Monday, July 30, 2012

Saddle Peak Lodge - 07/26/2012

419 Cold Canyon Road
Calabasas, CA 91302
(818) 222-3888

Nestled in the hills above Malibu is Saddle Peak Lodge. Throughout its 100+ year history the building has lived many lives including pony express stop, summer camp, general store, roadhouse for the stars, and perhaps even a bordello. In 1985 the lodge underwent a major remodel into its current incarnation and since 1992 has been owned by Ann Graham Ehringer. Built along the lines of a hunting lodge the restaurant has some of the toughest lighting conditions of any restaurant in LA.

I first heard about the lodge when I was getting into fine dining but it wasn't until 2009 that I made my first visit. At the time Adam Horton had just taken over as Executive Chef and was unveiling his revised menu. With Horton's departure from the lodge in early 2011, his former chef de cuisine, Chrisopher Kufek, has stepped up to the top spot. A former carpenter, Kufek got his start washing dishes at the Cafe Buenos Aires in Santa Barbara followed by stints at Maggiano's and El Bizcocho before arriving at SPL. Like Adam before him, Chris invited KevinEats to sample his new menu and I was fortunate enough to tag along.

Honey Badger - Aberlour 12 year scotch, Drambuie liqueur, lemon juice, lavender honey, shaken and served on the rocks
About Figgin' Thyme - Bombay Gin, orange juice, fig balsamic vinegar, strawberries, thyme, muddled and served on the rocs
The Pig Apple - Buffalo Trace bacon-infused bourbon, Capano Antica vermouth, Paychaud's bitters and candied bacon
The cocktails were more progressive than I remember from my previous visit. The Honey Badger was my favorite of the three, opening with an approachable citrus tang that sheathed a steely whiskey burn softened by floral notes of lavender. The About Figgin' Time was much sweeter with alternating notes of fruit and gin with an underlying piquant savor. The Pig Apple was the harshest of the three with smoke, savor and a prickling alcoholic burn.

Heirloom Tomato - burrata, shallot, pumpernickel
The tomato and burrata were an appropriate start to the meal. The lighter flavors compliment each other beautifully while the pumpernickel provided structure as well as a nutty weight that was key to completing the morsel.

Corn Soup - grilled corn, red onion, tarragon, creme fraiche, cilantro, lemon zest
This tiny demitasse cup of thick corn soup was one of the most complex bites of the night. The warm creamy soup conveys a forceful sweetness that contrasts beautifully with the cool crisp savor of the remainder of the dish.

Poached Salmon - potato blini, caviar, chive
Our final canape of the night featured classic pairings of salmon and caviar. The gently poached salmon was meltingly tender but the flavor was lighter than the more commonly used smoked salmon, which would have stood up better to the flavor of the caviar.

Prosecco Gelée - lemon foam, Osetra caviar, basil oil
The tasting menu proper began with a twist of champagne and caviar. The lemon foam adds a potent fruitiness as well as restoring a fitting level of effervescence. As with the previous course the caviar provides the vast majority of the savor, but with such delicate accompaniments it was more than up to the task.

Peekytoe "Watermelon Gazpacho" - garlic, bell pepper, heirloom tomato, basil, pea greens, pickled watermelon, cucumber
Our server described this as a deconstructed crab gazpacho. Though I don't think the components quite captured all the nuances of a gazpacho, I did enjoy the delicate flavors in the dish, particularly the incisive zest of the pea shoots.

Albacore Sashimi - Hawaiian papaya, red onion, cilantro, avocado, orange-ginger, pea-tendrils
Sashimi courses always start with the fish and the fresh fleshy Albacore with its mild flavor lent itself well to the tropical sweetness of the papaya salsa. The orange ginger sauce cut through the sweetness with a bracing tang and the pea tendrils again provided a bitter vegetal balance.

Rabbit Roulade - bacon, mushrooms, Fuji apple, sage, huckleberry
This was the weakest course of the night for me. The delicate flavor of the rabbit was no match for the bacon and the mushroom filling felt muted. Nothing overtly wrong just not particularly interesting.

Dover Sole - brown butter sauce, grilled zucchini and Japanese eggplant, bell pepper, artichokes
The sole was prepared table side with each person getting a half-filet. The mild tender flesh is beautifully seasoned with brown butter and capers giving the dish a savory yet piquant smack. Surprisingly it was the vegetables with the mix of textures and subtle flavors that ended up impressing me the most and the same went for the rest of the table.

Alaskan Halibut - grapes, tarragon, dates, hazelnut, cauliflower, lemon and Brussels sprout leaves
Halibut can be temperamental as evidenced by the inconsistent preparations at our table. Three of the pieces were moist and flaky but the last was dry and overdone. The seasoning was equally impressive, ripe grapes and dates with bitter Brussels sprouts both moderated by the even hazelnut and cauliflower.

Muscovy Duck Breast - baby leeks, morels, white asparagus, blood orange, coffee dust, pinot noir
This was probably the strongest overall course of the night. I was worried that the duck breast looked a touch overdone and indeed it was, but the flavors more than made up for it. The lightly bitter orange is a timeless match for the bird while the coffee imparts an enigmatic aura. Meanwhile, the morels and asparagus provide a combination of earth and vegetal tones that are immensely satisfying in conjunction with the smoky duck flesh.

Elk Tenderloin - brandied cherries, cipollini onions, butternut squash, crimini mushrooms
The final savory course of the night was easily the most tender piece of elk that I've ever eaten. The silky flesh had a robust iron tang that would have been disconcerting if not for the substantial moderating sweetness on the plate.

Brigante - pickled green apple, honey foam, fruit and nut bread
A relatively innocuous cheese, the Brigante is a Sardinian sheeps milk cheese that is fairly mild and medium textured. The honey and apple provide a nice one-two punch of sweet and sour.

Beignets - sweet peach, bourbon caramel
Freshly made beignets are one of my favorite desserts and this was no different. The crisp airy pastry comes stuffed with a fragrant peach filling. The caramel sauce has the best of both worlds. The boozey burn provides a moderating effect when poured over the beignets, but is sweet enough to be eaten by the spoonful.

Chocolate Molten Whiskey Cake - Guiness ice cream, and Bailey's whipped cream
Our final course consisted of a trio of booze laced sweets. The molten chocolate cake felt a bit tired, but was tasty nonetheless. Of the troika, it was the rich flavor of the Guiness ice cream that I enjoyed most.

The menu with its emphasis on classic flavors is in keeping with the restaurant's history and rustic ambiance. At the same time, Chef Kufek brings enough flourishes of creativity to keep the food from feeling tired. I left my first visit to Saddle Peak Lodge quite satisfied and I'm happy to say that not much has changed.

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