It was non-stop cruising down Interstate 5 once leaving Portland; a freeway heavily choked with speeding trucks and people that drive like absolute maniacs. You’d think that fog and rain would slow people down, but there was none of that. A tense 3.5 hour drive, to say the least.
I was a little glad to pull off the freeway into Roseburg for our lunch stop. It’s a cruisy little town and seemingly very quiet as there were barely any cars or people around. We had pangs for something relatively light so it was this little downtown Japanese joint that took our pick.
Baked green mussels (7.5) perk the palate with their spicy crab topping. When I looked up and noticed the chef rolling something I felt my brow furrow. Was that a sushi roll? And is that what I ordered?
A minute later the sweet young waitress delivered what is undoubtedly the biggest sushi roll we’ve ever seen. Was this a joke? This San Francisco roll (16.95) would have measured 30 cm long with a diameter of 8 cm. I even laid my iPad next to it as reference.
Inside was an abundance of soft shell crab, eel, shrimp and a very heavy topping of tuna, avocado and roe. Attacking it with chopsticks was useless as the inch-thick slices fell apart in an instant. The flavours are ok, but that bulk. Excessive. Mr Ami really ought to pay a visit to Japan and be reminded of the simplicity and elegance of its sushi rolls. Super-sizing sushi should never be done, even in America.
The Korean bbq chicken (10.95) took on more realistic proportions; served up on a hot-plate and still sizzling away. Spicy, sweet, tasty and pretty stock-standard.
Just over an hour south on the freeway was where we decided to park the car and find a room for the night. There’s a good selection of properties – one a little too budget methinks – but the Redwood Motel fit the bill perfectly. Nothing fancy, nothing that may have had crusty sheets, just a bed, really.
The landscape around Grants Pass is pretty spectacular, but we weren’t there to partake in any outdoor adventures or anything strenuous. We just needed a place to eat, sleep and be on our way first thing in the morning.
Food-wise, the small city has many options that cover the lower budget and no-frills eating – pizza, Mexican, pub-style and Americana. Somehow we got chatting with a local in the Visitors Centre car park after he asked us a question and learned we were foreigners. One of his suggestions was the Laughing Clam for some no-fuss pub-style seafood. Sounded good to me. When we walked downtown to find it we came across The Twisted Cork and ended up eating there instead. So much for beers and fried seafood.
Loads of local Oregon wines are showcased at the Twisted Cork along with many from Washington and California. Every day there are 16 wines available by the glass and the very knowledgeable staff are very quick to help you out if you don’t really know the local grapes, as was the case with us.
Food with wine is always much more fun – we were there for dinner, after all – and the selection is more than you’d need. Small tapas-style plates, flatbreads, pasta, soup and some larger and more substantial offerings. Some warm fig & brie bites (5) were the perfect little nibbles to have with a glass of vino. Small enough to just pop into the mouth, the small black figs were stuffed with soft cheese and accompanied with prosciutto.
The much larger blackberry-ancho chilli grilled pork (15) was the main protein of the night, served with sweet potato & pine nut polenta. A really nice touch with the fresh blackberries.
It may have been a tad repetitious, but I needed to try the gorgonzola polenta (7). Sadly the sliced slab of polenta fell flat because the gorgonzola had next to no flavour. The mildest I’ve ever tried. The addition of pine nuts, dried fig and orange zest was a nice touch, but the heavy handed application of aged balsamic overpowered the entire dish.
A bit of a turn-around with the steamer clams (14), however, where for an extra $2 I could add linguine and bulk it right up. Cream, chorizo, lemon and saffron aïoli made for a delicious soupy pasta that required a lot of bread dunking.
Pulling off the freeway for a caffeine top-up in random little towns is the ideal way to break the driving monotony. You see a name on the map and just go for it. We were in mountain territory; already across the border from Oregon into northern California. I noticed a town called Weed that I really wanted to stop at – purely for the name – but somehow I missed the exit and decided to take the Dunsmuir exit instead.
The town is barely visible from the freeway and once you’re off the main road you’re in the middle of a cute little village that straddles the Sacramento River as it winds down the forested valley. Stunning location.
The café choice is a little sparse in this colourful mountain town so we settled on the first one we came across. Coffee Cache is a homely set-up that almost feels like somebody’s living room. Bits and pieces everywhere you look, and a lot of it is for sale. I learned the philanthropic owners behind this business use the café as a face for their non-profit RavenzCall organisation; with profits from the food, drinks, clothing, accessories and gifts going towards a bunch of charities that want to put an end to human trafficking and modern day slavery.
Breakfast, sandwiches and bagels are up for grabs, with fair trade coffee for us addicts. Pity the milk for our coffees was overheated to the point of it splitting. Perhaps espresso would have been the way to go.
Seeing we were in such a gorgeous part of the state, and in the vicinity of Castle Crags State Park, we make a slight detour into the forest. This is hiking and mountain climbing territory and also the stomping ground to mountain lions, so I couldn’t help but be on edge as we walked one of the short trails that offered some pretty special views to the crags, over surrounding valleys and the majestic Mt Shasta 25 km to the north.
A 4.5 hour driving stint brought us into another wine-growing region – the Napa Valley. When we were in California two years prior we only saw the area around Healdsburg, so it was nice to be seeing another region. Two nights at the Marriott and plenty of time to explore the surrounding countryside.
We may not have done a great deal that was wine related – strange, I know – but there’s still plenty to see and do if you’re not up for the vino thing. We simply drove around the valleys and stopped wherever we wanted. The farmers market at St Helena, a couple of the other villages, and Sonoma for lunch. At the centre of downtown is the shaded Plaza and on its peripheries are new and restored old buildings that house restaurants, shops and just about anything visitors and locals require.
Ours was a leisurely lunch stop at the Centre du Vin across from the Plaza, at the grand old Ledson Hotel. The name of the bistro is a bit of a giveaway on the type of food you’d expect to see there; not that it’s exclusively French. Burgers, sandwiches, even quail & waffles for those that like to pretend they’re Frenching it up; and croque monsieur, moules frites and cordon bleu for those that actually are.
It was a harvest turkey sandwich (15) for the better half – a standard-yet-decent choice – and the steak frites (26) for me. Great steak even if the chef took the liberty of cutting it into small pieces for me. Not only does this make the juices escape before I even get to it, but it cools the meat a lot faster. The blue cheese fries that came with it were something special, and the American flourish of glazed pecans and strawberries through the salad were thoroughly enjoyed. As was the generous glass of local red vino.
When we first drove into town I spotted a little coffee drive-thru that we dropped into on the way out. Café Scooteria not only has an awesome name but the San Francisco Coffee Company beans they use are crafted into some fine espresso. There’s tea, drip, smoothies and chai latté with crazy flavourings like mint choc chip and pumpkin pie for those that like it sweet.
We may have slept in Napa but it appeared we spent more time away from it; driving about the terrain and exploring the gorgeous countryside.
One thing we did discover after a fantastic tapas dinner at Zuzu in downtown Napa was the lack of taxis this town has. Busses didn’t turn up, taxis were far-and-few between and the hotel was a little too far to walk back to.
Bright and bushy tailed the following morning, we packed the car and headed downtown for breakfast and coffee at the Napa Valley Roasting Company. Ever-popular with local folk, this is a fine little caf with very decent coffee. The occasional muso even makes an appearance for those that like a live session with their mid-morning java.
So here we are in our final destination on what seemed like an endless journey that started in New York City 3½ months prior. To be honest, all I wanted after dropping the rental car at LAX was to get on the first Sydney-bound flight and forego the last two nights we had in Santa Monica. Once it was in my mind that we were almost home, I kind of couldn’t be bothered with wafting about L.A. as it still isn’t one of my favourite places to be.
Anyhow, here’s what went down.
Our previous experience with Japanese food didn’t deter us from lunching at the Sake House, plus the fact we were both on the ravenous side and didn’t have the mental energy to scan the neighbourhood for decent options.
It’s bright, it’s airy and the guys up at the sushi bar kind of looked like they wouldn’t be the types to supersize anything we ordered. Yes, I was still a tad trepidatious thanks to that monstrosity back in Roseburg.
Curiosity got the better of me with the oyster shooter (5). Not just your everyday shot glass harbouring a fresh wobbly oyster and a little booze; this was more like 3 shots in one. What was I saying about supersizing?
Take an ordinary champagne glass, lump a rather large oyster into it, pour in some sake and ponzu, a little masago and a fresh quail egg. Deep breath, and down the hatch.
The taste? Alcoholic salad dressing with lumps. I quietly struggled a little.
The beef gyoza (3) is stock-standard, fried, a little crispy and chewy at the same time. The monster roll (10) forms an arc on the plate and has eel tempura at its core with a topping of spicy tuna. It’s not enough to raise any eyebrows but the flavours were ok. Not quite sure what the crispy lump of doughy pastry was meant to be, but I suspect there was a little eel in there somewhere.
The other halfs shoulders slumped a little when his don katsu (8) was delivered pre-sauced with a jarring concoction. Still, it was a decent piece of crumbed pork.
I wasn’t expecting the same spicy tuna from the monster roll to appear on the crispy rice (10). Nothing wrong with the tuna, mind you, but something inside me was hoping it would have been prepared in a slightly different fashion. The hero had to be the actual rice cake with its delightful soft texture and chewy charred edges.
Rather than schlepp all about town in search of somewhere for dinner, we thought we’d be good little travellers and walk down the hill from where we were staying at Le Meridien and wing it along Ocean Avenue.
Blue Plate Oysterette. That’ll do. Cute little place, beachy feel and a perfect spot to watch the sunset. Not that it was much of a sunset.
There were some bright and cheerful flavours going on with the baked clams (16) thanks to garlic, herbs and fresh lemon, but the grit wasn’t agreeing with my teeth so much.
The grilled chicken (19) was exactly that. Half a marinated chicken grilled to blackened and juicy perfection with a charred lemon. Who needs vegetables, right? Hmm, perhaps a few would have been nice.
Linguine with clams (18) came sans the grit this time, you’ve gotta love that, tangled with portobello mushrooms, a little roasted tomato and gorgeous chardonnay lemon sauce. Not really a sauce, which is fine, as it was deliciously light.
About a twenty minute walk from Le Meridien is Venice, an area that visitors and locals flock to for whatever reason they may have. I didn’t quite make it on my previous visit so to the Venice boardwalk it was. Talk about a colourful place. It felt like Sydney’s Kings Cross on the beach. Perhaps with a bit more creativity and less trade ladies.
Fortune tellers, vagrants, snake charmers, meat heads and medical marijuana dispensaries. It’s a mixed bag, really.
It was a nice surprise to stumble upon a coffee shop that had hipster written all over it. While tiled wall, pressed metal counter, skateboard and bike leaning against the wall and, oh look, the guy comes complete with beret and moustache. Trademarks of a barista that looks like he knows the biz.
And the coffee? It’s good. Very good. They even do flat whites for those Aussies and Kiwis that can’t get through their day without one.
I kind of liked the look and of this colourful roadside eatery at the bottom of our street. And the name is pretty cool as well. Cha Cha Chicken. A beach shack serving up large portions of Caribbean food with a smile.
The deal is quite simple. Check the menu, order and pay at the counter and wait for your edibles. I felt it was my duty to try one of the house specialties – the coconut fried chicken (12.5) for 5 pieces. Light eaters can go for the $9.50 3-piece and gluttons can order the 10-piece for $22.
As far as fried chicken goes, it’s pretty standard, yet what makes it more special is the unmistakable coconut flavour that permeates through the crispy batter. Fried plantain and rice & beans make the plate as well, along with some sweet mango sauce and jerk dipping sauce to sticky things up a bit.
Another house favourite seems to be the Cha Cha chicken (11.95), another dish that has three size options. It’s the same deal with the sides and sweet condiments, except the chicken is oven-roasted and smothered in a delicately spiced Jamaican jerk sauce.
Many months prior to setting of on this particular American journey I received a text from the better half when he was in L.A. on a work trip. An excitable text that mentioned some rather amazing spherified olives at a restaurant they were partying at. I guess it was my turn to try them now that we were both booked for dinner at The Bazaar by José Andrés, in the SLS Beverly Hills.
It’s pretty obvious that Philippe Stark had something to do with the design of this hotel. It’s quirky, it’s modern, it’s a bit retro, sleek and glamorous all in one.
And those cocktails! It’s one list of beverages I’d happily drink my way through. My first choice is the good old dirty martini, but here they have a “new way” with its construction. A spherified olive replaces the regular variety and olive brine air “dirties” it up.
As soon as I got a taste of the magic mojito I changed my drink choice as soon as the empty martini glass was cleared. Now this was one smashing drink. Take a martini-style glass and pile it high with cotton candy. Fill a cocktail shaker with delicious rum, lime, mint and ice, give it a good shake and pour it over the cotton candy and watch it melt. Yes it’s all theatrics but it’s one hell of a drink.
And what of the food? Well, it’s all about tapas-style share plates. Nothing traditional in the Spanish sense, just small plates to pick at as you ply yourself with fabulous cocktails and vino. No starters and mains here, folks.
How about tortilla de patatas “new way” (5) – a silky concoction of potato foam, caramelised onion and 63° egg. The word “divine” jumped to the top of the adjective shortlist with this one.
I mentioned spherified olives a little earlier so here they are. The menu sells the olives (10) as being modern and traditional; and it makes sense. A slab of slate presents as the serving platter, upon which is an open tin of green olives with piquillo peppers and anchovies. That’s the traditional. And then there are those metal spoons with what appears to be olives on them. Except these little babies are soft and explode in the mouth; spilling briny olive juices all over your tongue. Yep, they’re pretty fantastic.
There was no molecular tampering with the local baby beets (10), which was great, as I prefer my beets as they come. There’s grapefruit, a walnut praline and walnut pop rocks in amongst the copse of leaves.
The sea urchin pipirrana (14) is served in a neat little tin; delicately draped over finely chopped Andalusian vegetables. We both found the rich braised vegetables detracted from the sweetness of the urchin.
Shaved radish and herbs joined some sweet and smoky yellowtail (15); served raw with grapes, capers and crispy rice. Beautiful clean flavours.
Something about the name of the next dish made us order it. Your life will change dashi linguini (11). We were instructed to stir everything together – glass noodles, quail eggs, parmesan, basil, roast tomatoes – and dive in. It’s all about soft textures and deliciously intense parmesan, but far from altering our lives in any form. Unless of course you consider the credit card after we paid the bill.
Two more savoury dishes followed. The first being braised rabbit “al ajillo” (16). A rather dry arrangement of rabbit meat topped with aerated potato with some delicious cipollini onions that completely stole the limelight. I could have easily had more onion in place of the arid rabbit.
Finally it was the tiny Japanese peaches (18); huddled around some incredible Di Stefano burrata with very salty croutons, toasted hazelnuts arugula. The peaches themselves were sweet and syrupy and the added hazelnut paste brought a little more sweetness. As a whole the dish was verging on being a dessert. Loved it.
Ordering desserts at this swanky eatery comes with its own procedure. You’re escorted from your table to another part of the restaurant – the Pâtisserie – and seated at a fresh table. You can order from the dessert menu or take a look at the display of chocolates, tartlets, candy, cookies and assorted pastries. Take your pick and it’s brought to your table.
We chose from the menu as nothing really appealed at the pâtisserie counter. Plus there are some much more interesting items to be had.
How about the gin & tonic? No, not the drink, the dessert. A gin & tonic sorbet (12) is served with a fizzy tonic espuma; a real play on textures and temperatures with the sharpness of lemon and lime zest and aromatic fennel fronds.
The nitro coconut floating island (12) shattered into a powder once it hit the mouth, yet its ordinary brûléed banana and passionfruit gel tagged along for the ride and didn’t really make the moment all that exciting.
Unlike the grapefruit & olive oil (12) which lightened the palate with its perfect combination of olive oil ice cream, mint and varying textures of grapefruit. A nice end to a very nice meal.
With a mere handful of hours remaining in the country couldn’t be bothered with travelling too far for lunch on our final day. Down on Main Street it was a quick bite at M Street Kitchen, an American-style bistro with a Southern Californian inflection. The lunch menu is all about burgers and tacos alongside sushi and innovative salads.
I’m not usually one for a vodka buzz at midday but I managed to polish off the M Street lemonade (11) in record time. A mason jar filled to the rim with homemade lemonade, ice and hefty dose of vodka made for some too-easy drinking. That rosemary added some delicious herbiness and my brain was whirling delightfully throughout the lunch.
Some very standard edibles came in the form of stacked turkey sandwich (10) – no explanation required as you can see the varying layers. My blue cheese burger (14) is unsurprisingly enormous and typically tricky to hold and bite into thanks to its girth and height. I did manage to eat it all, despite its size, thanks to my now American-sized appetite.
Across the road at Dogtown we took one last dose coffee on this three-month adventure that I’ll remember for a long time. Not the best macchiato specimen I’ve ingested, but it did assist with the buzz I was already experiencing from that smashing lemonade at M Street.
Now I’m ready to go home.