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Great Food Escapes

4 Places to eat before you die


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Life may be short, but the list of world-renowned restaurants in California isn’t. Sure, you’ve eaten at the French Laundry and Chez Panisse, but a new lineup of you’ve-gotta-get-there restaurants has emerged all across the Golden State. Here are four that should be on your travel itinerary—from a four-hour nine-course food spectacle in San Francisco to a Hollywood hot spot on Melrose. And for all the intrepid gourmets who brave our state’s long highways in the name of culinary delight, we’ve provided a quick guide to where you should stay and what you should do in each area—when you’re not eating, of course.

Michael Mina

San Francisco

Believe the hype. At this elegant San Francisco establishment tucked into the Westin St. Francis Hotel in Union Square, you’ll savor the creative and complex tastes of superstar chef Michael Mina. His winning approach involves a main ingredient that he prepares in three different ways (served on an elegant divided plate) for a unique gustatory experience. Try the tai snapper, first with star anise, beets, and sweet shrimp; then coriander, asparagus, and Dungeness crab; and last, cumin, ratatouille, and Maine lobster.

Choose the tasting menu with wine pairings, and you won’t be disappointed—full and a bit tipsy, perhaps, but never disappointed. Wine Director Rajat Parr, who apprenticed with Larry Stone at Rubicon, meticulously defines the acidity content of certain wines to match the complex tastes of Mina’s creations: The Sonoma County duck roulade came paired with a 2004 Anne Gros Bourgogne, while the braised Kobe-style beef was accompanied by a 2004 Qupé Cuvée Michael Mina Syrah from Santa Barbara. Of course, you can pair your own wines, but with more than 2,200 international bottles to choose from, this could prove to be a daunting task for even the most seasoned connoisseur.

Diners from around the globe aren’t the only ones impressed. Since Mina’s much-anticipated opening in 2004, the restaurant has racked up more awards than there are ways to serve berries for dessert. Last year alone, Mina—who served as Aqua’s executive chef for almost 10 years—was named Bon Appétit Chef of the Year, San Francisco Magazine Chef of the Year, and Restaurateur of the Year by the International Food & Beverage Forum. The restaurant has also won the coveted Wine Spectator’s Grand Award, as well as an impressive two stars in the recently published San Francisco Bay Area edition of the ultra-discriminating Michelin Guide.

Westin St. Francis, 335 Powell St.; (415) 397-9222; www.michaelmina.net

Where to stay: Why, the Westin St. Francis, of course, home to Mina’s flagship restaurant. You’ll be thrilled to stumble upstairs after this food extravaganza. Book a suite overlooking Nob Hill to complete your San Francisco experience. www.westinstfrancis.com

What to do: Continue your epicurean odyssey with a free tour of the world-class farmers market. Just stroll down Market Street and head for the big clock at the Ferry Building, where you’ll find local delicacies from Frog Hollow Farm, Boulette’s Larder, Acme Bread, and Cowgirl Creamery. Tours meet Sat., Sun., and Tues. at noon. www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com, www.sfcityguides.org.

Lucques

Los Angeles

Like flash-in-the-pan starlets, the restaurants in L.A. are too often about trends—fusions come and go, redesigns occur at a whirlwind pace, and chefs hop around like fickle friends. Few places can weather the culinary storm, but Lucques does it with Jackie-O grace and ease. In 1998, chef Suzanne Goin, winner of the 2006 James Beard Award for Best Chef in California, and business partner Caroline Styne took over a silent movie star’s former carriage house and turned it into one of the most heralded restaurants in town. Brick walls, exposed wood beams, and a fireplace frame the main dining room; olive green banquettes, oversize mirrors, and dark wood furniture offer a touch of elegance. The patio, once bare with just a hint of greenery, now sports a tall leafy olive tree and walls covered in creeping fig vines.

The only thing that really changes at Lucques is the menu, which flips with the seasons and highlights local, organic, and artisanal ingredients. (Goin worked with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, after all.) A tiny plate of olives—the restaurant is named after the French green Lucques olive—flaky fleur de sel, and sweet cream butter still come with a basket of house-made bread when you sit down. Regulars order the grilled “club” steak for two, a juicy 32-ounce Niman Ranch rib eye that has been on the menu since day one. Everything else showcases what’s fresh now: haricots verts drizzled with crushed hazelnuts and served with baked ricotta; warm duck confit with dandelion greens and Blenheim apricots; and chorizo-stuffed chicken with romesco and golden raisins. And Styne’s eclectic wine list almost single-handedly lifted Angelenos out of their cult Cab slump.

8474 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 655-6277, www.lucques.com

Where to Stay: Reopened this summer after a $40 million renovation, the Sofitel Los Angeles matches boutique-hotel style and design with classic European hospitality. The Sofitel’s restaurant, Kerry Simon’s Simon L.A., and Rande Gerber’s über-hot nightclub, Stone Rose Lounge, attract locals in droves. 8555 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (800) 521-7772, www.sofitella.com

What to Do: Shop on Melrose. Yes, the Beverly Center, with its many department stores and boutiques, sits across the street from the Sofitel, but walk a few blocks along Melrose Avenue to find boutiques such as Marc Jacobs, Diane von Furstenberg, and Fred Segal. Melrose Avenue between La Cienega and Crescent Heights boulevards —Lesley Balla

Manresa

Los Gatos

David Kinch seems part alchemist, part comedian. Eating at his Los Gatos restaurant, Manresa, you’re in for a kick. How about starting your evening with a bright red gumdrop coated in fine granulated sugar whose main ingredient is sweet red pepper? Or a teeny version of a madeleine, rich with butter and brown sugar and the unmistakable flavor of black olives? Dice-shaped croquettes that gush when you bite them, suddenly unleashing the taste of fresh sweet corn? Next try a stemless wineglass of “tomato soup” that’s barely cooked and has more fresh tomato essence than you’d normally experience in a whole summer.

You’re halfway through the pre-appetizer festivities, not even at the first course. Pace yourself, or your taste buds will end up like teenagers at a keg party.

Kinch, who trained in Europe and on both coasts, has more fun than should be allowed in public. He works like a fiend, going so far as commissioning a farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains to grow organic fruits and vegetables exclusively to his specifications. But he obviously loves his art, and the whimsy of his dishes is outdone only by their deliciousness. Kinch’s restaurant was one of only four in the entire Bay Area to win two stars in the new Michelin Guide.

A delicate sea bass sashimi drizzled with olive oil was sliced so thin that it seemed almost like a gelée. Dungeness crab with exotic Indian spices incorporated orange and cucumber, whose flavors leapt off the plate, and included a pouf of foamy citrus sabayon, a nod to postmodern cuisine. A perfect baby abalone was served atop a milk-skin raviolo stuffed with salty pig trotters. Even dessert was an array of luscious treats, including golden beignets and a sampling of seasonal fruit creations.

320 Village Ln., Los Gatos, (408) 354-4330, www.manresarestaurant.com

Where to Stay: Hotel Los Gatos is charming and cozy, with its Mediterranean decor, wrought-iron balconies, high-end linens, deep, comfy bathtubs, and French doors that open fully to let in the breeze. The hotel has a Spanish-tiled courtyard and swimming pool, as well as a spa. 210 E. Main St., Los Gatos, (866) 335-1700, www.hotellosgatos.com.  

What to do: While you’re in the South Bay, visit Ridge Vineyards/Monte Bello. It’s a bit of a drive from Los Gatos, including five miles or so of twisty road, but you’ll be rewarded once you get there. Ridge has been making standout Zins for years, and its other reds are also worth trying. 17100 Monte Bello Rd., Cupertino, (408) 867-3233, www.ridgewine.com.  Free tastings Sat.–Sun. 11 a.m.–4 p.m.

Erna’s Elderberry House

Oakhurst

It’s hard to believe that an experience so thoroughly European can be had in Madera County, but Erna’s Elderberry House, located just 20 minutes from Yosemite’s southern gate, is a place where fairy-tale fantasies come true. The restaurant’s ivy-covered, heavy stone walls give way to a dining room painted dark crimson and lit softly by enormous chandeliers.

Dinner consists of six courses, dreamed up anew each day by chef James Overbaugh, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and cooked at the Stonehedge Inn in Massachusetts and the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans. His menus include silken vichyssoise, juicy pork tenderloin over banana squash expertly seasoned with Aleppo pepper, and a glistening salad of young arugula studded with dabs of blue cheese and tender shreds of prosciutto, all on a bed of wafer-thin slices of plum and grape carpaccio.

The extensive international wine list showcases the best bottles from near and far. The Westbrook Madera County Viognier silences any doubts about the potential of Central Valley white wines, and a dessert wine from Lillypilly Estate in New South Wales, Australia, does somersaults on the palate. Three or four wines are paired with the menu each night, and the restaurant’s supremely talented servers, like its wines, hail from all over the globe.

Erna’s Elderberry House and Château du Sureau, 48688 Victoria Ln., Oakhurst, (559) 683-6800, www.elderberryhouse.com

Where to Stay: A primrose path away at Château du Sureau, located on the same property. (Sureau means elderberry in French, and elderberries grow wild in the Sierra Nevada.) Ornate, beautiful rooms boast supersoft linens, hand-picked European ceramics in spotlighted wall niches, and Provençal tile and gigantic tubs in the bathroom. In the afternoon, white-aproned maids deliver a picturesque and tasty afternoon tea service, including mushroom pâté on toast and mini choux pastry puffs filled with salmon mousse.

What to Do: Need something a little more low key than scaling Half Dome? Without leaving the château, you can visit a one-of-a-kind art deco spa where you slip into a leopard-print robe, and each treatment is preceded by a foot massage and a glass of iced elderberry tea.

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