The change of scenery from blistering heat in the Mojave Desert a few days prior to blizzard conditions in Mammoth Lakes led to calm and peaceful conditions on the western side of the Sierra Nevada. Leaving Oakhurst immediately after an early breakfast we drive north, heading into the mountains through pockets of snow, towering sequoia trees dusted in white powder, gushing streams and flashes of bright green moss clutching to rocks and branches. The landscape is simply breathtaking.
We were headed for the Yosemite Valley, entering via the Wawona Road tunnel and immediately presented with that classic view over the valley across to El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls. This was one view I’ve always wanted to see with my own eyes. Another one ticked off the list.
I was led to believe we were staying at Curry Village, a cluster of tents in the forest that remind me of school camp. Not that it really mattered so much, providing I didn’t encounter a live bear when I did my midnight run to the toilet. Snakes and spiders I can handle, but an animal that can tear your limbs off is serious business. That’s not fun at all.
Somehow we ended up driving to a place called The Ahwahnee for a little look-see. Stunning location and stunning building in the shadow of sheer vertical cliffs. If we were staying at Curry Village why did we need to pop the boot and grab the luggage? Ok, someone was trying to trick me for a moment. We were actually checking into The Ahwahnee. Very nice! The room wasn’t quite ready so we lounged about at the coffee bar with a couple of pastries and average cappuccino, went for a drive up to Bridalveil Falls and sussed out the local eateries around the Village. Not that there are many of them.
Rather than stay in the main Ahwahnee building we were put up in one of the cabins in the forest; away from the daytime crowds that flock here just to check out this historic building. The cabin was our own little piece of semi-luxury amongst the trees and local fauna; no bears to be seen, just birds, squirrels and wild deer. At 4pm every afternoon guests can partake in the long-running tradition of complimentary tea and cookies. Sweet. There we were, two old nanna’s sipping tea and bikkies by the fireplace. Classic.
The Ahwahnee Dining Room sprawls beneath vaulted ceilings, candelabras hang overhead and tall windows take advantage of the gorgeous views onto the surrounding natural scenery. These guys have been dishing out food since 1922 and while you’d assume to see an elegantly refined menu, it’s kept real with traditional fare. My curiosity was piqued with the evenings special of cheeseburger soup with ground beef, cheese and onions. No, I didn’t try it but in retrospect I kind of wish I did. Research purposes only.
Instead I went for onion soup gratinée (8), fresh from the oven and bubbling like a small cauldron. One of the best I’ve tried and loaded with three types of cheese and baguette rusk quickly soaking up the onion broth.
Main courses were nothing overly creative and the prices kind of reflect the location and venue. Our basil crusted lamb loin (41) was nicely cooked to medium rare, as it should, perched on spätzle and creamed leeks. I just had to try the “corn off the cob” (6) with guanciale and lavender. Such an unusual combination, yet one that really worked, of fresh corn kernels, honey, lavender and really good smoked pig jowl nubs. I was glad this was all mine. Our other dish of pan-seared trout meunière (30) was another winner. This is a classic French dish where the fish is pan-fried in butter with parsley and lemon, here with the addition of capers, croutons and rock shrimp. The overall dish lacked seasoning but I guess that’s what the salt and pepper were on the table for. Special mention has to be made of our server, Marc. It seems many people have negative things to say about the service here but we had none of that. This guy was completely professional and made our night so much more enjoyable.
I found the desserts (11.25 each) a little off the mark and verging on conventional. A tequila lime tart packed some punch in the citrus department and that’s about all. The trio of brûlées – pistachio, chocolate and Tahitian vanilla – weren’t all that memorable.
Breakfast (22.5) the following morning was that typical spread you find in places like this. Fruits, cereals, cooked items, eggs any way, yoghurt, you name it. Can’t say much about the coffee.
Driving out of the valley that morning we couldn’t help but stop, get out of the car and admire the incredible scenery around us. Open grassy fields that crunch beneath your feet from overnight frost, whisps of condensation rising from tree trunks and deer sunning themselves in the morning rays. No hanging about as it was time to hit Highway 120 and head back down the mountain.
Just 26 miles out of Yosemite we entered a small town that looked good enough to stop for a little snoop around. Groveland was once a gold rush town whereas now it’s very much a place you stop or stay at if you’re visiting nearby Pine Mountain Lake or Yosemite. California’s oldest saloon is located on the main street, there are a few restaurants, a park and quirky antiques & home decor store called Serendipity.
When we spotted the big espresso sign we thought we’d give this place, Firefall Coffee Roasting Co. a go. It’s a tiny coffee shop sporting a couple of tables, a cabinet displaying pastries and other edibles and a perpetually smiling and very cheeky lady running the show. The coffee won’t win any awards but it sure was better than the stuff we had back at The Ahwahnee.
With the mountains and winding road behind us we were in a much more rural landscape made up of open fields, farmhouses and windmills. I noticed on my iPad map a town we were approaching that sounded interesting just by its name. Chinese Camp. I had visions of a gold rush town with a great little dumpling house at its centre, churning out steamers of goodness to its locals and anyone breezing through. Oh my imagination. This blink-and-miss-it town, in actual fact, is nothing more than a few streets making home to less than 150 residents. During the gold rush this “camp” bustled with as many as 5000 prospectors including a large number of Chinese settlers. Main Street is now a virtual ghost town of deserted and ramshackled buildings. So much for my dumpling house. Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” was now quietly playing in my head.
Our Lonely Planet guide prompted a stop in nearby Sonora, not only for lunch but to check out its apparent historic main street where many movies and tv series were shot. The A Team, Against All Odds, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Lassie, Little House on the Prairie, The Night Rider, the list goes on. Personally I found it a little unexciting until I tasted what I was about to have for lunch. One of the best burgers I’ve had in my life. Yes, people, this was a momentous occasion.
If there was a place with the name of Diamondback Grill in my hometown of Sydney I’d probably avoid it purely for the fact it sounds like “The Black Stump”, “Sizzler” or “Hogsbreath Cafe”. I formulate a vision in my mind of it being all about the curly fries, a crap salad bar and a surf ‘n turf with a “medium rare” flag stuck in the top of it. I know, I shouldn’t judge.
Already bustling with people chowing on what presented as decent pub food, Diamondback was our number one choice. Let’s get straight to the food. Ok, my Kobe beef burger with gorgonzola (10.95). Wow, my mouth is getting moist just thinking about it. Served open-style with sesame bun, lettuce, mayo, tomato, pickle and caramelised onion. The nice, thick and juicy meat patty is perfectly medium rare and a massive compressed slab of gorgonzola sits on top of it. Delicious fireworks were going off in my mouth. The fries on the side aren’t your ordinary fries, either. For an additional $1 you can add “killer fries” to your plate. What makes them killer? An obscene amount of garlic. Man did I stink for the rest of that day.
The Diamondback burger (8.75) is much the same as mine, just sans the gorgonzola. It went down like a treat. As did Shari’s carrot cake (5.5) that was supremely moist and fluffy. Just brilliant.
When driving to Sonora along the highway from the south you bypass Jamestown, another small gold rush town a few kilometres before it. On our way back down Highway 108 after Sonora we stopped in to check it out. Main Street is lined with wooden buildings dating back to the last gold rush and some old stone buildings to mix up the visuals a bit. Your typical antique and crafty shops are scattered throughout, a saloon, even a Chinese restaurant. Seeing I’d just eaten a crap-load of garlic I really wanted a coffee to get rid of the flavour that was still hacking away at my tastebuds.
There are a few options for coffee on Main Street and our pick was Here’s The Scoop, an ice cream and candy store that also happens to possess an espresso machine. The setup is all very cute and countrified with jars of brightly coloured sweets all around. I thought I may be pushing it if I ordered a macchiato so I went with something safe. Cappuccino. Oh man I still vividly remember the taste of that thing, as I type this nine months later. Not that I saw it, I can only imagine the sweet girl that attempted this abomination didn’t fill the group with freshly ground beans before she did the extraction. Something tells me she left the previous used grounds in the group and just pushed the button for my coffee, resulting in the most insipid extraction I’ve tasted. Just look at it! One sip was enough so we paid for Mr K’s coffee, yes he actually drank his out of politeness, and after me saying “I can’t drink that”, she didn’t charge me for it. A few words of advice to management at Here’s The Scoop … learn how to operate an espresso machine and teach your staff as well.
I think we needed to go back to Diamonback Grill for more of those garlic fries to get the taste of that cappuccino out of my mouth. Nah, no time for that. We needed to hit the road again for our next destination …..