Posts Tagged ‘California’

Hiking through Big Sur

Thursday, July 20th, 2006
Rugged Coastline

Rugged Coastline

Route 1 in California may be one of the prettiest drives in the country, and my favorite part is the stretch in Big Sur. This dramatic section of the shoreline is awesome. The Santa Lucia Mountains, which rise to over 5,000 feet in elevation, are perched right over the Pacific Ocean. This craggy coastline is filled with massive cliffs, rustic inlets, hidden canyons, beautiful waterfalls, towering redwoods, and secluded beaches. Although some of the hikes in these National Parks are strenuous, much of Big Sur can be enjoyed by everyone. Every time I visit Big Sur I like it even better.

Big Sur is a collection of National Parks offering considerable diversity. I remember visiting Big Sur a couple of years ago and going to Andrew Molera State Park. Rather than hiking, we explored on horseback. The guide took us through the redwood forest where the trees seemed to reach the clouds. We meandered through a grassy meadow dotted with sycamore trees that ascended to a bluff overlooking the beach. As we were heading down this isolated beach on horseback back, all that I could think was “does it get any better than this”?

We visited Big Sur again this past April, and I wanted to visit different parks. I am happy to report that each hike was quite unique and equally spectacular. The first morning it was raining and we went to Pfeiffer Beach. You drive down a
Arch at Pfeiffer Beach narrow paved road through a forest of Cypress trees.

Arch at Pfeiffer Beach

Arch at Pfeiffer Beach

From the parking lot it is only a hundred yards till you exit the canopy of trees and reach the sand. Just a short distance up the beach you see some beautiful rock formations in the ocean. A huge arch is particular eye catching. These rock formations have been pounded by the waves and eroded by the winds. Walking along the beach, the sand is white and soft, and is filled with small stones that have been naturally polished by the sea. The towering headland cliffs beyond the sand beach makes this a very dramatic landscape.

Later that same afternoon we went to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park about ten miles south, and visited Partington Cove. You park your car on Route 1 and descend into Partington Canyon along an old dirt path. As you reach sea level, you need to walk through a 100 foot long wooden tunnel that has been cut through the cliffs. This leads to an isolated cove that was once used as a shipping dock. Today it is a mix of rocks, water, and seaweed. The good news is that this inlet can be a common refuge for sea otters and seals. Although this hike is only a mile round trip, it is very diverse with dense forest, a creek, an old historic tunnel, the ocean, and hopefully plenty of wildlife.

After visiting Partington Cove we headed back north on Route 1 and California Condor noticed considerable congestion on the road.

California Condor

California Condor

Cars were pulled over and people were running with their cameras. At this point on the road, the cliffs drop dramatically down to the ocean floor, and sailing right over our heads were a dozen Condors. This magnificent bird is massive, in fact it’s the largest bird in the world today. At maturity, their wingspan can reach ten feet. They are being raised in captivity in an effort to bolster the population of this species that was almost extinct. So these birds were very comfortable with humans and would sail right over your head. I ducked many times. It is hard to believe that these birds have a life span of sixty years, and as they fully mature their head turns pink. Obviously the ones I saw with five foot wing spans were still pretty young. Bird lover or not, seeing these birds up close is awesome.

On my last day in Big Sur I enjoyed Point Lobos State Reserve. This is the northern most park in Big Sur. This is the perfect park for the shoppers who want to spend most of their time in Carmel. Point Lobos is only about three miles south of Carmel, and has a series of hikes along the coast that are very easy, but also very rewarding. The one downside is being so accessible also means bigger crowds.

Point Lobos has several hiking trails that run along the coastline overlooking Carmel Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The Cypress Grove trail is a short one mile The Surf near The Pinnacle loop that is packed with scenic beauty.

The Surf near The Pinnacle

The Surf near The Pinnacle

Spectacular trees including a Monterey cypress perch on the top of cliffs, adding color and unique contrast to the granite rocks. Half way around the loop is The Pinnacle which is a peninsula that serves as a great overlook. You can look across Carmel Bay and see Pebble Beach golf course….hey, is that Tiger Woods? Did you ever sit in front of a fireplace and get mesmerized, well that is what happens to me. I can sit for hours and watch the waves crash over the rocks and see the blue water turn into sea foam.

Another short hike from the same parking lot is a loop around Sea Lion Point. As you might guess from the name, this group of rocks is home to plenty of

Harbor Seals

Harbor Seals

animals. As you begin the hike you can hear the sea lions barking in the distance. Also found amongst these rocks are sea otters and harbor seals. The paths and steps make it easy to traverse the cliffs to many different vantage points of the coast. You also have access to an isolated crescent shaped beach. It is so cute to see the harbors seals bronzing on the rocks like the sun worshipers of Miami Beach.

One last hike worth taking within the Point Lobos Reserve is around

Wildflowers at Pelican Point

Wildflowers at Pelican Point

China Grove to Pelican Point. This hike is also an easy one mile loop. Towering pine trees line the trail providing a lushness to the scenery. This trail has beautiful vistas with rock arches, sea caves, and inlets with swimming seals tending to their babies. As you approach Pelican Point there is a stunning green meadow filled with wildflowers, the green plants with yellow and orange flowers are so vibrant against a background of blue water and gray rocks. On the other side of the meadow is a perfect view of Bird Island, a massive rock that is the nesting place for cormorants and brown pelicans. There were so many birds that you could barely see the rock. Wow, every turn is just jaw dropping.

What happens if it rains and you don’t feel like hiking? Well Carmel has been known to entertain people for many days. It is a really charming town filled with upscale boutiques, oodles of art galleries, creative craft stores, the best pet store I ever saw (Diggidy Dog), a super cheese shop, and many fine restaurants.

Although Carmel is expensive, Big Sur is accessible on any budget. On the high end, you can stay at Post Ranch Inn or Ventana which are right in the middle of the park, or the Highlands Inn which is just a bit further north and closer to Carmel. Big Sur Lodge and the Ripplewood Resort are two more moderately priced places to stay. And if you want to sleep in a yurt, check out the Treebones Resort. Camping sites are numerous and will certainly provide the most cost effective choice.

The summer through early fall is the period with the most sunshine, but I find this area fabulous even when it rains. Hopefully the next time you are traveling on Route 1 through California you will spend a few days in Big Sur, you will be well rewarded. The condors, harbor seals, and otters are looking forward to seeing you.

Napa Valley, California

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Rows of Cabernet Sauvignon

Rows of Cabernet Sauvignon

Wine has been called the nectar of the gods, and there is no better place in the United States to celebrate this delicious juice than in Napa Valley. Although you could visit a different winery every day for eight months, the Napa Valley is not just about wine. It is a spectacular culinary destination, as well as, an exquisite slice of the American landscape. Having returned from my fifth trip to the Napa Valley, I continue to be amazed by the beauty of the countryside and the quality of its products.

Napa Valley is located a little more than an hour north of San Francisco. The

Vines at Pride Mountain Vineyards

Vines at Pride Mountain Vineyards

valley itself is a relatively flat strip of land that runs north from the town of Napa to Calistoga. The floor of the valley is composed of rows upon rows of grape vines, framed by a mountain range on each side. I find the symmetry of the vines almost mesmerizing, many times it is as pretty as a painting. In between Napa and Calistoga are the small towns of Yountville, Rutherford and St. Helena. I find these three towns to be the most centrally located, and the best area to stay.

Wine is the primary reason to head to the Napa Valley, and the number of wineries appears to be endless. Many of the most popular wineries are on either Rt 29 or the Silverado Trail, the two main roads that run north-south through the valley. As people ask which wineries they should visit, it really depends on what you are looking to accomplish. If there is a specific wine that you particularly enjoy, then be sure to visit that winery. I remember the first wine that really impressed me, it was a Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet 1985. A couple years later on my first trip to the Napa Valley I visited the winery, and it was such a treat because I had the opportunity to taste all the current offerings, but also several older vintages. You will not get any discounts on wine when visiting this region, but you will have the opportunity to taste and buy many wines that are not available in your area.

If you have not visited many wineries, then you may want to visit one of the larger wineries like Beringer, Niebaum Coppola, or Domain Chandon for a formal tour that will educate you about the whole wine making process. Sterling is another interesting winery in that it sits atop a small mountain that is reached by a tram; this adds adventure to the visit and

Wine Cave at Forman Vineyard

Wine Cave at Forman Vineyard

provides beautiful views of the valley. You may also want to consider St Supery which has a nice mix of wines to taste, but also offers an opportunity to custom blend your own wine using barrel samples. Jarvis is a smaller winery built into the side of a mountain where I enjoyed visiting their caves. For a picnic lunch, V. Sattui seems like the best place, although I have no idea what their wines are like. If you visit V. Sattui, note that there is a fabulous gourmet take-out store, Dean & Deluca, located right across the street. Since I have visited many wineries in the past, I no longer desire the formal tours, or the larger wineries in the valley where the crowds can be excessive. I prefer the small wineries that specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon, and two great locations are Spring Mountain and Howell Mountain. This past trip I really enjoyed my visits at Pride Mountain Vineyards and Forman Vineyard. Pride is located about 5 miles up Spring Mountain Road on the west side of the valley. After a tasting of the wines you can take a tour of the vineyards on a horse drawn carriage. Forman is on the other side of the valley on Howell Mountain. When Ric Forman first bought this land it was solid rock, and dynamite was used to make the vineyard usable to plant grape vines. This gravely soil results in some delicious full bodied reds.

Another way to enjoy wine tasting is on the Napa Valley wine train which runs up the valley starting in the town of Napa. There is even a separate car for

Hot Air Balloon

Hot Air Balloon

the kids. For a little more elevated view of the valley, I would recommend the popular hot-air balloon rides. By 7am the sky is filled with balloons floating above the vineyards, giving you a perspective only a bird could appreciate. I would suggest that you wear a hat since your head will be only a few inches from the flame that keeps the balloon afloat. If you have not done it, then I would certainly add the balloon ride to your list, expect glorious views however don’t anticipate a thrill ride – the balloons move very slow.

Bike riding and hiking are two other activities that will allow you to enjoy the great outdoors. Biking along the gentle rolling hills of the valley floor is beautiful, and can be done at a pace that matches your fitness level. My last trip I saw a biker riding up Spring Mountain, I would not recommend the mountain roads unless you are training for the Tour de France. But not all non-wine activities require exercise, a crowd favorite is visiting the mud baths in Calistoga. I have heard many people rave about the experience, but I must admit that I have not partaken in this activity. If wallowing in the mud is not your thing, perhaps window shopping is more your speed. My favorite town in the Napa Valley is St Helena, just south of Calistoga. It is very quaint and is filled with antique stores, art galleries, and cute shops. A few favorites are: Olivier for Olive oil, the Model Bakery, Woodhouse Chocolates, and Fideaux, a pet emporium with treasures for your pet.

The activity that was on the top of my list for this trip was a visit to Copia, the new cultural center and museum dedicated to wine, food, and the arts. I love food and wine, and therefore thought that this would be a real treat, but I was quite disappointed. Although there are wine and food demonstrations all day long, they were very basic. The garden at Copia was interesting and rather unique. The plants were sectioned into different categories, for example all the herbs and vegetables that had the scent or taste typically associated with Cabernet Sauvignon were together. This plant exhibit would have been more effective if all the plants were at a stage so that you could sample, for example tasting the red currant so you knew what aroma and taste to associate with this fruit. Copia is located in the town of Napa, which is my least favorite in the valley, being much larger and more commercial than the other towns.

Perhaps my favorite activity in Napa Valley is eating, and those that know me will not be the least bit surprised. There are so many great restaurants, all with solid wine lists, and a casual atmosphere. The hot ticket in town is still Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, exceptional food, but certainly more formal than most restaurants. I hear La Toque is another great restaurant trying to compete with French Laundry, but I have not eaten here. A newer restaurant that I loved was Martini House , a grand old building with a beautiful outdoor seating area. I had a dish of of trumpet mushrooms and artichokes with a hollandaise sauce served with a side of frisee that was to die for. I also ate a braised rabbit with a side of scalloped potatoes that was exceptional. For a beautiful location combined with a great dining experience, consider the deck at Auberge du Soleil, which is spectacular during sunset. I had a six course tasting menu paired with wines that was fun, educational, and delicious. Another jewel was Thomas Keller’s second restaurant Bouchon. It is a classic French bistro, and every dish was executed perfectly. The oysters were plump and luscious, the pate although simple was just bursting with flavor, and the onion soup was another fabulous appetizer. For entrees I tried the lamb, mussels in white wine and saffron, roast chicken, and the hanger steak, and all were exceptional. Pilar is a new restaurant which has been receiving outstanding feedback, but it was closed during my visit. On the simpler side, Taylor Refresher is a ’50s diner with great food, Bounty Hunter is a wine bar with tasty dishes, and Gillwood’s Cafe is a real treat for breakfast. Note that a few of the classic restaurants that shined ten years ago have been receiving less than favorable reviews, and they are Mustard’s, Tra Vigne, and Pinot Blanc.

There is a wide range of accommodations in the Napa Valley, and you can skew your selection toward your budget. I feel the gem is Auberge du Soliel, which

Sculpture at Auberge du Soliel

Sculpture at Auberge du Soliel

has beautiful rooms, a full spa, fine dining, and a swimming pool. Behind the spa is a splendid sculpture garden mixed amongst the olive trees. Calistoga Ranch is a new hotel that was just opened by the same owners. Meadowood is a touted high end resort owned by Bill Harlan of the cult winery Harlan Estate. Milliken Creek Inn is a quaint new resort with a little more affordable price tag; it’s small with only 10 rooms, but very chic with fireplaces and spa tubs in each room. There are also a few other hotels that are quite reasonable, but still offer amenities like a pool: Napa Valley Lodge, Villagio Inn & Spa, and the Harvest Inn. Lastly there are dozens of quaint bed & breakfasts scattered throughout the valley, therefore it should be easy to find a nice room to fit your budget.

If you enjoy wine, good food, and beautiful landscapes then you must visit Napa Valley the next time you are on the west coast. It will awaken your palate and warm your soul.

Big Sur and The Post Ranch Inn

Thursday, August 19th, 2004

Big Sur Coastline

Big Sur Coastline

I am constantly amazed by the ocean. This massive body of water harnesses incredible amounts of energy. I find it fascinating to watch waves form seemingly out of nowhere, at times reaching heights of over ten feet. They then unleash their power and come crashing onto shore, sounding almost like thunder. Although the ocean may appear violent, as waves break onto the sand, it is rather tame compared to those that explode onto rocky coasts. Black jagged rocks rise 20 feet out of the sand, and the waves crack up against these spires spraying seawater in every direction. The gnarly rock cliffs provide an awe-inspiring backdrop to the fearsome ocean, and it happens to be one of the most beautiful scenes in nature…welcome to Big Sur.

Along the California coast, just south of the Monterey peninsula, is the area best known as Big Sur. It’s a combination of beaches, mountains, and hundreds of acres of National Park that encompasses some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. The shoreline is extremely rough, a real contrast to those flat, wide open beaches of southern California. In Big Sur, the mountains seem to rise right from the sea. These craggy cliffs form a dramatic segue to the Pacific Ocean. Along this coastline are a few inlets with spectacular small beaches. These tiny enclaves are never crowded because they can only be reached on foot – yet this remoteness only adds to their beauty. Big Sur is a nature lover’s paradise; a magnificent collection of mountains, canyons, beaches, waterfalls, and all types of wildlife and plants.

Experiencing Big Sur can be achieved on anyone’s budget. There are many campgrounds and RV parks for those wanting to get closest to nature. Quaint bed & breakfasts are available for those that prefer charming accommodations. And for a true mind-blowing experience, I recommend the Post Ranch Inn – perhaps my favorite resort in the entire world.

The Post Ranch Inn is understated elegance that cohabitates with the environment. It is a luxury resort with about 30 rooms, which were built with wood exteriors to blend into the surrounding redwoods and evergreens. Several rooms are built as tree houses, but I assure you they are a little more elegant than the tree houses we played in as children. Inside, the rooms are constructed of natural woods, stone floors, and large glass windows and doors. The rooms that face the ocean are designed so that you see no other rooms on the property – it is just you, a few deer, the cliffs, and the ocean. There is also a small stone terrace outside with a couple of Adirondack chairs. The furnishings in the room are simple, sleek, and of top quality. The marble bathroom is luxurious and warm with a huge slate tub. Each room has a large stone fireplace that roars on those chilly nights. Although there is a full spa at the resort, you may want to take full advantage of the fireplace and have a nightly massage in your room.

A Deer Grazing

A Deer Grazing

Besides a top-notch spa, Post Ranch has a few other enriching activities: morning yoga, guided nature walks with extensive discussions on the local plant life, and stargazing with the resident astronomer. The grounds are stunning; sculpture and reflecting ponds dot the landscape. There is also an infinity pool perched on the edge of a cliff with an unobstructed view of this awesome coastline. Hot tubs are also available, a nice amenity to soothe your aching muscles.

The Post Ranch Inn is a superb resort, and their restaurant, Sierra Mar, will delight any culinary aficionado. Their chef Craig von Foerster has been with Sierra Mar since 1994, and in 2003 the restaurant received the highest rating from Zagat for cuisine in California. The restaurant serves a 4-course prix fixed meal of organic/seasonal fare. A sample meal might include California red abalone with tomato-basil brown butter sauce to start; followed by a wild mushroom soup with nutmeg crème fraise; an entrée of pan roasted pheasant breast with potato puree and foie gras gravy; and for dessert a chocolate napoleon with espresso sauce.

Yucca Plant

Yucca Plant

The wine list is every bit as impressive as the food. The cellar has 22, 000 bottles with over 4, 000 selections. Wine connoisseurs will be in heaven. Everything is so good, it is hard not to over-imbibe. But the good news is that you don’t need to feel guilty, just get out and enjoy the outdoors in the morning.

The Ventana Wilderness of Big Sur straddles the Santa Lucia Mountains providing hundreds of miles of marked hiking trails for every level hiker. Sharp-crested ridges separate V-shaped valleys providing miles of spectacular scenery. These hikes vary greatly, from strenuous mountaintop treks to a leisurely stroll trough the redwoods just enjoying the fresh air. Vertical walled canyons and streams provide beautiful points of interest along the hikes. And if you have interest in the flora, you will see everything from cactus to wildflowers. Big Sur is also home to abundant wildlife. Bald eagles and condors are two truly majestic birds that call these mountains home.

The short hike to Pfiffer Falls is particularly rewarding, and it is easy enough for all to enjoy. It is only 1.4 miles round-trip over rather flat terrain. The trail meanders through a redwood grove and ends at a 60 foot waterfall. My favorite trek in Big Sur however, was on horseback. A guide takes you through a redwood forest, in which trees soar 50 feet into the air. The light is filtered by these skyscrapers providing a very serene ambiance. It was interesting to see evidence of several forest fires on our journey, and learn how this can actually help the forest by clearing out the existing brush and providing fertile soil for new plants. After a couple of miles the landscape changes, we exit the redwoods and enter a mix of sage brush and wild grasses, none reaching a height of over 4 feet. The sun is now blaring, you can smell the sea air, and hear the circling seagulls. Finally we reach the crest of a hill, and see a long sand beach 20 feet below us. Wow! The horses follow a path down to the beach and then prance along the water’s edge. The ride was so unbelievable because it encompassed so much diversity: the redwoods, diverse foliage, wildlife, and the ocean.

The Sun Sets on Big Sur

The Sun Sets on Big Sur

Although the hiking and horseback riding are tremendous, a must adventure is driving your car north on Highway One. It is a two lane road with hairpin turns that winds along the coastline offering dramatic views around every bend. Twenty six miles north of Big Sur Valley is the city of Carmel, which is just a few miles from Pebble Beach and the famous “17 mile drive”. Pebble Beach may be the most spectacular golf course in the country, and is a must for anyone that enjoys playing a round. 17 mile drive is breathtaking, with my favorite site being the famed Lone Cypress, perhaps the most popular tree ever painted. The scenery along this route is beautiful, and the wildlife on the rocks in the ocean is abundant: pelicans, sea otters, seals, and sea lions. After this drive, Carmel offers a nice change of pace. It is a picturesque town filled with boutiques, craft shops, many exquisite art galleries, and a wide selection of fine restaurants.

Big Sur is a sensational vacation destination because it offers a bit of something for everyone. It will offer you endless hours of the most intoxicating landscape imaginable. I have tried to capture the beauty of Big Sur in pictures, but the only way to fully appreciate all it has to offer is to visit in person. Perhaps it will become your favorite place too!

Santa Monica – a fun slice of L.A.

Friday, May 21st, 2004

Santa Monica beach in the haze

Santa Monica beach in the haze

As a New Yorker, I can’t help but admire LA for its climate and outdoors-oriented lifestyle. That’s why I always make sure any trip to California includes a day at the beach… Santa Monica to be exact. It’s an eclectic, vibrant section of LA, with miles of gorgeous beach, great restaurants, and so much more.

The expanse of beach is incredible, several hundred yards of white sand stretch from the streets to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. In the morning, you can smell the salt air as the dew forms a blanket of hazy fog. Palm trees line the beach as far as the eye can see, and lifeguard chairs are dotted along the coastline. There is a path for bikers, runners and rollerbladers that bisects the beach – it runs all the way from Venice in the south to Pacific Palisades up north. This path is alive with sun worshipers. Along the path there are rental stands for bikes and rollerblades so that you too can join in the fun.

Southern California is a mecca for beach volleyball, and this strip of beach is no different; nets are set up everywhere. Teams battle it out in the sand, smashing that white ball as fast as a rocket. Volleyball players represent a good cross section of the community, representing all ages, sexes and nationalities – the commonality amongst them is that fit physique and golden tan. But the fitness fanatics are not just playing volleyball, it is fascinating to see all the exercise areas set up along the beach – a jungle gym for adults. One gymnastic area was particularly unique – picture a high bar as used in gymnastics, but 30 feet off the ground. Every few feet is a rope that dangles to the ground, and people are climbing these ropes like chimpanzees. But don’t feel intimidated, the ocean beckons, grab your towel and enjoy the waves.

The Santa Monica Pier provides a stark contrast to the tranquility of the ocean and the beach. It is a carnival that stretches way out over the water. With a carousel, roller coaster, and many arcade games, it provides hours of entertainment for the kids, or those adults that feel like kids. The Pier also holds free concerts every Thursday night during the summer.

Although the beach is the primary source of entertainment, the town is quaint and has a lot to offer. The 3rd Street Promenade is a shopping section that is closed off from traffic. It is a regular spot for musicians and other street performers. Although there is a proliferation of chain stores, there are also some uniquely creative stores thrown in. Montana Avenue is, however, the place for serious shopping with high-end boutiques and antique stores. But if you are not in a spending mood, sit at one of the many coffee houses and enjoy the people watching. Santa Monica is not just a maze of fancy stores, it’s quite a cultural center with a strong emphasis on art. The largest concentration of galleries in Santa Monica is at Bergamot Station, a complex of rehabilitated warehouses located on the site of the historic trolley depot. There are 40 art galleries including the Santa Monica Museum of Art. My favorite being the Peter Fetterman Gallery, which focuses on B&W photos.

Artichokes

Artichokes

When I think of LA, I think of healthy organic foods. Organic farming has been very popular in California for many years, and one of the best outdoor markets to buy from these farmers is in Santa Monica. It’s held on Wednesday and Saturday mornings on Arizona & 2nd. The organic produce is spectacular. Where else can you see five types of avocados? Carrots and asparagus are stacked two feet high, and the artichokes are the size of soccer balls. This is a must adventure for any food lover.
Carrots

Carrots

If you are looking for a unique diversion, take a walk south from Santa Monica to Venice Beach. Although best known for muscle beach, its real claim to fame are the street artists and the tattoo parlors. Some may find the area too seedy, but all will find it fascinating. Picture the burnt out hippies of the 60’s that did not want to lead the stereotypical corporate life. Musicians with tie-dyed shirts are strumming their guitars and singing. Religious fanatics are passing out leaflets. Every third store is a tattoo parlor, and the rock music is blaring. Artists are painting, while others are selling jewelry or trinkets. What a trip!

Artist in Venice Beach

Artist in Venice Beach

Staying in Santa Monica is quite luxurious, and yes quite expensive. The Inn at Shutters and Casa del Mar are two superb hotels that combine a small hotel feeling with five star service. For those with a family seeking a larger hotel, the Loews would be an excellent choice.

Santa Monica is not just a great self contained section of LA, it is also very convenient. It is 30 minutes from the Getty Museum, perhaps the best museum in town. Beverly Hills, and its famed Rodeo Drive is also a 30 minute drive. Downtown LA is far, over an hour drive, but unless you are going to the Laker’s game, don’t bother. And lastly, it is only 8 miles to LAX, making for an easy escape.

So if you have the opportunity to spend a few days in LA, have some fun in the sun…… and do it in Santa Monica.

AOC – Suzanne Goin does it again

Thursday, May 20th, 2004

Suzanne Goin was named the best new chef of the year by Food & Wine in 1999. After honing her craft at Campanille, she opened her first restaurant Lucques (pronounced Luke) on Melrose in West Hollywood. The food is French/Mediterranean, and is exceptional. Their braised Short Ribs were the best I ever tasted. But she did not rest on her laurels, and in December of 2002 she opened AOC with Caroline Styne, her wine savvy partner from Lucques. AOC also serves French/Mediterranean cuisine, but it is much more casual. It is a cross between a wine bar and a tapas bar…and it is fun.

The dishes are all “tastes”, smaller plates that are meant to be shared, like you were in a Chinese restaurant. This concept of offering smaller dishes is unique to LA, and it’s a great way to really experience the chef’s creations. Isn’t it more interesting to sample six dishes than to eat just an appetizer and an entrée? To pair with this exquisite food is an outstanding wine list, and 5o wines are offered by the glass.

AOC is a casual, but very hip scene. The first room has a long bar with a cruvinet, which is used to help preserve the wine after being opened. The room is abuzz, as all the tables are filled, and customers are passing plates. The back room is reasonable small, with tables of 4 or 6, and has the same high energy. To help guide everyone through this unique menu is a very well trained wait staff. They explain this concept of smaller tasting dishes, and highlight the chef’s signature dishes.

The dishes were all extraordinary, but a few that were strongly suggested by our waitress were right on target. A perfect starter was the roasted dates stuffed with parmesan and wrapped in bacon, unique and they melted in your mouth. Next we had a plate of speck (similar to prosciutto) with apples and arugula – a healthy, refreshing combination from the charcuterie section of the menu. The fish and meat dishes were all excellent, most were simply prepared, but were served with interesting, bold sauces. The sea bass was seasoned with lemon and bay, and was roasted to perfection in a wood-burning oven. Another great dish from the oven was arroz negro (black rice) with squid and saffron aioli. The perfect ending to a magnificent meal was a tray with an unbelievable assortment of cheeses, paired with a great dessert wine.

The food was great, but more importantly, AOC is a fun dining experience. AOC is located 8022West 3rd Street, Los Angeles (323)653-6359