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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

California Cruisin'

We're back from California, where we attended the annual Pebble Beach classic car extravaganza. The event offers an extraordinary array of beautiful cars and disposable wealth, but it's also a food festival in its own right. For whatever reason, car people tend to be food people, and Pebble never disappoints.

We attended the show courtesy of our friends at Mazda, who plan a smashing trip. We flew into Orange County and stayed at the fabulous Montage resort, above, where we lunched on a lovely plate of fruit, cheeses and nuts that awaited us in our room, then enjoyed an afternoon snack of icy fresh gazpacho with dungeness crab and meyer lemon oil, paired with a glass of crisp champagne. We followed that with an oceanside dinner at Studio, below, with friends Eddie and Kari.

I chose roasted Monterey calamari with baby arugula, parmesan and garlic aioli to start, and for my entree, John Dory fish with artichokes, english peas, mussels nage and semolina gnocchi, atop a velvety beurre blanc style sauce. Perfection. Dessert was pear tart in caramel paired with a pillow of rich mascapone ice cream.

Wes and Eddie had seared Maine diver sea scallops with spinach risotto, chanterelle mushrooms and port truffle sauce. Kari, a vegetarian, was presented a beautiful chef's special of onion tart with fennel, white bean puree wrapped in swiss chard and other delightful morsels. The photos, unfortunately, were a sad rendering of this fine meal, so won't be shown here. What can I say, I'm still learning.

The following day, we rose at dawn to drive Mazdaspeed 3s up to Monterey, stopping at Encino State Park for an alfresco meal of bean and veggie breakfast burritos, fruit and pastries. Then, we continued on to Villa Creek in charming, historic Paso Robles, where the focus is local, sustainable food prepared in a simple, rustic fashion.

Here, we dined on a sumptious prix fixe menu, starting with an amuse bouche of gazpacho shots, and family-style entrees of grilled salmon with strawberry salsa, string bean and sauteed mushrooms, as well as succulent spicy grilled flat iron steak, and an amazing heirloom tomato and mozzarella salad with basil and olive oil. This mixed salad was the star of this meal and the epitome of summer.

Lovely, slightly sweet and tart gazpacho shots.

Medium rare salmon fillets with the sweet bite of strawberry salsa, a unique pairing,
atop crisp green beans and trumpet mushrooms.

Savory, rich steak with heirloom tomato salsa.

Caprese, California style, featuring the best heirloom tomatoes I've had this season.

We ended this mid-day feast with the best dessert of the week: a mixed berry crisp with whipped cream. Fresh tart berries, lightly sweet cream and buttery, nutty crunchy bits. Homespun, yet sublime.

Once we arrived in Monterey, the feast continued. Highlights include a scallop and shrimp salad at Porta Bella's in Carmel, and, at the Clement hotel, chopped green salad with dungeness crab over greens, lemon zest, cornichons, sweet pea shoots, farm fresh egg and a romanesco style dressing. The perfect lunch for sitting by the bay and watching the dolphins.

Finally, in what's become an annual event and one of the hottest tickets of the weekend, our group walked to the Culinary Center of Monterey for a night of cooking and eating. Mazda hosts this terrific evening, and Chef Mary Pagan puts on an amazing spread for her amateur cooks. The evening came complete with a wine tasting, all local vintages paired specially with the cuisine.

We prepared a variety of dishes, including pork and lemongrass potstickers, deconstructed chicken wontons, tomato and goat cheese risotto cakes with tomato and cilantro chutney, Salinas Valley greens in a tomato vase with Asiago doilies, paella Valenciana, Korean BBQ ribeye on sugar cane skewers, homemade pizzas and handmade truffles.

Deconstructed chicken wontons.

Me and a fabulous chef skewering steak onto sugar cane.

It was all delicious, fun, enlightening and a little frenetic. The center's talented chefs set up multiple stations in their very well-equipped kitchens and we did as much or as little cooking as we wanted. We sauteed, rolled, stuffed, dredged, and skewered, then ate the results. I finally learned to shape and make a decent dumpling, wrap a spring roll properly and stuff a risotto cake. For me, it was a little slice of heaven, with a side of bliss.

The main kitchen. One of several.

Doling out rice noodles into spring rolls. Apparently it requires intense concentration.

Shaping the perfect spring roll. This is sticky business.

Rolling the potsticker dough. Fun!

If all this weren't enough, the evening also featured a guest appearance from Mazda racecar driver Patrick Dempsey, aka McDreamy on Grey's Anatomy. Funny, charming and yes, as dreamy in person. Plus, willing to cook pizza.

Patrick shapes the dough with Chef Mary Pagan. Below, with Wes.

Finally, on our last day, our tastebuds sated and tired, we met friends Heather, Jeremy, Thom and Patti for breakfast at the hotel. Preparing to order standard eggs and bacon, Heather instead turned me onto a fantastic new favorite: egg white scramble with sliced chicken-apple sausage, fresh spinach, diced tomato and local artichokes, topped with melted cheddar cheese, with a side of whole wheat and mixed berries. So good, and it kept me satisfied through a long day of travel. Can't wait to make this again and again in my own kitchen.

So we're back, exhausted and full of memories of great food with great people. Oh yeah, and the cars weren't so bad, either.


  1. Wow. That is a trip full of seriously good eating, and the cooking soounds like an amazing experience. Take me next time? :-)

  2. Loved this post so much that I called it out on MenuManiac!

  3. Another fabulous entry! The photos always make me SO hungry! I've passed this one on to several friends.

  4. i love him. i love food. i love to cook. i love awesome cars. four of my favorite things all in one blog!! i love your blogs!!! :)