for us to sit at the bar overlooking the kitchen, which we opted to do and was great for seeing everything being assembled and feeling hopeful every time an order resembling ours was served.

the menu is a selection of dishes from which you can create your own tasting menu. we went for a five course option, with each of us choosing different dishes so we could try most of the menu, and kicked off with a special of chicken liver parfait on toast which was heavenly – rich, creamy, intense flavour (no one needs to eat foie gras when this sort of dish is available in its place).

we ate so well - every single dish was delicious and perfectly judged. some of my favourite dishes were the smoked mussels with flatbread and preserved lemon aioli, ricotta-filled cappeletti with crispy sweetbreads creamed spinach and gorgeous scallops, and confit lamb cheeks with crispy chickpeas, kale and harissa. again we had excellent and thoughtful advice about local wines to accompany our food – this was a really special meal and the perfect way to finish our trip.

* if you’re keeping score, top for food was julienne followed by passionfish and then chez panisse. best location,  with stunning views and well worth a stop, was sierra mar.