Josie has the ability to occasionally blow my mind. After making a 5 course birthday dinner for me and a group of people that I invited, which included an LA Weekly food writer, she still felt obliged to take me out. How is that possible? On Friday, after a long day that caused our investor to walk in to our office/conference room with a bottle of wine and gourmet nuts saying that we put in a good week, we still had some energy to go out. Josie let me pick the place and I chose 38 Degrees in Alhambra after reading great things on Yelp, especially from a Yelper that I used to date, and reading their weekly beers on tap from Food GPS’s LA Beer Blast. It’s funny because while I feel like I am in Alhambra all of the time to eat I never go to this downtown area and had no idea how bustling it was on a Friday night. Everyone was dressed up in their hoochie mama clothes and I felt like such a nerd in my stripes. They were letting a lot of drinks on draft run out because they were preparing for Oktoberfest the following day. Josie was still able to have a sampler and I began with a Framboise (girly, I know). We were hungry girls and I was in burger mode, which usually only happens once a month, and yes it is before that time of the month. I had the Smokehouse Burger and Josie had the Mini BBQ Short Rib “Sloppy Joes”. The food was well-priced and pretty darn good for any gastropub. Like a good Jewish girl I gave Josie the bacon from my burger and she said it was homemade and perfection. I had no complaints and we both cleaned up our plates quite nicely.
We talked to the beer sommelier and the general manager while eating and learned a lot more about this place and the concept. Basically, they wanted to bring the food from their favorite restaurants: Smitty’s, Parkway Grill, and Houston’s to Alhambra. We get that, but was most impressive was how reasonably affordable they were compared to the named restaurants. I am not that big of a beer connoisseur but my other half is and she was impressed by their selections. It was the same thoughtful selections that you see at Lucky Baldwins but are so often overlooked at the big chains like Yard House. When Josie was busy chatting with management and ordering dessert, I had a long chat with the bartender. I was asking him if he had this amazing bottle of beer I once had, it was a white Belgian from Canada. I tried it once with the former bartender from Lucky Baldwins at Old Towne Pub. He ordered it for me because he knew my beer taste. It was love at first sip. This bartender knew exactly what I meant and pulled it out of the fridge and kept it on ice for us. So what is the name of my most favorite beer? La Fin Du Monde, which translates to the end of the world, and it is brewed by Unibroue. It is so good and I split a bottle with Josie who almost died when she saw that it was $19 a bottle. I am worth it, or at least I keep telling myself that.
After this delicious bottle it was nearly 1:20 and Josie suggested we go to the Langham for last call. I had a glass of bubbly and Josie had a beer more to her dark liking, an Old Rasputin. While Josie and I are virtually the same person and can even at times share a brain we do have some very strong differences. I am a Blackberry and she is an iPhone. I am Diet Coke and she is Coca-Cola Classic. Perhaps the image of a flute of champagne and a pint of dark ale is our best summation. Regardless, after her thoughtfulness and generosity I worry that the lesbian rumors about us may have to be forced into fruition because it will be impossible to ever find a man so caring and aware of my neurotic and constant mention of likes and dislikes. She keeps track and knows that I always want artichoke hearts, egg salad, and bamboo shoots. She also knows to always put mochi and yogurt chips in my fruity fro-yo. I know that she always requires extra dressing, a huge bowl of rice, and lemon slices galore. I make sure that she has granola and graham cracker crumbs in her tart, chocolate, or peanut butter fro-yo. We are building some type of lasting relationship and we are both equally Uncouth Gourmands, which is our strongest bond and allows us to toast regardless of what our glasses are or what they are filled with.
After a full work week and endless birthday surprises from my partner, I headed home to see the other woman in my life, my mama. I flew in to San Jose on Saturday afternoon and I began celebrating a long weekend in Santa Cruz with my family. My mom picked me up at the airport and I told her that all of LA is abuzz about a restaurant in Los Gatos called Manresa. Los Gatos is a small affluent town in between Silcon Valley and the beach town of Santa Cruz where I grew up. It is where I spent a lot of my high school days when I wanted to get away from my hippy upbringing and wanted to get in touch with my preppy side. I actually think that the reason I live in Pasadena is because it is so similar to Los Gatos except in a big city. Pasadena is equipped with a Bentley dealership, J. Crew, and an Old Town area just like that of Los Gatos. It is close to interesting areas (read: a LOT more culture) but somewhere where I, as a girl, am totally comfortable living alone and walking freely at any time of night.
Manresa is closed from Monday to Wednesday so we made a reservation and showed up on Sunday night at 5:30 just the two of us as my brother had a babysitter. I told the babysitter that we would be back at 9pm at the latest. I know how tasting menus work and yet we didn’t even finish dinner until 9:40. My mom said when making the reservation that it was my birthday and upon walking in we were seated right by the window and there was a discreet birthday card waiting for me signed by all of the staff at Manresa. It was a charming touch. My mom and I both wanted the full restaurant experience from Chef David Kinch, who beat out Bobby Flay on Iron Chef, and went with the tasting menu. It was not cheap at $160 a person with no wine included. I had a few glasses of a sparkling riesling and my mom got a chardonnay. We were told by our fabulous waitress, Debbie, that the menu would start at the sea, go to the garden, go back to the sea, then to land with a poultry and a meat dish, and finish with two desserts. She mentioned that it changes over the course of the night and that it is best to get there early. The first thing we were served were some amuse-bouches.
The very first thing looked just like dessert but was actually quite savory. It was a black olive madeline and a red bell pepper gelee. The next thing we were served came on the waiter’s platter and was a foie gras croquette they recommended taking it all in one bite as it was hot and could squirt. I really am not trying to be uncouth/vulgar, I swear. However, I had to eat so quickly I forgot to take a picture and I was kindly asked by the host to not use flash, I apologize for the sub-par photo quality. However, this foie gras one bite was hot and delish, it warmed me up and definitely tantalized my palate.
The next amuses were a foie gras soup with a fried squash blossom on top and a soft boiled egg with sherry vinegar and maple syrup. It was all delightful little one bites and I could tell my mom was loving it but wanting something substantial. It was around this time they brought out fresh bread and butter. My mom has never been to France and I always tell her that the number one reason to go is for the butter. She has yet to have french butter but was going crazy about the butter they presented to her. She told the waitress and she mentioned that they have a cow in Watsonville and that they make their own butter. My mom used to teach special ed in Watsonville and was once again impressed by all of the touches.
The real courses began with oysters that were a little to salty for both of our tastes but I could tell instantly that they were extremely fresh. I wish they were plain instead of covered in seaweed and buckwheat. However, I heard the table next to us with a surfer remark that it was so salty it reminded him of just picking an oyster up and eating it on his surfboard. I think that is a great compliment. I have always been more a fruit person and my mom has always been a little bunny (it’s no wonder I am a funny bunny) that loves vegetables so she loved the Into the Vegetable Garden salad. We learned that they have 2 acres on a farm in the Santa Cruz mountains area of Bonny Doon where they grow everything. This sealed the deal. I was in love. It was like he was making and serving my backyard. Chef David Kinch even oned up his Bobby Flay victory when it was revealed that he lives in Santa Cruz. I knew I had to meet this man and the waitress arranged a kitchen tour for us at the end of the meal. I was now on my second glass of bubbly and was ready for whatever courses would be thrown my way. The next one was by far my favorite, it was an abalone soup with sea urchin and foie gras in a light gingery broth. It was incredible. Sea urchin has become one of my favorite foods and I was amazed that we had now seen foie gras in 3 dishes.
The next few dishes were black cod and a farmed chicken breast both were good but not mind blowing like that soup. The last dish once again won me over. It was a Napa Valley spring lamb and tongue confit with carrots with orange purée and exotic spice. It tasted very Moroccan to me and as someone that normally doesn’t love either lamb or tongue, I was truly impressed. I couldn’t get enough of this particular dish.
We asked if we could get both dessert courses at the same time as we had a babysitter to get back to and they happily obliged. I am quite positive that this is the kind of restaurant that never says the word, “No” unless of course it has to do with camera flashes. The dessert course was the The Flavors of New Orleans equipped with beignets, bananas, and pralines and then a pumpkin soup which was poured over ice cream. One of my other favorite touches was that the last thing brought out looked just like the first, except it was a regular madeline cookie with a strawberry gelee. It was the perfect bookend to an absolutely exquisite meal.
We were taken back to one of the cleanest and best run kitchens I have ever seen. The only one that compares is the Baazar and they have a much larger operation going. There was something so charming about seeing the chef working, knowing the area where their garden is, knowing where their cow and thus butter comes from that made this meal so enjoyable.
Chef David Kinch made sure we enjoyed our meal, which of course we did and I can honestly say it was one of the top dining experiences of my life. It was also so special for my mom to get a taste (pun always intended) of the food world that I have become such a fan and groupie of. The next day my mom made me lasagna and she was back in her own kitchen. We may not have had our napkins folded back in to a cone every time we went to the bathroom but it was no less of a great experience. I think 2 weeks is a long enough birthday celebration. I am done. I can buy my own food and drinks now, but thank you to all that joined in my festivities. I am sure that this will be a truly great year in my life.